After “Blue Valentine” tackled the issues of marriage and gender relations, it seemed like a natural progression that filmmaker Derek Cianfrance decided to take on parenthood and legacy in his next film. Taking six years to make, “The Place Beyond The Pines” deals with the issue of legacy in America. Set in working class Schenectady, New York, it tells the story of families on both sides of the law and deals with what fathers intentionally and unintentionally leave their sons (inspiring our list of 22 Great Father & Son Movies). A hit at this year’s TIFF (read our review here), the film stars Ryan Gosling as a motorcycle stunt rider who turns to bank robbery to provide for his young son, and Bradley Cooper as a police officer caught in the crosshairs, a role the actor nearly gave up on. The stellar cast also includes Eva Mendes, Dane DeHaan, Ray Liotta, Emory Cohen, Ben Mendelsohn and Rose Byrne.
Cianfrance recently sat down the with journalists for a Q&A, and discussed his desire to have the actors to fail, Ryan Gosling’s face tattoo, playing Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” while filming, the colonial massacres of Schenectady, his own thoughts on fatherhood, and much, much more.
You’ve had lots of compliments so far from the actors in your film. They seem to really appreciate the environment you create for them as actors.
Well, I appreciate the actors. You know I’m nothing without an actor. What am I going to do? Just shoot landscapes and like Ansel Adams pictures or something? I wouldn’t be too interested with that. No, actors to me are courageous. They do things that I’m too cowardly to do in my life, so I pay them so much respect and I’m just so thankful for what they give me. Any actor that I ever hire I always tell them two things. I say the two most important things you can do for me is fail and surprise me. You spend so much time writing a script and then when I usually get on set, I’m so bored of myself and what I’ve contributed to it. All I want to do is see something new happen. I feel as an audience member, I love being surprised, so I feel if I’m on set and something happens that surprises me, I’m in good shape. And then conversely also with the failure…
I remember I was interviewing Danica Patrick some time ago because I made documentaries for a long time and I asked her, “How did you get so fast?” And she said, well she knew her whole life how fast she could go and she would drive that fast, but then she would push it just a little further — two miles an hour past what she felt comfortable at. And she said often times she would crash by doing that, but she would also be pushing her own boundaries and she would be able to do things, she would conquer her fear. And so I tell my actors to fail, I feel like if they can trip, fall on their face, make a fool of themselves, and embarrass themselves, they can be great. And I just don’t want anyone to judge their own performance.
I read that you let your actors improvise a little bit as it goes along and I’m just curious, did you allow that to happen as much in this film as you did in “Blue Valentine”?
We all had a reference point for love before going into that film [“Blue Valentine”]. With ‘Pines,’ it’s different. I have never been a cop or robbed a bank before so we needed to do a lot more research with this film to be able to improvise. And so there’s a number of ways we do that. For instance, there’s a scene where Ben [Mendelsohn] and Ryan [Gosling] are supposed to be counting their money after the first bank robbery and it’s like a four-page dialogue scene and Ben’s like “Well, it’s not a million dollars yet, but if we do this a few more times, it could be.” So we were preparing to shoot that scene and Ryan was getting the mood set in the room, he put “Dancing in the Dark” on by Bruce Springsteen and there’s like all these little dogs, I had written this big junkyard dog that Robin [Ben’s character] would have, but Ben thought it would be more interesting to have all of these little dogs cause all these ladies in the accounting department on the movie had those little dogs. So there was the room full of little dogs, cigarette smoke, Ben with his shirt off counting money and Bruce Springsteen started playing and this beautiful moment happened where these two guys were dancing and, I nudged my cinematographer to shoot and then we went out and shot the rest of the scene the next four hours, but when I was in the editing room that was the moment that was the most alive to me. So I’ll always choose the living moment over that.
A few months before we started shooting, Ryan called me and he said, “Hey D, what about the most tattoos in movie history?” And I said, “You want a lot of tattoos, huh?” And he says, “Yeah! And I want a face tattoo.” And I said, “Really? A face tattoo?” He says, “No, face tattoos are the coolest…and this one’s gonna to be a dagger and it’s gonna be dripping blood.” And I was like, “Well, I gotta tell you if I was your parent I would say don’t get a face tattoo…But you’re the guy, you’ve gotta play this guy. If you wanna get, if you think you should have a face tattoo, I can’t tell you not to. You’re him, you know.” So he says, “It’s going to be cool. It’s fine.” I said, “Okay, fine.” So, first day of shooting, we’re at lunch and there’s something bothering Ryan, and I said, “So, what’s up, man?” He says, “Can I talk to you for a second?” I said, “Yeah, what’s up?” He said, “Uh, I think I went too far with the face tattoo,” and he says, “Can we take it off in the reshoot and all that stuff?” I said, “Absolutely not, you know that’s what happens when you get a face tattoo, you regret it, and now you’ve got to regret it for the whole movie, you know.”
And then all of a sudden we have this scene in the church and I have five hundred people from Schenectady show up and all dressed in their Sunday finest, yet Eva looking the way Eva does onstage with Mahershala Ali, also dressed very nicely, looking nice, and they’re holding this baby. By the way, the baby’s name is Anthony Pizza, Jr., which means his father’s name is Tony Pizza. Anyway, Ryan walked [in]. I set the camera way in the back, I tell Ryan, here’s his instruction, “Come in and find a place to sit.” Camera’s in the back, he walks in and he’s literally a marked man. He has no place to go and so what he does, he can’t sit with anyone, he’ll stand out. So he goes to the corner of the church and we just pan with him. He sits down. Okay. Don’t move, Ryan. We take our camera and move in for a close-up and I notice as I’m shooting the close-up he starts to, he is trembling, and I just want to stop the camera and give him a hug, but I can’t because that’s what we’re here for. I see this well of emotion, that was never written in the script, start to come out, and, that’s what I like to happen in a movie. I like when acting stops and behavior begins, where actors actually have choices that they make in a film and this collision happens between their choices as actors and their choices as characters and there’s an actual effect to it.
Was it surprising to see Eva embrace playing her character unglamorously?
I was having trouble finding who was going to be that person and Ryan suggested, “Why don’t you look at Eva?” I was like, “Oh yeah, why didn’t I think of her?” Because I always liked her, I’ve always thought she’d been great. So she came to an audition and she showed up with some high-waist, 1990’s jeans and a big, baggy T-shirt and her hair was a mess and she had on no make-up and she was trying her hardest to be unattractive and, of course, she was failing miserably at it, but it meant so much to me that she was making herself vulnerable. I told her she didn’t need to read, that I didn’t need her to read anything, and I asked her instead just would you take me for a drive and she took me around the neighborhood where she grew up. She showed me this school she went to, the house she grew up in, and over those two hours, I realized what kind of human being she was and not this image. I kind of fell in love with her as a human, and she was definitely scared. She had fear about the role, but I don’t relate to a fearless actor. I relate to an actor who is terrified because, I think that’s the meaning of courage, that’s the definition of courage. It’s not fearlessness, it’s fearfulness and confronting it anyway and I felt like we could make some magic together.
Can you talk about shooting the action scenes? It’s probably the first time you’ve shot anything that intensive with stuntmen and all that entailed.
Well, my reference-point for the action scenes were not other movies. It was America’s wildest police chases and “Cops.” I felt like if “Blue Valentine” was noted for anything, it was noted for its kind of realism and frank take on sexuality and now I’m entering a genre picture and I wanted it also to be equally as true. And so for instance, there was Bradley Cooper’s introduction in the film when he’s chasing Ryan Gosling’s character on the street. I remember taking my producers on a walk-through. It was a two-and-a-half minute shot, but to walk it took about fifteen minutes, cause we’re not going 75 miles an hour. So I took them from point A to point Z, where it starts and where it ends, and I remember walking them on the set’s path and at the end of it, I was like out of breath cause I was so pumped up and excited about how it was going to feel as I was seeing it and they were just dead-silent, and I was like, “What is wrong with you guys?” And they were figuring out logistically how we were going to do it. They were like, “What if a kid runs out into the street?” Well, that meant we had to put people, crewmembers in every one of those houses to make sure no one came out, but I wanted to shoot these scenes without cuts.
When talking to Rick Miller, the stunt guy, he told me that, all these movies he would do, like Transformers X or whatever, that he would do these death-defying stunts and then go see it in the movie and his stunt would be reduced to just 14 frames, cause it’s cut all over the place. I didn’t want to cut, I wanted it to be realistic the whole time, but that’s a lot to ask someone to do, [to] crash a motorcycle going that fast, and it’s a lot to do to ask Ryan. Sometimes, we couldn’t put a stunt driver in the scenes. For instance, Ryan had to rob a bank and get out in one take, start his motorcycle, go out into traffic, be pursued by a cop, and blow through an intersection and avoid thirty-six cars and that’s…I know about Vic Morrow and “The Twilight Zone” and I don’t want that happening on my set. So in order to get that shot right, we did it twenty-two times. All day, Ryan was robbing a bank and getting on a motorcycle and narrowly avoiding traffic. I bite my shirt when I get nervous and like by the end of the day my was just, I just had eaten my shirt, cause I thought he was gonna crash every time, but it just took training.
We had to do training. Ryan was working with Rick Miller about eight weeks before production and, after that first training session, I asked Rick, “Where did he get to? Scale of one to ten.” He says, “He’s about a three.” I said, “Oh no.” I said, “Well, at least you have eight weeks to train him.” And he said, “Okay.” I said, “What can you get him to in eight weeks realistically?” And he said, “Maybe a three and a half…Look, this is a lifetime commitment, like a basketball player, you can’t be NBA unless you’re shooting hoops from age six.” I said, “Well, you don’t have a lifetime, you’ve got eight weeks.” So the day before production, last training session, I had pulled Rick aside and said, “Where did he get to?” He said, “A seven.” And so to me that speaks to Ryan Gosling’s kind of magic and his ability to do things that normal people, like me, could never do.
It’s been said you create a special environment, a special atmosphere on set. Do you know the secret? Can you give it away?
Well, like I said, I ask my actors to surprise me and I ask them to fail. I create a democracy of ideas on set, so there’s no such thing as a bad idea. Anything that an actor wants to do, I will let them do it and, conversely, anything I want them to do, they’ll do it. So there’s no conversation about it. You wanna do something? Let’s try it, cause how am I going to know? I remember on “Blue Valentine,” there was a scene after the abortion clinic, they’re on a bus and they’re headed home and I remember Ryan and Michelle thought she should be sitting on his lap and I was like, “I don’t think so, let’s just have her sit next to him.” They’re like, “Nah, I think we should.” I was like, “Okay.” Here’s the perfect example, democracy of ideas, we’ll shoot it your way and we’ll shoot it my way and we’ll be in the editing room and see which one wins. Well, their way won, in the editing room. They were right. I’m thankful, so thankful, it wasn’t all about my ego. You know I made documentaries for twelve years before making “Blue Valentine” and I learned to humble myself as a filmmaker. It was no longer about my control of things. It was about my involvement, my engagement in things, my relationship to things and people, but it wasn’t about me pointing and telling everyone where to go and what to do. So when I make narratives, I have this script, which is a blueprint. It shows us our direction, where we’re supposed to go, but how we get there… I’m interested in making discoveries.
It’s a very powerful story, but there is a complex and multi-layered structure with three distinctive segments falling on each other. What made you think that it’s the best way to present this story?
To me, the bravest thing we could do with this movie was to do it chronologically and not cut away. First off, twenty years ago, I saw “Napoleon” by Abel Gance, I always wanted to make a triptych movie. I always had these notes of this triptych movie. Also about twenty years ago, I saw “Psycho” for the first time and I’d always known there was the shower scene in “Psycho,” I just didn’t know you had to spend 45 minutes with Janet Leigh before she went into the shower and that kind of baton passed down from Janet Leigh to Tony Perkins, just blew my mind. So I always had that structure and then when my wife was pregnant with our second son in 2007 I was thinking a lot about becoming a father again and I was thinking about legacy, I was thinking about all of the things that have been passed on to me and thinking about everything that I was going to pass on to my kid and I was thinking that I just want him to be born into this world clean. I didn’t want to give him any of my old sins, you know what I mean, any of my wrongdoings. So all of a sudden, I had a story of legacy, which was about like a baton pass too. It was like passing the torch, passing the fire from one generation to the next, and all of a sudden, I had a movie. I had something to tell.
I think in America, people are born into tribes. You have no choice where you’re born or what family you’re born into to or what social class you’re born into, you’re just born into it, and sometimes hard to get out of that. It takes generations and generations to change your destiny and so I wanted to tell a story about these two tribes that collided and I also wanted to tell a movie with gun violence in it that treated gun violence in a way that I thought was respectful.
I have kids. I’m so like over this overtly violent fetishized violence in movies. I think it must have started with Peckinpah, with “The Wild Bunch.” This kind of ballet of violence, but at least in Peckinpah’s movie you can feel him suffering and kind of writhing in the flames of his characters. I feel like nowadays I see so much violence that’s just cool and I have to say if I see another like slow-motion bullet come out of a gun and like pierce someone in the brain and slowly splatter their brains on the wall, I’m gonna puke. To me violence is not cool, it’s not beautiful, there’s nothing cinematic about it. I wanted to tell the story, the story of violence. This movie, I didn’t want the viewer to have a moment where they could flashback. Do you know what I mean? Cause if you’ve ever experienced any kind of violence like that in your life, you know there’s no going back. There’s no sanctity of a flashback. And so I wanted to tell this movie about all these events and this adrenaline and these choices that lead up to this one violent act and then how that violence never goes away, how that violence reverberates.
Why did you select Schenectady as a symbol of all of this? Also, I know Dane was talking about how he got stitches and he got into a motorcycle accident, what other kinds of problems were there?
Anytime you make a movie there’s like so many problems. When the hurricane came, I have to say that was like a blessing because we got a day off. This was like a 47-day relentless, brutal schedule [and] the only way I could make the movie was to shoot it in a place like Schenectady because, the people, the town embraced us so much. The police station allowed us to shoot in an active police station, we were shooting in active high schools, active hospitals. The reason I wanted to shoot up there is because my wife is from there and my co-writer Ben [Coccio] is from there and for ten years I had been going to Schenectady and I felt it was a place of, so cinematic. It was like the perfect American town. It’s like a place that had had maybe a brighter, more lucrative past and now it was like really fighting to stay alive. I just think of the police badge of Schenectady as a burning building with a bunch of Indians chasing Dutch people out with spears. There was like massacres in Schenectady in the 1600s and it’s all a part of the history in Schenectady. You know that if you grow up there and to me when I’m in Schenectady I feel, when you talk about legacy and American legacy, it’s all very palpable right there. You can feel those old massacres are still very present there. I mean they don’t go away and I believe in the eternity of every moment. I don’t think violent acts or things like that ever, ever leave.
“The Place Beyond The Pines” is in limited release right and goes wide on April 12th.