If you missed Derek Cianfrance’s “The Place Beyond the Pines” in theaters, it’s worth grabbing as it hits DVD and Blu-Ray, because it’s one of the best movies to come out so far this year. Will it wind up in the awards conversation? Focus Features is going to push the intense R-rated drama, which grossed a respectable $21.4 million domestically, but it will need critics to back the film and its performances at year’s end, which they might. (It’s at 82% on the Tomatometer.)
With this radically smart film, Cianfrance again directs Ryan Gosling, who starred in “Blue Valentine,” which earned Michelle Williams an Oscar nomination. (Here’s my Sundance 2010 flipcam interview with Gosling and his director.)
I talked to Cianfrance on the phone.
Anne Thompson: You employ an unusual screenplay structure; like Alfred Hitchcock you kill off main characters. You seem to be ignoring the rules.
Derek Cianfrance: You have to be taught the rules in order to break them. In terms of screenwriting I never took classes, never learned how to write. I became a writer out of necessity. I wanted to tell stories on film. My only guiding principle was to tell things that feel personal, exposing, almost like a diary. That was the only way. My starting point as screenwriter is to go to places that scare me. I came up with the idea about becoming a parent, which is very personal for me, after becoming a father for the second time. All my fears of being a parent went into this movie.
Why the three parts?
I always dreamed of making a triptych movie. I knew about “Psycho” with its shower scene midway, but it seemed like you had to wait 45 minutes to follow Janet Leigh until the baton pass to Tony Perkins. That stuck with me. I remember watching Abel Gance’s “Napoleon” at 19 or 20 with its ending triptych. I wanted to make a tryptych movie, I had this structural baton pass playing in my head, but I never had a story to tell until my wife was pregnant with our second son. I was thinking a lot about pregnancy and legacy, passing on, the consequences of the whole movie became clear to me. I didn’t question it, I went with my instincts on it. I didn’t ask permission.
I wanted to see if I could do it or not. I met with Ben Coccio who had done “Zero Dark Thirty,” he was turned on by it. We were both huge fans of “The Wire” at the time. We looked at adaptations of books to movies. They usually don’t work because it’s impossible to fit that much into a movie. Short stories are better, like “Brokeback Mountain,” that works. The beautiful thing about TV and “The Wire” is it felt like a novel, it had huge scope. I wanted to figure out a way to make a movie that had that kind of scope. The original script was 160 pages long, written with an intermission, and a title card “15 years later.” The idea would be to go out for popcorn, go to the bathroom, get a drink and come back and 15 years would have passed. Of course we couldn’t in the marketplace.
I was an audience member before I’m a filmmaker. All I’ve tried to do as a filmmaker was to make movies I want to see. I had this burning desire to make a three part triptych movie, because I wanted to see it.
When did you write this?
I was working on this before we started shooting “Blue Valentine” in November 2007. I was at Ryan’s agent house 18 months before we shot “Blue Valentine.” I asked Ryan, “Man, you’ve done so many things, do you still dream of doing things, do you have fantasies anymore?”
“Yeah, well I’ve always wanted to rob a bank, but I’m scared of jail.” I told him I was writing a movie about bank robbers. He said, “I’d do it on a motorcycle, disguised in a helmet, and drive onto a UHaul truck so the cops wouldn’t catch me.”
That was exactly what we’d written. It was one of those times when we were destined to make movies together, make dreams come true and he wouldn’t have to go to jail. He signed up before “Blue Valentine.” I gave him the first draft [of “Place Beyond the Pines”] when there was a hiatus between past and present. He was on board for a long time.
After “Blue Valentine” had its modest success, after Cannes, we had a chance to make another movie. I had to choose. I was offered a number things, but I decided to go back to what I had been working on all those years. I sent the script to distributors, didn’t meet with many people. Some places were scared of the structure, unsure of how can you kill [a major character].
A lot suggestions were put into blender. “Do what Inarritu would do.” I love his films, but I felt I had seen it before. I just did a movie with crosscut parallel story lines. I wanted a linear chronological structure. It was about legacy. The setup had to be told early, the consequences of violence. The only way to let the audience experience that consequence in real time was by watching the film unfold. Sidney Kimmel got it. They asked who else we could cast opposite Ryan. I met with a number of actors who would have brought financing. Bradley stuck with me.
Why Bradley Cooper?
I saw a guy who looked liked People’s sexiest man but he had a storm raging inside of him. I was struck by it: there’s something twisting inside of him. I could relate to him. When I work with actors I work on a personal level. I came from a background of 12 years making documentaries.
As a writer I always peel back the layers, go to the most sensitive places uncomfortably close to the heart. I’m trying to where to go to where I am most vulnerable as a writer and I try to go to that place with actors as well. I also share secrets with them, I’m private with them. In my meeting with Bradley I could sense a kinship with him.
I rewrote the script based on my meetings with him. Basically, here was this character who was paraded as a hero, thought to be a sexiest man. But inside him corruption is going on, conflict is raging inside, guilt and shame are buried. And I felt like that was the interesting thing, to show the audience a little of how I felt when I first met Bradley, there’s much more going on than the beautiful America’s hero surface. He was up for it. I sent him the script I rewrote.
Then I got a text from him telling me he couldn’t do the movie anymore. I called him where he was on the set of “The Word” in Montreal. Well, that’s five hours from Brooklyn. “If I leave now we can have dinner at 11 tonight.” I drove–we were five weeks out of production. The whole crew had moved to Schenectady, into the Holiday Inn. They didn’t understand why I had to leave to go on a tech scout. I go meet Bradley in Montreal for a four hour meeting. Three 45 out of that the movie wasn’t happening until the last 15 minutes when I finally turned him. I tired him out, but finally he agreed!
Was he scared of it?
It’s a very honest character, very complicated and conflicted morally. There’s a lot of risk, playing a guy like that. We go to vulnerable places. I told him I wouldn’t make movie about him. Other people wanted step into the fold at that time, but I was wed to Bradley, I told him I wasn’t going to make movie without him. It was similar with Michelle on “Blue,” she was going to drop out, when we couldn’t get the movie right. I moved mountains to keep her in the movie. It was destined to be her. I felt the same about Bradley on “Pines.” It’s a miracle to make a movie with this many moving pieces, a minor miracle to keep going. I’d done that on “Blue,” moved the mountains to keep Michelle. That worked out well. So I did the same with Bradley.
Did you make changes for him?
We went deeper into the scenes and made everything even stronger. I’m not a dictator on set, I don’t force my actors to do things. I allow a democracy of ideas on set, I basically let the actors do anything they want to do. Conversely they’ll do anything I want them to do, and won’t question it. These relationships are based on complete trust.
Which do you prefer, film or digital?
I believe in both. I shot “Blue Valentine” on 16mm for the past, and for the present on the Red Camera. I feel that both formats are valid. The stories should dictate the format we shoot on. Filmmakers should have a choice. It’s harder to fight to be able to shoot on film. I have a friend making a film that takes place in the 1600s. The financiers are trying to force them to shoot on the Alexa. To me it’s crazy, there was no electronic light in 1600s, just candlelight and sunlight.
Electronic formats go great with electronic light. In terms of analog of film it’s its own thing beyond an aesthetic view of it how lighting reveals texture and grain and all that. The process changes between film and digital. I wanted “Pines” to have urgency so I shot 35. I don’t say “action” and “cut,” we just go until the film runs out, like super 35: 9 minutes 20 seconds. Actors are like athletes, they start to feel that time, it becomes like a quarter in football.
What was your longest take in “Blue Valentine”?
44 minutes. I don’t have boundaries on a digital surveillance device. When it’s 9 minutes I do not interrupt things, when doing a scene I talk to the actors as the camera is going and keep going, basically so they don’t have to be interrupted by your judgement all the time. During that 44-minute take Ryan fell asleep. You erode the freshness and urgency of the moment. With nine minutes you have a ticking clock like a time bomb. The actors have to do something before the film runs out, talk about it and come back to a new game plan. It felt more athletic.
What kind of transformation did Gosling go through on this?
Gosling started lifting weights. Every time I see him he’s getting bigger and bigger, he gained 40 pounds of muscle. He was working with his friend Ben Shields who designs tattoos covering the body. He showed pictures of himself as a young boy with blond hair so he was dying his hair blond. He started to physically embody this guy. The story of the tattoos to me is to shoot this way open to life and how it affects film. He texted me about how he was going to have the most tattoos in movie history. “That’s fine,” I trust Ryan, “whatever you think.”
He was designing all those tattoos. “How about a face tattoo?”
“I don’t know if you should do that, it’s extreme, it’s the first thing everyone will see forever.”
“No way! The face tattoos are the coolest.”
“Go with your choice, make a choice, don’t worry about it.” So he showed up with a dagger dripping teardrop of blood. We were shooting on the first day, something was bothering him, he was out of his element. At lunch, “Can I talk to you?”
“I went too far with the tattoo, can we take it off?” That’s what happens, something you regret you have to live with. To me what happened was a beautiful thing. It started out as a cool choice and turned into a mark of shame. He had created a more interesting character for that reason. Luke was filled with shame, felt dirty, that he wasn’t worthy to father a baby. we could easily have gone back and shot it over, it was no problem to change. But I wanted him to keep it because the film is about consequences. The actor makes a choice with a consequence that effects his performance, keeps it alive.
Did he do the motorcycle stunt in the cage?
22 people in America can do it. And Ryan is not one of them. He could have learned in a couple of years but his time was better used on other things. It’s a long opening unbroken take, we do the Texas switch, a stunt term for switching out the actor. Three guys all real riders are in the Globe of Death.
How did directing documentaries improve your directing chops?
I come from a narrative background. I went into docs out of necessity. I keep doing these docs on MTV, VH1, and BET for organizations like the Vietnam Vet Bikers Association as a way to make a little modest living. I keep practicing, learning more about films, quickly. When I grew up a director was Cecil B DeMille, a guy sitting down with a megaphone speaking. he was the voice of god, the image of god.
When I went to start making docs I quickly turned the megaphone to my ear not to my mouth. It’s more about funneling in the words and listening as doc filmmaker. I learned how, when shooting a verite scene with somebody and something happened in the moment that you couldn’t repeat, it happened that one time, you wouldn’t feel you could try to repeat it. That sharpened instinct is to capture art at the speed of light.
In the interview talking they wouldn’t answer a question the way you expect. It’s not about a sheaf of questions, it’s conversations, it’s going on a road trip with someone, and they would ask questions and new answers lead to a new destination. I had no idea where we were headed. And so basically doc filmmaking taught me how to listen, how to deal with actors as people and human beings. And it allowed me to get this thirst for this kind of taste for moments that were alive, the idea being that on a doc life happens around me. I witness real things happening, and questions take me down new paths.
I was forced to go to docs after my first film wasn’t success, “Brother Tide,” to come out soon I hope. See what happens, it’s about music rights for a doo wop Christmas sound track, all of those songs are licensed. If it’s not now, it will be in the next 10 years. There’s a print in my dad’s basement in Colorado.
Would you raise financing on Kickstarter?
Living in NYC you have to be rich. It takes so much. Some feel they want to make a movie even if a studio indie company doesn’t give them the money. I like John Cassavetes, he’s my hero, he’d act in other people’s movies and put it into his own, even if it took ten years. I didn’t get paid on “Blue Valentine.” The little movies I supplement with commercials to be able go out and make the movies I want to make.