For his third feature and his first since his breakthrough 2008 doomed romance “Blue Valentine,” Derek Cianfrance announces his intentions upfront of making something epic with what appears to be a spectacular single take that involves a heavily tattooed Ryan Gosling, a carnival and a stunt that according to Cianfrance only 25 people in North America can do. Such big ideas prevented a reunion with “Blue Valentine” cinematography Andrij Parekh, who bailed on the shoot eight weeks before cameras rolled when he had a dream that he would get killed on the set. (His replacement, Sean Bobbitt of “Hunger” fame, was less timid, given his eight years of experience as a war photographer.) This isn’t even to mention having to brave Hurricane Irene and the director’s insistence on unbroken action scenes (given his belief that “any cut in a movie is an opportunity for a lie”) that would result in long days during a grueling 47-day shoot last summer.
However, all that ambition can be seen up on the screen in “The Place Beyond the Pines,” as overwhelming a story as it was a production while still maintaining the authenticity and intimacy that made “Blue Valentine” so compelling. Told in three interlocking parts, the film, which takes its name from the Iroquois translation of the city where its set of Schenectady, New York, is essentially a tale of the legacies fathers pass onto their sons, at first wrapped in the suspense of a heist thriller before seguing into the drama of a morality tale and ultimately, the tragedy resulting from avenging, repeating or learning from the sins of the fathers.
Pulling from the already unraveling edges of a post-industrial America, yet with the familiar faces of Gosling and Bradley Cooper to anchor it as its two central patriarchs Luke Glanton and Avery Cross, respectively, “The Place Beyond the Pines” is rich in style and substance rarely seen on these shores. It is also a continuation of the trust Cianfrance has steadily built with audiences, an allegiance to finding the truth in his films extending right down to casting real bank tellers who have been robbed to relive their experiences so Gosling can hold them up once more as a stunt biker who turns to bank jobs to support his son, with Cooper as the cop eventually tasked with nabbing him.
After the film’s premiere last weekend at this year’s Toronto Film Festival, Cianfrance spoke to me about the film, which recently sold to Focus Features for American distribution, the influences on it from both his film school days and fatherhood, and what surprising film nearly threw him off the track to make “Blue Valentine.”
While this reminded me of European familial dramas, this film felt distinctly American to me – in the issues it raises and of course, its milieu – did this story really grow out of a sense of place for you?
A lot of it grew out of the place. My wife is from Schenectady, so I’ve been going up there, visiting her family for about nine years and Schenectady has a very rich, long and kind of brutal history. It’s one of these American towns that’s really trying to claw its way to survive, like a lot of towns in upstate New York – Rochester, [where] Kodak moves out or closes its doors and what do those people do? I shot “Blue Valentine” in Scranton, which was a similar place, [and] these blue collar places are struggling, but full of great people with this spirit and also full of tribes of people. I wanted to make a movie about those American tribes, about the world that you’re born into and how each of these tribes are still fighting each other, these different strata.
The Avery character is a guy who was born into this small town royalty and his father’s a judge and [he’s] expected to carry that torch to the next generation. His ambition is to be his own man and he runs into problems with that. Then you get Luke, who is this guy covered in shame trying to give his son a better life than what he had and just struggles [with] how hard that is to do. Yes, it’s a distinctly American movie. The last image in this film is the American flag from a distance.
You seemed to suggest the other day after the screening in Toronto that this production wasn’t all that different from “Blue Valentine,” but you lived with that film for over a decade before it went before cameras and comparatively, this seemed to have come together instantly. Did it change the feel of it?
Well, it’s five years that I was working on it and went through 37 drafts of a script. “Blue Valentine” — that was just torture, the 12 years I had to wait to make that film. But it wasn’t the only thing I was doing. Thankfully, I didn’t have to wait that long on this one, and with the moderate success that “Blue Valentine” had, I had choices on what I could do and I decided that I would go deeper than I did on “Blue Valentine.” “Blue Valentine” is a very risky film and this is also an incredibly risky film and a nearly impossible one to make, but I was always told by my teacher Phil Solomon that you have to risk failure as an artist and go to those places where you’re vulnerable and on the edge of complete disaster at all times. “The Place Beyond the Pines” felt like it was a great enough of a risk that it warranted making a film out of it.
Although it’s obviously a much more sprawling story once you see it, because of the initial imagery and what I suspect the marketing will focus on, the first impression for most audiences of this film will be of a similar lone, badass stunt driver, so was it a concern when Ryan Gosling starred in “Drive”?
I was pretty sure it wouldn’t be similar and look, Nic Refn is a great filmmaker and Ryan’s a great actor and when I heard they were going to work together, I was just excited to see what they would do. But I was quite sure the movies would be nothing like each other. When I was trying to make “Blue Valentine” for 12 years, I heard that “The Story of Us” was going to come out with Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer and it was directed by Rob Reiner, who I like. “Spinal Tap”’s one of my favorite movies. I was like “oh, shit. They did it. They’re making ‘Blue Valentine.’ They’re doing it.” And I saw the movie and [realized] if you’re making your own original work, you don’t have to worry. You just make something that’s true to you and it’ll be unlike anything else.
Obviously, this film comes from a personal place since you’ve talked about how this film also came out of the ideas you started having about parental responsibility around the time of the birth of your second child. How did those ideas take this particular form in terms of three interlocking stories?
When I was in film school, I first saw Abel Gance’s “Napoleon” and when I saw it, I wanted to make a triptych. I wanted to make a movie about three, with three screens, and about the same time, I had seen “Psycho” for the first time when I was 19 or so. I had known about the shower scene, but I didn’t know that I spent 45 minutes with Marion Crane before she went in the shower. It blew my mind that baton pass that Hitchcock did. So I had this very formalist idea of a triptych and this structure I was thinking about from “Psycho” and this passing of the torch and marinated on that until my wife was going to give birth to our second son.
I started thinking about legacy and I was reading all these Jack London books and thinking about the calling back of the ancestors. I was thinking about that wolf in “Call of the Wild,” who is this domesticated dog, crying in the middle of the night because he could feel the hunger that his ancestors also had. Their cry was the same, their pain was the same. His pain was kept him alive and I was thinking about my young baby coming out and not wanting him to have that pain, the pain of life. I just wanted him to be able to enjoy his life, so I came up with this idea of this linear story of legacy and of lineage — the passing down of sins, the passing down of experience, the passing down of pain. And survival – a story of how we survive, thinking of the brutality that our ancestors must’ve faced in order so that we’re here. We’re the products of great brutality.
That idea of three is interesting to me because you’ve describe your three films so far as a trilogy, all of them considering different arms of a family. Besides focusing on a different relationship within it each time, do you see them fitting together in other ways?
There’s great intimacy within families and great knowledge of people. You see people with their masks off. There’s incredible privacy in families that only if you’re in the family do you know. I feel like the cinema is exactly the same. It’s a place of great intimacy, of great secrets, and you get to see people in these private moments. “Brother Tied” was about brothers, “Blue Valentine” is about husbands and wives and this is about fathers and sons and that’s just what I’ve been drawn to is telling those intimate stories about these kind of secrets.
If it’s been five years since you first wrote “The Place Beyond the Pines” and you have all these ideas swimming in your head, has the meaning of the film changed for you, possibly your ideas about fatherhood, since when you initially put pen to paper?
Oh yeah. It’s better because it’s alive. Ideas are frustrating. Ideas are like when you read a comic book and people have those thought bubbles – they’re in smoke. They evaporate. Ideas don’t exist. Execution is something. To make something that’s true or that’s alive that’s real that’s tangible that you can touch, that you can take the risk of the idea being a failure is where it’s at.
In terms of fatherhood, it’s important for me to delve into my personal experience, my fears, my anxieties, my joys, the things that make me not be able to go to sleep at night, the things that wake me up in the morning, the things that I dream about. It’s important to express those things through films, [but] it’s not like therapy for me. If I wasn’t making films, I guess I’d just be cooking or something, just trying to make some good chicken.
“The Place Beyond the Pines” was acquired for distribution by Focus Features.