Going to “The Place Beyond the Pines” with Director Derek Cianfrance
By Dan Casey on April 4, 2013
Blue Valentine director Derek Cianfrance’s new film, The Place Beyond the Pines, boasts an all-star cast, including Bradley Cooper, Ryan Gosling, Eva Mendes, Ray Liotta, and Rose Byrne, and an equally sweeping storyline which poses the simple question, “How do our actions affect future generations?” A towering story of sons, fathers, causes, and effects, The Place Beyond the Pines is easily one of the best films I’ve seen this year, so naturally I was excited to get the chance to sit down with the director. If you heard them through closed doors, distinguishing Ryan Gosling and Cianfrance’s voices would prove a difficult task for even a supersleuth like
Benedict Cumberbatch Sherlock Holmes. In person, too, one finds echoes of the A-list actor in the The Place Beyond the Pines director, giving the sense that Gosling has become his on-screen proxy. Like the characters in his scripts, Cianfrance is a soft-spoken guy with intense eyes that let you know he’s a man who is passionate about what he does, even if his laid back demeanor give him an impassive quality. Thankfully, once you get the director going, he has more stories, anecdotes and DP-related tales of terror than one knows what to do with. So, go ahead and read on to find out about how The Place Beyond the Pines came together after six years of effort and how one fearless filmmaker was crushed by motorcycles. Twice.
Nerdist: I want to say first of all, I really loved the movie. I was a huge fan of Blue Valentine, so I was counting down the days to this, and I’m very pleased with the end result.
Derek Cianfrance: Oh, that’s very nice! I’m glad to hear it.
N: This is, as I understand it, the third in your “family trilogy” of films, starting with Brothers Tied, moving on to Blue Valentine, and now The Place Beyond the Pines, examining different aspects of family and its relationship to time. Whereas Blue Valentine showed how time can erode true love as we perceive it, this seems to be examining what we leave behind, and whether or not we can escape the past. Is this something we can escape, or are we doomed to repeat our mistakes? Are we trapped in this loop?
DC: This is a very Darwinistic movie. It’s about survival, this movie. It’s about legacy, yes. It’s about nature, yes, but it’s about survival. It’s about how we survive as a species, as a country, as families, as bloodlines. I am not a cynical person, and I don’t think this is a cynical movie. I think this is a movie ultimately not about vengeance, not about hopelessness, but it’s a movie about forgiveness, and I feel like that’s the best way to survive, and to move forward.
N: And with the overarching trilogy, do you have sort of a thesis statement you’re trying to make, or is it more of an attempt to examine this in several different ways?
DC: Yeah, I’m not really a message film maker, you know? I work more through instigation. I want to make films that are alive on the screen, and that can create a discussion amongst people, and that can live with people. My favorite films are the ones that seem to change over time. My favorite films are the ones that are like friends of mine. I go visit them throughout my life, and they transform, and I know that they’re not changing, I know it’s me that’s changing, but at least they’re made with kind of an openness, that I can participate in the imagination of them, and the experience of them. I’m trying to make films in that way that have an openness to them, that different viewers, 200 people see it in a theater, there are going to be 200 different takes on the movie from that. 200 different people can think that what happens when the lights come on that the characters go off and do different things. I like movies that are alive in that way, that aren’t so clear cut and everything is told to you. I have no message to hammer, it’s just more instigation.
N: One of the things that I really enjoy about your work is that it has this sense of realism, but also it has such a confident sense of style. You’re very sure with your visual aesthetic, and the overall tone that you go for. In The Place Beyond the Pines, you created such a distinct atmosphere through music. When Suicide’s “Che” came on during a particularly fateful motorcycle ride, it’s used to such great effect, so I was wondering if you could tell me a bit about your design process, and how you try to create the style of your films?
DC: The style of a film? Each film is a little bit different based on the world that you’re creating. In this film we wanted to create—it was a lot about consequence, it felt very biblical to me, this story. It was very Greek, in a way, but I tended toward the biblical storytelling, because I was watching a lot of Pasolini, I was watching The Gospel According to St. Matthew quite a bit, just really loving the simplicity with which he made that film, but the strength of the images. So I hired Sean Bobbitt to shoot the film, and he has such a great eye, and he’s a warrior at the same time; he’s a cinema warrior. He can do things like shooting from the passenger seat of a speeding police car, which you’ve seen on COPS, but he can put it with his composition and his sense of lighting. Then you have a guy like Tom Poole, the colorist, come in and just make the film look so silvery, you know what I mean? Just feel so beautiful.
And then at the same time, in terms of the use of music, music is trying to feel the internal world of the characters, feel what they’re feeling inside, and anytime you’re making a movie, to me, it’s like you’re making a mix tape. Or I guess now it’s a playlist! Back in the day it was a mix tape, and that’s a gift. I’m just trying to put a collection of all my favorite things in a movie, that tell a story, but also the songs that I’m listening to that inspire the movie. Mike Patton, for instance. His music I’ve listened to my whole life, and I’ve always dreamed of working with him, and then all of a sudden I had an opportunity to work with him, and it was easy for his music to go up to my images because my images were already my images based on internalizing his music for my whole life.
N: Mr. Bungle, oh my goodness.
DC: Mr. Bungle, exactly! That was the first, and the best show I ever saw when I was a 16 year old, Mr. Bungle.
N: Mine was Rockapella, so you win. So speaking of the composition of the shots, something that really impressed me was some of these very long, unbroken takes where they’re so tense and so well done, like that five and a half minute opening sequence. Could you tell me about that? I’m sure it must have been a challenge.
DC: I’ll say this first off: my original DP was going to be Andrij Parekh, who shot Blue Valentine. Great DP, great photographer of performers. He really gets great — every one of his films’ performances are great. I think it’s Andrij who’s the common thread in those films, from Sugar to Blue Valentine to Cold Souls. Andrij called me one day and he was crying, and he said, “D, I can’t shoot your movie.” I said, “Why not?” and he said, “Because I had a dream I died making it.” I said, “It was just a dream. It’s not real, it’s just a dream.” He said, “No, I can’t do it. I’ve got a kid now. I can’t do it. You’ve got to find someone else.” OK, I’ll find someone else. So I started interviewing DPs, and I interviewed Sean Bobbitt, and Sean said “What’s wrong with your movie? Why is your DP dropping out 8 weeks out?” I said, “Well, he had a dream he died while making the movie.” There was some silence between us, and I said, “Do you think you’re going to die making the movie?” He said, “Silly boy! I was a war photographer for eight years. I’m not going to die making your movie!” I said, “OK, so would you make my movie.” He said yes, and so he came on, and he’s a warrior, that guy—he’s a cinema warrior.
So we were planning the opening shot of the film. Well, we were looking at the scope of the movie, and we realized that it was so epic, that we had to open the movie with a shot that would take you into the movie in the right way. With these unbroken takes, I feel like, especially in the opening of the movie, you teach people how you want them to watch your movie in the first five, ten minutes. So I wanted people to be watching as active participants. I wanted their imaginations turned on as they were watching. So we started this act with this long take, and at the end of the take, we’re shooting at a live fair, and if you have one person look into the camera, it’s ruined, so I had all these ADs, I had a fleet of ADs out there wearing Dr. Seuss hats, trying to pull people’s attention away, keep people moving, and then we had the shot. At the end of the shot, Bobbitt insisted that he went to the center of the Globe of Death at the end. Now, the Globe of Death, there’s 22 guys in America that can do that, and Ryan Gosling isn’t one of them, so we also had to come up with this switch, where he was going to get on his motorcycle, go into the cage, and without breaking the take, how were we going to switch him out? So we came up with a thing called the Texas Switch, which the stunt guys came up with. I can’t tell you what it was, but you’ll see it if you watch real close.
Sean said at the end of the take he wanted to go inside with the motorcycles, and I said that’s crazy, there’s going to be three motorcycles in there, and he said, “No, Derek, we must go to the center.” So I said, “OK, just protect yourself.” So he’s wearing a helmet, decked out in all this gear, armor, and we did the shot, and it was beautiful, and he ended up in the center of the cage, the door closed, locked shut, and I’m watching on my monitor this beautiful image of this swarm of motorcycles buzzing around him and all of a sudden my monitor went static, and I heard a gasp from the audience, and I looked up and there’s a pile of motorcycles with Sean Bobbitt on the bottom of it. I’m thinking my DP died. Get up, pull all the motorcycles off of him, dust Sean off, see if he’s OK, and he’s not OK, he’s angry. He’s mad at himself for not getting the shot. I was like, “Look, man, at least you’re alive! You didn’t die. Let’s do it again, but this time stay outside.” He’s like, “No, we must go to the center.” He’s more insistent in going to the center than ever. I said, “I don’t agree with it, but I can’t keep you out of it. I can see that.” So we went to the center, he did the shot again, somehow it improved the shot; it was better than the first take. I’m watching in my monitor, and it’s amazing, motorcycles swarming around him, and again my monitor goes static, and I hear another gasp, and I look up, and a motorcycle stalls in mid-air, and drops on his head, and knocks him out. We had to cancel production that night; he had a concussion and went to the emergency room. He came back the next day and I forced him — I told him there was no way he could go inside the cage. He was so grumpy, too — he still doesn’t talk to me after that, for not letting him in the cage.
We set a lot of the film up in these long takes. So many of my favorite film makers, from Béla Tarr to 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, films like that with those long takes, it feels like there’s a truthfulness in them. They’re honest.
N: First off, that DP is a total bad ass! That’s incredible. So, the long takes, it works — it pulls you in, it gives the scene that sense of tension and dread, because the scene could always end at any point, but when it keeps going, you feel like, “Oh my god, when is it going to come?” I also heard that you guys went through 37 drafts and shot over 400 hours of footage. Tell me, about how much prep work did this film entail from start to finish? I know it’s been a long time coming, but that’s incredible.
DC: It’s been about six years. Blue Valentine, my previous film, was 12 years, and 66 drafts. So I’m getting faster! My shooting script was 158 pages, and the financier said “No way! It’s got to be 120 or you’re not shooting.” So I found the shrink font button, and I extended the margins, and they couldn’t tell. So I shot the movie, and the way I work, I tell my actors, “If you do the script, you’re going to be disappointing me. Make it alive.” So we’re finding all these long moments, and I never say “Action,” I never say “Cut,” so we’re always shooting nine minute and twenty second scenes, because that’s a magazine of 2-perf 35mm.
Then I’m in the editing room six months later, and I have a three and a half hour movie on my hands, and there’s no shrink font button, and I’m thinking maybe I could take out one frame for every 24 frames, and the movie could run at 23 frames a second, but it looked weird, and it was only seven and a half minutes. I always say that writing is like dreaming, shooting is like living, and editing is like murder. But it’s also very crucial murder, because one you start taking things away, you reveal the shape — it’s like sculpture. So once I got rid of all these blockages, the movie really started working.
N: This film has more genre elements than we’ve seen in something like Blue Valentine, for example. Did that pose any sort of challenge for you as a director, or was that something you wanted to embrace wholeheartedly?
DC: Yeah, that’s kind of what led me to shooting the long takes and stuff, because I felt like if Blue Valentine was noted for anything, it was for its honesty, its frank take on sexuality. I decided that if I’m going to make a film that’s about crime, it’s got to feel true. If it’s going to have chase scenes, action scenes, it’s got to feel real. So my reference point wasn’t other movies, it was COPS and America’s Wildest Police Chases. But that means the audience is smart — they can tell if you’re going 40 miles an hour, so we had to go fast. That meant that my stunt drivers had to crash at 75 miles per hour.
I remember the first day taking my producers around the tech scout, Bradley Cooper’s introduction scene, which is a couple minutes shot of him, and I walked them — it took us about 10 or 11 minutes to walk the shot. We were walking it and my producers were just dead silent. I was like, “What is wrong with you guys? This is going to be awesome!” They were just trying to figure it out, because that meant we were going to have to shut down an entire neighborhood; we had to put a crew member inside every house to make sure no one opened the door and ran out in the street. You do a shot like that, it takes a whole day.
N: It’s not something you think about as a viewer, but it’s interesting to hear what goes into something like that.
DC: But to me, you’re raising the stakes for everything. Then the stunt guys — the guy I have doing stunts in this, Ryan Gosling’s stunt double, this guy Rick Miller, who when Batman gets on a motorcycle, it’s Rick Miller doing it — he’s always telling me that whenever he watches his movies, he’s risking his life, and then he goes to see it on the screen and it’s, like, 36 frames, because they’ve cut it. They cut, cut, cut. I said, “I’m not going to do that to you, Rick. I’m not going to cut you. If you crash for me, if you do anything for me, I’m not going to cut it up. It’s going to be unbroken; you’re going to really crash, and we’re going to see what you do.”
N: It must be interesting when they go to see the movie, because all that work they did, hours and hours, and weeks of training, all for that one sequence.
DC: Yeah, that one sequence that’s cut up six ways from Sunday.
N: I’ve also read that with Blue Valentine, you had Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams live together for a little bit, to get that dynamic. You had Bradley Cooper and Rose Byrne sort of play house for a bit also. Tell us a bit about the prep work involved.
DC: [Bradley] spent a lot of time with cops. Again, we’re talking Blue Valentine, we all had a reference point for love. But for this, not all of us have a reference point for robbing banks or being a cop, so it required much more research than what we had for Blue. And yeah, Bradley and Rose spent time in a house together, but also they spent a lot of time apart. Bradley spent a lot of time with the cops, and Rose spent a lot of time with cops’ wives. She realized she could feel their stress, she learned about their divorce rates — it’s through the roof. And then all of a sudden, Bradley wanted to spend more of his time with his cop buddies than he wanted to spend with Rose, and it created something real. Again, acting — the actors don’t have to act anymore. All of a sudden, the behavior just kicks in — being kicks in. That’s what I’m always looking for, that place where they kind of blur.
N: I understand you’re working on a project for HBO called Muscle. I was wondering if you could tell me anything about it?
DC: We’ll see whether it goes to HBO or not. I feel like I’m one of the many ships in HBO’s busy harbor, waiting for them to let me ashore, and what I really want to have happen at this point, to tell you the truth, is just to let me go sail somewhere else, where I can make it and don’t have to wait for you guys anymore. It’s a great project called Muscle, it’s about a bodybuilder. It’s about a guy like me, true story of a guy named Sam Bustle.
N: Wasn’t he over at Oxford?
DC: Yeah, he was an Oxford grad, and he came back to New York City in the ’80s, and was scared, and he put on a wall of armor around himself. The reason I’m doing it for television is I feel like I can allow people into my process a little bit, let the viewer into the process of this kind of character development in real time, watch the guy transform his body over a few years on the screen.
N: That is interesting, because on film you feel like they can fake it, but on TV, it’s more organic—you can see that development week to week.
DC: Yes, and physicality — I work with my actors like athletes. There’s something physical that affects them. Ryan, with all his tattoos that he wanted — he thought it was going to be something cool, but it turned out to be something he was very ashamed of in the movie, and it really affected his performance. Your physicality, your body — he also put on 40 pounds of muscle and became this masculine cliché, and then when he was holding his baby, he realized these muscles mean nothing right now. So I’m interested in actors physically embodying something, and then it affects — it’s mental, it’s soul transformation.
N: Final question — it’s kind of a hardball: What is in your ideal burrito?
DC: Ideal burrito? I don’t like those giant ones. I like to have a series of kind of thin burritos, some beans in it — more red beans than black beans. I like avocado. A meat would be nice, like shredded chicken or a slow-cooked pork. Cilantro, and maybe a hot sauce. Something simple; I don’t need the football-sized burrito, and then you have this bite, it’s all beans, and this bite, it’s all rice.