Derek Cianfrance on the anxiety of legacy in 'The Place Beyond the Pines'

Posted by · 3:21 pm · August 2nd, 2013

I very rarely run a transcript/Q&A-style interview because, well, on one hand I think it’s kind of lazy (not always). On the other, I’m a writer and I like to write, I like to paint a portrait of someone and use their words as tools toward those ends.

But sometimes you talk to someone whose every word you want to print, and filmmaker Derek Cianfrance is definitely one of those guys. The director of “The Place Beyond the Pines” has been making the rounds lately to discuss the film again as it heads for DVD/Blu-ray next week and so it was a great opportunity to finally see the film (I had missed it in theatrical) and talk to him about his vision for it.

Cianfrance is an incredibly thoughtful filmmaker and his take on this material was full of such interesting insight and his stories so compelling that I’d rather they just speak for themselves. So read on to learn more about his approach to the visual grammar distinguishing the film’s three acts, what he was looking for in filling out the cast and how he almost had a very game Ben Mendelsohn pull out his own teeth for his role. Some of this you may have heard or read already but it’s a nice dive back into the talking points before the film comes back around, and maybe even makes a dent in the awards season. Also, check out a pair of exclusive new clips from the film below.

Tell me a little bit about the visual grammar of the film. It’s a triptych, so did you want to visually distinguish those sections at all?

No. I mean, on “Blue Valentine,” I had approached that movie as a duet. And I wanted to let the aesthetic approach to the film kind of drive the two worlds that I was dealing with. The one world of the past was about these two people falling in love. I shot it all on super 16, completely handheld. We shot it with one 50 mm lens; we never changed the lens. To me it was about seeing the world with this kind of one eye. I kind of wanted to have some opportunity in the frame that if the characters wanted to move they had a freedom to move and kind of mirror the choice that you had when you were young. I always thought about it as like if you were a fish in the ocean you could go anywhere and that’s what I wanted the past of “Blue Valentine” to feel like. I wanted it to be very physical as well. If the character was running the camera was running. It was physical filmmaking. Whereas the present, I shot it all on digital format on a RED. I shot it with two cameras at a time because I wanted to break the perspective. It was no longer about this one vision, it was about this kind of duplicity in vision of these two characters living in the same world but kind of split. I shot it all with long lenses on tripods and I wanted it to be about the kind of claustrophobia of the choices that you made and kind of being stuck, being trapped. So you’re using my metaphor of the fish in the ocean on the past, the present all of a sudden was fish in a bucket, that these people were caught and had less choices, less actual room to breathe. And it was very important that there were two different distinct styles.

With “Pines,” because I was telling a linear story and it was all about these people living in this same place, the city of Schenectady, New York, very early on Sean Bobbitt and I decided that it would be a unified vision, that we weren’t going to deal stylistically with different worlds. So in terms of the aesthetic approach of the film, in terms of formats, in terms of how we approached our scenes, we wanted to make a film that was more about echoes of the past and the repetition of actions and the consequence of those actions. And so we decided to shoot it all in the same kind of visual language, and the only thing that’s different, that changes, is the location, because this movie is also about class, social structures that people are born into. So the Ryan Gosling/Eva Mendes thread, while it’s shot in the same kind of cinematic grammar as the Avery section, the Avery section feels much different because his world takes place in a suburban household and in kind of marble civic centers and city halls. It’s the same visual grammar, it’s just kind about crossing the tracks in a town.

Why did you choose Schenectady, New York for the film’s setting? I’ve read some comments from you about the city’s violent history.

My wife is from Schenectady. I’ve been visiting that place for 10 years. I love that place and the people. And like any American city, it has its history of controversies and its own histories of corruption. To me Schenectady as represented in the film, it could be anywhere in America, but it’s specific to Schenectady. And we weren’t necessarily trying to make a documentary about what had happened in Schenectady. I was just dealing with the town on more of a human level, just trying to imagine what it would be like to grow up there on one side of the railroad tracks and the other side of the railroad tracks and to see what happened when those two sides collided and to try to imagine what that reverberation would be. So I was only dealing with it on a real human level, but trying to be true to the social kind of class implications that exist there.

The film’s theme of legacy is clear. Why did you want to sit down and build a film around that?

In 2007 my wife was pregnant with our second son and I was reading a lot of Jack London books, thinking about ancestry quite a bit and Darwinism and survival of the fittest. I started thinking about my baby son that was going to come into the world and thinking about all this I was going to pass on to him. And I was thinking about this fire that I had always felt inside of me and how that fire had helped me extremely as a filmmaker. It helped me have success as a filmmaker but it had also burned a lot of things down in my life and it also caused a lot of pain in my life. I started thinking about my father and knowing that he had that fire and thinking about my grandfather and knowing that he had that fire and my great-grandfather and knowing that he had that fire. And I was just thinking about my baby that was going to come into the world and I didn’t want him to have the fire. I wanted him to be born clean. I wanted him to be born without any history of choices already made for him. And very quickly this movie came to me, this movie about legacy and kind of being the choices that we make in our life, how they reverberate throughout generations.

The movie also seems to have something to say about the absolute fear of responsibility you have to what you leave to your children.

I never learned to be a writer. I never took screenwriting courses. I never read anyone’s scripts. As a writer, my only guiding principle has been to write about things that scare me, write about things that make me feel vulnerable, write about things that will expose my deepest fears, so that’s how I write. I go into those things that make me anxious, that make me nervous, that make me feel unsure, because to me that’s where I’m getting at kind of my deepest truths.

With a couple of collaborations with Ryan Gosling under your belt now do you find yourself often writing with him in mind?

Yeah. Ryan is just a magic human being. And it felt like destiny to make ‘Pines’ with him because I was at his agent’s house in 2007, two years before I shot “Blue Valentine” with him and, you know, I was asking him, “Do you fantasize about things? You’ve accomplished so much in your life. Do you still dream about things?” And he says, “Well, I always wanted to rob a bank but I’ve always been too scared of jail.”  I said, “Well, that’s crazy, I’m making a movie about a bank robber. Have you ever thought about how you would ever do it? Have you given it any thought?” And he said, “Yeah, I thought I would do it on a motorcycle because I could go in with a helmet and no one would know who I was and then I’d leave on the motorcycle because they’re fast and agile. And then I pull into a U-Haul truck parked about four blocks away and, you know, leave in a U-Haul truck and the cops would be looking for a motorcycle not a U-Haul truck.” And I said, “That’s crazy; that’s exactly what we’ve written into the script!” So it was destiny, you know? And that’s how it’s felt with Ryan for a long time. As I write new things it’s like he’s the best, you know, and such a magic performer and such a magic collaborator. I really feel like as a human being he makes the world a better place. And if you put a human being like that in your movie he makes your movie a better movie.

Even though he’s only in a small slice of the film his impact is felt throughout the rest of the movie. I imagine there are few actors who can pull off that kind of presence.

He has that ability in this film to kind of haunt the rest of the movie and his presence always lingers over the film and it’s because he’s so powerful. We always talked about his character in this movie as being almost like the myth or a bit of a prologue to the movie, an extended prologue. And actually when I look at the film I feel like the first two acts are almost the prologue for the movie, which is the third act, you know? And initially how I always conceived of that third of the movie was that there was going to be an intermission in the film. That right before the third act of the film you wouldn’t have a title card that said “15 years later.” It would’ve been an intermission and you would have gone out and gone to the bathroom, gotten your popcorn and then come back to it and 15 years would have passed. But I guess I found out very quickly you can’t do that in the marketplace.

That’s funny because I didn’t catch up to the movie until recently on Blu-ray. My wife finished cooking dinner right when the second section wrapped up so I paused the movie, ate dinner, then came back to watch the third act.

Nice. That’s how it should be seen. With the intermission.

There are obviously a lot of hugely talented actors involved. How did you go about casting the film? What were you looking for in some of these distinct actors who fill out the ensemble?

With each character in a movie I’m looking for a human being. I ‘m looking for a person. And to me, I’m looking for a person that’s full of strengths and weaknesses, a person that’s full of successes and failures, a person that’s full of joy and sorrow. I’m interested in people that are human beings that are alive. And so when I cast actors, I want actors to bring a life to it and I always ask all my actors to surprise me. I ask them to fail for me. I ask them to get it wrong, because I know that in getting it wrong, they can also get it right. I feel like if an actor or anyone in life is too scared of falling on their face and making a fool of themselves then they’ll never truly be great. And so I ask all my actors to get it wrong for me. And I know if they can get it wrong and be laughably bad they can also be incredibly inspiring and great. So there’s no judgment; I don’t judge. The only time I judge an actor on set is if they’re not failing; if they get it right all the time, I start to question it. I feel like it’s too easy. So specifically, all of those actors were absolute blessings, gifts. I felt so fortunate to work with each and every one of them.

I was particularly taken with Ben Mendelsohn.

I can tell you stories. I had seen him in “Animal Kingdom” and thought he was great. I had no idea that he had been acting since he was a boy in Australia and he was kind of Australia’s national treasure. I was meeting with a number of actors one day in L.A. and I had a meeting with Ben and he came three hours early to his meeting. He showed up to this meeting and he looked like he was a wreck. He was wearing a plastic wristband and I couldn’t tell if it was from a party the night before or if it was from the hospital. And Ben, the first thing that he says to me was, “I really hope that you don’t want me to audition for you today because if you do that will be the last thing I’ll ever be able to do for you.” He says, “I hope you just give me the job because if you just give me the job I’ll carry a spear for you.’ And I said, “Okay, I’ll give you the job.” So within two minutes of knowing Ben I hired him because he came to me like that. The character of Robin was written as a little bit older then Ben and so Ben said, “Hey dad what do you…” — because for some reason he started calling me dad — “Dad what are we going to do about the teeth because the teeth of the character, Robin was written to have all false teeth.” I said, “Well, what do you think we should do about the teeth?’ Ben says, “Well, I could have them pulled out for you. I’ve had quite a lot of dental work done and I could give you this number of my dentist and I’ll be happy to pull them out for you.” And I said, “Okay, well give me the number of your dentist.” And to kind of show you like how crazy making a film can get, I actually called his dentist. A week later I actually had his dental x-rays in my possession and I was preparing, Ben and I were preparing a trip for him to go to Australia to have his teeth pulled. Thankfully my producers came in with clear conscious and they told us that we absolutely could not have Ben’s teeth pulled. And Ben and I, we couldn’t understand why we couldn’t pull his teeth. But I’m so thankful now that we didn’t pull his teeth. I remember a day before shooting Ben and I were eating peaches at a farm stand in Schenectady and I was watching the juice drip down his chin as he was biting into these peaches. And I was so thankful that he still had his teeth. But that’s the kind of actor Ben is. He’s willing to absolutely go for it and I’m embarrassed that I actually considered his offer. But he’s one of the best human beings I’ve ever met.

In terms of Ray Liotta, when I was a teenager growing up in Colorado, I didn’t have pictures of girls on my wall. I had pictures of Ray Liotta on my wall. Along with Mike Patton he was one of my heroes. And when Ben Coccio and myself started writing the script we found out that both of our favorite movie was “Goodfellas” and so we decided we’d write a role for Ray Liotta. The next thing I know, five years later, I have an opportunity to cast Ray in the movie. There was some talk with Ray about it’s a role that we had seen him in before in terms of like the corrupt cop. But I felt like this movie was taking so many kinds of narrative chances that some familiarity every now and again would be good. It kind of reminded me of making mix tapes back in the day. I remember making mix tapes for people. I always remember I could do like three or four songs that were out there and then like every forth for fifth song on a mix tape I’d have to put something familiar on there, because you want to keep the person who’s listening listening. You want to give them something that they just can chew on for a little bit and then you can get away with doing all your other crazy stuff. And so working with Ray, I felt like I was working with an American national treasure. He’s absolutely one of the best actors and the thing I loved so much about working with Ray is he has an ability to unnerve everybody and kind of throw everyone, myself included, off center.

The scene when he pulls Bradley over was pretty incredible. Just with a look he’s searing.

Yeah and you can only see half of his face. Everybody was so uncomfortable. The scene at the dinner table with Rose Byrne, Rose got up for an hour and left set for an hour because Ray is a human knife and he can cut you. And to me it’s the best. It’s an absolute gift to have him on set doing that.

I believe I’ve read that you wrote the film with Bradley Cooper in mind. Is that true?

Well, I did not know who I had in mind for that role. We had written the character of Avery and I was meeting a number of factors and I met Bradley. Before I met him I liked the “Hangover” movies and thought he was good in those but I wasn’t sure. This was before “Silver Linings” when I cast him. I wasn’t sure what kind of actor he was but I met with him anyway. And I remember immediately being struck by Bradley because I felt like he had a storm raging inside of him. I felt like on the outside he looked like People’s sexiest man but on the inside there was something going on, something that I felt a kinship to. And I felt like if I could rewrite this character and kind of let the audience experience that same kind of misdirection, that I had with Bradley that I thought he was going to be this kind of good looking America’s hero guy, but that he actually had something much deeper going on inside of him. I felt like if I could create this character who on the outside the audience saw as a hero but on the inside he felt corrupted, he felt a toxic shame, I felt like it could be interesting. So I rewrote the role specifically with Bradley in mind thinking that I can get into that storm, into that secret, those fissures that I saw inside of him that I could try to write a role about a guy who’s burying those things and trying to keep on the politician’s face. I think when I gave him the rewrite of the script it made him a little nervous. In fact, he dropped out of the film after he read my rewrite of the script and I had to go up to Montreal. I asked him where he was, he was like, “I’m in Montreal shooting ‘The Words,'” and I said, “Okay, I could be there in five hours.” I drove up and had a middle-of-the-night dinner with him. It was a four-hour dinner and for three hours and 45 minutes he was out of the movie. The last 15 minutes of the meeting I was able to turn him. I think I just tired him out.

“The Place Beyond the Pines” arrives on DVD/Blu-ray Tuesday, Aug. 6.

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