Director Derek Cianfrance on violence, shame and legacy
Director Derek Cianfrance skyrocketed to fame after his Blue Valentine became an indie hit in 2010. But he actually started writing his latest feature, The Place Beyond the Pines, well before he filmed Blue Valentine. The film, which stars Ryan Gosling as a motorcycle stunt rider who turns to a life of crime and Bradley Cooper as the cop who puts him away, addresses themes of legacy and love through multiple intersecting characters and generations. Cianfrance recently spoke about the film with Whopperjaw and a roundtable of reporters. Here’s what he had to say.
When Blue Valentine came out, you were considered an up-and-coming director. What was it like knowing that as you were making this movie?
I had an opportunity after Blue Valentine to have a choice about what I could do. I had a number of scripts and opportunities. I had this film, A Place Beyond the Pines, that I had been working on since before Blue Valentine. In 2007, I was working on it. It was another very personal film. I’ve been making films about families because in families there is great secret and great intimacy and cinema is the place for intimacy. Pines is about fathers and sons and it’s about legacy. When my friend was pregnant in 2007 with my second boy, I was thinking about all the responsibility I had as a father. I was thinking of my son coming into the world and wanting him to be born clean. I wanted him to have his own path in life. It became a personal thing. I was interviewing [race car driver] Danica Patrick for a documentary film and I asked her how she could drive so fast. Her whole life, she knew how fast she could go but could always drive as fast as she could go but then she’d drive a little faster. She’d drive to the point where she would sometimes crash. That was how she could push her boundaries and get good. With my next film, I felt like I needed to go to a crashing point and a dangerous place and not make any safe choices as a filmmaker.
At what point did you decide on doing the “15 years later” time lapse?
For 20 years, I had an idea of doing a triptych movie. I saw Napoleon when I was in film school, and that got my mind going and I had this idea about making this movie called The Holy Trinity. Also, I had seen Psycho for the first time. I didn’t know you spent 45 minutes with Janet [Leigh] before the shower scene and that contrast between characters was kind of a structural thing that I was interested in. The baton pass was a structural thing sitting with me all these years. When my wife was pregnant, I was thinking about this fire that I was passing from me to my son. It was instantaneous what the story would be and what the structure would be.
I was interested in dealing with violence. I haven’t dealt with that before. I have an allergy toward gun violence. I’m sick of it. I don’t know when it became the thing was deemed so cinematic. It must have been with [director Sam] Peckinpah and The Wild Bunch. But his violence seems more true; now there’s this fetishized violence. If I have to see another slow motion bullet come out a gun and pierce somebody’s cheek, I’m going to puke. I wanted to deal with narrative violence and tell the story that leads up to that violent encounter and that aftermath of that violence. There’s also that echo and it doesn’t go away. You don’t have the sanctity of a flashback to go back to. I wanted to tell this American story about tribalism and what happens when those tribes collide and what the aftermath is like. That 15 years was crucial. It’s the story of legacy.
Did you have actors in mind?
I met [screenwriter] Ben Coccio at The Donut Pub in New York City and I had this idea that was more of a Western at the time. I decided to modernize it and have motorcycles rather than horses. He was from Schenectady where my wife was from. We decided on three things that day. We decided we would tell this linear story and choose chronology. That would be our bravest choice. We agreed to shoot in Schenectady and the third thing we agreed was to write a role for Ray [Liotta]. Flash forward five years later and I’m sitting at a table with Ray and he’s contemplating doing the movie. It was one of those things that was like a dream come true in my life. He’s a very exciting actor for me. He’s like a human knife. I love that about him. No one is immune. I love actors that instigate things. He challenges everybody. So sitting him down at a table with Bradley Cooper and Rose Byrne was great. He can really unnerve a situation. He has a real sharp edge.
Talk about Ryan Gosling’s role in shaping his character.
In 2007 I was at his agent’s house and we were having dinner and talking about Blue Valentine. I asked him what he hadn’t done in his life that he really wanted to do. He said, “I’ve always wanted to rob a bank.” I told him I was writing a movie about a bank robber. I asked him how he would do it and he said he do it on a motorcycle because he could go in on with a helmet on because no one would know who he was. And he said he would escape on a motorcycle because they’re fast. He said he’s have a U-Haul parked a few blocks away and would drive into the U-Haul and escape. I said, “That’s crazy. That’s what I have written into the script.” I knew we were destined to work together. He called me before we started shooting and he wanted to have a face tattoo. I said, “Really? That’s pretty permanent.” He said his would be a dagger and it would be dripping blood. I told him to do what he wanted. First day of shooting there was something bothering him. He said he thought he went too far with the face tattoo and wanted to take it off and re-shoot everything. I said, “Absolutely not. That’s what happens when you get a face tattoo. You regret.” For his performance, it created this shame and this regret.
Talk about casting Eva.
I had looked at a lot of women for that role and I couldn’t find who it would be. Ryan said I should look at her. I liked her in Training Day on. She came to an audition and she had 1990 jeans, a baggy T-shirt and no makeup and was trying to look unattractive. She was failing. It meant so much to me that she was trying. I fell in love with her as a human being. She was scared and terrified of this role. I relate to that with actors. I don’t relate to a fearless actor or a fearless person. I relate to people who are scared and are willing to confront their fear. I respected her and gave her the role.
Talk about working with Bradley Cooper.
I knew Ryan would be Luke since inception. I had no idea who would play [the police officer] Avery. I had a meeting set up with him. I didn’t think much of it; it was before Silver Linings Playbook. I didn’t think there was a shot he’d be in the movie but I sat down with him and immediately there was something about him that struck me. He seemed to be wrestling with something. The image I had was of a pot of boiling water with a lid on it. As I talked to him, I realized that we were very similar and we had things in our past that were similar. I was so taken that I started thinking I could rewrite Avery and make the audience feel the same thing that I felt. I started working with this idea of a guy who on the outside is greatest guy but inside is a toxic shame. I wanted to work with that dichotomy. He’s paraded around like a hero but inside he feels like the biggest villain. I thought Bradley could work in that gray area. He was a gift to work with in the same way Ryan was. He was an incredibly collaborative actor, too.
What about the score?
For Christmas when I was a teenager, my brother got me Mr. Bungle’s first album. I listened to Mr. Bungle in my white mustang that had a four cylinder engine and was so dangerous because it was so slow. It was the lamest mustang in the world. I listed to that album all the time. I saw a show at The Gothic Theatre in Denver. [Mike] Patton was wearing a bondage mask with horse blinders and was singing “Time” by the Alan Parsons Project. He got down on his knees on was licking this balding security guy’s hair. He became my hero at the moment. I found his music so cinematic, whether you go to his Fantomas albums or something else. I would put his music on my student movies. His brother was a cop. This was an opportunity to work with a hero. I told Mike the best way to do it was to throw him images and show him scenes and he would go home and make music, which is what he’s done all his life. He did 42 tracks and I used 12. I used him like I would an actor. I try to get them to do as much as they can and then I can take that information and sculpt it.