Although he's best known for directing the deeply dark and remarkably affecting "Blue Valentine," director and screenwriter Derek Cianfrance got his start in the cinematic world through making documentaries about a variety of subjects. Whether it was catching up with degenerates or exploring the dark underbelly of society, he found plenty of stories worth telling in a more traditional form, including this month's three-part drama, "The Place Beyond the Pines" which re-teams Cianfrance with his "Blue Valentine" star, Ryan Gosling. We recently caught up with Cianfrance to discuss filmmaking, the importance of the film "Creepshow" and the deeply rooted shame of Ryan Gosling.
Amanda Mae Meyncke: "The Place Beyond the Pines" seems at times like it'll be heist movie, but then it's three separate stories that get equal weight -- it's kind of an anthology. Horror movies are doing that a lot these days. Is that the future of film, all shorter stories tied together?
Derek Cianfrance: For 20 years I wanted to make a triptych, ever since I saw Abel Gance's "Napoleon" in film school. When I saw that ending with the three screens going on at one time I wanted to make a movie that was three, and you know, "Blue Valentine" was a duet, so the next logical step was to make a triptych. The horror movie thing, the vignettes stories, you know "Creepshow?" I watched "Creepshow" more than any other movie in my life. So maybe "Creepshow" sunk itself into this movie somehow. I was interested in the one, the singularity of this movie, even though it is three different movies, I was interested in the consistency of making a single story out of those stories, how it would all unify into one. The one thing that was really crucial to me in this was the structure, and keeping it linear. There was lots of suggestions in the process of making this film, you know, putting it in a blender. And I'd seen [Alejandro González] Iñárritu do that, I'd seen [Quentin] Tarantino do that, all the way back to D.W. Griffith through "Star Wars," has done the crosscut. I did it myself in "Blue Valentine," but for this film, it was about lineage, it was about being haunted by your past, it was about legacy. I felt like it had to go in linear order. I don't know what the future holds but I'm very excited that it is a fresh movie that audiences have the choice to go see something that isn't simple a genre film or a heist film.
AMM: One of the major themes is a deep disappointment and how it can affect what happens next in a person's life, the sins of the fathers being passed down. The fathers and sons in this movie have strange relationships, and Bradley Cooper's character is on both sides of that.
DC: To be a parent, you can understand it more. I interviewed a number of police officers and soldiers who had taken lives in the line of duty and who had an incredible difficulty ever relating to their home life again afterwards, the divorce rate amongst cops is huge. Avery's a guy who grows up in this hierarchy in the city, he's kind of royalty in this city, his father's this powerful judge and he's expected to assume that place that his father has set aside for him, but he wants to be his own man so what does he do? he becomes a cop, he's never supposed to be a cop, he's not really good at it. He has this one moment where he acts too eagerly, too full of ambition to become the hero cop, what does he do? He makes this mistake. I think he regrets it, the guy has a child, and Avery has a child, and you start thinking well, it's not fair. It's guilt, it's a toxic shame that takes over him and he feels corrupted inside and he can't deal with himself anymore, so what does he do? He deals with the corruption all around him instead of the corruption inside of him. I think it's a very human thing, it's part of the human condition if you've ever killed somebody. [pause] Which I haven't. But my research shows.
AMM: This was your second time working with Ryan Gosling, He's obviously a huge draw, he's very popular right now. You de-pretty-fied him in this film, with the tattoos and the bleached hair. Took him out of his element, was he involved in the creation of this character?
DC: He is the guy. He becomes the guy. He called me up one day about six months before we started shooting, and he said "Hey D, let's do the most tattoos in movie history." I was like, "You wanna put tattoos on in this movie, huh?" And he says, "Yeah, I want a face tattoo." And I said, "C'mon man, a face tattoo? That's really extreme."
AMM: "I'm trying to sell a movie here!"
DC: No, it's just a lot to walk around with a face tattoo, and he said "No, face tattoos are the coolest, and this one's gonna be a dagger and it's gonna be dripping blood." And I said "Okay if I was your parent right now, I'd tell you don't get a tattoo, you're gonna regret it, but you're a big boy, you're the guy, if you want a tattoo, get a tattoo." Ao he got a tattoo for it. So we're shooting the movie, first day of production and he comes up to me during lunch and he says "Hey D, can I talk to you for a second?" And then he said, "I think I went too far with the tattoo," and I said "Well, that's what happens when you get a tattoo, you regret it, and now you have to live with it. You're not taking it off, it's on you, every time you walk into a scene, it's gonna be the first thing people see and it's with you, you're marked." He was ashamed of it, and that shame played into his character, so when he's holding the baby for the first time, he's a marked man, he's tarnished, he's tainted, he's stained, and here's this baby that's clean and he doesn't feel good enough to hold it.
You know the scene when he walks into the baptism? He was never supposed to cry in that scene, Ryan walked in and there was Eva [Mendes] and the baby, and the whole City of Schenectady dressed nicely, and here comes Ryan, walking in with ripped t-shirt, just covered in tattoos and he sits down in a corner, and we're shooting him, I noticed he was just trembling, just absolutely ashamed, in fear, regretful, and he started crying. I wanted to stop the cameras and give the guy a hug, but you couldn't and that's what I'm looking for when I'm making my films, I'm looking for when the acting stops and when the behavior begins. When actors make decisions like that... I"m so thankful that Ryan went as far as he did, cause it created who that guy was.
AMM: The title is intriguing, a very mysterious "Twin Peaks"-y title, it's the indian name for the city of Schenectady, but I didn't know that going in. I kept looking for the literal place beyond the pines, and there's a few pivotal moments where events happen, life altering events are begun deep in the forest.
DC: I feel very close to that feeling of dread in my life, a lot of times I'm a very big worrier, if I didn't have filmmaking to take my imagination away, my life would be a wreak. The place beyond the pines is imaginary. Yes, it is about Schenectady, but to me, it's the place where [certain characters] get to at the end of the movie.
AMM: Do you see writing and directing as a way of working out issues in your own life?
DC: Yes. [Long pause, smile.]
AMM: [laughs] Good answer!
DC: [smiles] There's no elaboration on that.
AMM: You came from a strong documentary background, did that come into play with this film? With "Blue Velvet" it's a little easier to see…
DC: "Blue Valentine."
AMM: "Blue Valentine!" Sorry!
DC: When an actor does the script, I'm disappointed. I wanna be surprised, I want to find life. I want to capture life in living, breathing moments, so we never go in and do the script. I never say action, I never say cut, the actors do all the research, for instance, documentary background will go into place when Ryan walks in with all these tattoos, we've set up this whole situation, now he walks up, everyone in the church is either looking at him or ignoring him and he's sitting in the back corner of the church and he's trapped and he's on camera and all he wants to do is run away but he has to stay there and that process of filmmaking creates that. There's another moment where there's like a four page dialogue scene after they rob their first bank, and Ben and Ryan are counting money, and the lines were something like, Ben says, "Well it's not a million dollars yet, but if we do it a few more times it will be." So we're setting up to shoot that shot, and Ryan played "Dancing in the Dark" on the radio, just to get the mood going, and we got this beautiful moment with Ben with his shirt off, and Ryan with the dog, and cigarette smoke, and Bruce Springsteen, and I never thought Bruce Springsteen would be in the movie, and then all of a sudden, we did four hours of the rest of the dialogue, but that moment was the thing that felt alive. I'm always looking for life.
AMM: Directing puts you in close contact with your own limitations as an artist, did you find that to be true in making this film?
DC: My film professors always told me that as an artist, you must risk failure. I've tried to do that my whole life, tried to push to the point where I will fail. In making documentaries many years ago, I interviewed Danica Patrick, and I asked her "How do you drive so fast?" and she said "Well, ever since I was a little girl, I'd always know how fast I could go, I'd always drive as fast as I could, and I'd always push it a couple notches forward. I'd get to the point where I was really in danger of crashing, and that's how I could continue to go fast." So, to me, as a filmmaker, "Pines" played right above the speed I could go and I pushed up to that speed, that's how you evolve. Especially about this film that's about Darwinism, it's about evolution, it's about growth, personal growth. I had to do that.