When filmmaker Derek Cianfrance settles on a story he wants to tell, he has an enviable tenacity to see it through no matter how long it takes.
It took Cianfrance a dozen years to get his breakthrough film “Blue Valentine” made, but when it finally hit screens the blistering portrait of the slow, sad dissolution of a once loving marriage earned raves and gathered accolades, including an Oscar nomination for leading lady Michelle Williams.
His latest effort “The Place Beyond the Pines,” which reteams Cianfrance with his other “Blue Valentine” star Ryan Gosling, alongside Bradley Cooper and Eva Mendes, the journey to the screen took about half the time. The result is an equally distinctive film, a triptych of interlocking tales focusing on the father-son dynamic and the painful legacy that lives of crime and deeply guarded secrets can unleash.
The writer-director delves into the inspiration that sparked his latest journey, the unique collaborative bond he shares with Gosling, and the powers of persuasion it took to give Cooper the confidence to take on a role unlike any he’d played before.
It’s nice to hear that this film was not quite the Herculean task to get made that your last film was.
Yeah, ‘Blue Valentine’ was 12 years. This was six. ‘Blue Valentine’ with 66 drafts and this was 37. I’m cutting it in half. I’m getting faster.
But you still put in a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. How did you come up with the concept and keep your passion high to see it through to fruition.
Twenty years ago I saw ‘Napoleon’ by Abel Gance when I was in film school, and I was blown away by the whole movie, but especially the ending of the movie, which ends in this triptych of three screens going on at one time. I’d always wanted to do that. And also at the same time I’d seen ‘Psycho’ for the first time, and I’d always known that there was a shower scene in ‘Psycho’ I just never knew you had to spend 45 minutes with Janet [Leigh] before she went in the shower. And that baton passed to Tony [Perkins], just blew me away.
So I had this structure of this baton-pass and this form of this triptych bouncing around my head for 20 years. And then in 2007 – this was a couple of years before I made ‘Blue Valentine’ – my wife was pregnant with our second son, and I was thinking a lot about legacy. I was thinking about everything that I was born with and everything I was going to pass on to my child. And I was just really wanting him to come into the world clean, and not have any of my stain or any of my marks or any of my bad decisions or any of my sins. Look, I grew up Catholic so I have a lot of guilt. And all of a sudden this idea of this torch passing between generations meshed with that structure and that form that I wanted to do, so I quickly came up with this idea of this movie about legacy.
How did the story evolve from that initial inspiration?
I had initially conceived it as a Western. Then I met with my co-writer, Ben Coccio, and he suggested that we change the horses to motorcycles and modernize it and I thought that was great. Eventually it became this story about American legacy and American tribalism. I was thinking a lot about small towns, small places like Schenectady [New York] where you’re born into a certain world it’s really hard to break out of that place. You have no choice where you’re born into.
I was thinking about how these two walks of life, these two tribes in America, how they could collide and just what the echo would be of that collision. It reminded me a lot of America itself, just being this place that’s founded on a lot of ruthlessness and brutality, but nowadays we live very domesticated. But I don’t think our history is ever gone. That will always be here. That’s what the movie is really about, dealing with a legacy, a legacy of brutality.
This is your second film with Ryan Gosling, and I think people are already wondering you’re going to be a Scorsese/DeNiro-style combo going forward. Do the two of you see yourself as continually returning to collaborate, and what is it that is simpatico about your working relationship?
I hope so. Ryan [Gosling] is an absolutely magic individual and working with him has been one of the great gifts of my life. I’ll give you an example of the destiny of our relationship. I was at his agent’s house in 2007 – we were having dinner and we were preparing ‘Blue Valentine,’ and I had been working on ‘The Place Beyond the Pines’ with my co-writer Ben Coccio for about six months. Anyway, I asked Ryan at dinner one night I said, ‘Man, you’ve done so much in your young life, what haven’t you done? What haven’t you accomplished that you’ve always wanted to do?’
And he said, ‘Well I’ve always wanted to rob a bank but I’ve always been too scared of jail,’ and I said, ‘Wow, that’s funny, I’m writing a movie about a bank robber. Have you given it any thought? How would you rob a bank?’ And he said, ‘Well, I thought I would do it on a motorcycle because I could go in and wear a helmet that would disguise my identity, and then I’d leave on a motorcycle because they are fast and agile and can get out of tight spots. And then I would have a cube truck parked about four blocks away, and I’d ride my motorcycle into the back of the cube truck and then drive off. The cops would be looking for a motorcycle and not a cube truck.’ And I said, ‘That’s crazy! That’s exactly what we’ve written into the script!’ It was destiny. I told him, ‘Hey, I’ll make your dreams come true and you won’t have to go to jail for real.’ But that’s how it’s always been with us. I feel very fortunate to have met him and to have had the relationship I’ve had with him.
You also get to bring in people you haven’t worked with. Here you have Bradley Cooper, who’s as respected, honored and popular as Ryan but, I’d imagine, a very different type of actor.
The discovery of working with Bradley was really initially the discovery of meeting Bradley. I knew that Luke was going to be Ryan for five or six years – it was always him. I had no idea who was going to play Avery – we were writing this character just blind. And I was meeting with a ton of actors, great actors, and I had a meeting set up with Bradley Cooper. This was before ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ and I was like, ‘Who? That guy from “The Hangover”?’ ‘Yeah, he’s actually a really good actor.’ And I was like, ‘Okay, I’ll meet with him.’ But I didn’t think much would come from it. The moment I met Bradley, if I had a visual of what he looked like, it was a pot of boiling water with the lid on it. There was something enraged inside of him. There was something unsettled inside of him. But on the outside it was perfection. ‘People’s Sexiest Man,’ but on the inside he was wrestling with something, and I felt a kinship with him on that on that level.
I talked to him. I just really felt a brotherhood with him immediately and so I went back and re-wrote the script specifically for him. I wanted the audience to have the same experience that I had basically which is, could I create this character who on the outside was paraded as a hero but on the inside he felt corrupted? He felt this toxic shame, and I thought I could change the audience’s perception of this guy who was that guy that they thought he was. So I wrote it and I gave it to Bradley – and I have to say I think he was a little nervous about it. I think it scared him a little bit. In fact, he told me about five weeks away from shooting that he didn’t think he could do it anymore. And I said, ‘Where are you right now?’ And he said, ‘I’m in Montreal shooting ‘The Words.’ I said, ‘Well, okay, I’m in Brooklyn. It takes me about five hours to drive to Montreal.’ I said, ‘So I’ll see you at 11 o’clock tonight.’
So I drove up to Montreal, and I had this meeting with him that took place from midnight to 4 a.m. in the morning. And for three hours and forty-five minutes of the meeting he was out. And I think I must have just tired him out or something, he just wanted to go to bed you know? I told him I wouldn’t make the movie without him, that he was the only person that would do this movie. Basically, we just talked about the character, and once he understood the guy then he jumped on board. And then I think he really shined in the movie in way that I don’t think we’ve seen him before.
You mentioned that you initially envisioned this as a Western, and I think people hear your name and associate you now with these very real, contemporary-type stories but do you really want to fool around in other genres and tackle all kinds of storytelling: Westerns, superhero, sci-fi?
Absolutely, here’s my feeling: I’m trying to make classics. That’s my ambition. I want to make classic movies. I want to make movies that people can watch for a long time. It doesn’t matter what genre. Ultimately I want to tell honest stories in whatever form they take. I will say that I got offered a script the other day and I was reading it. And on page 20, the girl gets drugged and she gets raped and she gets her throat slit. This script has a very large paycheck attached to it for whoever is going to direct it. My feeling is, not for all the money in the world would I ever drug, rape, and kill a woman on screen.
My kids are nine and five, they’re always asking me, ‘Dad, why don’t you make a movie we can see? Why don’t you make a kids’ movie?’ The thing is, my kids can’t watch my movies now but someday I’ll be proud for them to see my movies. If I made that movie where this woman got raped and killed, I would never let them see it. So my real barometer for the films I’m going to make are films that I can show my children. Films that have responsibility, because I’m a human being on this earth so that’s my first responsibility.