The Place Beyond the Pines is a sprawling film from co-writer/director Derek Cianfrance about the connections between fathers and their sons, with drastic life decisions rippling through generations. The ambitious movie stars Ryan Gosling as circus performer-turned-bank robber, Bradley Cooper as a man of justice, Eva Mendes as a disturbed mother, Ray Liotta as a corrupt cop, and Dane DeHaan as the ultimate product of all of these characters’ decisions.
Cianfrance previously directed Gosling in Blue Valentine, the 2010 aching relationship drama starring Gosling and Michelle Williams. For her performance in the film, Williams was nominated for an Oscar.
I sat down with Cianfrance to discuss his film, why shooting is living but editing is death, how his failed first film was a blessing, his uncanny facial resemblance to Gosling, and more.
The Place Beyond the Pines opens in Chicago on April 5.
Something striking about your films is the concept of maturity within your characters, especially in this story with the three male leads. That being said, while you may only be three films deep into a directorial filmography, do you consider yourself a young director?
I don’t know. Orson Welles set this bar for all filmmakers that you have to do something by when you’re 26. I had that ambition when I was a kid, and I started making my first feature when I was 20. Took me four years to make it. When it was all done, it was this very megalomaniac egotistical film made with just a ton of hubris. It was about control of the medium. The film didn’t do anything, and I got set out on the bench for twelve years. The cinematic desert, until I got to make Blue Valentine. I’m very thankful I had that time. If that film had been a success, the films I’d be making now would be much different. I think they would be more about my control, and less about characters that I’m making films about. I felt like it was a curse when it was happening, but it turned out to be a blessing. By the time I made my second film, I was 35. Now I’m 39. I feel like I’m entering my middle age as a man, but as a filmmaker I feel fresh in that I have finally am able to have my voice. And my goal as a filmmaker also is, I didn’t have too much success in my 20s because it was that whole, “Better to burn out than fade away” thing, but my ambition as a filmmaker is longevity. I’m looking to have my best film be my last film. And I’m trying to take steps to ensure that will happen. I look at Elem Klimov who shot Come and See when I think he was in his 70s. There’s no finer movie made than that movie. That’s what I look to.
Currently in your life you are learning about fatherhood, but also discussing that element heavily in your films. If you could guess, what do you think you’ll want to express with your films decades down the line?
Look, I appreciate filmmakers like John Cassavetes. I feel like his films marked where he was as a man. From Shadows with freewheeling jazzy people to A Woman Under the Influence with family, to Opening Night being about professionals, to The Killing of a Chinese Bookie a solitary entertainment nightmare movie. I want my films to reflect, hopefully they’ll reflect, where I am. That’s all I’ve tried to do. Hopefully when I am 70 and 80 years old, I am making films about people that age.
Your first film, ‘Brother Tied,’ is not available anywhere. In 2011 you said you were struggling with getting the rights for songs on the film’s soundtrack. What’s the status with the distribution of that film?
Some day it will hopefully come out, Depending how this movie does and if I can make another movie. It just depends on the success of these movies I’m making now. I am working as hard as I can. There are three things I’m trying to be good at in life: I’m trying to be a good husband, I’m trying to be a good father, and I’m trying to be a good filmmaker. So hopefully if I continue to try to be a good filmmaker I will be a good filmmaker, and eventually Brother Tied will rise like the phoenix out of the ashes, and embarrass me.
Your film has a gripping opening shot in which Gosling’s character takes us into what circuses call the “Globe of Death,” in which three daredevil motorcyclists speed around each other in a sphere cage. Initially your cinematographer Sean Bobbitt wanted to be in the middle of the globe to capture this shot, but he kept getting knocked down. Where was your cinematographer in the Globe of Death during these shots?
He was in the center. The motorcycles don’t hit the actual center, they go around. He stood in there, without a camera, and the motorcycles would go around him. That’s one of tricks that the Globe of Death guys will do, they’ll put a hot chick in the middle of the globe, and they’ll each put lotion on their hands, and cover the chick in lotion as they go around. So Bobbitt decided he wanted to be like that girl in the cage. But then when he had the camera, that adds size to the situation, and it just got too tight in there. but he’s a very stubborn man with a stubborn vision, and I am so thankful for it. That’s one of the things I’m most proud of with this film, I admire his photography so much. And when he said he wanted to go to the center of the cage, I told him I didn’t agree with it, but he insisted, but I let him do it.
Looking for trends in both of your released films, I’ve noticed that in both Ryan Gosling is in dangerous situations. In ‘Blue Valentine,’ he climbs to the other side of a fence on top of a tall bridge, and in ‘Pines’ he is seen speeding through traffic on a motorbike in some very tense scenes. What is your interest in danger?
I like making films that feel dangerous. I feel that as a filmmaker if I’m feeling nervous on set, then in the audience you’ll feel nervous. When he climbed the fence in Blue Valentine, I watch it now and it still makes me crazy. And when I was watching Pines and he gets on his motorcycles and robs a bank in one take, gets on his motorcycle, blows through traffic and avoids 36 cars, it took us 22 takes to get that, and for each one I thought that was going to be it. But at the same time I am very aware of stuntmen like Vic Morrow, rest in peace. I am aware that on a movie set you can do crazy things because you are trying to make something great, but I want everyone to be okay. But it just takes a lot of training. Some of the stunts in the film Ryan didn’t do. He can’t crash a motorcycle at 70 MPH. But still the stunt guy had to do that twice, which is a lot to ask someone to do. And even with the physical stunts, there’s a lot of emotional turmoil that these actors have to go through in this movie, there’s a lot of onscreen vulnerability that is also dangerous for them in a different way. The whole movie is nail-biting for me as a filmmaker, because I have these people that I love going to these places that are dangerous, but that’s what I love as an audience member.
When it comes to danger, why did you specifically choose this specific livelihood for Gosling’s character?
We wanted his job to be death defying. My original idea for this film many, many years ago was a western, and then we modernized it. Instead of horses there are motorcycles now. I felt like this guy who was always putting himself to death, what kind of man is that then? What kind of man is he outside of the cage? What is he like without the adrenaline? Can he be normal? What was his past life like? Why is he doing this? Where is his self loathing that would put himself in this place all the time? How he gets attention for getting close to death all of the time. And then also my co-writer showed me the Globe of Death, and I was like, “Yeah, I want to see that in a movie.” I have seen seven guys in a Globe of Death at a time. I think there have been three recorded deaths inside the Globe.
Looking back at ‘Blue Valentine,’ I noticed that the film also presents quandaries similar to those in ‘Pines,’ when generally good people caught up in bad situations. What interest do you have in expressing such a theme?
I am not interested in the black and white. I don’t think that there are heroes. I have never met a real hero or a real villain in my life. I have met a lot of people who are conflicted, and live in this gray area. So the characters I am trying to put on the screen are people that have definitely made choices. I am not interested in telling stories of victims, but I am interested in telling stories of people that make choices by themselves in certain situations, and then see how they deal with those situations. Michelle’s character in Blue Valentine, she made a choice. She had unprotected sex. I’m not trying to preach … but I believe there are consequences for actions. Gosling in this movie chooses a life of crime for good intentions, I think there is a consequence to that. Bradley Cooper’s character, having this toxic secret, this corruption he creates inside and never telling it, creates a consequence. His choice to not come clean and suffer whatever punishment he would for his mistake, by holding that and trying to avoid punishment, he gets punished anyway.
I am interested in this idea of Greek tragedy, avoidance; trying to avoid your destiny. If you try to avoid your fate you end up crashing into it. And it happened to my wife one time. I had been reading once that there had been a string of robberies in my neighborhood, and people were getting their computer stolen on the subway. So my wife went into the city one night with my computer, and I said, “Take a cab home. Here’s twenty bucks.” She said, “No, I’ll just take a subway.” I said, “Just take a fucking cab.” She takes a cab home, the cab driver gets squirrely around the Manhattan Bridge, decides he doesn’t want to go Brooklyn, she has to get another cab, and she walked into the house without the computer. She left it in the first cab. If she would have just taken the subway home she would have been fine. If I hadn’t been so scared or paranoid about what would happen to her, I would still have my computer. I lost my memories, and all my pictures.
Did you tell Ray Liotta you were a big fan of ‘Goodfellas’, or did you prefer to keep your fandom for the film quiet?
I told him when I first met him that Goodfellas was the seminal movie of my adolescence. When co-writer Ben Coccio and I first sat down at The Donut Pub, we agreed to three things. We’d tell a triptych movie in a linear fashion, we’d set it in Schenectady, NY where Ben and my wife are from, and we agreed that we’d write a role for Ray Liotta. So five years later I am sitting in a room and my dream came true. Ray Liotta is a national treasure. I think someday they will be carving his face into the mountaintops.
With Gosling having worked with you on two important films in his career, what do you think he will take from your directorial guidance to his debut ‘How To Catch A Monster’?
I am not sure. I am so excited for him to make his own movie. He is a magic person, he makes people around him better. He has always made me a better filmmaker. I have learned a lot from him as a director. I have no doubt that when he works on his own movie, it will be great.
I have to ask, considering that you two share similar eyes and voices, how often are you confused for Gosling?
My producers were working on Half Nelson, and they said, “You’ve got to meet Ryan, he’s like your brother from another mother.” So I met him. As the years are going on, Ryan is getting more muscles, and I am losing more hair.
I’ve read that you hate editing, which is confusing to me in many ways. For one, you’ve made a film that is almost 150 minutes long.
You talk about the 10,000 hours to be a master, I’ve clocked in at least two to three times that in the editing room. The thing that I always say is, writing is like dreaming, shooting is like living, and editing is like murder. In the editing room, you’re taking all of these moments of life, and you’ve got to get rid of them. You’ve got to leave them. Leave people, or entire performances on the floor. I have friends that I’ve cast in movies; my mom I cut out of my first movie. It’s ruthless. I don’t like that. But I also understand the importance of editing. It doesn’t mean I particularly like it, but it’s important. You can’t watch 400 hours. Editing is sculpture. The more you take away, the more you reveal the shape of what you’re making. The only thing that makes it for me at all manageable is that I work with two of my very good friends, who edit with me. That’s where we hang out. But it’s painful.
Is there a chance we will see a director’s cut of ‘The Place Beyond the Pines’ when it is released to DVD?
This is the directors cut. I am ruthless with my stuff. My first rough cut was three and a half hours long. The original shooting script was 158 pages. My financiers said, if you can get it down to 120, you can do it. So I found the shrink font button, and extended the margins. But then I found myself six months later with a three and a half hour long movie and I realized, there was no shrink font button. I came up with this mathematic equation that if I took out one frame for every 24 frames in a second I’d have 23 frames per second, and that would take 7 1/2 minutes out of the movie. But that wasn’t a lot of time and it looked weird. And once I started taking stuff away, the movie became more clear. It was too much of a jumble beforehand. Editing is important; death is important. You can’t live without dying. I know it’s part of the deal.
Quick Questions with Derek Cianfrance
What did you have for breakfast this morning?
Granola, yogurt, a smoothie, and a coffee. You can’t eat fried eggs everyday. I’m trying to maintain some sense of healthy living.
Favorite pop song growing up?
“Tainted Love” by Soft Cell.
Favorite ice cream flavor?
Chocolate. Maybe Rocky Road. It depends, there are so many different flavors now. With this movie, I thought of this movie as a little bit of Neapolitan ice cream. But which story is which? That’s the question. I’m not gonna tell you what I thought.
Age of first kiss?
I don’t remember. I was in love with a girl in high school, and for three years I was in love with her. I think that would be the only important kiss, and that was when I was 17.