Derek Cianfrance is easily one of the most talented up-and-coming directors. After directing a feature film during his time at the University of Colorado, Cianfrance began a career making documentaries, which took place from the early 2000s to 2008. This background in documentaries transitioned him into his first major directorial debut, Blue Valentine, in 2010. Critically acclaimed and financially successful (making $12 million opposite a $1 million budget), Cianfrance took his experience in documentary filmmaking and provided audiences with an unbelievably realistic adaptation of a marriage gone awry, made all the powerful by strong performances from Ryan Gosling and Michele Williams. The Place Beyond the Pines, his next directorial venture, follows a stunt motorcyclist as he starts to rob banks to support a child he didn’t know he had and crosses paths with a police officer (recent Oscar-nominee Bradley Cooper) who will alter the future forever.
I recently attended a press screening of The Place Beyond the Pines and while we all knew that Cianfrance was going to be in person answering questions, he surprised everyone in the theater by bringing star Bradley Cooper as well. The interview below features questions from the screening audience about Cianfrance and Cooper’s processes during the film and the message behind it:
RR: This film seems to focus a lot on family and leaving a legacy. What was your inspiration behind writing a film with that subject?
DC: When I was little, I never liked to smile for pictures because I felt there was always something so false about it. So I would always try to take pictures of people fighting in my family. I have early pictures of my brother in tears with my mom yelling at him with curlers in her hair, pictures of my dad after popping a tire on the highway during are trip to Disneyland, etc. Something I’ve always been interested in is the truth inside of a family, the intimacy and secrets inside of a family. I feel like the movie theater is a place where you sit in a dark room and see these secrets play out on screen. As a writer I just try to write anything that’s very personal to me: my fears, vulnerabilities, hopes and dreams.
When I met Bradley the first time, again this was before Silver Linings, I honestly didn’t think he was going to be in this movie; I didn’t really know what kind of actor he was of what kind of person he was. But when I first met him, there was some kinship I felt with him immediately and something inside him storming. It wasn’t until I met him that I realized the depth he has. He was a guy playing with people’s expectations and I wanted to do that with this character. He’s a guy being paraded around as a hero, but inside he feels corrupted. He feels this toxic shame inside but he’s still a good man and trying to clean up what’s toxic around the city. But that mistake, or moment, inside of him never goes away, and once I met Bradley I rewrote the movie for him and then wouldn’t let him go.
RR: What was it like filming in Schenectady on a humble budget?
DC: My wife and co-writer are both from Schenectady and we really couldn’t have done it without the town. We were shooting in active police stations, Bradley was spending a lot of time with real cops, and a bunch of them were not only consultants but also in the movie. They were our mark of authenticity and were leading us. With Blue Valentine it’s all about love with two people under a microscope, but with this movie it’s so much bigger and epic. It’s really about this American town so we needed these people to come on board and guide us in the truth, which is why there are real judges on the stand. You know, my background is in documentaries, so I like taking my actors and placing them into situations and then letting them sink or swim inside those situations. I’m always looking for the surprises.
RR: So you spent time working with the cops?
BC: Oh yea, we all did. They really opened up their arms to us and took us through the whole thing; even had us take the police exam. So I am actually a cop. And I knew what that was what it was going to be like, and that was partially why I signed up for it because I read all of these stories about Blue Valentine and how Derek like to work, and I was nothing but thrilled when all of those tales were true. For example, the way he shoots a scene he really like to do everything from the beginning instead of just picking up from the middle of a scene because his though process is ‘Well, you can’t do it from the middle because maybe something changed in your line leading up to that. So I want to go back to that beginning.’ So the scene when I talked to Gabe at the baseball field started when I pulled up the car across the field and he waited until I walked across the entire field until I got to Gabe. I mean no one does that. And when we would go into her house and all that stuff; after a while you become spoiled because it is just so thrilling for an actor because he makes it seem so real. They cooked food and we ate that dinner at that table, and that was really fantastic.
RR: I know with Blue Valentine, there was a lot of work put into Ryan and Michelle’s relationship like having them live together for a while. What work did you put into the behind the scenes to really flesh out the characters? Did you do anything similar to Blue Valentine or was it a completely different approach?
DC: Yea, I don’t really know any way to cheat process. How you build into something it how it’s going to come out. I feel a little bit of an aversion to scripts; I wrote 37 drafts of this script but when I was on set hearing it I was always a bit disappointed. But yea Bradley and Rose spent time in that house together and went out on little picnics to develop a bond, but they also spent time apart. Bradley probably spent more time with the cops then he spent with Rose, and she spent time with cops’ wives and quickly found out that the divorce rate in Schenectady is pretty high among cops because of the pressures. So all of a sudden we would have these scenes where Bradley’s character was unavailable for the home life, and most of that came from the research done. One thing I always tell actors is that I want to be surprised and I want them to fail. To me those are the two greatest gifts an actor can give me because first off I feel like an audience member. Before I was even making documentaries, I was watching movies and when I’m watching movies I like to be surprised, so if I’m on set and something surprising happens I know that it’ll translate here [to the theater]. Secondly I want them to fail. I was interviewing Danica Patrick a few years back when making documentaries and I asked her “How do you get so fast?” And she said, “Well, my whole life I always knew how fast I could drive and I would always drive to that limit, and then go a couple of miles an hour faster. And I’d go to the point where it would be dangerous and I could crash and sometimes I did crash. But by bumping up against my boundaries, I would go forward and get better.” So I’m asking my actors to fall on their face and embarrass themselves for me, because I feel like if they can do that they can succeed greatly.
BC: And it worked to; it really made us feel comfortable. He used to call it the first pancake: “Bradley just make the first pancake.”
DC: You know about the first pancake, it’s like usually the pan is not hot enough and a lot of times you have to throw it out, but sometimes it great though.
RR: Kudos for the ice cream scene, it really made me think back to the first time my dad brought me to get ice cream.
DC: Can I just say something real quick? I was really excited to get this baby to eat the ice cream. Have you ever seen a baby eat ice cream for the first time? So when casting this baby, his name by the way is Anthony Pizza Jr., we asked if he had ever had ice cream and they said no. And when we got him on set it was clear that he had a lot of ice cream before, it wasn’t like a new experience for him.
RR: You said you write your films from things you are afraid of, and I was wondering what was your biggest fear depicted in this film?
DC: The biggest fear I depicted in this film is passing on sins and having next generations repeat your mistakes. It’s an evolutionary cycle that stuck and to me this movie is Darwinistic. I was reading a lot of Jack London books at the time while I was writing it and thinking about that calling back of ancestors. I was thinking a lot about America, everything that’s happened in this country, and kind of the tribes now in America; especially in a small city where you’re born into one tribe where you have no choice where you are born and then what happens when two tribes collide. That was my fear: something bad that never goes away that you are born into, and I really wanted my kids to be free of that.
RR: This movie has a lot of heavy material. How do you go to set everyday knowing you’ve written and have to shoot such content?
DC: This movie was really heavy duty to make. I had written a 150 page script and the financier told me they would green light it if I could get that down to 120 pages. I really couldn’t find out how to do that so I found the shrink font and enlarge margins buttons and no one knew. But I’ll tell you what happens is you can’t escape that because I was in the editing room six months later with a 3 and a half hour movie on my hands and there’s no shrink font button there. So I decided if I took one frame out from each scene the movie could run at 23fps, but that only cut the time down by 7 minutes, and it looked weird. So I was like nonstop pain making this movie and going into painful places. But to me, talking about fear, being scared of things, Bradley playing this guy so not like him, and Eva and Ryan were scared of their roles, everyone was petrified of this movie when it ended. But personally I don’t relate to people who have no fear. When I see those bumper stickers of the X Games and people doing really crazy stunts I don’t relate to that at all. I’m terrified, but I think the meaning of courage is when you face something you are truly terrified by. So that was our whole MO on this movie: go to the difficult place.
RR:I don’t think many of us expected what this movie really was. Could you talk about the marketing and intentionally skewing people’s expectations?
DC: Honestly, when I make a movie I really don’t think about that, what I’m thinking about is how to tell the story I want to tell. So here I’m telling a story about legacy but as a father I’m sick of seeing guns. I’m a Denver Broncos fan and I have to turn off the TV when I’m with my kids because the commercials are so violent. So if I were to put a gun in one of my movies I really wanted it to have a meaning behind it. If I have to see some slow-motion bullet come out of a gun, go through someone skull and spray his or her brains out onto the wall, I’m going to throw up. To me it’s not beautiful and I don’t really like fetishizing violence. I don’t see the romance or beauty behind it. So I wanted to make a movie that was violent but was about the events that led up to a violent act and the choices made, then there’s this violent act and the audience has to live with it in a narrative way. For me that was the more responsible thing to put out into the world. My kids they can’t watch my movies now so they’re always asking me why I can’t make a movie they can see. But someday they will be able to see them and I’ll be proud to show them. This movie is about consequence and I think there are real consequences for things.
RR: I wanted to talk about the last scene with you and Jason. Viewers get such an emotional response and I was wondering how you can put yourself in that place where you have to worry about your own son and your life but also Jason’s?
BC: You just have to make it real for yourself so you’re not acting. The great thing about Derek is how open he is to exploring stuff. We shot that and then came back the next day and then were honest with each other in the trailer we were sitting in and said, “I don’t think we got it.” So we went back and shot it again. But yea it’s all about making it real and personal. You make it something specific so you’re not acting it, you’re experiencing it and hoping it’s going to help tell the story. That’s what’s thrilling about acting; you can do real things and then it helps a story being told, and that’s all Derek cares about. But also in terms of humor. The great thing about this movie and Derek is that even how dark it is we laughed a lot. Specifically in that scene there were tons of mosquitos and you can see a mosquito sucking blood out of my face in real time; there’s a whole other short movie going on in that scene called “The Mosquito.” And were just like, “These god damn mosquitos,” and that was just a whole hilarious thing that was going on because that was the environment and is what would take place at that moment. So that was pretty interesting.
DC: And you’re not going to be slapping a mosquito off your face in that moment.
RR: One of my favorite aspects of this film was how authentic all of the environments felt, especially the opening through the carnival. I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about the logistics of that and shooting with real people and activities going on all around.
DC: Yea you know I spent 12 years making documentaries between my student feature and Blue Valentine, and it was a training experience for me in really listening. I think there’s an image of the director as the Cecil B. Demille director with the megaphone who’s pointing, and when I was making documentaries that just wasn’t true. That megaphone was turned to my ear and was a way to funnel in the world. So I started really sharpening myself in really being able to listen to things and being able to be in real situations. So when I started getting on set with Blue Valentine and this, I just wanted it to be true. I want it to be in real things.
The biggest challenge for a scene like that was to get people not to look at the camera. And then the second biggest challenge was trying to talk my DP into not going into the center of that cage at the end of the shot, but he kept saying to me, “We must go to the center.” And I said, “That’s crazy because there’s going to be motorcycles going around you”. But he kept saying, “We must go to the center,” so I said, “Ok but just wear a helmet and some armor.” So he had on body armor like RoboCop and did this shot beautifully and got it in the center of that cage. And while I was watching it on my monitor all of a sudden my monitor went static and I heard a gasp from the crown, looked up and he was on the bottom of a pile of three motorcycles. We pulled him off and he said he was ok; he wasn’t ok he was very mad at himself for messing up the shot. And I said, “Well look at the bright side at least you are still here.” He was a war photographer, by the way, which is why I hired him to do it. So I said, “Well just stay outside of the cage this shot,” and he said, “No, we must go to the center.” So I told him he had one more time in the center and the second time he actually improved the shot, and I was sitting behind the bleachers and at the same exact moment my monitor went static again and I heard a gasp from the crowd again. I guess this time a motorcycle stalled mid-air and fell right on top of him, and he was kinda knocked out so we had to cancel the shoot that day because he had to go to bed. But then at 3AM there were calls from security at the Holiday Inn about a man in a bathrobe asking for the tomatoes. That man got taken to the emergency room; he had a concussion, and came back the next day to shoot the scene again. He’s still mad at me for not letting him in the cage and still won’t return my phone calls.
The Place Beyond The Pines hits theaters tomorrow in limited release
Article by Nick Franco