Cop and Robber: Derek Cianfrance on The Place Beyond the Pines

New American drama The Place Beyond the Pines reunites director Derek Cianfrance with his Blue Valentine lead Ryan Gosling. Cianfrance speaks to The Skinny about this epic tale of fate and fatherhood

Feature by Tom Seymour | 04 Apr 2013

Derek Cianfrance, the 39-year-old director of The Place Beyond the Pines, has the word ‘amigo’ tattooed across the knuckles of his right hand. They were inked a decade ago, after a long day filming; he was in a parking lot in Brooklyn messing around with a malfunctioning camera when a Latino homeless man stumbled up to him asking for help. “Hey amigo,” the vagrant said, before revealing a streaming wound under his shirt. Cianfrance stuck his hand in his pocket and handed the guy some spare change, before turning back to his work. Moments later, he realised what he’d done and turned to offer real help, but the man had already gone.

It’s a fitting anecdote for a storyteller prepossessed by dramas of fate and legacy; how the most random moments can become freighted with meaning, writing themselves into lore.

“I wanted to make a movie about choices that have actions that have consequences. I wanted to make a film in which the audience has to live with the aftermath of these choices, as my characters do,” Cianfrance explains.

If Blue Valentine was a film about the struggle of husband and wife, then his follow-up is the struggle of fathers and sons. The Place Beyond the Pines came on Cianfrance, who released his first feature Brother Tied at the age of 23, when his wife fell pregnant with his second son, Cody, in 2007. “When you hold something so clean in your hands, it makes you realise how dirty you are,” the director says of first holding his son.

Pines is, as such, a generational film: about what we bestow to those we create, about what our own creators give us to carry, about what we owe and what we inherit. “The relationships you share in your family are the most intimate relationships you will ever have," says Cianfrance. "Families have truths they hide from the rest of the world. Cinema is voyeuristic. It allows you to peer through a window at things you aren’t supposed to see. Seeing those secrets up there on the screen; they’re the kind of films I want to make.”

It’s a fascination that goes back a long way: “I stopped smiling for pictures when I was a kid,” he reveals. “And all I wanted to do was take pictures of people having arguments. I can remember going to Disneyland just after my parents bought me my first camera. My dad’s car got a flat in the middle of the Arizona desert. He was so stressed out, changing this tyre with traffic zipping past him at 70 miles an hour, and I got out of the car and started shooting him with my video camera. It made him so angry, but I thought the scene looked great.”

In Blue Valentine, the “deeply, deeply personal” film starring Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling as star-crossed lovers, Cianfrance tessellated the joyous, chaotic genesis of a marriage with a tragic, guilt-ridden break-up six years down the line. Twelve years in the making and independent in every way, Blue Valentine was both stately, sincere and stirring, a film that felt immediately iconic, as if it belonged in a different, more rarefied era.

Where would – where could – Cianfrance go from there? The answer, it seems, is to mine further into himself. “I wrote Blue Valentine when I was 24,” Cianfrance says. “By the time I was able to make it, I didn’t want to make it  I wanted to make Pines. Pines is more pertinent, more of a reflection of where and who I am now.”

Separated into three distinct acts, the film is set in Schenectady, an outer town in New York State. Gosling plays Luke Glanton, a drifter  maybe an outlaw – who makes a living riding a motorbike at furious speed around a spherical ‘globe of death’ for a traveling carnival. Watching the show is Eva Mendes’ Romina, a local waitress he seduced when last in town. He left without a word, and she moved on – and in – with someone else. But, without Luke’s knowledge, Romina bore him a son.

The discovery of this infant child ignites a dormant paternalism in Gosling’s Luke, who jacks-in the carnival to move in with Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), a kind and generous body-part dealer, always cradling a drink and with destitution in his stare. Long ago, we learn, Robin robbed banks and Luke – with his “unique skill-set” – could do the same. Suddenly on offer is a magic bullet; Luke can be the provider, the uniter, for a family he didn’t know he had.

And so, without meaning to, enters Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), an honest, lonely police officer who chases Luke after a disastrous robbery. As Avery must try and plot his way through a police force riddled with corruption, he finds his life becoming evermore intertwined with Luke’s.

“I’d like to have Ryan Gosling in my life all the time, because he makes it a better place” – Derek Cianfrance

“I’ve wanted to make a triptych film for 20 years, ever since I watched Abel Gance's film Napoléon from 1927,” Cianfrance says. “It’s made me raise the bar in terms of the way I shoot movies.”

Steve McQueen’s cinematographer and former war photographer Sean Bobbitt was brought on to add his sensory, tangible shooting style to the production, while many of the film’s action sequences are shot in single takes using handheld cameras: “They were inspired by America’s Wildest Police Chases,” he says. The bank robbery sequences were choreographed by a man who had spent nine years in prison for holding up his local branch: “Bank robberies in movies are always so perfect,” Cianfrance says. “What he impressed on me again and again is how horribly messy a real bank robbery is.”

Cianfrance is, it seems, a team-builder, a leader by consensus, rather than a man intent on impressing his singular vision onto the world. “My two least favourite words as a director are action and cut,” he says. “My films are made by total collaboration, a democracy of ideas. It’s a full-on relationship, and it can take years.” Michelle Williams first got the script for Blue Valentine when she was 21, and didn’t start shooting the film until she was 29. In the months leading up to the production, Gosling and Williams rented a home together on a blue collar budget, living together as husband and wife. More than once, Gosling was forced to sleep on the sofa.

Similar methods were used on Pines. Bradley Cooper lived with his on-screen wife Rose Byrne, while Eva Mendes and Mahershala Ali (who plays Kofi, the other man in Mendes' character Romina’s life) were sent out on dates at the bowling alley. Cianfrance wants his actors to read and then junk the script, to build relationships off-screen and then, on the day of the shoot, interpret the characters through instinct.

But Cianfrance’s success cannot be judged without mention of his prime collaborator – a certain Ryan Gosling. Cianfrance is one of two directors Gosling has worked with on a second occasion (along with Nicolas Winding Refn, the director of Drive and the forthcoming Only God Forgives). In Blue Valentine, Gosling even began to resemble his mentor, cutting his hair into a short widow’s peak and growing a beard. “I’d like to have Ryan in my life all the time, because he makes it a better place,” Cianfrance says. “He’s a magic person and a magic actor. I wrote this for Ryan about two years before we shot Blue Valentine. When I asked him if he wanted to play a bank robber, all he asked was to ride a motorbike. I was more than happy to collaborate on that.”

The Place Beyond the Pines is released in the UK 12 Apr by StudioCanal