Director Derek Cianfrance doesn’t quite have a mainstream following yet, but this budding talent’s debut film Blue Valentine instantly solidified his “indie-cred” among more die-hard film fans. The raw, emotional performances he was able to draw out of Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams put a spotlight on his spectacular craftsmanship, and his gritty delivery promoted uniqueness and individuality in a way that got Blue Valentine lovers extremely excited for his next feature, The Place Beyond The Pines.
Reuniting Cianfrance with his estranged twin Ryan Gosling (seriously, you could barely tell the two apart standing next to one another, I mean except for one being Ryan Gosling), the director once again has scored another stylistically beautiful drama which has a hearty amount of material for audiences to sink their teeth into. I personally loved the flick, and was lucky enough to sit down with Derek for a roundtable interview while he was promoting The Place Beyond The Pines in New York City. Read on to hear Derek talk about filming with such a wonderful cast, his initial thoughts on casting Bradley Cooper, and where such a story even originated from.
Upon Derek entering the room, someone had to jest “You really do look like Ryan!” to start things off:
Derek Cianfrance: Well, he has more muscles and I have less hair. [Laughs]
Getting serious, we first asked Derek what it was like collaborating with Ryan on two successful films:
Derek Cianfrance: Well, I’ll tell you this. In 2007 I was at Ryan’s agent’s house having dinner and preparing Blue Valentine, and I asked him “You’ve done so much in your life, what haven’t you done. What have you always wanted to do?” He says “Well I’ve always wanted to rob a bank, but I’ve always been too scared of jail.” So of course I said “Well that’s funny, I’ve been writing a movie about a bank robber called The Place Beyond The Pines. Have you given any thought to how you would do it?” He said “Well, I have. I would do it on a motorcycle because I could go in with my helmet and no one would know who I was, then I’d leave on the motorcycle because they’re fast and agile, and then I’d have a cube truck parked about four blocks away and I’d drive into the back of the cube truck. Cops would be looking for a motorcycle, not a truck.” I said “That’s crazy, that’s exactly what we’ve written into the script.”
It was one of those times I realized we were destined to make movies together, so I told him “Well I’ll make your dreams come true, and you won’t even have to go to jail, except for a day when we’re shooting it.” So yeah, we have complimentary ideas, we both want to do crazy things.
We then asked Derek about the themes of his new film, one of them being destiny, but also the idea that another strong theme is that of atonement:
Derek Cianfrance: The movie is ultimately not about vengeance, it’s a story of forgiveness. As a father who has children, I’m trying to take responsibility with the stories and images I put out into the world. My kids cannot watch this movie now, but someday they will be able to and I’ll be proud to show them.
Another writer pointed out one of Derek’s many strengths by complimenting how he can blend visual patterns on different objects so seamlessly and asked how he does this so well:
Derek Cianfrance: I close my eyes while I’m not making films and I try to see the films to just know them, memorize them, and see them so many times before the audience ever sees them, but then at the same time I’m also a collaborator going into the process working with other people. I’m not a painter, I don’t have all the best ideas. I consider myself more like a football coach, both my crew and actors are my players, and my job is to bring out the best in everyone while not having them think about ego but about the movie. The movie is our God, and we put everything into that.
For instance, [Luke's] tattoos. I didn’t write tattoos, Ryan called me a few moths before shooting and said “Hey [Derek], how about using the most tattoos in movie history?” I was like “You want a lot of tattoos, huh?” He said “Yeah, and I want to get a face tattoo.” All I could say was “Really, a face tattoo? That’s permanent.” He goes “No, it’s going to be a dagger that’s dripping blood, it’s going to be cool.” I said “Look, if I was your parent I’d say don’t get a face tattoo, but look, you’re the guy, you have to live this guy, so be whoever you want. I can’t tell you how to live.”
So he shows up and he’s got this face tattoo and he told me “Hey [Derek], I think I went too far with the face tattoo.” So I said “Well that’s what happens when you get a face tattoo, now you’re stuck with it, you’ve got to live with it,” but that has a real effect. Now this choice that Luke probably thought was cool, he can’t even live with.
There’s a scene with a baptism, 500 people from Schenectady all dressed in their Sunday finest, they’re going to be in a movie, in a church. What do you wear to church? Nice clothes.
Here’s how I work. I put the camera in the back of the church, and I tell Ryan to come in and find a place to sit. I don’t tell him were to go, he has to find a place to sit. He walks in, sees this world of everyone looking so nice, and he’s literally a marked man. He has no place to go. So where does he go? To the corner, and we just simply pan with him, one take. Then it’s “OK, let’s move our camera over there now and get our close-up.”
I’m shooting our close-up, and I notice he starts trembling. This isn’t in the script, his trembling. As his friend I want to stop the camera and give him a hug, but I’m interested in when acting stops and behavior beings. It’s like a collision between the actor and the character, they become one after a while. Ryan broke down on camera, right there, and I’m always trying to capture those moments.
Then we asked about his casting of Eva Mendes as the struggling mother Romina:
Derek Cianfrance: I was having trouble casting Romina, and Ryan suggested I take a look at her, and I just said “Oh yeah, why didn’t I think of that?” I’ve always liked her from Training Day through The Other Guys, she’s just been great, so I met with her. She came wearing a pair of 90s highway jeans and a big baggy T-shirt, her hair was a mess, she had these big hoop earrings, and no makeup – evidently trying to be as unattractive as possible while still failing miserably. It meant so much that she was putting herself in that vulnerable place though, I said she didn’t have to read for me that day and she could just take me for a ride and show me where she grew up.
She took me on this journey through her past for like two hours and I got to know about her as a woman, really falling in love with her as a human being, and I cast her right there on the spot. That isn’t to say she wasn’t nervous, she had fear about the role, but I relate to that. I don’t relate to a fearless actor. I don’t relate to those signs on people’s cars that say No Fear. I’m scared, like all the time, and I think the mark of courage is to be scared but confront it.
Anytime an actor I meet has a trepidation about something, that’s the one.
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We asked if doing a film like The Place Beyond The Pines was a little scary:
Derek Cianfrance: Yes, because of the action scenes, and in terms of structure, a lot of people had suggested that I inter-cut the film. I love parallel editing, I did it with Blue Valentine, and even go back to D.W. Griffith or Star Wars – it’s a great tool of filmmaking. But to me the bravest choice we can make in this film is to keep it chronological because it’s a film about legacy. Making it very personal, it was about that fire I was passing on to my child.
I’m also dealing with violence which I’ve never really dealt with before in a movie. It made me almost sick to put a gun in the film because I just don’t like them in movies. I’m sick of them in movies. Talking about responsibility with my own kid, I can’t even watch a football game without turning off the channel, you know? I don’t know when violence became so cinematic. Violence is just so cool today, and if I have to see another slow-motion bullet come out and hit someone in the head while their brains splatter out – to me it just isn’t beautiful, it’s not cool.
“But you treat it differently, violence is violence…”
Derek Cianfrance: Yes, and it’s narrative, it’s story, so as the audience you have to experience it. There’s a point in the movie, I think that first hand-off, where I love being part of the audience in that moment because it’s transcendent, there’s a period of a certain emotion. There’s no sanctity of a flashback.
Going back to the church scene where Ryan breaks down, we asked Derek how he got Ryan to evoke so much emotion:
Derek Cianfrance: It was not expect, it just happened because of all of his choices, all the of the shame and regret he felt I think. Walking into this place and not being able to fit in? He realizes he can’t be a part of the world, he’s always going to be an outsider. When he sat down and they were saying the “Our Father” while baptizing his kid, it just overwhelmed him.
I remember the same thing happened on Blue Valentine. There was a scene where he had to bury his dog, and I showed up to the set that morning to find a hole dug by the production team. I was like “What is going on?” They just answered “Well that’s your hole.” I said “No, he has to dig the hole,” and someone on my production team said “Derek, there’s a lot of roots out there, it’s going to take him a long time to dig that hole,” and I was like “Well that’s fine.” I set the camera in the back and started filming Ryan digging this hole, it took him like 2 hours, and the crew was thinking I was ruining my movie.
Ryan did this, buried the dog, put the dirt over, and he walked back to the house, but you could see how physically exhausted he was, his muscles were just dead. So he walked back into the house, grabbed a beer, we started shooting, he started drinking his beer at the table, but then he started to just break down and cry.
As he told it, his mind knew that he wasn’t burying his dog, but his body didn’t. His body actually did the thing, it was a physical action, and his body tricked his mind. This is why I like physicality in my actors, and getting to that moment where acting stops and behavior begins.
Then we asked about the casting of Bradley Cooper and how Derek got him involved:
Derek Cianfrance: I had no idea who was going to play Avery, I was auditioning a number of actors, and they said “You have a meeting with Bradley Cooper.” I’m thinking to myself “Wait, the guy from The Hangover? I don’t think he’s going to be in the movie, but I’ll meet with him anyway.” I didn’t think he was an “actor,” you know what I mean?
Then I met with him, and I was immediately struck by Bradley. I’d say the image I had of Bradley when I first saw him was a pot of boiling water with a lid on it. When I met him as a man, I felt like there was a storm raging inside him, something conflicted he was wresting with, and I related to it. Immediately I had a kinship with him. I even went back and re-wrote this character based on my mis-perception of who he was as a person and I thought I could make this character who could be paraded around as a hero, as “The Sexiest Man Alive,” but inside he was corrupted. Inside there was this toxic feeling. I thought that he could do that.
So I re-wrote the script specifically for him and gave it to him, and he was very nervous about it. In fact, he said he wouldn’t do it. I had to drive up five hours to Montreal where he was shooting The Words and had a four hour dinner with him from 12:00AM to 4:00AM. For three hours and forty-five minutes of that, he wasn’t doing the movie.Previous Next
“So what convinced him?”
Derek Cianfrance: I told him I wasn’t making the movie without him. I told him he was born to play this part. And no, I wouldn’t have done the movie without him.
We then asked what he re-wrote about the character after meeting Bradley:
Derek Cianfrance: It just got deeper. When I met Bradley, all of a sudden I related to this thing in him no one can see because you’re successful, you’re on the cover of People Magazine, but to me when I go and see movies, I see this proliferation of perfection on screen. Often times it’s perfect looking people, game show looking teeth, they’re so damn charming, they know how to say everything perfectly, they know what they want, and there’s always a nice resolution at the end. Often times I’m so lonely at the end of movies, I wonder “Where do I fit in?” I don’t see the world in black and white, I see it in grey.
I felt like Bradley was the perfect example of someone only being used for perfection, for one thing, almost as a shell. When I met him as a man, he was not, he was a human being like me, and I wanted to make him a human being on-screen, and I’m always trying to fill my movies with conflicted people. There are always people that are trying to avoid their destiny, or their legacy, but by avoiding it, the inevitably just crash into it.
Apparently Derek will be appearing in his wife Shannon Plumb’s movie Towheads when it’s released, which he briefly talked about:
Derek Cianfrance: You actually won’t see me, because she chose to never show my face in the movie, even though I said “Don’t you want to sell some tickets?!” [Laughs] It’s just my voice, or my pants, or I’m out of focus, maybe even behind a cereal box or something?
We then asked what Derek has coming up next:
Derek Cianfrance: I wrote a series for HBO called Muscle, based on this guy Sam Fussell’s autobiography. I’m waiting for it to be greenlit. I feel like I’m a ship in HBO’s port right now, and there’s like 200 ships there all waiting, but I’m waiting for them to give me a budget.
Cinematically I’m writing a number of things. I actually wrote a script with my wife about child birth I’m working on, I have a few others, and I’m actually reading a bunch, but it’s hard for me to find something. Out of the three scripts I read last week, in two of them the woman was a prostitute, and there’s always these rape scenes I keep reading. Yeah, they’re offering me money on these movies, but not for $5 million will I rape someone on the screen, or even for any amount. Even if it works for the story. I’m not into putting those images into the world.
Finishing up, we mentioned a scene Eva Mendes mentioned being cut where she gives young Dane DeHaan some tough love, and we asked why Derek decided to cut it:
Derek Cianfrance: My shooting script was 158 pages, and Sidney Kimmel Entertainment said if I got it down to 120, I could have the money to make the movie. So I found the shrink font button, and extended the margins, and no one ever caught on, they just said “Good job!” Then I was six months into editing and I had a three and a half hour movie on my hands, and I was trying to find the shrink font button in the editing room, but I couldn’t. I did come up with an equation where if I took one frame out for every twenty four frames, I could have a twenty three frame a second movie, but it only took out seven and a half minutes and it looked weird, so I had to make other cuts.
To me writing is like dreaming, shooting is like living, and editing is like murder. You have all these great gifts you’re given from actors, and all these performances, but you have to cut things out. I’ve even had to cut my Mom out of a movie once, it’s ruthless, I hate it. She still speaks to me, but I have friends who don’t.
You’ll see most of the cut stuff on the DVD though. There’s scenes with Ryan and Ben where they’re coming up with how much they’re going to share, what’s their cut going to be, and I told Ryan “Don’t go below 90/10″ and I told Ben “Don’t go above 50/50,” so we have take after take of them saying “90/10, no 50/50,” and it’s rather hilarious. It just goes on an on. In the movie it just doesn’t fit though.
Editing is so crucial because it’s sculpture, you take away things and it reveals a shape. That moment with Eva slapping her son, even though you don’t see that, when you get to the hospital it’s already taken care of, it’s in their performance. I’m very into the intangibles of filmmaking, all these things find their way in there in some way.
I’d like to thank Derek for taking the time for this interview, and be sure to catch The Place Beyond The Pines when it opens March 29th!Previous