A sense of Place

Derek Cianfrance on The Place Beyond The Pines

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Derek Cianfrance on the set of The Place Beyond The Pines with Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper
Derek Cianfrance on the set of The Place Beyond The Pines with Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper

Derek Cianfrance, the director of The Place Beyond The Pines, explores tattoos with Ryan Gosling, takes a drive with Eva Mendes, and finds Bradley Cooper to be the right man before Silver Linings Playbook.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Your images are fascinating. You reach an equality of patterns that I haven't seen before. The tattoos blend into the baby onesies with the cars and trucks on them, to the church windows and into the roots of the trees. Those are painterly, rather than logical ties. How did you come to those evocative pictures?

Derek Cianfrance: You know, I always just close my eyes while I'm not making films. I try to see the films. Get to know them, memorise them so many times before the audience ever sees them. I'm also into the process of working with other people. I'm not a painter. I don't have all the best ideas. I consider myself to be more like a football coach. My actors are my players and my cinematographer [Sean Bobbitt]. My job is to bring out the best in everyone, and to get everyone thinking not about ego but about the movie. The movie is our god.

Ryan Gosling as Luke in Derek Cianfrance's The Place Beyond The Pines
Ryan Gosling as Luke in Derek Cianfrance's The Place Beyond The Pines

For instance, the tattoos. I didn't write tattoos. Ryan called me a few months before we started shooting and said "Hey D, how about the most tattoos in movie history?" I said, you want a lot of tattoos, huh? And he said "yeah, I want to get a face tattoo." Didn't he tell you this story?

AKT: He did. He said he changed his mind and talked about the shame (read more about that interview with Ryan Gosling here).

DC: That's right. I said, really? Face tattoo, that's permanent. He said, "No, but it's going to be a dagger and dripping blood. It's going to be cool. I said, you're the guy, do whatever you want. I can't tell you how to live. So he shows up and he has this face tattoo and we're shooting and he said, "Hey, D, I think I went too far." And I told him, that's what happens when you get a face tattoo, now you're stuck with it. Now you gotta live with it. And then all of a sudden, that has a real effect. There's the scene of the baptism. 500 people show up from Schenectady, all dressed in their Sunday finest. They're going to be in a movie at a church. What do you wear to church? Nice clothes. Eva Mendes is up there with the baby. The baby's name, by the way, is Anthony Pizza, Jr., Tony Pizza is his father.

AKT: Ryan mentioned that.

DC: Ryan's taking all my stand-up comedy. Anyway. This is how I work. I put the camera in the back of the church and I tell Ryan to come and find a place to sit. I don't tell him where to go. He walks in, sees this world of everyone looking so nice and he is literally a marked man. He had no place to go. So he goes to the corner and we simply pan with him. One take. Then, shooting him in close-up, I notice he starts trembling. This isn't in the script. I just wanted to give him a hug. I'm interested when acting stops and behaviour begins. It's like the collision of an actor and the character. And Ryan broke down on camera. I'm always trying to capture those moments, you know.

Eva Mendes told me in my interview about her audition: "I said to him (Cianfrance), we were in Los Angeles, he's from New York,- "Look, I can go in this room and read this material for you but I don't think that's really what you're looking for. I think you should get in my car and we'll take a drive and we'll drive around the neighborhoods which I grew up in in Los Angeles."

I'm interested in where acting stops and behaviour begins - Derek Cianfrance <em>Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze</em>
I'm interested in where acting stops and behaviour begins - Derek Cianfrance Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

DC: Ryan had suggested that I look at her [Mendes]… She showed up to an audition. She was wearing, like, a pair of 1990s high-waist jeans. She had a big baggy T-shirt on. Her hair was a mess, hoop earrings, and no makeup. She was evidently trying to be as unattractive as possible. And she was failing miserably. She was doing a bad job of it. But it meant so much to me that she was putting herself in that vulnerable place, I said, hey, you don't have to read for me today. Just take me for a ride, show me where you grew up, your neighborhood. So she took me on this journey through her past for like two hours, and I got to know about her as a woman, really fall in love with her as a human being. And I cast her right there on the spot. That isn't to say - she definitely was 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. All the time. The mark of courage is to be scared and confront it. So, anytime I meet an actor who has trepidation about something, to me, that's the one.

The Place Beyond the Pines, tells stories of fatherhood with a fine-tuned generosity, as haunted men cycle through patterns spinning out of control.

DC: The movie is ultimately not about vengeance. It's a story of forgiveness. As a filmmaker, as a father who has children, I'm trying to take responsibility with the stories and the images and the things I put out into the world. My kids cannot watch this movie now, but some day they will be able to, and I'll be proud to show it to them.

He catches more paternal instincts and filial rebellion: More fathers, more sons, corruption and the realisation that "a limp goes a long way in politics."

DC: I love parallel editing. I did it with Blue Valentine, go back to D W Griffith, through Star Wars. It's a great tool of filmmaking. For me, the bravest choice in this film, was to keep it chronological, because it's a film about legacy. To make it personal, it's about that fire I was passing on to my child. Also, I'm dealing with violence in this movie, which I haven't really dealt with before in a movie. It made me almost sick to put a gun in the film because I don't like them in movies. I'm sick of them in movies. Talking about responsibility towards my own kids, it's like I can't even watch a football game with my kids without turning off the channel… Nowadays, violence is just so cool, and if I have to see another slow-motion bullet coming, and hit someone in the head, and have their brains go… To me it's not beautiful or cool.

Cianfrance, who explored romantic love in Blue Valentine, unearthed Ryan Gosling's hidden talents through improvisations.

DC: Maybe Ryan is just a very sensitive man. There was a scene where he had to bury his dog. I got up to the set that morning and there was a hole dug by my production team. I said, what is going on? There's the stuffed dog in a blue tarp. I said no, he's got to dig the hole. I set the camera in the back and told Ryan to start dig that hole. It took him like two hours. The crew was like "you're ruining your movie, Derek." Ryan buried the dog, put the dirt over and he walked back to the house and I could see how physically exhausted he was. His muscles were just dead. He walked into the house, sat down, and got a beer out of the fridge and we kept shooting and he started drinking his beer at the table and then he just broke down and started to cry. And as he told it, his mind knew that he wasn't burying his dog, but his body didn't. And his body tricked his mind.

Bradley Cooper portrays police officer Avery Cross, a rookie from a wealthy family. He chews gum to calm his nerves.

Bradley Cooper in The Place Beyond The Pines
Bradley Cooper in The Place Beyond The Pines

DC: I had no idea who was going to play this guy [Avery Cross]. That was before Silver Linings Playbook. I met with him [Cooper] and I was immediately struck with Bradley. The image I had of him was a pot of boiling water with a lid on it. When I met him as a man, I felt a storm raging inside of him. Something he was wrestling with and I related to it. Immediately I had a kinship with him. I went back and re-wrote this character based on my misperception of who he was as a person. 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 shame and I thought that he could do that...Oftentimes I'm so lonely at the end of movies. I feel like, where do I fit in? Where are the people that I know? I don't see the world in black and white, I see it in gray. I felt that Bradley was the perfect example of someone that had only been used for that perfection. Every character in the movie is trying to avoid something. It's like Oedipus.

AKT: Next week, we can see you as an actor in your wife's (Shannon Plumb) film Towheads.

DC: You are going to go see it?

AKT: Yes, at the New Directors/New Films press screening.

DC: Yes, Towheads. You actually won't see [much of] me, because she chose to shoot to never show my face in the movie. I kept saying, Don't you want to sell some tickets?

AKT: So it's just your voice?

DC: It's just my voice, or, like, my pants or I'm out of focus, I'm behind a cereal box.

AKT: Your hand tattoo, maybe? [It says Amigo]

After his role in Towheads as Matt, with his two sons, Cody and Walker, Cianfrance is looking towards the future.

DC: I'm writing a script with my wife about childbirth. I'm reading scripts, but it's hard for me to find something. I read three scripts last week and in two of them the woman was a prostitute. There's always these rape scenes, that I keep reading. They offer me money on these movies. But, you know, not for five million dollars, not for any amount of money, will I rape someone on the screen. I am not into cinematic rape. I am not into putting these kinds of images into the world.

To me, writing is like dreaming, shooting is like living, and editing is like murder.

The Place Beyond The Pines is on limited release in the US from March 29 and in UK cinemas on April 12. Towheads is showing at New Directors/New Films in New York on March 27 and 30.

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