Exploring the Drama and Danger of ‘The Place Beyond the Pines’ With Director Derek Cianfrance


Back in 2010, we all endured the heartbreak and psychological devastation that came with the pleasure of watching Derek Cianfrance’s intimate and gritty portrayal of love chipped to the bone with Blue Valentine. And although it took Cianfrance twelve years to fully realize that picture, thankfully, we didn’t have to wait as long for his next film—the operatic and sprawling triptych, The Place Beyond the Pines. But no matter the scale, Cianfrance has a unique and anachronistic way of portraying human relationships—contrasting the very melodrama inherent in fierce emotion with a guttural sense of authentic drama. And with Pines, he exhibits a nuanced mastery for capturing the his character’s interiors—all set on a mythic scale, rife with unwavering passion and toughness.

Spanning fifteen years, The Place Beyond the Pines unfolds along three brooding story lines—the tale of a motorcycle stunt rider who begins robbing banks in a desperate attempt to prove he can provide for his child and the woman he loves, the story of an intelligent but eager rookie cop who goes after him, and how the consequences of their actions are passed down into the blood of their sons. But one of the most fascinating elements of Pines is how expansive it feels—emotionally and cinematically. By the last moments of the film, you find yourself completely satisfied, feeling as though you’ve truly engaged in the richness of a narrative and were able to be a voyeur into another lifetime.

The Place Beyond the Pines penetrates deep into the woe of its characters as they wrestle with what plagues them internally and the inability to confront and change the world around them. Dealing with themes of generational impact, how lives mysteriously intertwine, and the way one moment can effect an entire legacy, Pines is an epic journey about fathers and sons that’s kinetic and full of life yet teeming with secrets that linger in the air like ghosts. It’s a haunted drama that draws you in slowly as the story unfurls piece of piece, taking you on a ride through Cianfrance’s moody and harrowing tale.

Back in November, I got the chance to speak with Cianfrance about capturing honesty in his films, the dangers nature of shooting Pines, and working with a cast of magical actors.

So I went into seeing the film without having a trailer or posters or any induction of what this would be at all. I imagined it on a much smaller scale like Blue Valentine but it was such a massive, sweeping film. Did you envision it on such a large scale?
It slowly built over the years. I’d say the first piece of inspiration came when I saw Psycho for the first time. I remember always being aware of the shower scene and then sitting down to watch it and being absolutely blown away—in awe of the fact that I watched this movie with Janet Leigh for 45 minutes following this character before she goes into the shower, and then there’s this amazing baton pass in the narrative. I always thought of that. And then around the same time 20 years ago, I saw Napoleon and I had an idea that I wanted to do a triptych; I always wanted to do three stories simultaneously on three screens.  I had a formalist, structural idea but I didn’t have a story to tell. Those are the things that are the most rare, when a story comes to you, and so the actual movie itself didn’t come to me until about six years ago.

My wife was pregnant with our second son Cody, and I was thinking a lot about this fire that I had always felt inside of me and how it had been very helpful to me in my life—certainly to make films, but in my everyday life it had also been a destructive force. And I know that my father had this same fire and my grandfather had it and his father had it. So I was thinking about becoming a father again and I was thinking about this baby that was going to be come into the world and was going to be fresh and be clean and how I didn’t want him to have this fire; I didn’t want to pass on to him all of my pain and all of my mistakes, I wanted him to have his own choices in life. And at the same time I was reading a lot of Jack London books and thinking a lot about the calling back of ancestors and about the eternity of every moment and pretty quickly Pines just came together. That’s how it always seems to happen, it’s like you’re fishing and wanting to catch something and all of a sudden you get an idea.

So I worked for a long time on the script with Ben Coccio who grew up Synecdoche where my wife was from—we were really inspired by that town. I had been going up there for nine years to visit my wife’s family and it always felt like I was going on a locations scout up there.  Blue Valentine was shot in Scranton and I’m interested in shooting in these towns. It has a lot of soul and a lot of character and a lot of love to it but it’s also on tough economic times. Those are the places where I want to set my stories right now anyway.

And setting it in the woods, or in these places with all this rich personal history adds an element of mystery or linage, something that’s been there forever and keeps growing but is filled with secrets. I thought that made for something very interesting.
That’s what "The Place Beyond the Pines" is in the Iroquois language; it’s what Synecdoche means. There are spirits in the woods out there and the history. Yes, the secrets are all there. It’s all mythological.

Life is inherently dramatic, if not melodrama, and with your films, you’re not afraid to show that drama. But it’s a very fine line when someone is trying to portray that strong emotion realistically without going over the top. You seem to be able to navigate this real sense of drama while still being very cinematic.
Yeah, when I was growing up my mom watched Days of Our Lives all the time and I did too. I watched soap operas and they can really be riveting. I think watching Days of Our Lives made it’s way into Pines just because I soaked up so much of that. But I also love movies and I love films that don’t pander to you. I can’t stand over-sentimentalization. I’m interested in honesty—I can’t say "truth." I remember Cassavetes has a great line in The Killing of Chinese Bookie. Ben Gazzara says, "My truth is your false hood, and your false hood is my truth and vice versa." There is no real truth you can get to but you can go for honesty and emotional honesty.

Is that something you’ve come to discover over the course of your career?
I made my first student feature when I was 20 years old and went to Sundance with it and nothing happened. I sat on the bench for 12 years, you know? I couldn’t make Blue Valentine for 12 years and I just sat on the bench and thought about what kind of films I wanted to make and thought about the failings of my first film. That was a very formalist film; it was very much, look Ma, no hands!  It was very fancy and tricky and in those 12 years, in order to keep moving as a filmmaker, I started making documentaries. And in doing so, I just fell in love with people and embraced true characters, human beings. In that time, I was able to formulate a new way of seeing movies—which was to try to approach them with just an honesty and approach every one of my characters as a human being and every one of my actors as a real person, not as an actor, but the same way I would treat someone I was shooting a documentary about. So when I make films, I’m trying to make pure, human, honest, stories that get at some sort of emotional truth and respect the audience. I’m trying to challenge too. Structurally, what this film is doing, it’s definitely trying to tread new ground. I think part of the job of the filmmaker is to tell new stories in new ways and provide new images and ways of seeing things.

My favorite thing about seeing a film like this leaving the theatre and feeling like I had just fallen in love with a really great novel. It felt that large to me like, I really watched this story unfold with all the details and rhythm of a proper story.
That’s a great compliment, thank you.

And the final song of the film is something I listen to often, so as I walked home I put it on and was able to carry the film around with me and still be in that moment, in that feeling—which is kind of amazing thing to experience.
I’m the same exact way. If I watch A Woman Under the Influence—and I’ve watched it throughout my adult life probably 20 times—every time I watch it I feel like I’m going back and visiting friends and they change, characters change as I change as person. It just feels very alive. And films, they aren’t just something to enjoy, they’re something to experience. They’re something to take into your life. It’s nice to hear you say that.

And visually, the film was so rich and the cinematography really echoed this sweeping story. There was darkness but also a very mystical sense of color. And that’s something that stayed as a thread throughout the various chapters.
It was more of a classic style than Blue Valentine, that was a very regimented style where the falling in love part was all handheld, 16mm, no tripods, one lens and the present was two digital cameras, long lenses on tripods. I didn’t want the photography to be tricky; I didn’t want it to be unmotivated. Basically I wanted it to just be there with the actors, you know? I was originally going to work with Andrij Parekh my DP on Blue and about eight weeks before we were going to start shooting, he called me and said that he had had a dream the night before that he died making this film—he was scared of all the motorcycle chases. So I had to find a new DP. I’ve always been a fan of Steve McQueen’s films and so I looked up Sean Bobbitt and had a meeting with him about seven weeks before shooting. He asked me why I was getting new DP at this point and I told him that Andre thought he was going to die making this and I asked if he thought he was going to die. But he told me that he had been a war photographer for eight years, and so I knew he was the right person for it. And also just in terms of his composition, he has absolute signature in his work and is very strong. I knew he would be brave enough to go into these places and do these things we want to do.

Are you talking about the danger in the first motorcycle scene at the fair and the final chase?
The last thing I wanted to do was make an action scene. My reference points for those scenes were America’s Wildest Police Chases—it wasn’t any movie. And in order to go shoot that, it means you have to be going fast. It required us to get stunt riders who were actually going to go ride and Bradley Cooper would have to be driving the cop car behind the motorcycle and Sean had to be in the passenger side of the car shooting. It was really risky in terms of our safety but I like being in that place of danger when I’m making a film. It happened a lot on Blue and it happened more so in this. I have to say, it made it not a comfortable film to make; it was not enjoyable to make this film because it always felt like we were putting ourselves in such a dark and dangerous place all the time and there was a lot of threat to it.

But danger is the best emotional stimulant.
Yes, and the movie is sort of bathed in tension because of that. It’s been very rare in my life that I’ve shot something that was fun to shoot and I come back and watched it and it’s any good. Usually the more tense it is on set the better the footage is. So it’s a masochistic way to approach life or filmmaking but that’s just the way it’s been working out. And with Sean Bobbitt, we wanted to start off the film with a classic opening shot, an unbroken opening shot in the spirit of so many great films that start out that way—whether it be Touch of Evil or The Player—our version of that.

Can you describe shooting that opening scene?
So it starts out with Ryan in his trailer and goes through the carnival—where we had 1,000 extras—then goes into a tent where he gets on the motorcycle and goes into this globe of death. And Sean Bobbitt insisted that we need to go to the center of the globe, and I told him it dangerous because he had three motorcycles spinning around him and he says, "We must go to the center." So he put a helmet on, put all this body armor all over himself, and we did this shot and it was beautiful. We got into the tent and I hid behind the bleachers, and he’s getting these beautiful shots and the next thing I know my monitor went to static and I heard a gasp from the audience. I looked up and Sean was on the bottom of a pile of motorcycle riders, he had three motor cycles on top of him. So we pulled him out and he wasn’t hurt—he was angry, angry with himself for not getting the shot. So I said, okay just stay outside the globe for the next shot and he said, "No Derek, we must go to the center," and so he did it one more time. It was again a beautiful shot with a Texas Switch and then cage closed, and in the exact same moment my monitor went static—another gasp from the audience, and I saw another motorcycle has fallen on him. But this time he was like really shaken. We had to cancel the shoot for the rest of that day and around 3am there was a report from the desk clerk that there was a guy walking around in his underwear asking for tomatoes—it was Sean. He had suffered a concussion. So anyways, he came back and I wouldn’t allow him to get inside the center. He never forgave me for it; he still doesn’t really talk to me to this day because I wouldn’t let him get in the center. But that was the spirit of making the film and in terms of having a real warrior like Sean Bobbitt on there. I think the photography mirrors that; it’s just very solid without being tricky.

And speaking of photography, that one photograph in the film is so important. It speaks so much about the characters and how we, as humans, remember things. Photographs are our memory when memory fails us but they also immortalize a moment. And in the film this was just one moment of happiness amongst everything else and after that things change quickly but they always have that moment as the one to remember. Why did you decide to have this photograph in there?
Everything that you said. Look, you said it better than I could. That’s why. But I will say the person who took the photograph was my wife. I cast her as the ice cream lady. My wife has made about 250 films, she makes silent comedies and she just made her first feature. So she’s comedy in our house and I’m tragedy. But she took that amazing picture of them. In the film there are these baton passes that happen and when you have someone who has the screen presence that Ryan Gosling has, they have a way to exist even beyond the scenes that they’re in—but it’s also nice to see them and to miss them and to think of them. And I hate guns, I never thought that I would have a gun in a film; I feel like it’s such cowardly device and a coward’s tool—not only for human being but also for filmmakers, they’re just thrown around with such reckless abandon. If I had to put a gun in a film I wanted to make sure it had an impact, and not in a grotesque, oh how violent I could make it, but an actual impact in terms of story and characters and longing and destiny.

And the one moment with the gun in this film, that’s the crux of it; all the ramifications rely on that moment.
Yes, and the photograph is a way, to me, that we could see people that we don’t see anymore because they’re not there. Death is permanent and this was just another honest way to show that instead of flashing back—like if you lose someone or miss someone, what do you have? You have your memories and your pictures.

In the beginning of the film the music felt like this omnipresent voice over looming over every scene and by the end I realize that it was in fact the foreshadowing for this bigger story that I wasn’t aware was to come. And Mike Patton is such a cool and interesting choice; can you tell me about that?
I hate underscoring in movies, I have kind of an allergy to underscoring in movies, you know? I have an allergy to manipulations, so that’s why I like using music in a bold way. In terms of this music and this film, when I was a teenager I went to see a Mr. Bungle concert in Denver, Colorado and I saw Mike Patton singing and he had on a bondage mask with horse blinders on the side and he was licking the bald security guard’s head in the first row and at that moment he became my hero and my whole life I always worshiped him. I always thought the music that he made—whether it was with Faith No More or Bungle or Fantomas—I felt like it so cinematic. So it was childhood dream of mine to work with him, just like it was an adolescent dream of mine to work with Ray Liotta. And when I had an opportunity to do the film—I feel like if you have an opportunity to make your dreams come true, you should—I met with Mike one day. He really got the script, he was really into it and we spent a few years talking about it and when the time came to make the movie, I hired him to do the soundtrack. I wanted it to have this sense of legacy, this sense of yes something bigger—like we were talking about before with the forest and secrets and history and the ghosts of time and the ancestors. We talked a lot about making music that was about the ancestors calling back. It’s hard to speak about music because it’s not tangible. He did this thing and tried to make something that haunted the film and that’s what I always loved about his music, I always felt it was haunting so he did this great soundtrack.

And it works as a through like throughout the film, navigating it.
Exactly. In making a film with three stories, to me, I always thought the failure of this film would be if people saw it and thought it was three different movies. It’s thematically about legacy and the music was really the way to unify that. In terms of our film grammar, we just did it the same; it wasn’t like Blue Valentine where we were changing styles for two different films. So this was different characters but the same constant language.

The film also, to me, harkened back to classic 1970s epic drama that don’t really exist anymore, like The Deer Hunter. I had also been watching Serpico just before this and thought a lot about that with Bradley’s whole storyline. Were you inspired by those kinds of films?
Oh yeah, definitely. And I love Lumet. So yeah obviously Deer Hunter too. We wanted to make something that was tough and felt tough and make in that spirit. You know, besides the 1920s, the ’70s is the greatest time for movies. If I have to go watch a movie it’s usually from then—but that’s not to say the ’80s weren’t great too.

But the ’70s had this immense sense of passion and fearlessness.
But also risk, right? I studied with Phil Solomon and Stan Brakhage and that’s one thing that Phil used to always tell me, that as an artist you have to risk failure. And I felt like on Pines we were in that place of really taking chances all the time. I started realizing that courage is not about being fearless, that being courageous is actually about being scared and still being brave enough to go through and confront the thing that’s scaring you. So with Pines, we tried to always put ourselves in a place where we are walking this tight rope and we weren’t footloose and fancy free doing it—it was a lot of risk.

And one of the biggest surprises of the film was how fierce the performances where from Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen. Together they were pretty magical.
It was really, really tough to find these kids. I cast over 500 kids looking for these roles. I love films like Fish Tank where you just cast someone whose raw and untrained, put them in a film, and observe their nature, that’s great. But with Pines, because of the fact that it’s this narrative that’s passing a baton, and because you have Ryan who is a great, magical trained actor and Bradley who is so charismatic and magic, I knew I had to cast people to fill their shoes that were also great actors. It wouldn’t work then; it’s the consistency of language, the consistency of that world. So I found Dane about six weeks from shooting. I met with him and he was such a great guy and I knew I could trust him. And then I used him as my collaborator—every actor that I work with I consider co-writers and co-collaborators with me. So we teamed up and talked about the guys, and I had Dane come in and we met with a lot of different actors. When Emory Cohen came in, oh I’ll never forget this session. I said who is your favorite actor and Emory said Marlon Brando and Dane said James Dean, and they started fighting with each other for ten minutes. So I was like okay, who else, and then Emory said De Niro and Dane said Pacino and they went off on that—and I was like, done! They were obviously cut from the same cloth, they both have the taste and the ambition to be great, they both have strong opinions and they’re arguing with each other on every step of the way and if I can just harness that into the movie and allow them to be these characters but also themselves and to allow their real nature to come out the would be great. And it was such a relief to have those guys I could trust in all of those scenes. I just want the films to be living and have a real pulse to them and Dane and Emory certainly could do that.

And on Blue you had Ryan and Michelle live together and become very close before shooting. Did you work the same way on this with Bradley and Rose?
They played house together and went out on their first date and just built and developed a relationship. It’s interesting, you have a marriage where you’re meeting them and it’s already on the rocks and there’s a real distance between them. So one of the most important things I did beyond on their relationship was Bradley’s time spent with police officers and Rose’s time spent with police officer’s wives. The divorce rate among police wives is extremely high; it’s very stressful to be a cop and so for Bradley to meet cops and tell him that the first thing cops do when the get in the locker room is take off their wedding ring because they don’t want the guys on the street to use that against them, was important. And so he has to put that piece of himself away.

You said earlier that the film feels novelistic, well the first cut of the film was three and a half hours long and that was the full script. It was because I was still going for all of those honest truthful moments with my actors that all of these scenes could keep going and there was so much more with Bradley and Rose that we could have put in the film that was bigger than one movie. That’s what I talked about with Ryan and Michelle on Blue Valentine too: everything we experienced on the film—them living in the house for a month—even though we don’t show that, even though we don’t put that on screen, as long as the actors experience it, they embody that in their performance and it becomes a real intangible thing onscreen. I really strongly believe in process and if you don’t do the process, to me, I don’t have the truth of it, I don’t pull the rabbit out of my hat and make you believe that I did it. I think you can really see it as an audience member, I think you can see when they’re faking it.

And what about Ryan and Eva? Had they known each other before shooting?
They had known each other a little bit before making the movie so they were friends going into it, which was great because they had an immediate connection between each other. And to shoot with them, there were scenes where I would where there was just magic happening between them, which is such a gift for a filmmaker. Chemistry is so much on a movie. So I got Dane and Emory and their chemistry where they’re always arguing, I’ve got Bradley and Rose whose chemistry is these people who love each other but there’s a great distance between them, and then Ryan and Eva which their chemistry became this longing. And to be a filmmaker and have these real things, to be able to capture a real longing on film is amazing. Again, coming from a documentary background, that’s all I’m trying to do—to see something that’s real. And these moments, to capture these moments it’s fleeting. So of course I have great actors so it doesn’t all have to be real but I just think it’s the X factor.

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