After years in the cinematic coal mine cutting his teeth on commercials and documentaries, Derek Cianfrance eventually turned heads with his 2010 fictional feature film debut, Blue Valentine, a scorching romantic drama starring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams.
Along with Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Ray Liotta and others, Cianfrance’s follow-up The Place Beyond the Pines (now playing in cinemas; read my review here) also stars Gosling. The film is a deeply compelling melodrama about fatherhood, responsibility and reverberating consequences — but it’s also got bank robberies, shoot-outs, car chases and, yes, Cianfrance’s sexy star without a shirt on.
Part of the thrill of production, Cianfrance tells me over the phone from LA, were the surprises along the way. To help tap into his character’s personality Gosling arrived on the set covered in tattoos, one conspicuously located below his left eye. He immediately suggested to Cianfrance he’d gone too far and wanted it removed, but the director insisted the tatt remain. The shoot began.
“Every day he walked around the set regretting it. I told him that is what this movie is about: it’s about consequence. It’s about making big choices and living with them,” Cianfrance says, citing one church-set scene in which the tattoo unexpectedly led Gosling to a moment of unscripted emotional impact.
“I noticed he was trembling and I noticed there was a great wave of mortification on his face. Of embarrassment and shame. As his friend, I wanted to shut off the camera, give him a hug, give him a wet napkin or something and wipe the tattoo off his face and say ‘hey it’s just pretend.'”
Blue Valentine is boldly non-linear, hurtling the viewer back and forth between time frames, from scenes of sweetness to scenes of rage and despair. The Place Beyond the Pines is bold for precisely the opposite reason. Telling the story “straight” was a daring decision due to the film’s disconnected structure, which spans many years and characters. Cianfrance was determined not crosscut the plot, Blue Valentine style.
“So many of my favourite filmmakers have done crosscut storytelling. I love it. It’s a great tool,” he says. “But for this movie I wanted it to be a film about legacy and about lineage, and I felt like the greatest choice we could make was to keep it chronological.
“To me it was exciting because one of the problems I have with movies is that I feel so many of them – especially Hollywood movies – have a safety net…I wanted to make a film that really wasn’t safe and I felt that as an audience member that would be thrilling to me.”
We spoke about inspirations, years spent as a skinflint out of work artist, directing some of the biggest names in the business and much more.
The lead characters in The Place Beyond the Pines are either fathers or sons. It feels like a deeply personal film but at the same time it’s a sprawling story, setting over numerous years, that doesn’t really have a protagonist. What elements of your personal life influenced the form and content of the film?
In 2007 my wife was pregnant with our second son and I started thinking a lot about legacy. I was reading a lot of Jack London books at the time: White Fang, Call of the Wild, etcetera. I was thinking a lot about my own ancestry. I was thinking a lot about this fire I have always felt inside of me, which I felt had been very helpful to me as an artist but very detrimental to me in my personal life. I was thinking about the fire in my family and was seeing it in my father, seeing it in my grandfather, and here was my wife – she was going to have this little baby, this pure little being brought into the world.
All I could think of was that I didn’t want him to have that fire. I didn’t want this baby to be tarnished or tainted with any of my sins and all of a sudden the movie popped into my head. I knew exactly what the movie was, and all of a sudden it had form and structure. I spent about five years writing it with a couple of different writers until we really found it. It’s overflowing with ideas. I had final cut of this film locked at 140 minutes, and I got it one frame under 140 minutes, because there is so much in it. It was almost bigger than one film. But at the same time I felt like it was one. On their own the separate pieces don’t work.
Without spoiling the film for those who haven’t seen it, The Place Beyond the Pines has a challenging structure that emphasises the progression of a story above everything else. Even though you have a big cast – Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes etcetera — were financiers ever vocally concerned about how the structure might or might not work with audiences?
No, they financed it on that. But there was a number of financiers that had said no for the same reason. My feeling always is: I was an audience member long before I was a filmmaker. When I make films all I am trying to do is make what I want to see as an audience member, because I don’t think I am that different to everyone else. I don’t think my taste is that unique. To me it was exciting because one of the problems I have with movies is that I feel so many of them – especially Hollywood movies – have a safety net. This built-in safety net.
How could you watch a movie like Iron Man 3 – I haven’t seen it yet – or, say, Pirates of the Caribbean, and ever think there is any danger in it? I get no thrills from that because I know it is so safe. I wanted to make a film that really wasn’t safe and I felt that as an audience member that would be thrilling to me. I felt it would be thrilling for other people to watch and to absolutely see something they were unaccustomed to. There was one suggestion people had for Pines, which they thought was a solution. They would say: why don’t you inter-cut the movie? Why don’t you put the story in a blender? I had done that with Blue Valentine. So many of my favourite filmmakers have done crosscut storytelling. I love it. It’s a great tool. But for this movie I wanted it to be a film about legacy and about lineage, and I felt like the greatest choice we could make was to keep it chronological.
Understandably, Pines has been marketed as a Ryan Gosling movie. Do you think there is a danger in people coming, expecting a certain kind of movie then discovering it is much more of an ensemble?
I don’t think so, because the ensemble is so great. I have some of the greatest actors on the planet working on this film. That’s not to take anything away from Ryan, because he’s absolute magic and there is nobody in the world like him. One of my favourite filmmakers is George A. Romero, maker of the great zombie movies. Why he’s such an inspiration to me is you can watch his films just as straight zombie movies but they are also very subversive. They’re about race relations, American consumerism culture, the America war machine. They have deeper layers, deeper levels. So on one level, on a very surface level, The Place Beyond the Pines is just a crime thriller and it has all the elements of those crime genres.
The Place Beyond the Pines is a melodrama spotted with moments of violence. They’re rare. They are very high impact but carefully deployed. What is your attitude to depicting violent moments on screen?
I kind of have an allergy towards modern film violence. I feel like violence is often handled so irresponsibly, because it’s more about how beautiful it can be. It seems really fetishised. I wanted the violence in my film to be narrative. I wanted the film to be all about this adrenaline and these choices that lead up to a violent moment. Then when a violent moment happens, it happens very quickly and there is no coming back from it. There is no sanctity of a flashback. A gun all of a sudden has a real impact; it has a real weight.
To me, as a father, I feel like one of my responsibilities is to put images out in the world that my kids can see some day. My kids are always asking me “dad, why can’t you make movies we can see? Why don’t you make a kids movie?” I can’t show them my movies yet but some day I will be able to show them, because I feel like Pines especially is taking that kind of violence in a responsible way. We’re not just shooting ten thousand bullets over the audience’s head with no consequence.
I read in a recent interview that Ryan Gosling, in preparation for the role, wanted to get as many face tattoos as possible and on the first day of shooting regretted getting one. A very prominent one, with a dagger upside and a drop of blood. Apparently you told him that that’s what happens: people regret face tattoos. But you insisted on going ahead anyway. Is that story true?
Yeah, he said “I don’t know. I think we should take it off. I went too far.” I said “that’s what happens when you get a face tattoo. People regret it. And now you have to regret it for the whole movie.” It turned something he thought was going to be cool for the character into something that filled him with shame. Every day he walked around the set regretting it. I told him that is what this movie is about: it’s about consequence. It’s about making big choices and living with them.
I’ll give you an example of how it affected him. There’s a scene, a baptism scene I’d written where Luke, Ryan Gosling, walks into a church, sits down in the middle of the pews and watches his baby getting baptised by another man up on the pulpit. He was supposed to walk in and sit down and kind of rage and boil with anger about this other man holding his son.
I set up the scene. I brought 500 people from the town of Schenectady there. They were all dressed in their Sunday finest. You have Eva Mendes and Mahershala Ali holding their baby, doing their ritual ceremony. I put the camera in the back of the church and I told Ryan to come in and find himself a place to sit. So he walks in the church and he’s immediately a marked man. He cannot hide. He cannot go sit with everyone else because he made these choices as an actor, and now as a character those choices were screaming. So where would that person go? Well, Ryan walked to the corner of the church and sat away from everyone. He couldn’t go sit with everyone the way he looked. I panned the camera and followed him then moved in for a close-up and as I was shooting him in the close-up – and this is the moment he was supposed to be boiling with rage – I noticed he wasn’t boiling with rage. I noticed he was trembling and I noticed there was a great wave of mortification on his face. Of embarrassment and shame. As his friend, I wanted to shut off the camera, give him a hug, give him a wet napkin or something and wipe the tattoo off his face and say “hey it’s just pretend.” But my process allows actors to behave, and it allows us to kind of break down performances and witness behaviour. To me that’s one of the best moments in the film.
Pines is visually understated but also quite stylised. For example, when you have a shot of Ray Liotta, who’s peering into a cop car, you only show a sliver of his face, whereas most directors would instinctively choose to show his whole face. You’ve got another scene where a character tries on sunglasses that are particularly special but you don’t show a front shot of the glasses. It feels like you deliberately avoided visual clichés. Are you being visually intuitive or are you consciously avoiding conventional choices?
I’m trying to be surprised. As a filmmaker I spent a lot of time making documentary films while I was trying to make Blue Valentine and I got addicted to living, breathing moments. When I hire an actor I always tell them: “surprise me.” By the time we shoot I’ve spent, you know, 37 drafts. I’ve spent six years on the script. I’m so sick of myself. I’m so sick of my own ideas. I’m so sick of my own words. So I ask them to surprise me. I feel as an audience member I like to be surprised, so on set I want to be surprised. To me that is the biggest gift they can give me. The moment with the sunglasses was an unscripted moment that the great actor Ben Mendelsohn and Dane DeHaan did on the spot. There was no going through a take two. I look at a film like Midnight Cowboy, when Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight are walking down the street and the cab almost runs them over. He says “I’m walking here!” That’s an improv. We could have gone in to get a close-up of the sunglasses but then all of a sudden it becomes fabricated — not a real moment that just happened.
In terms of Ray Liotta and the half of his face, I remember watching Rosemary’s Baby. Whenever Polanski would frame people on the telephone in the other room he would cut off the front of their faces and it would make you want to peer around the corner. It really played with screen tension, of wanting to see more but being obscured. There’s an inherent tension in that. We did that with Ray. You add Ray Liotta into it, who’s a human knife, and you’re adding tension upon tension.
You’ve said that before Blue Valentine you spent 12 years in cinematic purgatory. How dispiriting was that to you? Did you consider throwing in the towel?
There was no choice to throw in the towel, because what else could I do? I tried to stay what I considered to be pure as an artist. I wrote Blue Valentine and I collected unemployment checks. I ate an avocado every day and just lived by, you know, that’s all — an avocado or two. I lived by very basic means. Then I fell in love, my wife got pregnant and I started having to put food on the table because we were buying diapers with change. Having a child made me go back to work. I started directing documentaries and I started directing commercials. I got a lot of practice. I got a lot of rough stock. I got a lot of practice working with actors and working with crews and I got a lot of hours under my belt.
In making documentaries I got to be humbled as a filmmaker, which was painful at the beginning but then became very beautiful. There’s this image of Cecil B. DeMille as the filmmaker with the megaphone who sits on a chair and shouts and everyone listens to his voice. But in documentary film, I found that megaphone was turned to my ear with a listening device. Documentary was very humbling and I got to learn about other people’s lives. I got to learn and listen to other people’s stories. I got to sharpen my skills and my instincts and my intuition as a filmmaker to be able to capture these moments that would only happen one time. Then when I came to make narrative films I had a whole new set of training. I was able to find these moments, like the sunglasses moment. Moments that were alive. I try to film my movies with those living moments. The moments that happen one time.