I came across the official press kit for “The Place Beyond the Pines” and it features an in depth interview with director Derek Cianfrance. It’s definitely worth the read, but it could contain some spoilers about the plot of the movie so be aware of that before you start reading it.
Tell me in your words what The Place Beyond the Pines is all about.
It’s about legacy— what we’re born with and what we pass on. It’s about the choices we make and how those choices echo throughout generations. It is a classic tale of the sins of the father visiting the son.
I am drawn to stories about families. My first film, BROTHER TIED is about brothers. BLUE VALENTINE is about husbands and wives. And PINES is about fathers and sons. I feel that the cinema is a place where secrets are told. It’s a place where we can travel to intimate places, to homes and bedrooms, and witness private moments that reflect our own lives.
Whereas BLUE VALENTINE looked at this intimacy, this single relationship, under a microscope I wanted a larger palette and larger scope with THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES.
THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES tells three linear stories – about a motorcycle stunt rider who turns to a life of crime to support his newborn son, an ambitious rookie cop who takes on a corrupt police department rather than confront his own demons, and two troubled teenage boys who confront the mysteries of their past by battling each other. And each of these stories builds towards one conclusion.
Let’s start with Luke (Ryan Gosling’s character’s) story.
A number of years ago when Ryan and I were working on the script for Blue Valentine, we started talking about this fantasy Ryan always had of robbing a bank on a motorcycle. And I said, “You’ve gotta be kidding me because I’m writing that movie right now.” We both imagined it in the identical way. It was one of several moments where I knew we were meant to make films together.
Luke is a guy who has this dark and mysterious past. He’s seen and done everything, and had everything happen to him. He’s damaged, wounded— a person who was kind of covered, not necessarily in scars, but in these tattoos that were signs of the pain he had experienced. On the outside, he had this mythical presence—the kind of guy that 1960’s girl groups like the Shangri-La’s used to sing about. He’s a bit of a contradiction – wounded and scarred on the inside, but with a wall of armor on the outside, the muscles, the tattoos, the hair, the charisma, etc… He’s like a big cat in a small cage – abused and dangerous and utterly compelling.
So, this guy, with all this pain, finds himself performing in a traveling motorcycle show. Moving from town to town, from girl to girl, from heartache to heartache. And he comes back to this place he’d been a year earlier, Schenectady, and he finds the girl he had a fling with a year earlier, Romina, has had a baby. The moment he sees the baby, the moment the baby sees him, changes the course of his life forever. Here’s a guy who is clearly tainted, and he sees this thing that he created, this thing that is pure, that has no hate, to cynicism, no marks. And he doesn’t even feel like he can hold the baby because the baby is so clean. And in that moment his life suddenly has purpose. His life has meaning. Only that he has no real skills to be a father. He becomes a force of love. And that is a dangerous force.
The baby’s mother, Romina (Eva Mendez), is really torn because she clearly loves this guy. But she knows he’s dangerous. And so she must choose between security and love. Between her son and his father.
Then on the flipside there’s Avery (Bradley Cooper).
I have always loved Hitchcock’s PSYCHO—I loved how that movie did that amazing hand off from Janet Leigh to Tony Perkins. I wanted to do something like that. I also wanted to make a film where characters would have real consequences for their actions—where guns come into the movie and actually have an effect. There is a glorified gun culture in movies and this country—what I wanted to explore is the effect, the aftermath.
Avery is guy who, since childhood, has had the ability to see and find the way, he’s the high road example for all. He’s always been known and renowned for his best traits—he’s a good fellow, he’s popular, fair, honest, truthful, strong, high IQ, etc. And he’s born into this small city royalty – he’s the son of a very powerful local judge. And everyone in his life, his dad, his college sweetheart, etc. they all assume that Avery will follow in his father’s footsteps. Only Avery wants to be his own man. Against his father’s wishes, he drops out of law school to build himself from the ground up. And nobody understands why he would resist the silver spoon, you know? When we first meet Avery, he is a 28-year old rookie cop.
It is as a rookie cop that Avery makes his first mistake. This mistake creates a toxic shame in Avery – one which he can’t speak about. And when we first meet him, he is living in a state of being wrong for the first time and he is painfully aware of his guilt. Meanwhile, the world and public at large considers him to be a hero. And so he feels like even more of a sham, a liar, and inadequate.
This inner conflict creates a gulf in his relationship with his wife and young child and also puts him at odds with growing corruption at work.
And so he must chose to battle against the demons inside him or go to battle against the people in his real life. He’s this modern man who decides to bury his problems and, instead, focus on problems in the world. And he does good things. He’s a good man. But his tragic flaw is that instead of healing the wounds inside himself, he tries to fix everything else around him. And that haunts him.
Talk About The Performances of the Two Leads (Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper).
They are both much more than actors in this film. They are true collaborators. They both have tremendous instincts for character and story and dialogue and they are both brave enough to go to the vulnerable places I need them to go up on the screen. They are tireless workers, they do the research and they can go in rush for 200 yards if you need them to.
Ryan has this incredible presence and charisma on the screen and in real life. He’s inherently interesting and cinematic and is just such an amazing human being who just makes everyone better around him. He is a magic man. I have learned so much from him and feel incredibly fortunate each time I collaborate with him.
When I met Bradley, he had that same kind of incredible charisma that Ryan has. But the thing that really convinced me on Bradley more than anything else was how hard he worked. After meeting with Bradley a couple of times I went back to the script and completely re-wrote the character for him because I knew he could go deep. Much deeper than I originally had suspected of him.
I think the reason Pines works is because Ryan and Bradley are not only huge movie stars and great actors, they are compelling human beings, and each of them brings totally different energies to the film. It creates this balance, this dichotomy in the film.
Let’s talk about the significance of the pines itself and the imagery of the trees and upstate NY. Why the pines?
The Iroquois translation of Schenectady is “a place beyond the pines.” Schenectady is where my wife, Shannon, grew up. I have been going up there for about nine years visiting her family. I’ve always found it to be such an interesting place. It’s this place with such a rich history and it’s in the midst of this economic struggle. My co-writer, Ben Coccio, who grew up there, describes it as a small town version of Detroit. Ben came up with the title THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES and I really loved it because it has this literal meaning bit there are other, more metaphorical meanings to it as well…
And so we shot the film last summer in Schenectady. We shot for 47 days, which was pretty much unheard of for our budget. Because of my training in documentary film, it was important to me to shoot in real places and surround the actors with real people as much as possible to give the film that sense of place and truth. So we shot in live locations – a functioning police station with real Schenectady police officers, a live hospital with real nurses and patients in the next room, a live fair with a cast 500 real people who we were counting on not to look in the lens, real banks with real bank tellers and bank managers who had been robbed before, and a real high school with real students. This was all in an effort to lend authenticity to the moments we were capturing. I asked the cops and the bank tellers and doctors and judges to make sure the scenes we were telling were true. And if they weren’t, I would re-write it on the spot with them until we were being honest.
There was a lot of pressure on me to re-locate the movie to Louisiana or North Carolina because of tax credits. But I knew that this movie, made this way, only could happen in Schenectady.
Where did your inspiration come to tell this story?
Many years ago, in film school, I saw Abel Gance’s NAPOLEON and I became obsessed with the idea making a triptych film. I studied under Avant Garde legends Stan Brakhage and Phil Solomon and they really gave me strong roots in aesthetics and formalism. However, Phil used to always tell me “form must illuminate content.” I thought I could make the 3 screens sing, but I didn’t know the song. And so I kept marinating on the idea of 3 until I had a story with purpose.
Then, in 2007, a few months before the birth of my second son Cody, the film came to me. I had been thinking a lot about becoming a father again and the responsibility that came with it. And I was thinking about what kind of dad I was, and what kind of things I was gonna pass down to my new boy. And I got to thinking a lot about the fire I felt inside me. This fire had been with me for as long as I could remember. And it helped me do a lot of things in my life. But it was also, at many times in my life, a destructive and painful force. I knew that my father also had this fire in him. And his father, my grandfather had it in him as well… I started wondering how many generations back this fire went. And, thinking about my unborn son, I began to wish that he could be born clean, without this fire. I didn’t want to give him all of my pain and mistakes. I wanted him to have his own path.
At that time I had also been reading just about everything that Jack London wrote. And I was taken with this ideas of legacy and the calling back of ancestors.
And it was instantaneous. I had a story that I had to tell. And so I went out to find somebody to write with, because I simply cannot write alone—I’m a filmmaker because I like working with others. If I wanted to do things alone I would be a painter.
My agent at the time introduced me to Ben Coccio, the writer and director of the underappreciated and great ZERO DAY. We met at the Donut Pub in NYC and he told me he was from Schenectady. We hit it off—had the same reference points, watched the same films growing up—GOODFELLAS was both of our favorite movies, we had read the same books, and we both had this connection to Schenectady. And he just latched on to the idea and he just lit it up. I went off to make BLUE VALENTINE and he started writing THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES.
Darius Marder also wrote on the film.
This movie is so big it took three writers to get it together. Ben worked on the script while I went off to work on BLUE VALENTINE. And for years, I’d give notes on it and every so often we would work on it together. And I gotta hand it to Ben, he was working with a script on a massive scale. His first draft came in at over 160 pages! He would always reference GIANT. And his script was definitely that—big and ambitious. And then when Ben and I started writing together we spent a lot of time working it and working it and refining it and making it more and more concise and efficient.
About four months before we started to shoot my good friend Darius Marder, who directed the documentary LOOT, got involved. LOOT was all about fathers and sons and men who were haunted by their past, and Darius just really had a handle on those themes and on the story. We also have kids in the same school in Brooklyn and writing together just kind of evolved out of dropping our kids off in the morning and writing all day until we had to go pick them up. And the story and characters just continued to gel. By the time we shot, we hit 37 drafts.
And, just as with BLUE VALENTINE, I consider all of the actors in the film to be additional co-writers. I was always urging them to throw away the script and make it fresh, make it alive, make it true.
This is a much bigger cast than BLUE VALENTINE. How did that affect your shooting style?
One thing that I feel really fortunate about was the universal commitment from all of the actors involved in this film. There were no fancy hotels in Schenectady, we couldn’t afford big trailers for them, we had a shoot and a preparation schedule that required incredible amounts of their time and energy, and we were shooting in places with swarming bee hives and mosquito infestations. I never heard a complaint. Everybody was there to play on the same team and leave it out on the playing field.
Talk about Eva Mendes and what she brings to the film and the role of Romina.
I had met Eva just after I did BLUE VALENTINE and I had always been a fan of her work, especially her work in James Gray’s WE OWN THE NIGHT. She has such a magnetic screen presence but she seemed to often end up in gratuitous roles as the sex object – although I liked how she played with that in THE OTHER GUYS. As PINES started looking like a reality I met with a number of actresses, but I kept thinking about Eva. I had a hunch that, if given the chance, she could really knock this role out of the park. And she came to the audition with no makeup on, still looking beautiful, of course, but trying her hardest not to look beautiful. And it just meant so much to me that she did that. So instead of having her audition, I asked her to take me for a ride around Los Angeles and show me the places where she grew up. And, sitting in her passenger’s seat, I saw there was this deep, thoughtful, warm, generous, and unpredictable person inside of Eva. She opened up about herself, her life, her past, and so I offered her the role.
The first scene we shot with her was the sex scene in the trailer with Ryan. And I know she was terrified to do it because she was trembling. But she is a brave soul. She embraced her fear and confronted it and bared her soul immediately. The crew was very small that day, and we were all left speechless and inspired by her bravery. And that just continued everyday on set.
Her and Ryan had known each other a little before we shot and that history really added a tangible dimension to their relationship on screen.
What was the rehearsal process like? Was there extensive improvisation like Blue Valentine?
Yes. To me, process is everything. The experience of making a film is more important to me than the film itself. I love shooting. I love working with actors. I love being surprised. I love making discoveries. I love it when things break, don’t go as planned, etc.
On BLUE we were dealing with love as a theme. And that’s a universal thing. Everyone knows what it feels like to be in love. And so the points of reference for the actors were inside themselves. With PINES, not everyone has robbed a bank, not everyone has been a cop, etc. So we had to go to the well and do a lot more research.
For instance, Ben Mendelsohn and I spent a lot of time with this great guy who had robbed a half-dozen banks in Schenectady. He was fresh out of prison and very open with us about everything. I remember him saying, “the one thing movies get wrong is that bank robberies are messy in real life and in movies they are always perfect.” We tried to make him proud.
Bradley and Ray Liotta and Gabe Fazio and Luca Pierrucci spent a great deal of time with the real police department up there, riding along with officers, getting invited over for family feasts, etc.
It was total and complete immersion into that world. And in that immersion, we learned everything we needed. And that was the key – we were open to throwing everything away if it wasn’t true.
And we did this process with every performer in the film. Rose Byrne spent time with divorced wives of cops and then she spent countless days playing house with Bradley. These are days where we aren’t shooting, mind you. These are days where they were learning how to live together. When an actor of Rose’s caliber commits herself like this, it is a true gift. Bruce Greenwood shadowed the Schenectady D.A. for a week. Etc.
I am very proud and eternally indebted to every one of them. Ray Liotta is the best. He is kind of like a human knife that guy, because he is just so sharp and he will cut you if you’re not watching out. The fact that Ray Liotta is actually in one of my movies is like a dream come true. I mean, I watched GOODFELLAS 30 times in the movie theater when I was 16 years old. And Mahershala Ali is another great actor, with not an easy role to play. At the end of the movie he becomes the best father in the film, but he has a lot of pain to deal with, and a lot of tension to get there. And Ben Mendelsohn is one of the all time great actors. He definitely taught me a lot and I have the deepest respect for him. Also Robert Clohessy, Harris Yulin, Gabe Fazio. I really had a dream cast.
Can you talk about the action scenes?
One thing BLUE VALENTINE was noted for was its frank sexuality. Well, on PINES I wanted to approach the action scenes in the same way. That meant that Ryan had to learn how to ride a motorcycle. There is one scene in the film where Ryan has to go into a bank, rob it, leave the bank, get on his motorcycle, and drive at tremendously fast speeds through a busy intersection while he is pursued by a cop. All of this happens in a single take. No cuts. No place to do a “Texas switch.” So Ryan had to become very proficient on his bike. He trained with Rick Miller, one of the great Hollywood stunt men. And he just took our breath away. In order to get the aforementioned scene completed, Ryan had to do 18 takes. It was a little crazy.
Of course, some scenes required stunt men. And I was blessed with a really great team of stunt drivers led by Brian Smyj. And I think they were all excited to be a part of this film because normally they would risk their lives doing a stunt for a Michael Bay movie or something and then go see the final film and see their death defying feat reduced to 14 frames of movie. I didn’t want to cut in the action scenes. COPS and AMERICA’S WILDEST POLICE CHASES were my points of reference. And the stunt guys and gals were turned on by that. I will never forget the feeling in my stomach though watching Ricky Miller lay down his bike at 65 miles per hour for a shot—twice. Those guys are true warriors.
Let’s talk about the boys. The third story flashes forward 15 years later.
In a way, the first 2 acts of this movie serve as prologue to the 3rd. The 3rd part of this film is where it becomes about legacy. Part 3 is really the movie.
In terms of Ryan’s kid (Dane DeHaan), he does come from a very warm home, he has good parents, he has a lot of love in his house. He has a good stepfather, a good mother, but there’s something missing from his life and he knows it. And he had been lied to, protected from that truth, and that mystery won’t let him go. Yes, he is a good kid but he needs to know the truth, and he’s a hero because he searches for that truth even if it destroys him.
The other kid, Avery’s son AJ (Emory Cohen), is a kid who seemingly has a lot: born into money, he has his mother’s love and attention, but he doesn’t have is his father present in his life.
Both of these boys are missing a father, and they both deal with it in different ways. AJ doesn’t really have a connection with his father and is really hurt by that and everything he does is screaming for attention from his dad. He puts up this barrier to show he is not hurting. AJ is a really tragic character— this over privileged kid who is extremely charismatic, charming, popular and has a lot of the attributes of his father, but is so deeply wounded. It fills him with a great deal of self-loathing and self-hate.
Talk about casting these kids.
Filling the shoes of Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper is a mighty task. I auditioned over 500 kids for these roles and found, very late in the casting process Dane Dehaan and Emory Cohen. Working with the two of them was so thrilling because they are both so good and so fresh.
And just as Ryan and Bradley are opposing dualities, so are the kids. I remember the first audition I had with the two of them and I asked them who their favorite actor was. And it turned into a huge fight between them with Dane insisting it was either James Dean or Al Pacino and Emory insisting it was either Marlon Brando or Robert DeNiro. Once we got on set, I just let that dynamic go.
You spent over a decade trying to make BLUE VALENTINE, what was it like getting the financing for this film.
During the 12 years I spent on the bench waiting to make BLUE VALENTINE, I kept myself busy preparing for other opportunities. And because BLUE had some level of success, I was able to put PINES together rather quickly.
The crew over at Sidney Kimmel Entertainment really got the script and from my first meeting with them it was clear that they were passionate and interested in seeing the best version of the film. I am very thankful to them. They gave me a lot of trust and a lot of space and a lot of time to make the film the way I wanted. They also pushed me to go further where and when I needed to and they gave me the right boundaries. I feel like boundaries are important for a filmmaker like me. It lets me know where the edge is. And so I can play very close to the edge and not fall off. Without a boundary, I might just go on forever and get lost.
What was the craziest thing to happen during production.
Hurricane Irene struck and Schenectady was hit with the biggest floods in 500 years. The night before she struck, I had to move my family out of the house where we were staying. The next morning the house was under 15 feet of water. It was really devastating to the town. We had to cancel production for 1 day because our equipment trucks were buried under water. The scariest thing was when I found out that we had 2 days worth of shot film on one of the trucks. I was beside myself because I’ve lost film negative before and it is like death. The camera department, led by first AC Ludovic Littee took a canoe out to the trucks and rescued our film. that guy is my hero for real.
Let’s talk about your design team.
The production designer was Inball Weinberg who did BLUE VALENTINE with me. I love working with her because she never hesitates to disagree with me and fight for her ideas. She was in the Israeli army and I just love her spirit and her taste. She has a way of going into places and making them iconic without being quirky. She made every room of every house fully functional, even if we weren’t going to be shooting in those rooms. Since we were shooting in so many live locations, this allowed the actors to continue living in the real world.
The DP was Sean Bobbitt. I originally had planned on using Andrij Parekh who did BLUE VALENTINE, but he had this vision one night that he was going to die if he did PINES and so he dropped out. I’m not kidding. So I met a number of DPs and when I met with Sean, he was telling me things about his process, the way he approaches his work and how he prefers using handheld cameras and natural lighting, and his theories on camera movement, etc. I had come to find out that Sean was a war photographer and I asked him if he thought he was going to die doing Pines and he said, “No, he had been to war many times.” He was just fearless and he helped us all be fearless in the film. We knew the first shot of this film should be an epic shot. It should take us, like a dream, from the space of Luke’s trailer, through a working fairground, and into a circus tent where HANDSOME LUKE AND THE HEARTTHROBS would begin riding their motorcycles in a metal globe of death upside down. And Sean had wanted to go inside of that globe (where the motorcycle riders race). He suited up in armor and we did the whole 5 minute shot and he went in the center of the globe and it was a beautiful shot and I’m watching the monitor and I hear a crash. The monitor that I’m looking at goes fuzzy and I look over at the globe and I see Sean on the bottom of a pile of 3 motorcycles. He was run over. The paramedics run in and everyone’s asking if he’s ok. Sean gets up and he’s not okay – he’s angry he didn’t get the shot!! And he says, “Let’s do it again.” And I said, “Sean, don’t do it again.” And he said, “I’m doing it again. We must get this shot and go to the center of it.” So we went back, filmed from the trailer all the way into the center of the globe of death, and again at the same exact moment, the monitor goes static and I look up to find Sean under a pile of motorcycles again. This time he was even more shaken up and even angrier at himself for not getting the shot. We cancelled the shoot for that night. Then later, at around 3AM, Sean woke up in the hotel and didn’t know what country he was in. So we took him to the emergency room and he had a concussion. And the next night we did it again, and I forced him not go inside, but he is a warrior. To me, Bobbitt has such a strong composition and I wanted this to be like a story book. Like flipping through the pages of a mythical storybook.
The costumer was Erin Benach who did BLUE VALENTINE. I don’t ever want to make a movie without her— because she creates such iconic clothes for people to wear. And, even more importantly, she collaborates with the actors to find clothes that help them to discover their characters. I also completely trust her.
My producers—Jamie Patricof, Lynette Howell, and Alex Orlovsky—they are the greatest. I hope to make every movie with them. They were the first people to read the script (besides Ryan) and they are the perfect storm of producers. They challenge me. They aren’t pushovers. And when they have to, they defend me. They push protect me and that’s exactly what I want out of a producer. They make the crazy dreams in my head come true.
Editing this film was a beast. And I hate editing. It is murder. The only thing that makes it bearable for me is the fact that 2 of my closest friends edited this movie. I have been working with Jim Helton for about twenty years and Ron Patane about ten. Editing this movie was like climbing Everest. Our first rough cut took us six months and it was three and a half hours long. We had been trying to get to the Cannes deadline but we just couldn’t get it done in time. It took nine months to edit the film. There’s a lot of story to get through and characters to explore, and we had a boundary of 2 hours and 20 minutes to tell it in, and that took us nine months. It was a full pregnancy editing this film— seven days a week sixteen hours a day for nine months.
And the score…
When I was a teenager the single greatest concert I ever went to was Mr. Bungle in Denver in 1991. I remember Mike Patton, wearing a bondage mask and horse blinders, licking the head of a bald bouncer. From that moment forward, he became my hero. I always felt his music was so cinematic, and for all my high school films I always put his music on. So when I had the chance to pick a composer for PINES, Mike and I kind of just bumped into each other. He had read the script and his brother is a police officer and it just felt like it was fate. And so we worked together, and it was another dream come true for me to be able to work with Mike Patton. He understood the haunted qualities of the movie right away.
What do you hope audiences take away from the film?
I’m not a message filmmaker. I just want people to be entertained by it—to be absorbed by it and to take what they will into their own lives. The best response I’ve heard so far to the film came from a very well respected and powerful man, who for the purposes of this interview will remain nameless. After seeing the film, he told me, he cancelled the business dinner he had that night. Then he called his ex-wife and asked her, “I know it’s your night tonight, but can I come pick him up?” He then drove across town and picked up his teenage son, brought him home, and they spent the night together.