Filmmaker Derek Cianfrance consults with his stars, Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper, while filming “The Place Beyond the Pines”
Photo by Atsushi Nishijima – © 2013 - Focus Features Filmmaker Derek Cianfrance consults with his stars, Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper, while filming “The Place Beyond the Pines”

Two weeks ago I had the pleasure of screening The Place Beyond the Pines, which opens in theaters March 29, for my class at USC School of Cinematic Arts. My guests were producer Jamie Patricof and co-writer/director Derek Cianfrance, who made a deliberate decision to shoot his feature on 35mm film. I asked him why and he gave me two distinct answers.

“When you shoot on film, there’s an urgency that starts happening,” he explained. “On 35mm 2 perf, you have about nine minutes and twenty seconds and then the mag [film magazine] runs out. And the actors pretty quickly start to recognize that time. The actors are like athletes. It’s like a quarter of football. They have nine minutes and twenty seconds to get some points on the board, to make things happen. They can feel it. It’s on now; we’re doing it. It creates the urgency, versus on digital, or on an electronic medium, you can have more choices so you’re not as focused on things. It’s more of a surveillance device, at least that I’ve found. You can shoot forever.”

The other reason he likes 35mm? “Romance,” he replied. 

“Romanticism. I think some stories need to be told on film, and I’m thankful that we still have the choice to choose. I’d go back to 1999. Two of my favorite films of all time were released that year. One is The Straight Story by David Lynch and the other is Julien Donkey-Boy by Harmony Korine. I don’t think that The Straight Story could ever be told digitally. I don’t think the story of Alvin Straight riding on his tractor at 5 miles an hour to see his brother with that golden light could be told in an electronic format. He’s not an electronic character.

He elaborated about the choices he made on his previous film, Blue Valentine, with Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams.

Blue Valentine I shot half on Super 16, for all the falling-in-love stuff, and half on digital. The digital [part] was all the falling out of love, the stuff that took place in real time.

“There’s a shower scene between Ryan and Michelle. [They] take their clothes off and go in the shower that’s in the Moon Room and they were very cute about it. Very cutesy, very awkward, there’s a crew around them, lots of giggles. But they’re supposed to be breaking up in this movie. By the sixth hour of the second day they weren’t laughing anymore. It wasn’t cute to them. And it was because of the electronic medium that I was able to erode that [feeling] and break it down. I like [it] for that kind of ‘surveillance’ thing and for more modern stories. The Place Beyond the Pines feels like a classical story to me, and I needed that urgency for my actors.”

Here, then, is a smart, contemporary storyteller who perceives both an esthetic and a practical difference between working with a digital camera and shooting on film. We can only hope that directors like him will continue to have that choice.