After “Blue Valentine” tackled the issues of marriage and gender relations, it seemed like a natural progression that filmmaker Derek Cianfrance decided to take on parenthood and legacy in his next film. Taking six years to make, "The Place Beyond The Pines” deals with the issue of legacy in America. Set in working class Schenectady, New York, it tells the story of families on both sides of the law and deals with what fathers intentionally and unintentionally leave their sons (inspiring our list of 22 Great Father & Son Movies). A hit at this year’s TIFF (read our review here), the film stars Ryan Gosling as a motorcycle stunt rider who turns to bank robbery to provide for his young son, and Bradley Cooper as a police officer caught in the crosshairs, a role the actor nearly gave up on. The stellar cast also includes Eva Mendes, Dane DeHaan, Ray Liotta, Emory Cohen, Ben Mendelsohn and Rose Byrne.
Cianfrance recently sat down the with journalists for a Q&A, and discussed his desire to have the actors to fail, Ryan Gosling’s face tattoo, playing Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” while filming, the colonial massacres of Schenectady, his own thoughts on fatherhood, and much, much more.
Well, I appreciate the actors. You know I’m nothing without an actor. What am I going to do? Just shoot landscapes and like Ansel Adams pictures or something? I wouldn’t be too interested with that. No, actors to me are courageous. They do things that I’m too cowardly to do in my life, so I pay them so much respect and I’m just so thankful for what they give me. Any actor that I ever hire I always tell them two things. I say the two most important things you can do for me is fail and surprise me. You spend so much time writing a script and then when I usually get on set, I’m so bored of myself and what I’ve contributed to it. All I want to do is see something new happen. I feel as an audience member, I love being surprised, so I feel if I’m on set and something happens that surprises me, I’m in good shape. And then conversely also with the failure…
I remember I was interviewing Danica Patrick some time ago because I made documentaries for a long time and I asked her, “How did you get so fast?” And she said, well she knew her whole life how fast she could go and she would drive that fast, but then she would push it just a little further -- two miles an hour past what she felt comfortable at. And she said often times she would crash by doing that, but she would also be pushing her own boundaries and she would be able to do things, she would conquer her fear. And so I tell my actors to fail, I feel like if they can trip, fall on their face, make a fool of themselves, and embarrass themselves, they can be great. And I just don’t want anyone to judge their own performance.
I read that you let your actors improvise a little bit as it goes along and I’m just curious, did you allow that to happen as much in this film as you did in “Blue Valentine”?
We all had a reference point for love before going into that film [“Blue Valentine”]. With ‘Pines,’ it’s different. I have never been a cop or robbed a bank before so we needed to do a lot more research with this film to be able to improvise. And so there’s a number of ways we do that. For instance, there’s a scene where Ben [Mendelsohn] and Ryan [Gosling] are supposed to be counting their money after the first bank robbery and it’s like a four-page dialogue scene and Ben’s like “Well, it’s not a million dollars yet, but if we do this a few more times, it could be.” So we were preparing to shoot that scene and Ryan was getting the mood set in the room, he put “Dancing in the Dark” on by Bruce Springsteen and there’s like all these little dogs, I had written this big junkyard dog that Robin [Ben’s character] would have, but Ben thought it would be more interesting to have all of these little dogs cause all these ladies in the accounting department on the movie had those little dogs. So there was the room full of little dogs, cigarette smoke, Ben with his shirt off counting money and Bruce Springsteen started playing and this beautiful moment happened where these two guys were dancing and, I nudged my cinematographer to shoot and then we went out and shot the rest of the scene the next four hours, but when I was in the editing room that was the moment that was the most alive to me. So I’ll always choose the living moment over that.
A few months before we started shooting, Ryan called me and he said, “Hey D, what about the most tattoos in movie history?” And I said, “You want a lot of tattoos, huh?” And he says, “Yeah! And I want a face tattoo.” And I said, “Really? A face tattoo?” He says, “No, face tattoos are the coolest...and this one’s gonna to be a dagger and it’s gonna be dripping blood.” And I was like, “Well, I gotta tell you if I was your parent I would say don’t get a face tattoo...But you’re the guy, you’ve gotta play this guy. If you wanna get, if you think you should have a face tattoo, I can’t tell you not to. You’re him, you know.” So he says, “It’s going to be cool. It’s fine.” I said, “Okay, fine.” So, first day of shooting, we’re at lunch and there’s something bothering Ryan, and I said, “So, what’s up, man?” He says, “Can I talk to you for a second?” I said, “Yeah, what’s up?” He said, “Uh, I think I went too far with the face tattoo,” and he says, “Can we take it off in the reshoot and all that stuff?” I said, “Absolutely not, you know that’s what happens when you get a face tattoo, you regret it, and now you’ve got to regret it for the whole movie, you know.”
And then all of a sudden we have this scene in the church and I have five hundred people from Schenectady show up and all dressed in their Sunday finest, yet Eva looking the way Eva does onstage with Mahershala Ali, also dressed very nicely, looking nice, and they’re holding this baby. By the way, the baby’s name is Anthony Pizza, Jr., which means his father’s name is Tony Pizza. Anyway, Ryan walked [in]. I set the camera way in the back, I tell Ryan, here’s his instruction, “Come in and find a place to sit.” Camera’s in the back, he walks in and he’s literally a marked man. He has no place to go and so what he does, he can’t sit with anyone, he’ll stand out. So he goes to the corner of the church and we just pan with him. He sits down. Okay. Don’t move, Ryan. We take our camera and move in for a close-up and I notice as I’m shooting the close-up he starts to, he is trembling, and I just want to stop the camera and give him a hug, but I can’t because that’s what we’re here for. I see this well of emotion, that was never written in the script, start to come out, and, that’s what I like to happen in a movie. I like when acting stops and behavior begins, where actors actually have choices that they make in a film and this collision happens between their choices as actors and their choices as characters and there’s an actual effect to it.