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Q & A: Director Cianfrance Talks 'The Place Beyond the Pines,' Gosling and Cooper, Long Takes and 'Psycho'

Interviews
by Anne Thompson
August 16, 2013 3:05 AM
3 Comments
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Place Beyond the Pines, Gosling Mendes

If you missed Derek Cianfrance's "The Place Beyond the Pines" in theaters, it's worth grabbing as it hits DVD and Blu-Ray, because it's one of the best movies to come out so far this year. Will it wind up in the awards conversation? Focus Features is going to push the intense R-rated drama, which grossed a respectable $21.4 million domestically, but it will need critics to back the film and its performances at year's end, which they might. (It's at 82% on the Tomatometer.

With this radically smart film, Cianfrance again directs Ryan Gosling, who starred in "Blue Valentine," which earned Michelle Williams an Oscar nomination. (Here's my Sundance 2010 flipcam interview with Gosling and his director.

I talked to Cianfrance on the phone. 

Anne Thompson: You employ an unusual screenplay structure; like Alfred Hitchcock you kill off main characters. You seem to be ignoring the rules.

Derek Cianfrance: You have to be taught the rules in order to break them. In terms of screenwriting I never took classes, never learned how to write. I became a writer out of necessity. I wanted to tell stories on film. My only guiding principle was to tell things that feel personal, exposing, almost like a diary. That was the only way. My starting point as screenwriter is to go to places that scare me. I came up with the idea about becoming a parent, which is very personal for me, after becoming a father for the second time. All my fears of being a parent went into this movie.

Gosling, Cianfrance

Why the three parts? 

I always dreamed of making a triptych movie. I knew about "Psycho" with its shower scene midway, but it seemed like you had to wait 45 minutes to follow Janet Leigh until the baton pass to Tony Perkins. That stuck with me. I remember watching Abel Gance's "Napoleon" at 19 or 20 with its ending triptych. I wanted to make a tryptych movie, I had this structural baton pass playing in my head, but I never had a story to tell until my wife was pregnant with our second son. I was thinking a lot about pregnancy and legacy, passing on, the consequences of the whole movie became clear to me. I didn't question it, I went with my instincts on it. I didn't ask permission.

I wanted to see if I could do it or not. I met with Ben Coccio who had done "Zero Dark Thirty," he was turned on by it. We were both huge fans of "The Wire" at the time. We looked at adaptations of books to movies. They usually don't work because it's impossible to fit that much into a movie. Short stories are better, like "Brokeback Mountain," that works. The beautiful thing about TV and "The Wire" is it felt like a novel, it had huge scope. I wanted to figure out a way to make a movie that had that kind of scope. The original script was 160 pages long, written with an intermission, and a title card "15 years later." The idea would be to go out for popcorn, go to the bathroom, get a drink and come back and 15 years would have passed. Of course we couldn't in the marketplace.

I was an audience member before I'm a filmmaker. All I've tried to do as a filmmaker was to make movies I want to see. I had this burning desire to make a three part triptych movie, because I wanted to see it.

When did you write this? 

I was working on this before we started shooting "Blue Valentine" in November 2007. I was at Ryan's agent house 18 months before we shot "Blue Valentine." I asked Ryan, "Man, you've done so many things, do you still dream of doing things, do you have fantasies anymore?"

"Yeah, well I've always wanted to rob a bank, but I'm scared of jail." I told him I was writing a movie about bank robbers. He said, "I'd do it on a motorcycle, disguised in a helmet, and drive onto a UHaul truck so the cops wouldn't catch me." 

That was exactly what we'd written. It was one of those times when we were destined to make movies together, make dreams come true and he wouldn't have to go to jail. He signed up before "Blue Valentine." I gave him the first draft [of "Place Beyond the Pines"] when there was a hiatus between past and present. He was on board for a long time. 

After "Blue Valentine" had its modest success, after Cannes, we had a chance to make another movie. I had to choose. I was offered a number things, but I decided to go back to what I had been working on all those years. I sent the script to distributors, didn't meet with many people. Some places were scared of the structure, unsure of how can you kill [a major character]. 

A lot suggestions were put into blender. "Do what Inarritu would do." I love his films, but I felt I had seen it before. I just did a movie with crosscut parallel story lines. I wanted a linear chronological structure. It was about legacy. The setup had to be told early, the consequences of violence. The only way to let the audience experience that consequence in real time was by watching the film unfold. Sidney Kimmel got it. They asked who else we could cast opposite Ryan. I met with a number of actors who would have brought financing. Bradley stuck with me. 

Why Bradley Cooper?

3 Comments

  • Joel Guzman | August 21, 2013 4:06 PMReply

    For the record, "Pines" definitely deserves its broad share of awards, and I greatly admire its cinematography, will look forward to any triptych features in the future.

  • Angelabsurdist | August 19, 2013 2:26 AMReply

    One of the most memorable cinematic experiences I ever had was attending the reconstructed French masterpiece of 1928, 'Napoleon' by Abel Gance with a live orchestra and the climactic three-screen proto-Cinerama finale. That panorama was exhilarating. I'm currently writing something which I find scary to write about (fiction). Definitely buying 'The Place Beyond The Pines'.

  • Joseph Angie r | August 16, 2013 2:37 PMReply

    Excuse me for being literal, but what does the use of a three-paneled screen in "Napoleon" (showing simultaneous action) have to do with a three-chaptered storyline, other than both get to use the word 'triptych'?

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