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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, Cooper

I saw a guy who looked liked People's sexiest man but he had a storm raging inside of him. I was struck by it: there's something twisting inside of him. I could relate to him. When I work with actors I work on a personal level. I came from a background of 12 years making documentaries.

As a writer I always peel back the layers, go to the most sensitive places uncomfortably close to the heart. I'm trying to where to go to where I am most vulnerable as a writer and I try to go to that place with actors as well. I also share secrets with them, I'm private with them. In my meeting with Bradley I could sense a kinship with him.

I rewrote the script based on my meetings with him. Basically, here was this character who was paraded as a hero, thought to be a sexiest man. But inside him corruption is going on, conflict is raging inside, guilt and shame are buried. And I felt like that was the interesting thing, to show the audience a little of how I felt when I first met Bradley, there's much more going on than the beautiful America's hero surface. He was up for it. I sent him the script I rewrote. 

Then I got a text from him telling me he couldn't do the movie anymore. I called him where he was on the set of "The Word" in Montreal. Well, that's five hours from Brooklyn. "If I leave now we can have dinner at 11 tonight." I drove--we were five weeks out of production. The whole crew had moved to Schenectady, into the Holiday Inn. They didn't understand why I had to leave to go on a tech scout. I go meet Bradley in Montreal for a four hour meeting. Three 45 out of that the movie wasn't happening until the last 15 minutes when I finally turned him. I tired him out, but finally he agreed! 

Was he scared of it?

It's a very honest character, very complicated and conflicted morally. There's a lot of risk, playing a guy like that. We go to vulnerable places. I told him I wouldn't make movie about him. Other people wanted step into the fold at that time, but I was wed to Bradley, I told him I wasn't going to make movie without him. It was similar with Michelle on "Blue," she was going to drop out, when we couldn't get the movie right. I moved mountains to keep her in the movie. It was destined to be her. I felt the same about Bradley on "Pines." It's a miracle to make a movie with this many moving pieces, a minor miracle to keep going. I'd done that on "Blue," moved the mountains to keep Michelle. That worked out well. So I did the same with Bradley. 

Did you make changes for him?

We went deeper into the scenes and made everything even stronger. I'm not a dictator on set, I don't force my actors to do things. I allow a democracy of ideas on set, I basically let the actors do anything they want to do. Conversely they'll do anything I want them to do, and won't question it. These relationships are based on complete trust.

Which do you prefer, film or digital?

I believe in both. I shot "Blue Valentine" on 16mm for the past, and for the present on the Red Camera. I feel that both formats are valid. The stories should dictate the format we shoot on. Filmmakers should have a choice. It's harder to fight to be able to shoot on film. I have a friend making a film that takes place in the 1600s. The financiers are trying to force them to shoot on the Alexa. To me it's crazy, there was no electronic light in 1600s, just candlelight and sunlight. 

Electronic formats go great with electronic light. In terms of analog of film it's its own thing beyond an aesthetic view of it how lighting reveals texture and grain and all that. The process changes between film and digital. I wanted "Pines" to have urgency so I shot 35. I don't say "action" and "cut," we just go until the film runs out, like super 35: 9 minutes 20 seconds. Actors are like athletes, they start to feel that time, it becomes like a quarter in football. 

What was your longest take in "Blue Valentine"?

44 minutes. I don't have boundaries on a digital surveillance device.  When it's 9 minutes I do not interrupt things, when doing a scene I talk to the actors as the camera is going and keep going, basically so they don't have to be interrupted by your judgement all the time. During that 44-minute take Ryan fell asleep. You erode the freshness and urgency of the moment. With nine minutes you have a ticking clock like a time bomb. The actors have to do something before the film runs out, talk about it and come back to a new game plan. It felt more athletic. 

What kind of transformation did Gosling go through on this? 

Gosling started lifting weights. Every time I see him he's getting bigger and bigger, he gained 40 pounds of muscle. He was working with his friend Ben Shields who designs tattoos covering the body. He showed pictures of himself as a young boy with blond hair so he was dying his hair blond. He started to physically embody this guy. The story of the tattoos to me is to shoot this way open to life and how it affects film. He texted me about how he was going to have the most tattoos in movie history. "That's fine," I trust Ryan, "whatever you think." 

He was designing all those tattoos. "How about a face tattoo?" 

"I don't know if you should do that, it's extreme, it's the first thing everyone will see forever."

"No way! The face tattoos are the coolest."

"Go with your choice, make a choice, don't worry about it." So he showed up with a dagger dripping teardrop of blood. We were shooting on the first day, something was bothering him, he was out of his element. At lunch, "Can I talk to you?"

"What's wrong?"

"I went too far with the tattoo, can we take it off?" That's what happens, something you regret you have to live with. To me what happened was a beautiful thing. It started out as a cool choice and turned into a mark of shame. He had created a more interesting character for that reason. Luke was filled with shame, felt dirty, that he wasn't worthy to father a baby. we could easily have gone back and shot it over, it was no problem to change. But I wanted him to keep it because the film is about consequences. The actor makes a choice with a consequence that effects his performance, keeps it alive. 

Did he do the motorcycle stunt in the cage? 

22 people in America can do it. And Ryan is not one of them. He could have learned in a couple of years but his time was better used on other things. It's a long opening unbroken take, we do the Texas switch, a stunt term for switching out the actor. Three guys all real riders are in the Globe of Death.  

How did directing documentaries improve your directing chops? 

I come from a narrative background. I went into docs out of necessity. I keep doing these docs on MTV, VH1, and BET for organizations like the Vietnam Vet Bikers Association as a way to make a little modest living. I keep practicing, learning more about films, quickly. When I grew up a director was Cecil B DeMille, a guy sitting down with a megaphone speaking. he was the voice of god, the image of god.

When I went to start making docs I quickly turned the megaphone to my ear not to my mouth. It's more about funneling in the words and listening as doc filmmaker. I learned how, when shooting a verite scene with somebody and something happened in the moment that you couldn't repeat, it  happened that one time, you wouldn't feel you could try to repeat it. That sharpened instinct is to capture art at the speed of light. 

In the interview talking they wouldn't answer a question the way you expect. It's not about a sheaf of questions, it's conversations, it's going on a road trip with someone, and they would ask questions and new answers lead to a new destination. I had no idea where we were headed. And so basically doc filmmaking taught me how to listen, how to deal with actors as people and human beings. And it allowed me to get this thirst for this kind of taste for moments that were alive, the idea being that on a doc life happens around me. I witness real things happening, and questions take me down new paths. 

I was forced to go to docs after my first film wasn't success, "Brother Tide," to come out soon I hope. See what happens, it's about music rights for a doo wop Christmas sound track, all of those songs are licensed. If it's not now, it will be in the next 10 years. There's a print in my dad's basement in Colorado. 

Would you raise financing on Kickstarter? 

Living in NYC you have to be rich. It takes so much. Some feel they want to make a movie even if a studio indie company doesn't give them the money. I like John Cassavetes, he's my hero, he'd act in other people's movies and put it into his own, even if it took ten years. I didn't get paid on "Blue Valentine." The little movies I supplement with commercials to be able go out and make the movies I want to make. 


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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