At first, it's unnerving just how much writer-director Derek Cianfrance sounds like Dan, the character he wrote in Blue Valentine, as played by Ryan Gosling. It's a sign of the close synergy between director and actor that marks his approach to films like his latest, The Place Beyond the Pines. Like Blue Valentine, it's been kicking around the mind of the Lakewood-raised director for years.
The three-part noirish fable follows a motorcycle stuntman (Gosling), a straight-arrow cop (Bradley Cooper) and a family woman (Eva Mendes) as their actions make unexpected waves in the lives of others. Cianfrance toes the line between master of suspense and show-off with bravura sequences such as an unbroken take of a motorcycle chase through the suburban placidity of Schenectady, New York, and a skin-crawling confrontation in a police interrogation room.
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And Cianfrance, who earned a B.F.A from CU-Boulder, is the essence of a local boy made good. Although he has long been a Brooklynite, he can still fondly recall the place where he staged a house fire for his first feature, Brother Tide (the Elite barber shop, in Longmont). Cianfrance sat down with Westword, Kenny Miles of The Movie Blog, and Joaquin Villalobos of Mile High Cinema to talk about his home state, dinosaurs and the accident that nearly fulfilled a deadly prophecy.
Westword: When we last talked to you in 1998, after Brother Tied...
Derek Cianfrance: Oh yeah! I remember that.
You said, of your collaborators, 'I'll give them all the blood I have.' How much blood did you have to give for this film?
Cianfrance: (Laughs.) You know, everything. All my life goes into it. Look, I don't always have all the best ideas. If I did, if I knew exactly what I was doing all the time, I would be a painter, or I would do something where I could just be self-sufficient. I'm a filmmaker because I like working with other people. Because I think the greatest talent I have is to bring out the best in people. I consider myself to be a coach. I'm nothing without my collaborators. We all work for a film together; we all put our egos at the side and make something out of pure creativity, pure collaboration. You can't make a film on your own.
There aren't a lot of filmmakers who came out of Denver that have had success like you've had. Do you still feel connected to the scene here?
Cianfrance: The 'scene' here, I never knew. I never had a scene. But do I feel connected to the people and to the place? Yes. Look... I'm not connected to any scene. I did that for a while in New York -- I'd go out to the film parties when I first moved to New York City because it's like, every night there's something going on. Pretty soon, I was spending all my time going to parties and meeting people. And I realized that nothing was happening, that that wasn't a way to get my films made, by shaking hands or whatever. The way to get my films made was to get to work, and to get to practice, work on the script, storyboard, make documentaries, fall in love. Get stronger as a human being, just live and not worry about the scenes. But it's great to be back. I come here all the time to visit my family. My dad always says maybe I should stop making movies about family. (Laughs.)
Did your personal experience shape the father-son connection in the movie?
Cianfrance: Absolutely. My wife was pregnant with our second son in 2007, and I was reading a lot of Jack London books at the time, and I was thinking about legacy. I was thinking about everything that was passed on to me and everything I was going to pass on to my kid. And I just really wanted him to come into the world clean. I didn't want to stain him in any way, with any of my sin or my bad choices. I just started thinking about the larger story of America and the tribes of America. And how when you're born, you have no choice of the world you're born into. And I started thinking about the ruthlessness and brutality that's occurred in this country, with which this country was founded on. And now we're in the Four Seasons, and we're polite, we're domesticated. But that never goes away.
Look, I grew up Catholic. I had a lot of guilt...so I wanted my kid to come into the world and have a chance, make his own chance. Carve his own path. So this movie came to me very quickly. It was going to be a film about legacy, about lineage, about this fire that gets passed between generations. It's a very Darwinist film.
I can see things in your editing and photography that are a little unorthodox. When you were at the CU film school, how much did the teachings of experimental filmmakers like Stan Brakhage influence what you do now?
Cianfrance: In countless ways. The most important lesson I learned from going to school there was I got observe these two great artists, Phil [Solomon] and Stan [Brakhage]. I got to observe not only their work, but the way they lived their life. One of the key lessons that Phil used to always say is, 'As an artist, you must risk failure. If you're making safe choices, you're never going to be in the place you need to be.' So that was something that always came through. But the danger of going to a school like that is that sometimes the aesthetics, or the technique, can outweigh the content. And Phil used to always remind me that form must illuminate content, not the other way around.
The last time I saw Brakhage, it was outside a used book store on Pearl Street, and he said he wanted to give me something. He went inside and bought me Ray Carney's John Cassavetes book and gave it to me. As a filmmaker, Cassavetes has been such a huge inspiration to me. And the fact that I was given that from Brakhage, who showed me faces for the first time in his class, because he was my film history teacher -- I'll never forget that. I'm still very close with Phil. He's ingrained himself in my consciousness and my psyche so much, it's like I have a constant running dialogue with him. So when I'm in the editing room, I have Phil's voice in my ear all the time talking to me. Sometimes, I just want the voices to stop. 'Just let me have peace, Phil.'
Continue reading for more from Cianfrance.
The thing that stands out to me are the performances you get out of your actors. Can you talk about your process?
Cianfrance: This goes back to my experience making documentaries. I just really fell in love with not being in control of certain things and seeing life happen. But at the same time, I'm not a natural documentary filmmaker: I have ideas, I have characters, I have things I want to say. So what I do is I write from a place of vulnerability. I write my fears, I write the things that make me nervous, the things that haunt me. My dreams and hopes, too, but I write from a very internal place. And when I write on a page, I present a challenge, basically, or an instigation to actors. And whenever I hire an actor, I tell them that the two gifts they can give me are are one, to surprise, me, and two, to fail...
Also, I bring out a democracy of ideas. To me, ideas are gold on my set. Often when you go on a movie, it's like, "my way or the highway." But I want to foster this environment of creativity. Here's what happens: if an actor has an idea and they want to do it, I will absolutely let them do it, no questions asked. But that conversely means, if I have something I want them to do, I have them do it, no questions asked. We don't judge ideas. There's a scene in Blue Valentine: After the abortion clinic, they're on the bus. And I thought Michelle should sit next to Ryan, because they were two distinct individuals. Ryan and Michelle thought she should sit on his lap. So, instead of getting in a fight about it, I said," OK, do a take like this and a take like that." I got in the editing room, and they were right. Again, I don't work from a place of ego, I work from a place of collaboration.
So, why aren't you doing Jurassic Park 4?
Cianfrance: Oh yeah, that Safety Not Guaranteed guy is doing it, right? (Ed. note: Colin Trevorrow was tapped earlier this month to helm the next Jurassic Park.)
But do you think you could transfer yourself, and your hopes and fears, into a big comic-book movie or sci-fi movie?
Cianfrance: Yeah, I wanna make huge movies. My ultimate goal is to make classic films, as long as it's something that I could do... There's a number of films out there that I'm looking at right now. For instance, just flying out here, I read a script. And this script is attached to a paycheck with a lot of zeroes. On page ten, there's a woman who gets drugged, raped, and has her throat slit. And I stop reading. Because not for any amount of money, not for all the money in the world, am I gonna do that... I'm not gonna put those images into the world. I have kids, and my kids are always like, 'Dad, why don't you make a kids' movie, so we can watch what you're doing?' And the thing is, they can't see my movies now, but they can someday. I'd be proud to show them my movies. But if I ever made that movie, I'd never show it to them. That's my barometer: "What would my kids see?"
There are a lot of daring shots in this movie. What kind of trust do you have to have with your cinematographer to pull those off?
Cianfrance: I got a call from Andrij Parekh, who was going to shoot this movie... He captures performances like no one else. Every one of his movies has great performances... He called me about eight weeks before I started shooting, he was crying. I said, "What's wrong?" He said, "I had a dream I died making Pines. I can't shoot your movie anymore."
I said,"Aw, come on Andrij, it's just a dream; it's not real." He was like, "No, I can't do it. I have a girl now. I'm sorry, D." I started looking for other DPs. I met Sean Bobbitt, who had shot Hunger; he hadn't yet shot Shame. I met him, and Sean directly asked me, "What's wrong with your movie? Why did you DP drop out eight weeks out of production?"
I said, "He thought he was going to die making it." There was some silence between us. Then I said, "Do you think you're going to die making it?"
He said, "Silly boy, I was a war photographer for eight years. I'm not gonna die making your movie." He came to the movie with this warrior spirit, which I needed. I needed that extreme courage that Bobbitt had... Sean has to be riding around in a police car in these long, unbroken takes, going 75 miles an hour through a cemetery. So it's a lot of trust. The opening shot of the film is a good example. We looked at the overall scope of the picture and thought it's an epic movie, so we gotta start it out with an epic shot. So we go from the trailer, to an active fair, to a tent where the guy goes into this Globe of Death. Now there's 22 guys that can do that stunt, and Ryan is not one of them. So we had to come up with this way to switch him out without breaking the takes...
He goes in first.
Cianfrance: Yes. Texas Switch is what it's called... (Leans in.) But at the end of the shot, Sean said he wanted to go inside the cage. I said, "That's crazy, there's going to be three motorcycles inside that cage." He says "No, we must go in the center." So he put on a helmet, he put on all this armor... it was beautiful, he did the Texas Switch, motorcycles go in the cage, Sean follows them into the cage, now he's trapped in with these motorcycles. (Vroom noises.) I'm watching on my monitors; it's amazing. He got it in the first take. All of a sudden, my monitor goes static, and I hear a gasp from the crowd. There's a pile of motorcycles with Shaun on the bottom. And I think to myself, "Andrij's dream came true. The DP did die making Pines."
We pull the motorcycles off Shaun, and he's not dead. He's very angry at himself for messing up the shot. I was like, "Look at the bright side; you're still alive. Let's just do it again, stay outside." He said, "No, we must go to the center." So we did the shot again, got inside the cage, cage door closes, motorcycles start going around. Somehow he had managed to improve the shot. And at about the same moment, I hear a gasp from the audience, my monitor shorts, and there's a motorcycle that stalls in midair, falls on Sean's head, knocks him out. When he comes to, we cancel production.
That night at 3 in the morning, the Holiday Inn security guard called us and said, "Do you know there's one of your crew members walking around in a bathrobe, and he's asking for tomatoes?" And we had to take him to the emergency room; he had a pretty severe concussion. So the next night he came to set, and he was so grumpy, like someone is if they've had a head injury. I would not let him get in the center. To this day he still doesn't return my phone calls. But that was the warrior spirit of Sean.
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The Place Beyond The Pines opens March 29 in select theaters and April 5 at the Landmark Mayan Theatre.