In “Blue Valentine,” writer-director Derek Cianfrance dramatized the emotional undercurrents between husband and wife. Now, in “The Place Beyond the Pines,” he concentrates on those between fathers and sons. But the tone is similarly dark and fatalistic. In a recent Dallas interview, Cianfrance talked about the film as a commentary on how one generation affects the next—and how Ryan Gosling, who plays a reckless motorcyclist stunt rider whose life is changed by the realization that he’s fathered an infant son, got attached to the project.
“It came from personal experience,” Cianfrance said of the script’s origin. “I’ve made my last three films about family—my first film, ‘Brother Tied,’ is about brothers, and ‘Blue Valentine’ is about husbands and wives, and ‘Pines’ is about fathers and sons. I feel that within any family there’s a great deal of secrets and intimacy. And I also feel that cinema is a place for secrets and intimacy. In 2007, when I started writing the script, my wife was pregnant with our second son, and I was thinking a lot about everything that was passed on to me…and everything that I was going to pass on to my child. And I didn’t want him to have all my filth, my stain, my sins. I wanted him to come into this world clean, and be able to carve his own path.
“I was also thinking about the tribes in America, and how you’re really born into these different tribes. And I wanted to make a movie where these tribes clashed…what happens when these two [different] people collide, and how that how that can affect and reverberate throughout generations.”
Cianfrance added that his setting of the film in Schenectady was of a piece with those interests. “I relate to that kind of tough-minded American workforce that’s just struggling by any means to just make ends meet,” he said. “And I felt that in Schenectady, and those are the places where I want to set my film. I don’t want to set my films in idyllic places, because I relate to characters who are struggling. My co-writer Ben Coccio is also from Schenectady. And the name of the movie…is the Iroquois translation of the word Schenectady. So it had to be [set] there.”
As to Gosling’s role in his second film with him, Cianfrance explained—perhaps with just a bit of exaggeration—“Back in 2007 I’d started writing this movie—a couple years before I made ‘Blue Valentine’ in 2009—and I was eating dinner at Ryan’s agent’s house, and [the agent] started asking [him], ‘What haven’t you done in your life that you’ve always wanted to do? You’ve done so much, you’re so successful.’ And [Ryan] said, ‘Well, I’ve always wanted to rob a bank, but I’ve always been too scare of jail.’
“So I said, ‘Really? I’m writing a movie about a bank robber. How would you do it?’ He said, ‘Well, I would do it on a motorcycle because I could walk in with a helmet and no one would know who I was. And then I could leave on the motorcycle because they’re agile and fast and I could get out of tight spaces. And I’d have a U-Haul truck parked about four blocks away and I’d drive the motorcycle into the back of the truck and drive away in the truck, because people would be looking for a motorcycle, not a truck.’ And I said, ‘That’s crazy—that’s exactly what I’ve written into the script.’ It was one of those times that I knew that we were destined to make films together.
“And then Ryan has a motorcycle of his own—I’ve seen him ride it around the streets of L.A at little bit So he had a little experience on a motorcycle, and there were some stunts I the movie he had to do—I wanted to shoot the film in single takes [since] my inspiration wasn’t other movies, it was ‘America’s Wildest Police Chases’ and ‘Cops’ (I’ve watched ‘Cops’ all my life, I love that show). That meant that Ryan had to actually do a lot of his stunts, which meant he had to train. We hired this guy Rick Miller, who anytime that Batman gets on his motorcycle, it’s Rick Miller. He’s the best in the business. He did some really great stunts in this film—he crashed his bike at seventy miles an hour, he’s one of a kind.
“Anyway, he was training Ryan because we had this one scene where he has to—in one take—rob a bank, get out, get on his motorcycle, try to start it—it won’t start—finally get it started, pull out into traffic, be pursued by a police officer and blow through an intersection and avoid getting hit by thirty-six cars. And there was no place to switch him—he had to do that himself, the way I wanted to shoot it. So he started training about eight weeks before production, and I remember I spoke to Rick Miller. I said, ‘On a scale on one to ten, where does he rank?’ And he said, ‘He’s about a three.’ And I said, ‘That doesn’t sound so good. Well, we have eight weeks to you to train him. If you train him every day, eight hours a day, realistically what’s the best-case scenario?’ He said, ‘Maybe a three-and-a-half, or four. Look, this is a lifetime of work, to be a le to do this.’ I said, ‘Okay. We have no other choice. Just train him.’
“The day before production, they’d finished off their last training session. I brought Rick aside and said, ‘Where did he get to, on a scale of one to ten?’ He said, ‘He’s about a seven.’ And that speaks to me about Ryan Gosling’s magic and his ability to do things that normal people like me could never do. He’s just a magic person.”
Cianfrance was equally enthusiastic about other members of his cast, including Ben Mendelsohn, who plays Gosling’s partner in crime. “I rely on the actors in such a way that they have to collaborate with me,” he explained. “I consider them to be co-writers. I basically tell actors when I hire them that the two things I want from them is to surprise me, and to fail. When I shoot things, I try to get my actors to be in a documentary—to make it so real for them that they don’t have to act anymore. And Ben is a great guy just to raise the bar. He’s so good, so convincing, so fresh, so alive.”
Cianfrance recalled Mendelsohn coming in to talk about the potential role. “He said, ‘Oh, you’re not going to make me audition, are you? If you make me audition, it’s just going to ruin the whole thing. If you give me the role, I’ll carry a spear for you.’ I said, ‘Okay. I didn’t make him audition, and it paid off in dividends.
“I’m ashamed—I’ll tell you this. The character of Robin was written to have no teeth—he had dentures, and was older than Ben. I didn’t know if Ben was old enough. And he asked me, after I hired him, ‘Well, what are we going to do about the teeth?’ And I said, ‘Well, what do you think we should do?’ And he said, ‘Let me give you the number of my dentist. You can call him and we’ll set up an appointment and I can have my teeth removed for you.’ I’m ashamed to say, I called his dentist and about a week later I was looking at his dental records.
“That’s the madness you get into when you’re making a movie,” Cianfrance said. “You try so hard to make it great that you lose a grip on reality sometimes. And I certainly lost a grip on reality [in that case], and I’m so ashamed…that I actually considered [it]. But Ben and I still look at each other and laugh. But that’s the kind of people I like to work with—people who are willing to do crazy things.”