Derek Cianfrance, director of The Place Beyond the Pines, on almost killing his cinematographer
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.
Atsushi Nishijima Derek Cianfrance and Ryan Gosling in The Place Beyond the Pines, a Focus Features release.
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.)
Atsushi Nishijima Ryan Gosling stars as Luke and Eva Mendes stars as Romina in The Place Beyond the Pines, a Focus Features release.
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.