Q&A: Derek Cianfrance, director of “The Place Beyond the Pines”

Derek Cianfrance, director of “Blue Valentine” and graduate of the CU Film Studies Program, is a storyteller through and through. He has proven himself not only a capable director, but a gifted screenwriter for his newest movie, “The Place Beyond the Pines,” starring Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper and Eva Mendes.

Cianfrance has earned awards and nominations for his previous films, “Brother Tied” and “Blue Valentine,” including “Most Promising Filmmaker.” He sat down to talk with CU Independent‘s Sarah Elsea about Gosling’s face tattoo, shooting through Hurricane Irene and the underlying politics of his new movie.

You’ve said before that you encourage your actors to go off-script often, which can sometimes cause really intense emotional scenes. What was the hardest emotional scene to film in “Pines?”

The whole thing is very challenging because I write from a place of vulnerability. What I’m trying to do in a script is challenge my actors. All I want them to do is to make it alive. I’m trying to find the place where the acting stops and behavior begins.

Ryan called me a few months before we’d started shooting and he said, “Hey, D, how about the most tattoos in movie history? I want to get a face tattoo. It’s going to be a dagger, and it’s going to be dripping blood. Face tattoos are the coolest.”

I said, “Well, look, if I was your parent, I’d tell you, don’t get a face tattoo. But you’re the guy, you’ve got to be [Luke], do whatever you need to do.”

He showed up on set with all these temporary tattoos and a face tattoo. On the first day of filming, there was clearly something bothering him. At lunch time he says, ‘Hey, D, can I talk to you for a second? I think I went too far with the face tattoo. I’m regretting it. Can I take it off and just re-shoot everything?” I say, “Absolutely not. This film is about consequence. Now you have to live with your choices.”

All of a sudden this thing that he thought was cool wasn’t cool anymore. He was shamed by it.

There’s a scene in the script when he walks into this baptism and sees this other man up on stage at the pulpit with his [character’s] baby. Gosling’s supposed to go sit down and get enraged. I had the camera in the back of the church and I tell Ryan to come in and find a place to sit. Ryan walks in and he’s literally a marked man. He can’t just go sit down with everyone. We bring the camera in to close-up, and I notice that he’s trembling. He’s not getting enraged. There was this great shame flooding over him. All I want to do as his friend is shut the camera off and say, “It’s just pretend.” But, that’s what we’re there for — to find these moments where the acting stops and behavior begins.

Though “Pines” can’t be called a political film, it felt politically conscious. 

Courtesy: Focus Features (http://focusfeatures.com)
Courtesy: Focus Features

There are politics in the film, a lot of it in the way that it’s dealing with legacy and tribalism in America, how when you’re born on a certain side of the railroad tracks it’s very hard to be anything but that. Luke [Gosling’s character], for instance, he’s trash for anyone concerned. How is he ever going to provide for his son if he can only make $100 a week as a mechanic? He’s never going to move past that, so he has to make these bold choices that end up taking him out of his son’s life altogether.

Conversely, Avery [Cooper’s character] is a man who is born into a world of privilege, but he wants to be his own man, he wants to be a cop. But being a cop, he acts with too much ambition and he makes this one mistake. If he owns up to this mistake, there’s going to be a punishment. But he doesn’t want the punishment, so he lies about it. By lying about it, he preserves himself, but that punishment never goes away.

Self-preservation is often rewarded in this country. That’s how the elite stay elite, and how the poor stay poor.

You have mentioned that Hurricane Irene struck in the middle of production. When exactly did that happen and did it have any affect on the mood of the movie?

It was about six weeks in. It struck and I had to move my family out of the house we were living in. The house was buried fifteen feet underwater.

I had to rescue all my kids’ stuffed animals.

Our film truck was buried under water. My A/C [Assistant Camera] Ludovic Littee had to row out in a canoe and save the film stock from the truck. It devastated the town. The only positive that came from it is that we got a day off.

The stuff we shot the day before was these kids smoking weed and hanging out. It felt like there was a sense of a storm coming. It was a beautiful relationship but also this thing in the distance. Something happens after a hurricane that gives this green tint to the air. We all felt very mortal.

Like in “Blue Valentine,” this movie seems to be about more than just one individual. Would you say “Pines” is about a specific person?

No. It’s just about people. I want everyone to be as true as I can make them. I feel like, oftentimes, you’re bombarded with perfection on the screen. As I grew up, I started to feel really lonely watching these movies, wondering where do I fit in? Why isn’t my life like that? Why doesn’t my story wrap up that way? Instead of being taken by the fantasy, I felt betrayed. I made it my point to make movies that would be about people that weren’t perfect, because I didn’t know anyone that was perfect. I don’t know black and white, I know gray. I try to celebrate flaws, and humanity in the movies, even if it goes to the dark places.

“The Place Beyond the Pines” opens in theaters on April 12.

Contact CU Independent Senior Staff Writer Sarah Elsea at Sarah.elsea@colorado.edu.

Sarah Elsea

Sarah Elsea (more commonly known as "Just Elsea") is a junior Poetry and English major at the University of Colorado. Originally hailing from Virginia, she enjoys her cat, cooking biscuits and gravy, and reading poetry. Contact CU Independent Senior Staff Writer Sarah Elsea at Sarah.elsea@colorado.edu.

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