Writer-director Derek Cianfrance spent the better part of 10 years trying to get his previous film, BLUE VALENTINE, to the big screen. (His 1998 first film BROTHER TIED made little impact in the cinema world.) Thanks to some committed up-and-coming actors (Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, who got an Oscar nomination for the part) cast in the leads and countless rewrites, he finally made it happen to much critical acclaim. During that decade or so, Cianfrance made documentaries for cable, covering music and sports, and in a way that makes sense because quite often, his films feel like a camera has been dropped in the middle of real life, often at the most emotionally vulnerable moments in his characters' lives.
While maintaining the emotion intimacy of BLUE VALENTINE, his latest film, THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES, is a sprawling film covering a couple generations of two different families, both of whom will likely never stop being bound by violence. Starring Gosling along with Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes and Rose Byrne, it remains the single best film I've seen this year so far.
Cianfrance is a quiet man (who happens to bear more than a passing resemblance to Gosling), but it's clear that he's extremely proud of PINES, despite the pains it took to shoot it, including getting his cinematographer injured (he'll tell the story). It was a real pleasure to chat with the man, who appears to be wrapping up a documentary called CAGEFIGHTER about mixed martial arts, and is filming a new feature, METALHEAD, about a heavy metal drummer who loses his hearing. At least he's not predictable. Enjoy my chat with Derek Cianfrance…
Capone: I remember reading some things about this film when it played at Toronto last year. But what’s funny is that I don’t remember reading a single thing about it before Toronto. Did you do something to keep any information about the film from getting out?
DC: Well yeah, I wanted to keep it a secret. There are some surprises that happen in the film, and I know in the age of spoilers that those surprises will--once the film is seen--get out there, and there’s nothing we can do about it. But at least for those first screenings, those early screenings, I wanted to protect as much as I could. So at least at Toronto, I would have those pure screenings where no one knew anything about the movie, and there was nothing written about it. I guess I’m trying to protect that.
That’s how I like to go see movies. I love film criticism and I love trailers, but I don’t watch them or read about films until after I’ve seen the films. I like to go into things with no preconceived notion. That’s the thing, as a filmmaker, I was an audience member before I was ever making films, so as I make films, I’m trying to think about what I want as an audience member, what I would appreciate as an audience member. So yeah, I’m trying to give people that pure experience.
Capone: I’ve had this conversation with a lot of directors. I remember a time not that long ago when you could walk into every movie maybe having seen one trailer, and that was it. Now if something happens on the set one day, it’s all over the place later that same day, and you can know as much or as little as you want, but I kind of cherish those films that I know nothing about going in.
DC: Well you get to see it pure. I remember when I saw THE MASTER, when I first saw the movie, I was a little thrown, because I was constantly expecting to see what I saw in the trailer, which wasn’t even in the film. A lot of it wasn’t even in the film. So my expectations were set in a different way. It’s impossible for the trailer of [PINES]. How do you cut a trailer for this movie? I think Focus did a great job with the trailer they cut. What percentage of the movie is it then? Then when you are watching the movie are you constantly expecting to see that shot? I remember when I was a kid, CREEPSHOW was my favorite movie, and then I saw the trailer for it after, and there were a couple of shots in the trailer that weren’t in the movie, and I would dream about those scenes. I would watch the movie in my head in my sleep and make those scenes. I like seeing it after.
Capone: You try to figure out where those scenes would have gone, and it drives you insane. I was lucky enough to interview Michelle Williams on the set of OZ a while back and she talked about BLUE VALENTINE and that idea of just throwing two actors in a scene and letting them go. PINES seems like the exact opposite of that and not in a bad way; it’s just different. It feels controlled. But I think it heightens the tension in a lot of ways by keeping things pulled back, except for a few explosive moments. Did you set out to make something this vast and this epic and so much bigger than what you had done before?
DC: Yeah, I had been preparing PINES from before I shot BLUE VALENTINE. It was in 2007 I started writing the script for it with my co-writer, Ben Coccio staring working on it. For like 20 years, I had this idea of doing a triptych movie ever since I saw Abel Gance's NAPOLEON in film school. I always had notes in my journals about this triptych movie. I was calling it THE HOLY TRINITY and for 20 years I had notes I was throwing in and I just didn’t know what it was. Then when my wife was pregnant with our second son, all of a sudden it came crashing down on me, this idea of legacy.
BLUE VALENTINE, by the time I finally made it, it was 12 years that I had been working on it. I didn’t want to make that movie. About two years into the process of making BLUE VALENTINE, I decided I wanted to get a tattoo of an oak leaf on my arm, because I was obsessed with that idea of trees and how patient they were. I was in admiration of trees, because “How could they just sit there and be so strong and just wait all of the time?" This was my curse for BLUE VALENTINE.” Anyway, flash forward all these years later to BLUE VALENTINE, I finally had all the money, but I really didn’t want to make the film. It was a 12-year-old idea. I really didn’t want to get a tattoo of an oak leaf on my arm either, but I went to the tattoo parlor and I got it to force myself to make the movie, just out of pure stubbornness, you know? [The tattoo is clearly visible on his right forearm.]
But the thing that was really close to my heart and something that was a fresh idea for me was PINES. It talked about where I was as a man now, it was dealing with all of my issues. As a writer, I write all of my fears and vulnerabilities and hopes and nightmares up on the screen. My imagination tends towards the tragic, so I need movies and scripts to put that tragedy into, otherwise I turn my life into that tragedy, you know? So PINES was what I was planning while I was making BLUE.
I remember I was at Ryan Gosling’s agent’s house in November of 2007, and we were just talking about BLUE, and I started asking Ryan about how he had done so much in his life, and I asked him, “What haven’t you done that you’ve wanted to do?” He’s like, “Well, I’ve always wanted to rob a bank, but I’ve always been scared of jail.” I said, “That’s funny, I’m writing a movie about a bank robber. How would you do it if you could do it?” “Well, I would do it on a motorcycle, because I could go in with a helmet and be disguised, and no one would know who I was. Motorcycles are fast and agile, and I would be able to get away. Then I’d have a U-Haul truck parked about four blocks away and ride it into the back. People would be looking for a motorcycle, not a truck.”
I said, “You’ve got to be kidding me. That’s exactly what we’ve written into the script.” It felt like destiny, and so he was on board from that point forward. It was just something that I needed to make, and I had that epic, triptych structure that I was working with and had this ambition to do. It felt like the next logical step after BLUE. After BLUE, I had a number of scripts that came to me, but I felt I needed to continue the personal journey in movies. In BLUE VALENTINE, I had the opportunity. It was a moderate success, and I had the opportunity to make something again, so I chose to make--again from my audience perspective--what I wanted to see.
Capone: You said it’s a more personal story for you Other than the idea of this legacy, in what other ways is this a more personal story than BLUE VALENTINE?
DC: Because it’s about fathers and sons, you know? I’m married and I have two kids, and BLUE VALENTINE is all about my fear of marriage. It was all based upon the nightmares I had as a kid when my parents got a divorce, being scared that they would get a divorce my whole life. I made that in a way as a cautionary tale, so that I could try to have a healthy relationship as an adult. Do you know what I mean?
DC: It’s about legacy too, BLUE VALENTINE. But PINES was just more present with this kind of revolutionary change in my life of becoming a father, this incredibly responsibility you feel as a father,especially being an artist. You go from being an artist, which is a very selfish way of life, to being a parent, which is a very selfless way of life, and you start thinking about all of the things that you were born with and all of the things you’ve done wrong in your life, all your sins. I grew up Catholic, so I’m racked with guilt and thinking about all of my human sins and hinking about this baby that would come into this world that would be clean.
My feeling was I didn’t want to stain my children. I wanted my children to be their own people and carve their own paths. I started thinking about America and how people are born into different tribes in America and just started thinking about, in a small town, what happens when these tribes clash, when they collide, what leads to that collision, and what’s the aftermath of that collision, and how does that collision then resonate throughout generations.
Capone: You mentioned before that BLUE VALENTINE was based on these nightmares that you had when you were younger. I think I read or heard somewhere where you mentioned alos used to have nightmares about nuclear war. Is that the next movie? Are we going to get that nuclear war story at some point?
DC: [laughs] I hope not. But I have a script called THE MAN WITH PURPLE EYES, which I started writing in 1999 and I got 10 pages in. I was writing it alone. I get 10 pages in, and then went back and rewrote the 10 pages. I spent a year perfecting that 10 pages and I realized at the end of that that’s what insanity means, that’s the symbol for insanity [he twirls his finger next to his head], like going in circles. That’s when I realized I have to write with people. Then I realized, film is a collaborative art, and that’s why I like filmmaking. I’m better around people than I am around myself. I’m like a couch as a filmmaker, so I need writers to communicate with; I need actors to be courageous where I’m a coward; I need a team, and that’s why I love filmmaking. Otherwise, I would be a painter it I had all of the best ideas and was self sufficient. I’m just not.
Capone: I noticed these most recent two films that there’s a lie/secret that is never revealed. In BLUE VALNETINE, it was the parental origins of this baby, and in this one, it’s about the shooting and it’s something that’s never revealed, but it propels forward everything that happens after it. Is that how you see life, as a series of these little secrets?
DC: I think I’m interested in telling stories about families, because in families there are a lot of secrets. I remember seeing the smiling family pictures in my house when I was very young and thinking, “Why are we all smiling in these pictures? That’s our image that we are supposed to put out into the world? It doesn’t feel true.” I had a good family and a happy childhood. My parents were great, but we weren’t sitting around the house smiling all of the time. I’d go to my friend’s house and I’d be in his basement playing pool and I’d hear his parents beat each other up upstairs, and they also had those smiling family pictures.
I started thinking to myself, “Wow. I am never going to smile for a picture again. This is a lie. Why say 'cheese'?” That’s why still today like if a photographer wants to take my picture or something and says smile, it’s like, “You’ve got to make me smile.” It has to be a reaction to something. I’m not just a parrot. I think families are filled with secrets and I think it’s a very intimate place, and I think that’s what I love about the cinema too. You sit in a dark room that’s very private and you’re seeing these lives up on the screen. I like it as an audience member when you would know these people like you would know a family member, and you’re holding their secrets, you’re holding their fears, you’re holding their joys but also their darkness. I think that’s a very privileged place and I think that creates intimacy.
Capone: I’ve got to ask you about that opening shot. Add it to the pantheon of great opening tracking shots. It starts out really quiet and then just gets about as loud and chaotic and ferocious once the motorcycles start going. Tell me about why you wanted to open it that way.
DC: Well Sean Bobbitt, my cinematographer , and I were just looking at the scope and the scale of the film and seeing how large the canvas was that we were dealing with. I firmly believe that in the first 10 minutes of any movie train the audience on how to watch. I think what we wanted to do is we wanted active viewers. We wanted people to engage with this thing and not just sit back and be fed everything, but actually have to watch, to be active viewers. I like myself to be in the audience and to have my imagination be stimulated, you know? I like when I see ALIEN and I don’t know why that ship has crashed on the ground and who that alien creature is. Do you know what I mean? I don’t like to have everything explained.
Capone: Not everything needs a backstory, absolutely.
DC: Exactly, yeah. Not everything needs an origin story.
Capone: You’re never going to get another job by saying that, you know?
DC: I know. [laughs] That's alright.
Capone: You’re never going to get a franchise.
DC: That’s the "term du jour" in Hollywood, “the origin story.” But I like the imagination. I don’t need the origin of everything to always be revealed. I like things and everything doesn’t need this clear, concise ending. I like things that live on. My last two films, BLUE and this, both have open endings that continue and hopefully continue into people’s lives.
Anyway, for this opening shot, Sean and I decided we just needed a shot that was going to take you into the movie in the right way and get you watching it in the right way, so we devised this long tracking shot that Sean would do handheld. Sean and I had an argument because he insisted that at the end of the shot that he went to the center of the cage [a circus motorcycle cage with three motorcycle spinning around inside]. Sean is a man of stature, I’ll say that. He’s not a small guy. And I said, “Sean, that’s crazy. It’s a small cage. There are going to be three motorcycles running around you.” He says, “No, we must go to the center.” I said, “Okay, just wear a helmet, put some armor on.” So he looked like Robocop with this camera.
And he was doing this amazing tracking shot, and Sean has a way to do handheld photography and he told me his secret, and I had done this when I was shooting a lot of documentaries too. He tries to mirror the walk of the person he is following, so left foot right foot, at same pace as them. So they start to float in a way, and it makes it less shaky. It kind of glides a little bit, like human steady cam. So we did this beautiful shot, and it goes from Luke’s trailer through the carnival into the circus tent. We do this Texas switch because there are only 22 people in America that can do the globe of death stunt, and Ryan Gosling was not one of them. It would have taken him two years to learn it.
Then Bobbit follows him in there, and the cage closes, you see throttles revving. It’s amazing watching it on my monitor, and all of the sudden these motorcycles start spinning around and it’s magic and then my monitor goes static, and I hear a gasp from the crowd and I look up, and there’s a pile of motorcycles with Sean on the bottom. So we pulled the motorcycles off, dust Sean off, see if he’s okay. He’s not okay. He’s mad and he’s mad at himself for getting in the way, you know? So I just say, “Just be thankful you’re still alive.” He says, “No. We must go to the center again.” So he insisted on going back. I said, “That’s crazy. Just stay outside.” “No, we must go to the center.”
So we did the same shot again. It was even better the second time. He somehow had improved it, and I’m hiding behind the bleachers watching it, and again my monitor goes static in the same spot. This time a motorcycle had stalled in mid-air and dropped directly on him. It kind of knocked him out. We couldn’t shoot anymore that night. We went back home to the hotel. About 3am, there was a call from the front-desk security saying that there was a guy walking around in a bathrobe asking for tomatoes, and we went to the emergency room, he had a concussion. The next night, we went back to do it again, and Sean was in such a bad mood, and I would not let him get in the cage and he still won’t forgive me for it.
Capone: You saved his life.
DC: What else is in the pantheon of great opening tracking shots to you?
Capone: THE PLAYER. GOODFELLAS. BOOGIE NIGHTS.
DC: They do have a lot of great shots. I’m not sure about the first one.
Capone: It comes down from the neon sign and it goes in from the front of the club, but I can’t remember if it stops. TOUCH OF EVIL.
DC: 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, 2 DAYS?
Capone: Yeah, I didn’t even think about that. That whole movie is set up like that. There are a lot of Greek filmmakers who all they do is like 10- to 20-minute shots.
DC: Yeah, Bela Tarr. I just watched THE TURIN HORSE.
Capone: Yeah. You mentioned your documentary film background. Doing that for so many years, did that give you more of an ear for natural dialogue as well as a more realistic look to your films?
DC: Yeah, yeah. I started out as a filmmaker and made my first student film when I was 20-23. It was all megalomaniac ego hubris filmmaking, and it was all about control. Afterwards it was not a success, and I had to go sit on the bench for 12 years, and while I was on the bench I started doing other things and I started making documentaries and I quickly learned in documentaries that this idea I had of the film director, which was probably taken from the archetypal image of Cecil B. Demille with the megaphone and pointing a finger, was not the way documentaries were made, at least not the kind that I was making.
That megaphone was no longer my mouthpiece, but it was turned to my ear. It was a funnel in which I would listen to the world, and as a documentary filmmaker I had to sharpen my skills, my intuition for listening to moments, for finding moments, for predicting moments, for being in moments. I became more present as a filmmaker. For instance, we talked about the opening shot of PINES, following a character. In documentaries, you cannot lead people. I mean not always. If you’re talking Frederick Wiseman documentaries or Maysles Brothers documentaries, you have to follow. You're following them and telling somebody else’s story.
So this idea of listening andnot having a second take on anything, that magic can only happen once with people, you can’t really do it again. In an interview, I would be interviewing someone, and they wouldn’t necessarily answer the question the way I thought they would, it became alive. Film became alive to me when I was making documentaries. So with BLUE VALENTINE, when I finally got a chance to make that, I had written 60 six drafts of that script. I had 1,224 storyboards. I was completely prepared for the movie, but I threw it all away, because I wanted to be alive, and I had two great actors and I wanted to capture living moments. Now all of those moments that we captured, there was a method. They weren’t random. It wasn’t like, “Put these two in a room and see what happens.” There was a methodology to getting all that, but there was a great patience and a great awareness to kind of situational filmmaking.
So with PINES, I continued that, although there’s more of a story structure to PINES than there was to BLUE. BLUE was very character based; PINES definitely has some ground it needs to cover in terms of storytelling. Pretty much every scene in PINES was shot the same way. I tell my actors when I first hire them that the two biggest gifts they can give me is to one, surprise me, and two, fail. I know if they can fail, that means they can do something great. This comes from documentary too, I was interviewing Danica Patrick one time and I said, “How did you get to where you are? How are you so good at what you do?” She said, “Well my whole life I’ve always known how fast I could go, then whenever I drive, I go as fast as I can go and then just a little bit faster. I go to the point of crashing and sometimes I crash, but by crashing I get better.” So I tell my actors all the time “Please crash. Please fail.” Then also “Surprise me,” because as a filmmaker if I’m surprised, I feel like as an audience member I’ll be surprised. So I’m always disappointed when they do the script. [laughs]
PINES is different, because in BLUE we all had a reference for love, and PINES it’s like, “What’s your reference for robbing banks or being a cop?” The reference comes from a lot of research, and we spent time with police officers and bank robbers in prepping and making this movie. But I would just say like the classic example, the easiest example to show on this film is there’s a scene where Robin and Luke are dancing to Bruce Springsteen. That was written as a four-page dialog scene, and we were preparing to shoot it, and Ryan put on “Dancing in the Dark.” Then all of the sudden, all of these choices they had made as actors were changed.
Ben was originally written to have a big Rottweiler dog, but all the ladies in the accounting department had these little tiny dogs that shook and peed all the time, and Ben said “I think that would be more interesting.” So we had all of these little dogs in the room, cigarette smoke, Ben’s got his shirt off and they're counting money, and Bruce Springsteen is playing, and I nudged Sean Bobbitt to start shooting, and this beautiful moment came out of nowhere that we could just capture. Then we went back and did the scene for four hours. The scene was great, but that magic, the moment was that moment. So I always throw away my preconceived ideas if we can find life.
Capone: So for your actors it’s okay to crash, but not your DP. I get it. It seems like a double standard.
DC: [laughs] Well…You know the classic scene in BLUE VALENTINE with the ukulele. It couldn’t be a shakier shot. So I will always choose an out-of-focus shot or a stumbling shot if the performance is good. Performance to me is king.
Capone: Derek, it was great to meet you.
DC: Nice to meet you too, man. Thanks for your time.