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Derek Cianfrance: Ryan Gosling a Criminal Mastermind?

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I had the opportunity to sit down with writer/director Derek Cianfrance, who has a new film coming out this Friday called The Place Beyond the Pines, which stars his Blue Valentine star Ryan Gosling as well as Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes and Ray Liotta. While I only had a few minutes with him, I asked him about his motivations to make the film, what it’s like to work with Ryan Gosling and how both men are criminal masterminds at heart.

What made you want to make The Place Beyond the Pines?

About six years ago my wife was pregnant with our second son and I was thinking a lot about becoming a father again. And about the things that I was going to pass on to my kid and the things that were passed on to me. I was thinking about legacy. I had always wanted to make a triptych movie. I just didn’t have a story to tell.

Then this feeling of putting life into the world and having a baby come out… Really what I wanted was to have my kid come out clean. I didn’t want him to have all of my shit. I wanted him to make his own choices and not to deal with all my sins basically. So I thought it was a valid thing to make a movie about that.

I had also been reading a lot of Jack London books at the time and I was kind of obsessed with the idea of the calling back of ancestors and Darwinism. It’s similar to what was going on with Blue Valentine. I made that movie in response to my parents’ divorce because as a young adult I wanted to have a relationship that worked. I am really interested in that idea of legacy. I am also interested in making movies about family – American families. I feel families are a place of such secrets and cinemas are that way, too – you can sit in a dark place and watch these lives up on a bright screen.

I get that you don’t want your son to have all your baggage. But the movie also deals with an inherit nature, because the son doesn’t know his father and yet he ultimately he becomes a little violent himself.

It’s the nature/nurture thing. It is what is passed on in the blood. And being a parent you experience that, you feel that, you see it happen. Physically and emotionally you can see things that happened generations before, you can still see them going on. Reading those Jack London books, they just spoke to me so much – like Call of the Wild, it’s about a domesticated dog who can hear, who knows he used to be a wolf and he goes and escapes back. And White Fang, the wolf that gets domesticated. We’re all domesticated in some sense. We all live in a polite social landscape. But our ancestors had brutal pasts in order to survive. And that fight for survival is still in all of us. It’s Darwinsitic. That’s what the movie is about. Survival. For me, The Place Beyond the Pines is a cathartic and hopeful movie because it’s about evolution, and moving forward. Yes, people are born on the same trees but the rings get bigger, there’s growth and I have no doubt my children will be better than me.

The score is pretty dramatic compared to other dramas like this. What was the thought process going that route versus something more subtle?

Well, the score was done by Mike Patton, who, when I was a teenager, he was my hero. I went to go see a Mr. Bungle show when I was 14 or 15 in Denver. At the Gothic Theater, and Patton was up on stage and he was wearing a bondage mask with horse blinders on the sides and he was singing Alan Parsons Project’s Time and he got down on his knees and started licking the bald head of the security guard in the front row. From that minute forward he became my hero.

I always dreamed about making a movie with him. You know when you listen to his music it’s never background music, it’s bold. I had the opportunity to meet him one day. I always believe that if you have opportunities to make dreams come true, you should.

To me, one thing I am always trying to do with films is tell stories about ordinary people, not people you would normally have movies told about them, and have movie stars play these people in the ugliest possible way they can be up on screen. I’m asking them to be vulnerable, to be naked emotionally on screen. And to be ordinary, to be regular. I don’t want to see the game show host, I don’t want them to be perfect, to be saying perfect sentences. I want them to fail, to be human. That’s what I’m looking for – I want to be able to relate to, not people who are not so perfect that I could never relate to them. Our flaws are what make us interesting, not our perfections.

Here I am telling these very human, ordinary stories and the score to me helps makes their lives bigger. I’m sort of stalking these normal people’s lives. I would always do that in my documentaries, about ordinary people I would try to see them in an extraordinary way. When I did documentaries about famous people I would always try to see what was ordinary about the extraordinary. That’s sort of the collision you see and the score to me is just a piece of that projection.

Did you seek Mike Patton out?

I was at WME Agency in Los Angeles and a guy came up and said, “You’ve got to meet this composer, he’s a really new great guy out there.” I ask who is he and he’s like, “Mike Patton.” I’m like, “Don’t sell me on Mike Patton. I guarantee you I know a lot more about Mike Patton than you do.” That would be a dream come true, so I met up with Mike and it happened.

Same thing happened with Ray Liotta in this movie.  When I first met with my writer Ben Coccio and we decided to make a movie together, you know he’s in Synecdoche, New York so we decided to set it in Synecdoche, we decided to tell three stories in linear fashion and that we would write a role for Ray Liotta.

Ray seems drawn to these kinds of roles, these roles of corrupt cops.

He does a good job at it. I was aware of how many roles Ray has done like that but I also figured there is something right about it. He met my four year old son and my son started crying in 30 seconds and I love that about Ray, I love that he can go into a scene with other actors and he can unnerve them. And for a filmmaker like me that’s what I am looking for, actors that instigate and create discomfort on the set. The more uncomfortable on the set, the better the scenes are.

This is the second time you’ve worked with Ryan Gosling. Is this going to be a pairing we’re going to see for years and years to come?

I hope we can make more films together, yes. I feel very fortunate to work with Ryan, he’s a magic human being, you see just in regular life he’s magic and you put him in a movie, he’s magic and he’s so creative. It’s a real gift to work with him.

After Blue Valentine did you talk about doing something else? Was he in your mind for this role?

Yeah, but I was writing The Place Beyond the Pines before I made Blue Valentine.  I started writing it in 2007. I was over at his agents’ house making dinner. I asked him, “Ryan, you’ve done so much in your life, what haven’t you done? What do you fantasize about?”

Ryan said, “Well, I’ve always wanted to rob a bank, but I’ve never done it because I’m scared of jail.”

“That’s funny,” I said, “because I’m writing a movie about a guy who robs banks, and I asked him how he would do it.”

He said, “Well, I would do it on a motorcycle because I could wear a helmet and disguise my identity, and motorcycles are fast and agile so I could get out of there quickly, and then I would have a U-Haul truck parked about four blocks away so I would go into the back of that and drive away in the U-Haul truck. People would be looking for a motorcycle, not a U-Haul.”

I said, “You’ve got to be kidding me, that’s exactly what I wrote. That’s what I had in mind.”

So you had written that before that conversation?

Yes, I had written it and he had thought of it, and it was one of those times when I knew we were destined to make films together.

So you are both criminal masterminds at heart.

Yes, yes. But I told him I’d make your dreams come true and you’d only have to spend a day in jail. That’s how I like to work with actors, I like to find where they are not acting anymore, so he sat in that jail cell for a long time with a lot of other real people in jail calling him some bad names.

(SEMI-SPOILER) I’m a marketing guy, so I’m curious: the film takes a pretty big turn that is not in the trailer, so do you ask “Please don’t put any of this stuff in the trailers?”

Focus Features doesn’t want to give it all away either. My feeling is that if you know the surprise – there are many surprises in the film, but that one – it doesn’t necessarily ruin the film for you, and I know in the age of spoilers there is no way to control that, so I don’t think if you know that it diminishes your experience, but there is a thrill of going into a film blind. I read a lot of film criticisms, but never before I see the movie, I don’t like watching trailers before I see movies because I like going into movies clean, actually having an experience. If you watch a trailer in advance you’re always waiting for that shot to occur.

For me, that moment in the film, that first hand-off is the transcendent moment in the film, between where these lives collide… that’s where the movie succeeds.

Randomly, what was your favorite movie growing up?

Too many… Goodfellas, Creepshow, Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn.

By Erik Samdahl
Related categories: Crime Films, Drama Movies
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