Anyone who saw Derek Cianfrance's second film, the devastating break-up drama Blue Valentine (2010), could tell you that writer-director was capable of distilling a world of love and loss into a single laser-like beam of emotional turmoil. Though his latest, The Place Beyond the Pines, spreads its dramatic heft over three stories instead of one, the effect remains the same. What starts out as a story about a motorcycle-stunt rider (Ryan Gosling) working the low-rate carnival circuit and meeting his estranged son soon branches into a tale involving a morally compromised cop (Bradley Cooper) and a high-school student (Dane DeHaan)—all of which coalesce into a larger exploration of father issues and familial strife. Cianfrance sat down with TONY to explain it all.
(This Q&A originally ran as part of our Toronto International Film Festival 2012 coverage; click here to see our complete rundown of the fest.)
Time Out New York: The story stems from you becoming a father for the second time, correct?
Derek Cianfrance: In 2007, right before my second son, Cody, was born, I was thinking a lot about becoming a dad again and the whole notion of ancestry. There’s this fire that I’ve always felt inside of me: It’s helped drive me to do things in my life that I wouldn’t normally have done, and it’s also been a very destructive force in my life as well. I know my father had it inside of him, as did my grandfather…you could probably trace it all down the line.
Time Out New York: By “fire,” do you mean a restless feeling? Or more like a drive that keeps you going?
Derek Cianfrance: All of that, yeah, but also…I believe that we’re all here because our ancestors lived these brutal, violent lives in order to survive. They needed a killer instinct to make it through, and it’s something that gets passed down to us, through generations. We don’t need to live like that anymore, however, but we still have that instinct—and I think a lot of people end up channeling that into some destructive places. [Pause] I’d been reading a lot Jack London books, and there’s a part of The Call of the Wild where this domesticated wolf starts howling in the middle of the night. And in that cry, the animal can feel all of the hunger and the pain of every wolf that’s come before him. I wanted to make a movie about that legacy of pain—how it connects you to your past but can also consume you.
At the same time, I was wondering about this baby, this creature that would be clean and without the baggage you pick up as life goes on. And I thought: I don’t want him to have that fire. I want him to have his own path. So the movie really starts from the questions that were running through my mind as I waited for my son to come in to the world: How do the choices that were made before us affect the person we become? How do we become our own person? If we’re born into a certain tribe, is it possible to switch tribes—or are we fated to be a part of that until we die?
Time Out New York: Is there something about damaged males that you find particularly fascinating? If you look at the husband in Blue Valentine and the male characters in this movie….
Derek Cianfrance: …Then it kind of seems that way, doesn’t it? Yeah, I mean, I’m incredibly interested in how the male psyche works, including my own. I’m trying to explore the things that are beautiful and ugly about myself, and to look at my own fears and fantasies and flaws as a man through these characters. But I don’t think I’m unique in that respect. A lot of artists are interested in flawed human beings.
Time Out New York: Were these things that you and Ryan Gosling discussed in depth? There’s something about the way his character goes from being feral to fatherly that suggests you guys had more than a few conversations about damaged males trying to be better people.
Derek Cianfrance: Oh yeah, we talked a lot about all of that! It made its way into the film in a number of ways; there are obvious elements of it, like when his character, Luke, speaks about his own father and says he doesn’t want his son to be like him. And there were other, more subtle ways we talked about working those elements in. We talked about how this guy was an entertainer, but much in the same way that a big cat in a zoo would be considered an entertainer. You know, you marvel at this exotic creature covered with tattoos and the agility he has, but if you get too close to the cage….
Time Out New York: …Watch out!
Derek Cianfrance: [Laughs] Exactly! He’s dangerous. We also talked about how we wanted Luke to be covered with scars—each one of his tattoos represents a moment of regret. That’s one of the things I love about tattoos: They are great markers of time but they can also carry this sense of shame about them. You get it inscribed into your flesh, and then 20 years later look back and think, I’m no longer that guy.
Time Out New York: That’s especially true regarding face tattoos of daggers dripping blood. You immediately get the sense that this guy has been through some shit.
Derek Cianfrance: Yeah, definitely. The day we started shooting, the make-up person put the face tattoo on Ryan, and he kept saying, eh, I think we should take this off. And I told him, No, man, that’s the thing about face tattoos: They don’t come off. You gotta deal with the consequences now. [Laughs] It was a way to instantly tell the audience that, even though this guy is fairly young, he’s lived a hard life. And then he sees this baby, and it just boggles his mind that someone who feels so tainted helped make something so pure. That’s when his paternal instinct kicks in.
Time Out New York: Without giving anything major away, the movie isn’t just Luke’s story; it develops into a movie about several men who are dealing with father issues. Was the concept of telling the story in this fashion something that came to you early on while you were writing, or later in the process?
Derek Cianfrance: It happened really early on, actually. When I was film school about 20 years ago, I had the chance to see Abel Gance’s Napoleon and thought, wow, I’d really love to make a triptych type of movie like this one day! I also have a vivid memory of seeing Psycho around that time too, and thinking oh yeah, the movie with the shower scene, I’ve seen that a million times. But you actually spend something like 45 minutes with Marion Crane before that shower scene happens, and it blew my mind how Hitchcock could so effortlessly pass the baton of the narrative from one protagonist to the next.
So the notion of doing a three-part story, and of having these characters sort of pass the torch from one to the next…that had been percolating for a while. It was just a matter of when I’d end using it. Then when I started thinking about doing something on the notion of legacy, the story just sort of presented itself to me as: This is how you do it. This is how you tell these stories together.
Time Out New York: Did you run into any resistance regarding the decision to use this formal set-up?
Derek Cianfrance: There were some vocal detractors, sure. A number of folks told me, “You can’t do this in a linear way; why not cut from one story to another throughout? Have you seen Babel?” And it’s like, yeah, Babel is great, but you can’t just put these stories in a blender and hit the purée button. A story about lineage kind of has to be linear, right? [Laughs]
Time Out New York: I’m not sure the cross-cutting would have worked for these stories, lineage-based or not.
Derek Cianfrance: I’m with you there. I’m not a "message" filmmaker, and I don’t feel qualified to give people a sermon about how to live their lives, you know? I just want to instigate a conversation. It’s not just about listening to a story and then going home and going to bed. It’s about giving viewers an experience with a familiar vocabulary. Hopefully, that experience stays with them after the movie is over.
Time Out New York: Speaking of “familiar vocabulary,” it feels like you’re borrowing stylistic elements from other filmmakers here—the Dardenne brothers in one segment, Sidney Lumet in the next. Were you worried that some folks might just write Pines off as the product of recycled bits and pieces from other artists?
Derek Cianfrance: Not at all. Do you think it comes off like that?
Time Out New York: I don’t. I think you were your influences on your sleeve—but I don’t think those influences are the sleeve here.
Derek Cianfrance: One of the producers on Blue Valentine, Jack Lechner, used to say that all movies are internalized, and every movie you’ve ever seen comes out in your work. When I saw what Truffaut and Godard did with old Hollywood movies they loved to kickstart the French New Wave, I realized that it was possible to “borrow”—to use your word—elements from moviemakers you loved and make something unique out of those elements. I mean, I love the work of the filmmakers you just mentioned; I love the work of a lot of other filmmakers as well, and their work is in Pines too. [Long pause] The biggest influence on this movie is probably Days of Our Lives.
Time Out New York: Wait, what?
Derek Cianfrance: Oh yeah, I watched Days of Our Lives with my mom throughout my entire childhood—probably 11, 12 years. I’m not saying this in a derogatory or ironic way whatsoever. Soap operas can be riveting, they usually take place in one setting and they involve families. I’m not saying this in a derogatory way. Think of how much you can do what those elements!
The Place Beyond the Pines opens Friday, March 29.
Follow David Fear on Twitter: @davidlfear