Lets face it… at this, far, far end of the entertainment rim (aka Tattooine.com) the reasons for doing this gig have nothing to do with a paycheck and everything to do with love of the medium and meeting people who lend their talents toward driving the medium – to where it is now of course, but also to where it will be in twenty years.
Derek Cianfrance is most definitely one of those talented people.
I literally jumped at the chance to meet this guy once the offer was put out there. If you’ve seen his film Blue Valentine you might understand why. So many movies come and go too easily, and post-film-discussions almost never reach past the car ride home from the theater.
Not so with Cianfrance’s films.
Watch Blue Valentine and try to keep your trap shut about it. The same goes for his latest film A Place Beyond the Pines. I saw the film last month at a SIFF (Seattle International Film Festival for those in territory much more dry than this one) screening, and once again found myself talking with my wife about the movie days after we had seen it together. Derek, as it turns out, is an extremely forthcoming, extremely personable film maker. If I they would have let me, I would have talked to Cianfrance for hours on end.
Please note that there are SPOILERS! in the following interview. Not that this is a movie driven by a rigid plot or anything close to that, but we do give away a few things in the discussion.
Here’s what we talked about:
Jason Roestel: Derek, I get the feeling with your movies sometimes the theme might be ordinary people trying to find some sort of moral high ground in their lives, trying to do the right thing, and then slowly you kind of strip that away from them. Like Bradley Cooper in A Place Beyond the Pines wants to be a cop, and avoid being what his father is – which is a career politician. And Ryan Gosling wants to be a good father, and ends up being a criminal.
Derek Cianfrance: Yeah, you know there is something, I guess, Greek in it. You know, Oedipal. You try to escape your fate one way and you end up crashing into it, you end up crashing into the thing you were trying to avoid because of self-fulfilling prophecies. I think I can be very psychological in my own life and I’m always very aware of my actions and consequence so I try to put the consequence to actions when I write characters and let them really have choices and I write for so long, I wrote 37 drafts of this script, so I always let my characters make numerous choices and just see where those choices will lead them.
JR: And how many brothers do you have?
DC: I have an older brother named Jason and a younger sister named Megan.
JR: And your dad?
DC: Yeah, my mom and dad are both alive in Colorado.
JR: So was this movie kind of for him a little bit… or for your kids?
DC: Yeah, you know I wrote it because in 2007 my wife was pregnant with our second son and I was thinking a lot about legacy. I was thinking about all the things my son was going to be born with, and thinking of all the things I was born with and my parents are great parents, much better than I can be as a parent, but I was also just thinking about all the mistakes I made in my life, all the choices I made, all the wrongs I’ve done to people, all the sins I’ve had and how those things don’t go away. How they stay. I started thinking a lot about ancestry and just thinking about in the past, the fact that I’m alive right now means my ancestors had to be very brutal. My kids are learning about dinosaurs right now. The reason why dinosaurs are so scary and monstrous is because that’s how they lived, the only way they could survive. They had to be monsters. So, I know that we’re all here on this earth today and our ancestors had blood on their hands and it stays there. I wanted my son, this baby, to come out into the world and I wanted him to be clean. I didn’t want him to have any of that or any of my sins. So, there is a moment early on in the film where Luke holds his baby for the first time and he’s covered in tattoos and he wipes, you know Ryan (Gosling) is such a good actor, he has this moment where he intuitively wipes his hands on his pants and tries to get them clean. He’s tainted, he doesn’t want to stain this baby, and that’s what the movie is about. That’s why I wrote it.
JR: Man, I’ll tell you what, your movie Blue Valentine kind of rocked my world the first time I saw it. I’ve never seen anything that was that close to what a real marriage can be like, or what happens… I mean it was one of the most honest movies about a relationship I’ve ever seen and then, I didn’t really want to go into this, but I lost my dad 3 years ago in a dirt bike wreck of all things, and so I’m sitting there watching your movie last night and I’m telling you what, I think you really hit on something with this. I thought about it all the way home, I talked with my wife about it, I was like: “Man… every time I see one of his movies they get me in some way.”
DC: Oh,wow. He was a dirt bike racer?
JR: Oh yeah, motocross racer. We were riding down in the Baja and he got hit by a car.
DC: Oh no.
JR: But still, I understood in your movie how a son can think that his father is so much bigger, and greater than themselves. And then when they have kids it’s like this monument they grew up with… they don’t want to stick their own children with. I was also thinking about you, and you’re a film director and work with a guy like Ryan Gosling, and your own kids are gonna be stuck in your shadow – in your legacy. How do you feel about that?
DC: I have all of the confidence in the world that my kids will be better than me. They’ll be better human beings than me. Sometimes I don’t feel like I’m worthy enough. You hear about dead beat dads and I think sometimes the reason guys are dead beat dads is because they know who they are. They don’t want their kids to be like that. Do you know what I mean?
JR: I know exactly what you mean.
DC: They don’t know how to deal, they just get away. I don’t do anything in my life. I have three things, when I had my kids I simplified my life to be three things. I try to be a good dad, husband and a good filmmaker. My life is just very normal and regular and I’m building models with my kids now and I walk them to school every day. We live in Brooklyn. We don’t live in Hollywood. We’re just having a normal… we cook dinner every night. It’s important.
JR: You also have this moment in the film where Bradley Cooper is dealing with a psychiatrist about the shooting he was involved in, and you have this moment where he feels guilty and can’t even look at his own newborn son, and I immediately thought of that massacre in Newtown Connecticut, not that your film is violent like that, but what it made me feel was I remember that feeling, my daughter came home from preschool, she’s 3, I had that guilt where all these parents don’t have this kid tonight and I do.
DC: Especially if you made a choice that took that away from the other person. I had talked to some cops and some soldiers who had felt that guilt from actually killing people in the line of duty to save themselves, and what they ended up doing was leaving fatherless kids. So, yes, there is…did you grow up Catholic or something?
JR: No, no. Not guilt in that way. What I took from it was the happiness that you got your kid and you could be there in their life but also the guilt that someone else doesn’t have that, and I just remember feeling like a week of guilt about this tragedy people are going through and I have my daughter and you have your kids and you don’t want anything bad to happen.
DC: Makes you hold them a little closer.
DC: But I think with Bradley Cooper’s character he feels this toxic shame in this moment that he made a mistake. He didn’t need to go as far as he did and if he just wasn’t trying so hard to be a cop maybe he would have never made that mistake. Maybe if he just humbled himself, so how can he deal with his own son after that. He’s just not worthy.
JR: Now, I kind of noticed something too, and I could be wrong about this, but you have this really killer baptism scene in the film where Ryan Gosling sneaks in and watches another man hold his son while he’s getting baptized. Did you play the same musical cue later in the movie when Bradley Cooper returns to the police station?
JR: Ok, why did you do that?
DC: It just felt like institution. It felt cathartic. I grew up Catholic. I have a lot of residual, I guess, Catholic guilt. I remember when I went and saw The Gospel according to St. Matthew when I was in college I had to leave and go to the hospital because I thought I was having a heart attack. I was just having an anxiety attack watching that movie because it was so intense. So, to me, it’s this kind of religion, guilt that hangs over these characters in this world. I just thought that it would connect these two people and I wanted it to be the same world. So, that score, that church music to play that in Avery’s church so-to-speak, where he goes with all these police officers who are sacrificing. I wanted it to elevate what was happening on the screen. We’re dealing with normal, ordinary people who wouldn’t necessarily have a film told about them so I wanted the score to be cathartic to their experience.
JR: I think it was a cool touch. When I caught it I was like, wow that was pretty neat. He has almost the same breakdown Ryan had in the church in the elevator ride up to find out what’s going to happen with him.
DC: Exactly. There is a lot of doubling and tripling in the movie because we’re dealing with a triptych. There are a lot of scenes that repeat. There’s doubles everywhere in the film, between Ryan trying to give the money back, and Avery trying to give the money back, and the double of the kids and things are repeated. Almost everything in the film has an echo.
JR: Like when you did that cool overhead shot of the bicycle riding away. One of my favorite moments in the movie, I don’t really want to give away the ending, but it’s when the guy selling the motorcycle asks Dane DeHaan “Do you know how to ride this?” And he doesn’t say anything. He just rides off. Of course he knows how to ride, because his dad did. I totally connected with that idea.
DC: That moment to me when he leaves frame and when he comes back it is his father in a way. One of the things that was crucial to me about this film was to tell it in a linear order. When I first wrote the script there were people that questioned well, do what Inarritu does, or Tarantino does, put it in a blender. I love those guys. I love their films. But this was about legacy and about lineage and it had to go in order. And I think in terms of violence too – you were talking about violence earlier – I wanted to have violence in the movie that you actually experience. Not in how grotesque it was, or how real we could make it look, not how viscous we could make the blood, but actually the narrative of violence. To watch a movie where there is gun violence and all of a sudden you have to live with it for the next hour and a half. I was interested in the narrative of violence, not just how gross I could make it.
JR: Are you worried at all about taking heat about the structure of this movie? I don’t really see trailers for movies, but I did see the trailer for this, and it is not the movie being advertised. Which is completely fine with someone like me, but I wonder if you’re going to get all these young Crazy, Stupid, Love fans and Drive fans a little bit letdown by the time they walk out of A Place Beyond the Pines.
DC: I’m sure. But it’s not Burger King. You cannot have it your way. This is a very personal expression, this film, and it’s what I want to see as an audience member. I’m an audience member before I’m a film maker and I don’t think my taste is that different from people. I like to be respected in the audience. I don’t like to be really manipulated. I like to see films that have feelings, and I like to see about human beings, people that I can relate to. And I like surprises. This goes back to when I was watching Pirates of the Caribbean and I’m going to sleep during the movie because I know that Johnny Depp is never going to get stabbed with a sword in a sword fight. He’s going to be fine. So, why am I watching? There is no danger, no threat in it. So to me, if I’m having characters, and they are real characters living in a world, and they are doing dangerous things, there has to be real consequences to their actions. I think anyone can enjoy and relate to the story telling of the movie, even though its structure does have an experimental quality to it but I have to say that one of the films that really inspired this film was Psycho. And I always knew that there was a shower scene, but I had no idea that I spent 45 minutes with Janet Lee before she went into the shower, and that blew me away. This idea of this baton pass – and we do it a couple of times in the film – it’s really interesting to me.
JR: You don’t get to see that anymore. You don’t get hat surprise of…. “Hey… he just switched gears on me” in most modern movies. The thing that’s more shocking about how you do it is, whereas something like Cloud Atlas I expect the shift, that’s part of the structure of that movie, but you have so much detail in these stories that, as an audience member, I’m not ready to leave these people just yet and move on to another group. It was jarring. I want to know what happened to Kofi and Romina’s (Eva Mendes) relationship, but we had to move on…
DC: And then you get to see those people again. When I was a kid my mom watched a lot of soap operas, I watched Days of our Lives when I was a kid and I think Days of our Lives rubbed off on my film making a little bit in terms of, you know it was riveting when I watched Days of our Lives as a kid. It always takes place in one place and there’s numerous characters, lives intersecting, but like with the Cloud Atlas thing, or Inarritu thing, I didn’t want to inter-cut it. I did that with Blue Valentine. I wanted this to go in order and I wanted that moment that you said… how did you say it, it was shocking?
JR: It was jarring.
DC: And you want to spend more time with him. But, that’s where the narrative violence comes in. I want you to be effected. And if I’m going to put a gun into a movie, to me I get so sick of seeing guns in movies. They are so carelessly used. I feel like filmmakers are so often lazy with guns, 10,000 bullets can fly, but who cares? Where do all the bullets go? They all go somewhere. So, I wanted to make sure that if there was a bullet in my film, and it went somewhere that it had an effect, and if you’re an audience member you had to live with that effect and there was no sanctity of a flashback, that you’re living in it. And how do people deal with death, they have someone taken from them in their life. What do you have? You have memories, pictures, you can be haunted and I felt like the film needed to have that kind of haunted quality.
JR: I like your transition because you follow one character upstairs, and then whatever happens happens, (spoiler speak) and then you follow a new character downstairs… and then we’re off and running with him.
DC: Did it take you a while to get into Bradley Cooper’s story?
JR: No. You have some easy stuff to get you there with Bradley Cooper though. Ray Liotta jumps into the picture and… BAM!
DC: Yeah, once Ray Liotta comes… that’s why I cast him in that, because I needed a little familiarity at that moment to make you feel comfortable in where you were.
JR: I think it was the dinner scene between Liotta and Mendes. You pretty much had it. I mean… You don’t need me to tell you this, you’re the guy that makes these movies.
JR: Well man, I enjoyed it, and I can’t wait to see another movie you do and I hope you come up here again. It would be cool to talk to you some more.
DC: Yeah, next one. If I get to make another movie I will.
JR: I think you will.
DC: I hope so.
A Place Beyond the Pines opens in Seattle and other markets this weekend.