In "The Place Beyond the Pines," the latest film from "Blue Valentine" director Derek Cianfrance, Ryan Gosling plays a motorcycle bank bandit. But that is only the adrenaline-rush beginning of a drama that dwells on the conflicts between fathers and sons in Schenectady, New York, and also stars Eva Mendes, Bradley Cooper, and Rose Byrne. I sat down with Cianfrance in Toronto to discuss his latest project:
Thelma Adams: I was a big fan of "Blue Valentine." I was at the Gotham Awards the year the movie came out and approached minimogul Harvey Weinstein and said he should do a best actor Oscar push for Ryan Gosling. I woke up the next day and realized Weinstein was preoccupied with another contender in his stable: Colin Firth for "The King's Speech." Derp!
Derek Cianfrance: My goal was to make a film that will last. The fact that Ryan wasn't nominated for "Blue Valentine" doesn't lessen his performance. Does "Dances with Wolves" beating "Goodfellas," or "Ordinary People" beating "Raging Bull," mean anything?
[Full Coverage: Yahoo! Movies at the Toronto International Film Festival]
TA: You and Ryan have a Tim Burton-Johnny Depp thing going on. When I met you at the Hamptons Film Festival two years ago for a Q&A after the film's screening, I realized you even look alike.
DC: That's changing: I'm losing my hair now, and he's getting bigger muscles. Somewhere back in 2007, I had begun working on "The Place Beyond the Pines," writing it. I was having dinner one night with Ryan before "Blue Valentine," and he was telling me that he had always had this fantasy of robbing banks. He had figured out how he would do it. He would go in with a motorcycle helmet so no one could see his face and drive away on a motorcycle. Then he would go five blocks to a U-Haul, drive into the back of the U-Haul, and drive off in the other direction. I said to Ryan, you've got to be kidding me! I just wrote that in the script. It was one of those times early on that I realized we were destined to make movies together. It was a magical moment. We talked about "Pines" before "Valentine." We couldn't raise the money and build the trust to make the second. As a filmmaker, I had to make "Valentine" first. You can't climb seven steps. We needed to build together.
TA: This movie is a much broader canvas than the more intimate "Blue Valentine," but there are similarities.
DC: I'm drawn to making films about family. My first film, "Brother Tide," was about brothers. "Blue Valentine" was about husbands and wives. "Pines" is about fathers and sons. Families interest me. Families are the places where there are great secrets. The relationships are so intimate you really know the other people.
TA: You see them without the mask?
DC: Yes. I never understood when I was a kid when I saw those smiling family portraits. What a lie! Because when I was over at my friends' houses, there was fighting. The love was difficult. There was a deep tension. At 6 years old I stopped smiling for pictures. I thought it was such a farce. The first roll of film I ever shot, I took a picture of my brother in his underwear screaming at my mother. He was coming out of the bathroom in tears. My mother was in curlers, in her robe with one breast slipping out. Both stopped like deer in the headlights.
TA: In the movie, the camera lingers on a wall of photos by a staircase, including one of star Bradley Cooper as a policeman.
DC: Those walls of photos show a family history. I remember the hallway in my grandparents' house had a similar display.
TA: There's a lot going on in "Pines," from little details to stories that cross many generations. Was that bigger canvas harder to fill?
DC: With the larger scope I wanted to make a movie that was about legacy. To me, it feels like more of a personal film than "Blue Valentine," even though that was two people under a microscope. This film has 60 actors and three linking stories. The impetus for making this film arrived way back in film school, when I saw Abel Gance's "Napoleon." It's a triptych movie. When my wife was pregnant with our second son, Cody, I was thinking of what I was passing down. This fire that I had always felt inside me, that both helped me and destroyed things. My father and grandfather had that fire: How far back in the generations did it go and where did it start? I was thinking about this newborn baby and I didn't want him to have this fire.
TA: Why, when it's obviously such a creative force for you?
DC: Because it's destructive. It is pain. Cody should make his own path. He shouldn't have to be born into a world that I've given him. And, if he does, he should burst out of it and free himself.
TA: What were some of your influences on this film, besides Gance?
DC: I was also reading Jack London, calling back to the ancestors, what must have happened, what happened three generations ago that has affected me deeply. Any of us who are here now are here because of the sheer brutality that our ancestors did to survive and to not fall out of that tree and to get eaten by the lions. Reading "The Call of the Wild," the descriptions that London had of the domesticated wolf finding that howl inside of him that was starving. He could feel the hunger for all those generations that connected him, helped him survive that pain.
TA: I guess what you're saying is that Gosling's character, Luke, is that wolf with the fire in his belly. And that he passes it on to his son.
DC: The end of the movie is a bit of a rebirth, in that moment when Luke's son Jason goes offscreen driving a motorcycle. I'm not a cynical person. I'm optimistic. That's the moment when Luke can continue, Jason can make a lot of choices at the end, and I wanted to have a movie that has hope. I believe that my children will be better than me. Cody is 5 and Walker is 8: They already are better than me. My kids will carry that fire and they will ignite beautiful things with it, stay warm.
TA: While this movie begins with Gosling's Luke, one of the revelations is Eva Mendes as Romina, a one-night stand turned baby mama. Mendes was Gosling's recommendation, wasn't she?
DC: Ryan and I were talking about this movie for years. Who's going to play Romina? Ryan suggested Eva. I had known her a bit, too. I had seen her at parties. She came to audition one afternoon at 4 p.m. in a raggedy T-shirt and no-waist jeans from the '90s. She was trying her hardest to look ugly. No makeup. She looked beautiful. I said, 'I'm not going to make you audition. Just take me on a drive around L.A.' She grew up in L.A. and I asked if she would take me on a tour to the houses where she grew up, her spots. I got to know her story because of who she was as a person and who she could be as an actor. The fact she wanted to go onscreen and not be glamorous was a gift. What I require from my actors is that they show their vulnerability. The thing that makes us human is not our perfection. Human perfection is perpetuated onscreen, that's the image of God. God is perfect and humans are flawed. Like the family photos we talked about before, life is not in the smiles. The messiness of life is so much better. My dad used to organize his sock drawer. It was too much for me.