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Derek Cianfrance wears his determination and discipline underneath his sleeves.
In 1999, when the Denver native was just 24 and in the early days of writing and rewriting what would become the film Blue Valentine, he promised himself he “would get a tattoo of an oak leaf on my arm to symbolize the patience of trees, because it was taking so long to make the movie… trees are just so strong, and they sit there forever.”
Fast forward a decade, when he finally had his cast, script (after 40+ drafts) and financing in place. “The last thing I wanted to do is get this tattoo,” he remembers, “and the last thing I wanted to do is make Blue Valentine.”
And yet, he followed through, getting the massive fauna inked in blue on the inside of his right forearm, and then taking a seat behind the camera. The long-awaited film, a drama about a disintegrating marriage, came out in late 2010, earned stars Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling scores of awards nominations, and most pertinent to this cold February afternoon in New York, led to Cianfrance and Gosling’s newest collaboration, The Place Beyond the Pines.
Ambitious and cerebral, with an intense demeanor and uncompromising approach, Cianfrance spent five years working to make Pines; Gosling joined when they realized that they had a shared motorcycle fantasy. Though very different movies, there are plenty of parallels between their two projects, which both focus on working-class families in the burnt-out shells of northeastern post-industrial cities. In Blue Valentine, it was Scranton; in Pines, the action takes place over two decades in the upstate town of Schenectady, New York.
Even in the early 90’s, when this initial segment of Pines takes place, Schenectady is reeling from globalization, half-deserted after the factories that powered its rise to the middle-class American dream went and pulled the plugs. The rundown remains of the town provide not just authentically decrepit backdrop, but also a context that informs the film.
“I don’t think the moments ever go away from the consciousness of a place, of this whole country,” he says, a nod to shames ranging from slavery to the persecution of Native Americans, which plays a particularly heavy part in Schenectady’s past. “This whole country, our ancestors built it on bloodshed, brutality. And now we’re sitting in the Waldorf Astoria and eating sandwiches with knives and forks, people give polite thank you’s and shake hands, but there’s ruthlessness at the heart and center of it all.”
With that heavy setting, a sense of dreary seriousness pervades throughout, the film lit by the sparks Gosling provides as an earnest-but-troubled drifter who tries to do right but finds himself crashing into a fate he cannot escape.
He is a stunt motorcyclist who rides in a traveling fair, an almost mythic figure covered in tattoos, scars and the false cloak of masculinity. When the fair makes its yearly stop in Schenectady, he finds that he has fathered a child with a local waitress played by Eva Mendes. It is a life-altering discovery that has repercussions felt over the course of two decades. Cianfrance talks often about fatherhood — he is raising two young sons with his artist/filmmaker wife Shannon Plumb — and says he wrote “all of my fears and insecurities up on the screen.”
The movie is a triptych that collides Gosling’s storyline with that of Bradley Cooper, who plays a man running from a different type of destiny. His father is a state supreme court judge, and he’s already aced his way through law school. Yet in a struggle to be his own man, he decides to become a police officer, bringing him face-to-face and barrel-to-barrel with Gosling, who has begun robbing banks in a desperate effort to support his son.
For all Pines’ focus on crime, violence, corruption and desperation, only three bullets are fired throughout the entire film. But the gunshots count, and they echo and fill every silence in the lives of the characters with sadness, informing nearly two decades of time that passes.
“It wasn’t cool, it wasn’t fetishized, it wasn’t beautiful,” Cianfrance says of the shootout. “It was violent, and it was death. And, in this movie, I wanted the violence to be narrative. I wanted you to experience as if you were ever so unfortunate to have a gun violence happen in your life, somewhere in your world.”
The frank and bloodily matter-of-fact shooting wasn’t meant just to serve Pines, though; it was also a message to all other filmmakers.
“I hate gun violence in movies, I feel like it’s so irresponsibly handled. If I have to see another slow-motion bullet come out of a gun and hit someone in the head, I’m going to puke,” he continues. “It’s not cool to me. I was thinking it must have started with Sam Peckinpah or something, this idea of ‘ballet of violence.’ But at least I felt like Peckinpah’s violence was romantic – or not romantic, but writhing in the flames with these characters. It was hell.”
“I think filmmakers need to be responsible for the violence they put in movies,” he adds, definitively. “I felt like I needed to be brave enough and bold enough to put that in the movie just as a statement against that kind of irresponsibility in violence in movies.”
Email: Jordan.Zakarin@THR.com; Twitter: @JordanZakarin
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