Derek Cianfrance on the anxiety of legacy in 'The Place Beyond the Pines'
I very rarely run a transcript/Q&A-style interview because, well, on one hand I think it's kind of lazy (not always). On the other, I'm a writer and I like to write, I like to paint a portrait of someone and use their words as tools toward those ends.
But sometimes you talk to someone whose every word you want to print, and filmmaker Derek Cianfrance is definitely one of those guys. The director of "The Place Beyond the Pines" has been making the rounds lately to discuss the film again as it heads for DVD/Blu-ray next week and so it was a great opportunity to finally see the film (I had missed it in theatrical) and talk to him about his vision for it.
Cianfrance is an incredibly thoughtful filmmaker and his take on this material was full of such interesting insight and his stories so compelling that I'd rather they just speak for themselves. So read on to learn more about his approach to the visual grammar distinguishing the film's three acts, what he was looking for in filling out the cast and how he almost had a very game Ben Mendelsohn pull out his own teeth for his role. Some of this you may have heard or read already but it's a nice dive back into the talking points before the film comes back around, and maybe even makes a dent in the awards season. Also, check out a pair of exclusive new clips from the film below.
Tell me a little bit about the visual grammar of the film. It's a triptych, so did you want to visually distinguish those sections at all?
No. I mean, on "Blue Valentine," I had approached that movie as a duet. And I wanted to let the aesthetic approach to the film kind of drive the two worlds that I was dealing with. The one world of the past was about these two people falling in love. I shot it all on super 16, completely handheld. We shot it with one 50 mm lens; we never changed the lens. To me it was about seeing the world with this kind of one eye. I kind of wanted to have some opportunity in the frame that if the characters wanted to move they had a freedom to move and kind of mirror the choice that you had when you were young. I always thought about it as like if you were a fish in the ocean you could go anywhere and that's what I wanted the past of "Blue Valentine" to feel like. I wanted it to be very physical as well. If the character was running the camera was running. It was physical filmmaking. Whereas the present, I shot it all on digital format on a RED. I shot it with two cameras at a time because I wanted to break the perspective. It was no longer about this one vision, it was about this kind of duplicity in vision of these two characters living in the same world but kind of split. I shot it all with long lenses on tripods and I wanted it to be about the kind of claustrophobia of the choices that you made and kind of being stuck, being trapped. So you're using my metaphor of the fish in the ocean on the past, the present all of a sudden was fish in a bucket, that these people were caught and had less choices, less actual room to breathe. And it was very important that there were two different distinct styles.
With "Pines," because I was telling a linear story and it was all about these people living in this same place, the city of Schenectady, New York, very early on Sean Bobbitt and I decided that it would be a unified vision, that we weren't going to deal stylistically with different worlds. So in terms of the aesthetic approach of the film, in terms of formats, in terms of how we approached our scenes, we wanted to make a film that was more about echoes of the past and the repetition of actions and the consequence of those actions. And so we decided to shoot it all in the same kind of visual language, and the only thing that's different, that changes, is the location, because this movie is also about class, social structures that people are born into. So the Ryan Gosling/Eva Mendes thread, while it's shot in the same kind of cinematic grammar as the Avery section, the Avery section feels much different because his world takes place in a suburban household and in kind of marble civic centers and city halls. It's the same visual grammar, it's just kind about crossing the tracks in a town.
Why did you choose Schenectady, New York for the film's setting? I've read some comments from you about the city's violent history.
My wife is from Schenectady. I've been visiting that place for 10 years. I love that place and the people. And like any American city, it has its history of controversies and its own histories of corruption. To me Schenectady as represented in the film, it could be anywhere in America, but it's specific to Schenectady. And we weren't necessarily trying to make a documentary about what had happened in Schenectady. I was just dealing with the town on more of a human level, just trying to imagine what it would be like to grow up there on one side of the railroad tracks and the other side of the railroad tracks and to see what happened when those two sides collided and to try to imagine what that reverberation would be. So I was only dealing with it on a real human level, but trying to be true to the social kind of class implications that exist there.