Interview: Derek Cianfrance


In a boardroom on the basement level of Toronto’s Intercontinental Hotel the morning after the debut of his latest film at TIFF, writer and director Derek Cianfrance is incredibly relaxed and loose. One would expect him to be a giant bundle of nerves considering that his latest project, The Place Beyond the Pines, hadn’t found a distributor when we talked to him (it has long since been picked up by Focus Features in the U.S. and eOne in Canada) and it really isn’t the definition of an easy sell. Instead, he’s every inch as forth coming and effortless about a film that’s really hard to talk about without spoiling outright.

Seated next to him is young actor Dane DeHaan (Chronicle, Lawless) who has a pivotal and sizable role late in the film that’s pretty much impossible to explain without ruining a movie that’s constantly twisting and turning in new directions. It’s easier to ask the questions to Cianfrance only because he can adequately dance around the secrets that come enmeshed in his latest collaboration with his Blue Valentine star Ryan Gosling.

A sprawling crime saga set in Schenectady, New York (the loose Mohawk translation of the city acting as the title for the film), Cianfrance starts his film as the story of a carnival motorcycle stunt rider (Gosling) who learns of the existence of a son he never knew he had and turns to bank robbing as a way of proving he can provide for the woman (Eva Mendes) he left behind. Eventually he will run afoul of a rookie cop (played by recent Academy Award nominee Bradley Cooper), and the film becomes something different: a look at the relationships between fathers and sons and the consequences of their actions revisiting younger generations.

We talked to Cianfrance about (with some extremely minor spoilers) how his own experiences honed the film’s takes on father/son relationships and the concept of heroism, his influences, his working relationship with Ryan Gosling, and the different set of challenges between this film and Blue Valentine. We also talk briefly to Dane DeHaan (as much as we can without spoiling the film) about his character and his approach to such an unconventional and sprawling story.

This is such an epic film about fathers and sons. Was that an idea that you always had in the front of your mind instead of just making a standard crime saga that could have taken a much more standard kind of arc?

Derek Cianfrance: Yeah. Way back in film school when I had seen Abel Gance’s Napoleon and I had always thought about making a triptych movie, but I never really knew which story to tell. In 2007 before my second son Cody was born I kind of started in on this thought process of becoming a father again. It hit me really hard, and I started thinking about all the things that I had felt inside of me. This kind of fire that I had my whole life. I thought about how my father had this same kind of fire and how it had helped me out in my own life, but it also could be a really destructive force at some points. I thought about how my grandfather had that. I’m sure my great-great grandfathers had that. It just went back generations and generations, and I started thinking about this baby, my newborn son, and how I hoped that he wouldn’t have that same fire, too.

The movie came to me very quickly in the few months before he was born about this transcendent power of becoming a father and the responsibility that it carries, and about how one choice that you make can echo and reverberate throughout generations. I wanted to make a film about legacy. That was the idea, and that was where the idea to create a triptych comes in. I wanted to make three stories that would ultimately build up into one movie.

So, yeah, I was never really ever interested in making just a straight up genre movie. I don’t even know what genre means, actually. People used to talk about it all the time, but I still don’t know what that means.

It’s just an easy to classify label designed to kind of dumb things down.

DC: Exactly! Totally. When I used to go to record stores I couldn’t stand how things were classified into categories like hip-hop, rock and roll, and classical, because to me it was all one thing. I just wished it was all alphabetical. All I was doing as a filmmaker with this and even before I started even making films, I always thought of myself as an audience member before being a filmmaker. As a filmmaker, I’m just telling the story that I think I want to see as an audience, you know? And I felt like I hadn’t seen this movie before.

You struggled a lot financially and with the ratings board on your last film, Blue Valentine, so what was it like following the relative success and validation of that film to turn around and deliver something like this that’s a bit harder to sell?

DC: The thing is that you get a certain amount of money to make a film and it’s never, ever enough. For Blue Valentine, for instance, we had a budget and I came up $75,000 short that I couldn’t make. We had to decide by 8 in the morning the next day how to come up with it, and ultimately I came up with the idea that it had to be my paycheque. I put that all back into the movie, but then I even had to end up paying taxes on the 75 grand. I actually had to PAY money to make Blue Valentine. Thankfully I was able to afford that because I had directed commercials for quite some time before that over the years. I bought my time back making commercials.

With Pines, the budget was significantly higher than Blue Valentine, but it was still just barely on the edge of impossibility. The first schedule that came out stated that we had to shoot the movie in 30 days, which means each section of the film had to be done in 10 days, and that was impossible. We ended up being able to extend it to 47 days, which means there was nothing there. The actors from Ryan to Dane to Eva to Bradley, they all stayed at the Holiday Inn with no frills. We ate cheeseburgers. No one got rich off of making this film. They all did it to make the film. And it was great because this movie is such a larger scope that we needed more time and more money, so we put every penny on the screen.

When you say that you approach the film as a viewer, how did that contribute ultimately to the structure of the film, because certain moments are certainly going to surprise people when they see it?

DC: I think the initial inspiration came from how I was always blown away by Psycho, and that whole hand off where you’re following Marion Crane – Janet Leigh – for 45 minutes before Anthony Perkins even comes on screen. That always blew my mind, and I wanted to do something like that.

There’s also a few guns in this movie, and I hate guns and I don’t like using them in movies. I think they are taken so lightly so often, and there’s thousands of bullets flying sometimes with no real impact to any of them. The idea was asking how we could deal with true consequence and how the viewer would experience that like you would in real life. If someone were to get shot in life and if someone would die there, it leads to an actual absence. They don’t come back. You don’t get to re-cut your life. Death can be haunting. I wanted to make a film where that could create that experience.

It’s an incredibly difficult, ambitious, challenging, and almost impossible thing to do, and the only way that it could be successful is to (do it) like we did it. The only reason that Janet Leigh works to Tony Perkins is because they are incredible actors who really carry it. That’s why it took me so long to find Bradley, and when I met him I just knew that no one else could play that part except for him. The thing that I saw in Bradley and in the character was that they were both all-American guys who could have a lot of demons inside of them. From the outside he can look like the most popular kid and a hero and a leader who has always made the right choices until this one moment when it creates this toxic shame that he can’t deal with that nearly buries him.

I thought Bradley was the perfect guy for that and it took a lot of convincing him to do it, and I was thankful that he did. Then the film, as you can see, will do another similar kind of hand off about two thirds of the way into the film, and that was another impossible challenge because the final part of the film begged the question, “How do you go from focusing on these two huge movie stars to focusing on two younger actors?”

There were probably 500 kids from non-actors to trained actors who came in before I found Dane and Emory (Cohen) to take that baton. To me that was the biggest of all the challenges, just to keep it all going at once and to have all three stories add up to one.

Dane, since you’re here and your character doesn’t show up until late in the film and we’ve been talking a little bit about it, as an actor did you want to or were to able to look at the whole screenplay or just the section of it that was pertinent to your character who when we meet him doesn’t know the full details that the audience knows before you arrive. Did you want to know the whole story, because some actors who play roles like this might not necessarily want to know everything going in?

Dane DeHaan: Well, when I got the script I read the whole thing because I didn’t realize I was only in the last part of the film. (laughs) But after I got the job I threw the first two thirds away myself because my part is about trying figure out the past and what happened. I just focused on my part and what I knew the character’s life to be. And I don’t really know what my childhood was like. I think that’s a huge part of Jason as a character. He just has this huge missing piece inside of him and he doesn’t know what it is and he thinks that if he can figure it out, he’ll have all the answers. And I’m not so sure even by the end of the film that that’s the truth, but he really, really believes that. It’s actually really amazing to watch the movie and see my character as a baby. (laughs)

DC: I also just want to add that the name of the baby who plays the infant version of Dane is named Anthony Pizza. Tony Pizza (laughs). And he was great. When you were a baby, you looked just like Tony Pizza.

At the Q&A for the film last night at the gala, Ryan Gosling said that meeting you changed his life as an actor forever. How has he changed you as a filmmaker?

DC: Ryan’s just a magic person. He makes everything better around him. You’ve seen it when he breaks up fights in New York City and he stops people from getting run over by cars. (laughs) I mean, when you are making a movie with Ryan, that’s what he does. He makes it better. He makes me a better filmmaker. He makes the actors around him better. He’s just a magic man, and that’s really all I can say. As a human being, he’s one of the people that I love most in my life and I’m very thankful for his friendship and his collaboration, and I can’t wait to see the film he’s working on because I think he can be a great filmmaker. And honestly, he already is.

I feel the same about Ryan as I do all the actors in this movie. Everyone is making the movie with me. Everyone is kind of co-directing the film with me, know what I mean? It’s Ryan’s, Dane’s, Bradley’s, Eva’s, Emory’s, Rose Byrne’s, Ben Mendelsohn’s. That’s why I’m a filmmaker and not a painter. It’s because I like working with people, and Ryan was one of those actors who really helped me define what kind of a filmmaker I would be, you know?

For many years when I was trying to make Blue Valentine and he was kind of unsure if he was going to make it or not, I think that by talking with him over the course of about five years before I made it, he pushed me in the right direction. I think he helped me develop what I wanted to do more than anyone else did.

In your film the concept of what makes a hero kind of takes a bit of a beating, especially with regard to Bradley’s character. What really defined the term “heroism” for you when you set out to make this movie?

DC: I’ll just say this personally without giving away too much about his character, but I remember when I was going through all these Blue Valentine press things and everyone was taking my picture and telling me all about how I had made such a great movie, and I remember I would go home at the end of those and I would just feel like I had been through an enormous kind of mind fuck. To just see this line between your personal life and public perception, and how these engines in America keep working to keep people on certain levels and how some people are kept above or below you, that kind of led to how this guy is really struggling with that. The audience shares a moment with him that no one else shares. He and Ryan and the audience knows what happened and no one else will truly know. It’s not a good moment that happens, but the way it gets spun is that he’s the hero. It’s not the way the story happens, but the way the story is told. I was interested in how that changes: the difference between how things happen and how they’re told.

I think we grow up in this world where we deal with such black and white concepts of what makes heroes and villains. But it’s so grey, really. I just wanted to have this film to have this air of shame that everyone else saw as a shining light, and to just see how that would erode somebody over time. I think this character buries that toxicity and goes towards the light because what’s the alternative? There’s a reckoning that comes back to that, and that’s what really leads into the third act of the movie.

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