The Principals Behind The Pines: Gosling and Cianfrance On Robbing Banks, Fatherhood, Face Tattoos, And More
As a movie title, The Place Beyond The Pines doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but that didn’t stop the latest project from Derek Cianfrance and his Blue Valentine star Ryan Gosling from being one of the most discussed films at the Toronto International Film Festival. The picture — which tells the tale of a bank-robbing motorcycle stunt driver (Gosling), a cop (Bradley Cooper) who fatefully crosses his path and their sons, did not have a distributor when it premiered at the festival on Friday night. That changed when Deadline reported on Sunday that Focus Features had acquired the film for release.
On Saturday, Gosling and Cianfrance met with the press to discuss the making of the film, its thematic exploration of legacy, and Gosling's fantasy about robbing banks on a motorcycle — an idea that figures into the plot of film. The Pines, Cianfrance explained, "is a place where you find your demons but also where you can find your destiny."
As for that title, it doesn't sound so cumbersome when you consider that it could have been called Schenectady. Read on for the explanation.
Derek Cianfrance: It’s a movie about what we pass on. I started writing it in 2007 right before my second son was born. I was thinking about what kind of father I was going to become again, and I was thinking about this feeling I’ve had inside me my whole life. There's this fire inside me that had helped me do many things in my life, but that also was very destructive. And I started thinking that my father — and my grandfather — had that fire and then wondering how far back it went and where it started.
I was also thinking about this baby that was going to come into the world that was going to be clean and what I was going to give him. I was thinking how I didn't want him to have the fire. I wanted him to be fresh and clean. Very quickly, that led to this idea about legacy. Ever since film school, I had wanted to make a triptych, like Abel Gance's film Napoleon, but I didn't know what story to tell. When I discovered this idea of legacy, I realized that that was how I would tell this story.
That fire that you mention — it shapes who you become but you have to take control of it.
DC: Yes, it’s the choices you make, but sometimes you’re born into a world with all of these repercussions that people have made before you. So you have to fight and claw to get out of that.
You said at the premiere that you were reading a lot of Jack London at the time.
I was reading pretty much everything I could find that Jack London had written. If you just take The Call of the Wild , for example, it's about this domesticated wolf that hears the calling of his ancestors. When he howls at the moon, he feels the hunger — and how his ancestors were starving — and he can sing their song with them. That line continues, and I got kind of obsessed with this idea of evolution, of where that came from within me. And of my ancestors. And wanting them to be better than me. Wanting them to survive. If they're worse than me, then they don't survive. Then your bloodline doesn't survive. And to survive is brutal.
Ryan, what's significant about the film for you?
Ryan Gosling: I love Derek’s idea of passing the narrative. I saw this film called The Red and the White [Miklós Jancsó]. It’s this war picture and you’re following this one soldier, and, suddenly, he gets killed. Then you're following the guy that killed him and he ends up attacking some woman. And the you follow the woman. It was completely different kind of experience, and when I saw it, I wondered why this type of picture wasn't done more often. I thought it was very interesting that Derek wanted to do that.
Initially, we talked about this film before Blue Valentine. I was saying to Derek that I always wanted to rob banks, but I’m scared of jail. But, if I was going to do it, I would do it on a motorcycle then drive up into a U-Haul [after the robbery to hide the bike] That’s how I would get away with it. And he said, "That’s crazy. I just wrote a script about that." So, I said, ‘I’m in."
What appeals to you about robbing banks — the adrenaline rush?
RG: There’s just all this money there, and some people are walking in with more than others. And what I learned from this movie is you just have to ask for it. [The tellers] have to give it to you. I’m not promoting this idea, but I would say don’t use a weapon if you’re going to do it. It’s just safer all around and less time in jail. And all of the people we interviewed said that the ones that did it nicely got less time.
There's a Hitchcockian element to this movie and your character.
RG: I’m Janet Leigh. That’s how I’ve always thought of myself.
Both Ryan's character, Luke, and Bradley Cooper's character, Avery are complex, morally flawed guys. But Avery, who comes from a so-called good family, isn't punished for his shortcomings. Are you making a class statement there?
DC: We shot this movie in Schenectady, New York. Schenectady, which is the Iroquois word for "the place beyond the pines," is the place where my wife grew up and where one of my co-writers Ben Coccio grew up, and I feel like there are these tribes of people in these small cities and towns that keep themselves in certain strata, for lack of a better word. And this movie is about those different tribes that live in a contemporary American city. And I feel like the bloodline goes very far back. Avery is born into this small-town royalty. His father is a judge, but even though Avery went to law school, he wants to become his own man. His decision to become a police officer shows that he is trying to carve his own path and escape his father's legacy, but it’s very difficult.
Ryan, did you and Derek work together to develop your character?
RG: We worked on it together. We talked a lot about the myth of Parsifal and the Red Knight. That was sort of what I used. A lot about this character was someone who ws posturing and posing and performing. We liked the idea of him maybe alluding to things that weren’t true, and him being a mystery even to himself — lost in his own mythology.
All the tattoos I wear in the movie — I don't know how necessary they are, but they were a part of trying to understand this character. What’s interesting about working with Derek is that you’re not allowed to take your decisions lightly. They’re permanent, and any step you take with your character, you have to embrace that. For instance, with the face tattoo [of a dagger] that I wear in the movie, it was the last one applied, and I felt like it was too much when it came down to it. I thought, I don’t want to have a tattoo on my face this whole movie. It’s just going to be distracting, and I think I’ve gone too far. And Derek said, “That’s what happens when you get a face tattoo. That’s how you feel. And now you’re stuck with it.”
So then I had to go through the whole film having that tattoo on my face, and I regretted it the whole time. Only Derek would do that. Only Derek would do that.
You really convey onscreen that you care for the baby you fathered with Eva Mendes' character.
RG: First of all that’s due to the fact that the kid that Derek cast, who plays my son as an infant — his name is Tony Pizza. It’s hard not to like a guy named Tony Pizza, Anthony Pizza Jr. So, I just liked that guy, and we really hit it off.
DC: There’s a line in the film where Luke's character says, "I never had my father and look at the way I turned out." I think there’s this kind of shame in his character. He’s marked. And he sees this boy that’s clean, that has no marks, that hasn’t been tainted that thing happens that can happen, which is this overwhelming feeling of responsibility. This character takes responsibility because it’s something so pure in his life and he never had that. I know a lot of people who didn’t grow up with strong fathers or grew up with absent fathers and they turned out to be the most dedicated fathers.
At the boy's baptism, you cry onscreen.
RG: I didn’t know that that was going to happen. Again, it’s a credit to Derek’s process because it’s never something that’s asked of you or in the script — those emotional benchmarks that you know you have to reach. I was just sitting in the church watching the baby be baptized, and I don’t know why I was emotional but I was.
The motorcycle chase scenes are intense. How were they shot?
DC: My reference points were Cops and America’s Wildest Police Chases. I wanted it to feel like a video that came from a camera mounted to the dash of a cop car. And so that raised the stakes for shooting. It raised the stakes for Ryan because there are some stunts in there where he really had to learn how to ride a motorcycle very well. There are certain takes where he had to park the bike, rob the bank, leave the bank, get back on the motorcycle, drive into traffic while being pursued by a cop car and go through an intersection avoiding 36 cars. And he had to do that 22 times. And every time I watched that scene, I think, he’s going to get hit — because every time he did it, he almost got hit.
Ryan, did you do all of your stunts?
RG: No, in scenes like that where Derek planned them as one shot, I had to do them. But there were a lot of things that the stunt driver Rick Miller did. When Batman gets on a motorcycle [in The Dark Knight films], that’s Rick Miller in the suit. He ‘s the best that there is. He and I rode motorcycles for a few months beforehand. And he showed me the best that he could. But these things take a lifetime to learn. I did my best, but my best wasn’t good enough.
How scared were you?
RG: I think you need it a little bit. Once you lose the fear, you got to get off it because then your mind starts to wonder and you get in trouble. But when I was a kid, I was walking to school and saw this guy on a motorcycle get hit by a car. He was laying on the ground, and I looked at him and he had blood coming out of his head. And my first thought was, I’ve got to get a motorcycle. Motorcycles put some kind of spell on you. It’s dangerous.
Derek, in the the last third of the movie, you get remarkable performances from two young actors, Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen, who play the sons of, respectively, Luke and Avery. How long did you have to look to find these two actors?
DC: I auditioned over 500 kids for those roles. I thought I was going to cast raw people, but in order to keep this baton pass going, I needed them to be at a certain level. I met them very late in the process. The first thing I heard them discussing what who was a better actor, James Dean or Marlon Brando. And they could not agree. Then, they were debating whether Al Pacino or Robert De Niro was better. Dane said "Pacino," and Emory said "De Niro," and I realized that these kids had ambition to be great and that I could unleash that conflict on the movie. But at the same time, they had so much in common. They were flip sides of a coin.
This is the second time you've worked with Derek. Why the repeat the performance?
RG: I was excited to work with Derek again because so much of making a first film with somebody is getting to know one another and how you work — and you really just get started by the time it’s over. I feel like Derek and I had a shorthand when we came into this film. We were able to do much more in a shorter period of time. We both evolved and the film evolved together. We have instant access to each other, which you need when you're making a film because time is always coming to get you.
Derek, what's special about working with Ryan?
RG: I look like Derek.
DC: He’s just a magic person. He makes things better. We’ve all seen him save people by getting hit by a car, and we’ve all seen him break up fights in the city. And that’s what he does in a movie. He makes the world a better place. He makes me a better filmmaker and everyone around him better. That’s why I have no doubt that he’ll be a great filmmaker.
Ryan, when do you start shooting How to Catch A Monster and what can you tell us about it?
RG: Beginning of next year. Christina Hendricks is in the film. I'm not going to be in the film. That's probably all I should say about it.
Are you two planning to work together again?
DC: I hope so.
DC: The next thing I’m doing is this HBO series [on bodybuilding] called Muscle. [Turns to Gosling] I’d love it if you could do it, but you would have to gain about 80 pounds of muscle over the next five years.
Follow Frank DiGiacomo on Twitter.
Follow Movieline on Twitter.