Derek Cianfrance won immediate acclaim for his first feature, Brother Tied, which he wrote, directed, shot, and edited. Though the picture never made it outside the festival circuit (due to complicated music rights issues), Cianfrance's follow-up Blue Valentine—starring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams—garned considerably more attention. Cianfrance reteams with Gosling for The Place Beyond the Pines, a sprawling tripartite narrative dealing with the consequences of violence and troubling family legacy. I spoke with Cianfrance at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
Groucho: So to me, a hallmark of your work is the emotional intimacy that you’re able to achieve with the actors and with your camera. What’s your strategy for going about that?
Derek Cianfrance: Mostly trust. You know, we trust each other. When I cast someone in my movies, I trust who they are as human beings, and I’m always trying to make a baby between who they are as a human being and the character. And I’m trying to find moments where they’re not acting anymore, where they’re just behaving. And I’m just trying to set up situations where those things will happen, and they’ll surprise us. I tell every actor that I work with to please surprise me and to please fail. You know, I make a democracy of ideas on the set, which means I can’t veto anything an actor wants to do, and conversely they can’t veto anything I want them to do. So it means that no one judges each other. No one judges ideas. Ideas are gold. Any idea is—we don’t know if it’s good or bad until the editing room sometimes. And, you know, that’s it. It’s the spirit of, like, let’s just try it. Let’s just work; let’s try. Let’s make mistakes. Let’s fall on our face, ’cause I know if my actors can fail greatly, they can succeed greatly. I try to push them to—I remember I told Ray Liotta, I said the biggest gift you could give me is to fail. And he was just like, “Okay… Whatever you say, buddy.”
Derek Cianfrance: (As Liotta:) “You know, I made eighty movies,” but he had a great experience on it, you know. He was so good in the movie, and it was such a pleasure to work with him and to see him let loose like he was able to do in the film.
G: Yeah, well it sounds like the trust you extend—and getting them to understand that they can trust you—seems to be largely based on you treating them as artists, and not as—
G: I’m sure they often feel like they’re being treated as commodities or someone who’s going to bring a certain level of budget to the film, or whatever and kind of treated like cattle, so to speak.
DC: Yeah, you know, I would be nothing without actors. So to me, they’re the brave ones.
G: One of the themes of this film, and also Blue Valentine, that you’ve talked about, is the nature of masculine identity. And while I think those themes are explored pretty clearly in the films, I wonder if you could articulate a bit of what you think the modern male identity is. What are the current struggles as you see them?
DC: Well, you know, it’s hard for me to point a finger to them, but all I’m trying to do is tell—remember—I’m trying not to get too personal, but my—I’m interested in people that I know. I’m interested in guys like myself, you know? I don’t always relate to Humphrey Bogart. You know what I mean? I don’t feel like that guy. I’m not that smooth. You know what I mean? I’m not—you know, honestly, a lot of guys up on the screen, I don’t relate to them because, like, they’re always right all the time. They’re always perfect. They’re always—I related to people, to human beings. There’s things in Blue Valentine where it’s like, you know, he wasn’t—he’s not the bread winner. You know what I mean?
DC: He’s more of the caretaker. You know what I mean? He was definitely playing the more traditionally female role in that film. You know, honestly, I don’t think about the modern male that much. I just try to tell stories about people that I know, and people that I’ve maybe never seen before on the screen. You know, my new thing I’m writing for HBO [Muscle], it’s a lot about the masculine identity because it’s about a body builder. And one of the things that Sam Fussell—you know, the guy who lived the life and wrote that—he always talked about once he became a body builder, all of a sudden he became objectified. And so on the street, construction workers would look at him, you know; he felt like a woman would feel like to get looked up and down, you know? Because he became now an object. And so I’m interested in that. You know, I’m interested—and also I’m interested in things like, you know, the things that Bradley Cooper in Pines—he’s called a hero, but he doesn’t feel like one.
DC: Do you know what I mean? You know, Ryan is kind of like the character that the Shangri-Las used to sing about, this idol—
G: Leader of the pack.
DC: Leader of the pack: "But Dad, if you only knew him, you’d know he’s soft in the center." You know what I mean? But this guy was covered in tattoos, but the tattoos are a marking of his shame, not of his coolness, you know what I mean? Maybe he got them to be cool. And that happened with Ryan when we were shooting this. He had told me, “D, we’re going to do the most tattoos in movie history with this movie.” I was like, “Okay.” And he says, “Yeah, and we’re going to do a face tattoo.” And I was like “Are you sure you wanna do a face tattoo?” And he says, “Yeah, that’ll be the coolest thing ever. You know, it’ll be a dagger and it’ll be dripping blood.” And I was like “Look, if I was your parent, I would tell you right now, don’t get a tattoo. You’re going to regret it,” I said. “But you’re, you know, you’re the guy. Whatever you wanna do.” So he came—you know, he had a face tattoo. And the first day we were shooting, and we were on lunch that day, and he came up to me, and he said, you know, “Hey, D. I think I went too far with the face tattoo. You know, can we—can I take it off and reshoot that stuff?” And I said, “No. That’s what I told you. That’s what happens when you get a face tattoo. You regret it. And now you gotta live with it.” So for the rest of the movie, he was ashamed, you know? He felt—he regretted this decision, so all of a sudden, when he walks into a church full of the town of Schenectady—beautiful place, and he’s literally a marked man, and he sees his wife—you know, Eva [Mendes] and the baby and Mahershalalhashbaz Ali up on—you know with the baptism, Ryan just started shaking, and he just started crying. That was never written into the script, you know? I felt like stopping the cameras and giving him a hug when that happened, but it’s again—we’re just trying to think of things that are—it’s not even conscious, you know, this idea of masculine identity. I’m just trying to find things that—something that feels true to me.
G: Given what you just said, this question might be moot, but back when you were structuring the story, when you were breaking the story was—? Some of the terms in the press notes, that come up in your interview, are words like “classic tale” and “tragic flaw” and “destiny.”
G: And it’s—certainly when I was watching the film, before I ever read that, I had the notion of a classical tragedy in mind. It has that, kind of, grand scale to it of there’s something that these characters—there’s something above them, greater than they can control, that’s working on their lives, whether it’s their past or, as you say, their legacy. Was it at all conscious to create a new tragedy?
DC: Yeah, my instincts, my imagination tends towards tragic ideas. And if I didn’t have movies, I would—and in the time in my life when I haven’t had a movie to make, I’ve always turned my life into that tragedy. So I’m thankful that I can make movies and put—you know, have an outlet for my tragic instincts. And I grew up—I have to say, my mom watched Days of Our Lives so much when I was a kid. And I watched it so many times with her. And sometimes I think that maybe Days of Our Lives found its way into The Place Beyond the Pines somehow, you know? That it all takes place in one place and its kind of riveting epiphanies of emotion every scene and the characters—you know, and I loved watching Days of Our Lives. I don’t think soap operas are a bad thing, all the time.
G: Yeah, I was thinking about that, too. You know, when I watch your films, they’re so artful. And yet, when I did some research on you, you know, you’re not precious about that kind of stuff. Like, you know, you talk about your love of George Romero, and so on and so forth.
DC: Yes. I think this film was hugely influenced by Creepshow, you know, which was the movie I watched probably more than any other movie when I was a teen—when I was—you know, before ten years old. You know, that was my movie.
G: When you look forward to the kinds of projects you’d like to do in years to come, do you imagine yourself doing some things that are more, I don’t know, conventional, in that sense, or conventionally accessible? Because, I like of course the films that you’ve made, in that they are so always challenging…
G: …but, you do have a kind of taste for that as well, I guess, right?
DC: Yeah, well the thing is, I think—I was an audience member before I was a filmmaker. So when I’m making films, I’m making films for the audience member in me. And I like films that are challenging. I like to be surprised. I like to be respected as a viewer. I like to learn things. I like to watch and engage. I like to experience a movie and leave the movie and think about it. You know? I like a movie to be like a friend that I can visit again over time. You know, I can watch Contempt. I go back to it, and the movie is like a living force in my life. And I don’t think that my taste, honestly, is that different than everybody—than anybody else’s, you know? I think the movies I’m making definitely feel different than maybe the traditional, modern Hollywood film, but I think that choice is great for an audience to be able to have that. And I love the fact that, you know, The Place Beyond the Pines or Blue Valentine plays in theaters in the mall—shopping malls. And I just imagine people going in there and having their faces melted off, you know, like the guy in Raiders of the Lost Ark, you know?
DC: That’s what I love in a movie: when I watch a movie and my face melts off because I can’t believe what’s going on the screen; it’s just—it’s melting my face. But let me say—and I wanna make films that are—I wanna make big movies. I wanna make movies that reach wide audiences. I wanna make films that everyone can see. I wanna make classics, really. If anything else, that’s my—that’s what I want. And, as now I’ve had more opportunities, more doors have opened for me, I’ve been given other offers to make things. And some things I read, there’s a lot of money attached to it, and, you know, a rape scene on page twenty. And there’s no amount of money in the world that’ll ever make me rape a girl in a movie. Do you know what I mean? I’ll never do that. To me, it’s a responsibility. My kids can’t watch my movies now; they’re too young, you know, but someday I’ll be happy—when they’re of age—I’ll be proud to show them the movies I’ve made. If I made a movie with a rape scene for money, it doesn’t—I could never show it to them, so I’m trying to make films that I can show to my children when they’re older.
G: And the films, in a way, are kind of like children, too. They will form a part of your legacy.
DC: Yeah, absolutely.
G: Can you talk a little bit about the formation of your aesthetic? There’s a texture...there’s film grain—it’s sort of against the grain of the HD world that we’re going into where everything is ultra-crisp.
DC: Yeah. Yeah, I like texture. And one time, Stan Brakhage, my film professor showed Leni Riefenstahl, Triumph of the Will, in film class, and he told us that the Nazis had developed a grain structure that was a swastika-pattern grain structure, and to subliminally—to serve their evil propaganda. And he showed us on the chalkboard what it looked like, and he wrote a thousand swastikas on top of each other on the chalkboard. And we watched the movie. I can’t say that I saw the swastika-pattern grain structure on the screen, but it made me love the breathing texture of a movie. And even when I go to the theater and would see a bad movie, a movie that I wasn’t interested in at all, I could at least watch the corner of the screen and enjoy the texture. And, you know, film—I chose to shoot film on this film less for—you know, it did feel like a classic movie, so I felt like it had to be shot on film. It’s romantic, so I thought it had to be shot on film. There’s a nostalgia to it that it had to be shot on film, but more than anything it’s for the actors. You know, when you’re shooting film—you know, first off, my two least favorite words in filmmaking are “action” and “cut.” I—we just start going. And when I’m shooting two-perf 35mm, as we did on this film, you have about nine minutes and twenty seconds on a magazine. So, that means the camera starts going, and we start going, the actors start going, living in it. And when the film rolls out, it rolls out. And then I can go talk to the actors, and we can start again. And the actors start feeling that time. They start feeling the nine minutes and twenty seconds, and they start becoming like athletes. You can see it happen. They start, like, realizing they gotta get some things in. You know, it’s like a quarter of football. They gotta get a touchdown, you know? They gotta score some points on the board. It creates an urgency for them. And I like that feeling. You know, in the time that I’ve shot on digital, you know, on electronic mediums—you know, I shot half of Blue Valentine on the Red camera, and you know, the idea of that was that I could shoot forty-five minute takes, and I could erode the moment with that. I could make—you know, Ryan and Michelle take a shower in that movie, and the first take was like them kinda cute and kinda awkward being naked in the shower together, but by the eighth hour of the second day, it wasn’t cute anymore. They wanted to get out of the shower, but they had to keep shoot—you know, this video was just like [makes whirring noise]. Just, you know, like Kubrickian.
G: Yeah, right.
DC: You know, just staring at them, not letting them go. And so there’s something in that surveillance aspect that I like about electronic filmmaking. And I’ll definitely—you know, some stories need to be told on film, some stories need to be told digitally. You know? I always look at 1999. Two of my all-time favorite movies came out: The Straight Story and Julien Donkey-Boy. And, you know Julien Donkey-Boy could’ve never been shot on film and Straight Story could have never been shot digitally. And I hope that—you know, I hope George Lucas is wrong and film isn’t dead, and I still have the opportunity to shoot it. You know? Still have the choice.
G: Yeah, yeah. It’s been great talking to you. I wish we had more time. Hopefully I’ll see you on the next one.
DC: We got five minutes?
Publicist: Yeah, we’ve got time.
DC: You wanna do five?
G: Yeah, we can do a little more?
G: Great. You know, one of the things that I like about The Place Beyond the Pines is, even though it—by, I guess, conventional standards of today, it’s a long film—
G: —when I felt that it was coming towards a conclusion, I actually felt like “I don’t want this to end.”
G: Because it does have this novelistic quality in the way that it moves through time, linearly. You kind of feel like this could go on infinitely.
G: Because it feels that real.
G: And now, you are developing a TV show.
G: Which, while based on a book, there’s sort of an open-ended quality to that.
G: Can you talk a little bit about—I guess it relates to editing as well, that thing which you hate, right—?
DC: Yes, yes.
G: Of, kind of, trying to tame time in telling a story?
DC: Yeah. That’s the beauty about working for—on TV now. Working, writing the script—it’s about expansion. You know? I mean, of a story. It’s not about subtraction. When you make a film, there’s an efficiency that has to happen in the storytelling. On my first draft of Pines, it was 158 pages long, and the financier said, “Okay, you can have ten and a half million dollars. You gotta get it to 120 pages.” So I shrunk the font, and I extended the margins.
G: Right. (Laughs.)
DC: You know? And then—and they didn’t notice. Six months into my edit, I had a three-and-a-half-hour movie on my hands and I couldn’t find the “shrink font” button, you know what I mean, in the editing room. I tried. I thought that maybe if I took one frame out for every twenty-four frames, that that would save us seven and a half minutes, you know? But that looked weird. So I had to find—but what I did was: it was like sculpture, though. And a movie is like a sculpture. When you start taking pieces away, all of a sudden you start revealing its true form. And once I got rid of some of these things that were kind of blocking the form, the through line became clear; this idea of legacy became clear in the film. And it just takes the editing room to know that, you know? But TV, I’m really interested in this idea of expansion, and actually filming a life, you know? And this guy, Sam Fussell, who’s the best writer I’ve ever known, the best writer I’ve ever worked with, and I’ve worked with a lot of great people, you know, in my movies. But Sam is—we’re gonna put his life—if HBO gives us the opportunity, we’re gonna put a life of a man who’s searching for an identity on the screen.
G: Yeah. It’ll be interesting, the casting for that, right? Because it’s going to require a big body commitment over five years or more.
DC: Yes. Yes, but what an opportunity for an actor that wants a shot. And I love athletics in acting. You know what I mean? I like physicality in acting. I like when it stops—when it just becomes—there’s a scene in Blue when Ryan digs the grave for the dog, and I came to the set that day, and the grave was already dug by my production designer. I was like, “What are you doing?” She’s like, “It’s—shoot the movie. Shoot your movie, Derek.” And I said, “No, he has to do it.” And she said, “Derek, there’s a lot of roots out there. It’s gonna take him forever to do it.” I was like, “Well then he has to do it.” So, you know, we shot the scene. My crew was like looking around, like, what are we doing? He’s like digging and digging and digging and digging. Eventually he got the hole down. He put the dog—the stuffed animal dog—inside the grave, covered it up, and walked back to the house. And you could just see, he was like—his body was exhausted. And he sat down at the table, and there was a beer there. And he took a drink of the beer, and he just started crying, you know. And, as Ryan puts it, his mind knew that he wasn’t burying a dog, but the fact that his body did it, it tricked his mind.
G: Right. Yeah.
DC: And he buried—he actually did it, you know? And so I like that physicality, and that’s what I’m so excited about with Muscle. It’s—we’re trying to redefine character development. There’s so much in the body that affects the character. Even Ryan in this movie, putting on forty pounds of muscle. He was a different kind of guy, you know what I mean? I—he was a little more, I guess, he had more of a hard edge to him. You know what I mean? He was more like this panther that I couldn’t get—you know, I try to get too close, he would swipe. You know what I mean? He was—and that comes from physicality.
G: You have your own voice, but you’re extremely film literate. You’ve obviously, from your film studies and from just your film watching—and I wonder which filmmakers you feel have most indelibly left a stamp on your sense of cinematic storytelling.
DC: Cassavetes. Pasolini. Scorsese. Romero. They’re all Italians, aren’t they?
G: Yeah. (Laughs.)
DC: And, you know, but there’s so many more filmmakers—you know, Eisenstein, Kalatozov, Parajanov, Coppola, so many great filmmakers. Frank Perry—you know, there’s so many great filmmakers I look up to, but really, yeah: Cassavetes—Peckinpah, I have to say, too. I love Peckinpah, because I feel like he makes films about human suffering, and he’s in the flames with them. It’s so—you can really feel Peckinpah—it’s almost to an embarrassing degree when you watch his films. You feel like he’s so exposing himself and so suffering with his people, that I really love him for that. And Pasolini, to me, when I saw Gospel According to St. Matthew for the first time—you know, I grew up Catholic. I grew up going to, you know, catechism once a week, church once a week, and I never paid attention when I was going to those, but then when I saw Gospel According to St. Matthew, I was—I started getting heart palpitations in the theater. It was the best movie I had ever seen, and I, like, my whole body went numb. I had to crawl up to the projection booth and call my girlfriend and have her take me to the hospital.
G: Holy cow.
DC: Yeah. And I was sure I was dead if the doctor who came in to check me out looked like Jesus from the Gospel According to St. Matthew. Thankfully, it was just—you know, he looked nothing like Jesus. I was still alive.
G: (Laughs.) All right.
DC: Have you seen that movie, Gospel According to St. Matthew?
G: I have, yeah, amazing..
DC: That’s the movie. Yeah, we watched that movie countless times to prepare for this.
G: Huh, yeah. Great. Well, it’s been fantastic.
DC: Yeah. Thank you, man. It’s been great to talk to you as well. Hope to see you down the road.