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New film (Interview): The Place Beyond the Pines (PART 1)

Derek Cianfrance and (columnist) Tony Sheppard at the Ritz Carlton hotel, San Francisco. February 27, 2013.

The Place Beyond the Pines
Directed by Derek Cianfrance

In “The Place Beyond the Pines,” Ryan Gosling is a motorcycle stunt rider (Luke) in a traveling carnival, who meets up with an old flame (Eva Mendes) as he passes back through Schenectady, New York, only to find reason to consider settling down. But his desire to make money and his riding ability translate into an unlikely series of bank robberies that bring the attention of local police, including Avery Cross, played by Bradley Cooper. Aside from a neat story and strong characters, what really sets this movie apart from most others is a very distinctive narrative structure that spans many years and multiple character arcs.

In February, I had the opportunity to sit and chat with director Derek Cianfrance about the film, the genesis of the idea, about things it reminds us of (including an unlikely conversation about “Star Wars”), influences, Hollywood, Ryan Gosling, filmmaking, and film schools. It was a fairly freewheeling conversation that, other than the more general remarks, will likely make more sense after seeing the movie, and it may contain a few mild spoilers.


Tony Sheppard: I’m a college professor and I only do one or two film interviews a year, so something really has to grab my attention and your film certainly did.

Derek Cianfrance: Nice!

TS: I loved it, by the way.

DC: Thank you – and I appreciate you taking the time.

TS: Hollywood is pretty much entrenched in the three act screenplay mindset. If you take a class in screenwriting, or a workshop, or even in film school, you’re basically taking classes in three act screenplay writing. Your film clearly isn’t that – it’s more like a trilogy of three act screenplays, or a nine act screenplay. You’ve said previously that the three screen presentation of “Napoleon” and the protagonist transition in “Psycho” really influenced you wanting to do something that was structurally different.

DC: Yeah – that was the basis of “The Place Beyond the Pines” 20 years ago when I saw those films. I always dreamed of doing a triptych movie I just didn’t know what the story was. I didn’t have a song to sing – you know I had a melody but no song to sing. It wasn’t until my wife was pregnant with our second son that I realized I had a story and it was all about becoming a father again, it was all about legacy. I was thinking about what I was going to pass on to my child and what I was born with. I was thinking about my ancestors and how brutally they must have lived in order to survive – and now I’m eating with a knife and a fork and I’m civilized but there was incredible bloodshed in my past. Just thinking about the animal in us – it seemed like a ripe idea. It seemed like something very personal and very vulnerable for me to go into and I had this structure – like the father, the son, and the holy ghost. I had this skeleton and all of a sudden there was meat on it, there was blood pumping , and there was life in it.

In film school, my film professor Phil Solomon, when he saw my first student feature “Brother Tied,” he said “It’s too much ‘Look Ma, no hands!’” – he said “Derek, just ride the bike!” you know?

He said “Form must illuminate content.” I went to a very formalist film school, so I knew all about aesthetics and structure – what I really had to be ,mindful of from that point forward was story. What was the story?

TS: I don’t know if anybody else has said this and I hope you take it the right way, and I mean this in kind of a fun way, there are aspects of it that reminded me of “Star Wars.” Lucas went into that with a trilogy in mind, it’s a father-son story, you’ve got your own Han Solo/Greedo “Who shot first?” moment

DC: Yes, we do! (laughs) And then of course it changes in the new “Star Wars” and Han moves and Greedo shoots first. But in the original “Star Wars” Han shot first and I thought that made such a better character.

TS: Right! But you’ve got the debate of whether or not shooting first makes you a better character or makes you a bad person and I think it’s an odd analogy, and I don’t know if anybody else has stated it in these terms, but you’ve got the Han Solo/Greedo debate in the middle of “The Place Beyond the Pines.”

DC: The Han Solo/Greedo debate – 1977 version of “Star Wars.”

TS: Yes.

DC: Not the re-release. And that what was so interesting to me about Avery, Bradley Cooper in this movie, is that he’s that character who does, who preserves himself, who has the ability to keep himself alive. Survival of the fittest – that ruthlessness. And the guilt, psychologically, and your heart – how that corrupts your soul.

TS: To follow the same analogy, Han Solo does it casually and he’s cool with it. That’s who he is. Avery is not casual about it.

DC: No.

TS: It’s not something that’s easy for him to live with.

DC: No.

TS: The other aspect of the unconventionality of the screenplay structure that I thought was interesting, and I think you touched on it when you talked about your ancestors, is this is a film that from a Hollywood perspective is quite unconventional. But in terms of life it’s quite conventional – the decisions that you make 10 years ago, 20 years ago, or the decisions your parents made, affect what you do now. So I found it interesting to think that if this is unconventional in Hollywood terms but conventional in real life terms, does your movie essentially demonstrate how deficient in a sense, or broken, Hollywood’s fixation on these very linear three act stories is, rather than perhaps telling more meaningful life stories?

DC: Yeah. That’s interesting. Look, I relate to that because when I was 25 years old, living in Boulder, Colorado, I had a choice where I was going to go – New York or L.A. I figured if I go to L.A., everybody’s going to be out there making movies. My movies were going to be inspired by other movies. If I moved to New York, not everyone’s making movies out there, I’d be around people and maybe my movie would reflect the human experience and not other movies. And so I put myself in the place where I could try to make films about life. And as an audience member who’s loved films his whole life, as much as anyone I’ve ever met, I feel a great disconnect often times from the perfection I see up on the screen – and the Hollywood structure. My life doesn’t work in those three act structures. My life… I don’t have an exciting incident in my life all the time and I don’t always know what I want, and I don’t always have these clear character arcs….

TS: It certainly doesn’t resolve itself – like a 22 minute sitcom does.

DC: Yeah.

TS: I was sitting there thinking “Wow, I like this, I like the story you’re telling me, I like the structure you’re using to tell me the story you’re telling me.” But I was kicking myself at the end because, despite the fact that even early on I was thinking “This is unconventional” and I was enjoying it, I still found myself looking for a conventional ending. There’s a point there where you could have that wrapped up, neat Hollywood ending, where maybe Avery disowns A.J. [his son] and Jason [the son of Ryan Gosling’s character] ends up in law school with Avery picking up the tab.

DC: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

TS: Because he might feel more inclined to help the other guy’s son than his own son.

DC: Yeah.

TS: And it’s interesting to watch something unconventional and still try and think of it in conventional terms.

The interview continues in Part 2 – uploaded as a separate article due to length.



About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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