INTERVIEW: Place Beyond the Pines director Derek Cianfrance: “Ryan Gosling is magic.”

Place Beyond the Pines opened in New York and LA last Friday, and hits a handful more cities today. In a rare coup for a site that specializes in Photoshopping cats into things, I got to sit down with Pines director Derek Cianfrance, previously of Blue Valentine, on the eve of his film’s release, in the rare post that actually required me putting on pants (oh, but I’m not bitter). Before we go any further I might as well answer the question that’s probably on all of your minds: yes, according to Cianfrance, Ryan Gosling is every bit the sweet prince you imagine, and presumably a wonderful cuddler. Cianfrance’s exact words: “I like working with him because he’s magic. He makes magic happen. …He’s just the best.”

As for Cianfrance himself, the first thing you notice about him is the fact that he has “AMIGO” tattooed on the segments of his right knuckles. The second thing you notice about him is his voice: a vowely, a-regional, vaguely hepcattish… well, it’s not quite a drawl, but the words have a similarly syrupy way of sliding into one another. Where have I heard this before? Then it dawns on you: Ryan Gosling. He has the same voice as Baby Goose. It doesn’t seem to be a case of actor-impersonating-director, a phenomenon of nearly every movie Woody Allen has directed starring a Woody Allen proxy. It seems like something more subtle, more organic, a simple case of like attracts like, amplified by two guys having spent a lot of time together (the set of Blue Valentine having been infamously claustrophobic). Or, to hear Cianfrance tell it, it’s more of a cosmic connection. Cianfrance is all about those cosmic connections, frequently speaking of magic and using phrases like “brother from another mother.” Yes, he’s grandiose. Almost all directors and fiction writers I’ve met are. It requires a certain grandiosity to remake the world as you want to see it, down to specific details of the way you think things should be. And Place Beyond the Pines is nothing if not a grandiose movie. Regardless of what you think of it – I was simultaneously inspired by its ambition and slightly put off by its content – you have to be impressed with anyone that could even get it made. It’s less a bank robber movie than an attempt at an epic novel, the kind of movie that isn’t supposed to exist anymore. It obviously required someone leading the charge who thinks and talks big, and Derek Cianfrance certainly seemed to be that.

I didn’t get a chance to ask him about his knuckle tats or how he came to cast the child actor named “Anthony Angelo Pizza Jr,”  (a criminal oversight on my part, I can admit that now). But he had plenty of other interesting stories, including Ben Mendolsohn showing up to his audition wearing a hospital bracelet, and his claim that he and Ryan Gosling actually came up with the same concept for a bank robber movie separately, without either knowing the other was working on it. I don’t buy it, but you be the judge.

VINCE: I was wondering about Ben Mendelsohn. Had you seen him in something before?

DEREK CIANFRANCE: I saw him in Animal Kingdom, and I wanted to meet with him. And he came to an audition, and he looked like a wreck. He was wearing a bracelet on his arm, and I couldn’t tell if it was from a party, like one of those party bracelets, or if it was from the hospital. He sat there at the table with me and he said, “Oh, mate, don’t make me read, don’t make me audition. If you make me audition it’s going to ruin the whole thing.” He says, “If you cast me in this I’ll carry the spear for you.” I said, “Ok, you’ve got it.” The role of Robin in the script is a little older than Ben. Robin in the script is supposed to have dentures. No teeth. In that first meeting, within 15 minutes of meeting Ben, after he told me he’d carry a spear for me, I told him he could do the movie.

Did that work for you?

I said, “Fine. You’re in. You’ve got it. I believe in you.”

Just based on his persona?

Based on him telling me he would carry a spear for me. Based on his honesty. Based on the feeling I got sitting next to him as a human being. I just immediately… you know love at first sight? You fall in love with someone you just know it. With Ben Mendelsohn, when he sat down he was my brother. You know what I mean? We’d go to the ends of the world. I said, “Ok, you’re it.” He made a leap, you know. “I’ll carry a spear for you.” I said, “You got it.” We started talking about the teeth. This is an example of trust on a movie, he said he had a lot of dental work done and he said he would have his teeth taken out for the role. And he gave me his dentist’s phone number. Later on that day I had his dentist on the phone, and about a week later, this shows you the madness that you get into when you’re making a film, about a week later I had his dental x-rays in my possession. And we were planning his trip to go get his teeth pulled out, and he was down for it. And I was going to do it; thank God I had a conscious producer around me that told me, “You can’t have him take his teeth for the movie.” I feel like a terrible human being for actually considering it. Now as the dust has cleared on the movie, what a maniac.

You thought it was that important to the story that he had the dentures, or were you just too used to seeing it as part of the story?

I thought that he wanted to take his teeth out for the role. How was I going to say no to him? He was willing to do it. I want actors to go for it. What I realized then was he was actually going to do it, and so was I. The producers came in and gave us a, “No, guys, no.” We were like, “Ok, they’re right.” But me and him were like looking at each other just laughing. I loved him for willing to do that. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry I even considered having your teeth pulled out. You don’t have to f*cking pull out your teeth. You’re good enough the way you are.” And we go eat peaches together. We go to the fruit stand and eat peaches together with our teeth. He’s the best.

On how he and Ryan Gosling came up with the same concept.

Back in 2007 before we even shot Blue Valentine I was at his agent’s house and we were talking and I was asking, “What have you done so much in your life? What haven’t you done?” He said, “Well, I’ve always wanted to rob a bank, but I’m too scared of jail.” I said, “Oh really, I’m writing a movie about a guy who robs banks. How would you do it if you could do it?” He says, “I’d do it on a motorcycle, because I could go in with a helmet and no one would know who I was. Motorcycles are fast so I could get away, and they’re agile. I would go have a U-Haul truck parked about four blocks away. I’d bring it to the back of the U-Haul and then drive away in the U-Haul, because no one would be looking for the truck. They’d be looking for a motorcycle.” I said, “That’s crazy. That’s just what I’ve written in the script.”

You two came to that separately?

Separately at the same time. That’s when I knew we were destined to make stuff together. So I told him, “Hey, I’ll make your dreams come true. You’ll only have to spend a day in jail when we’re filming.”

On doing research for the film with actual bank robbers.

On Blue Valentine we all have a reference for being in love. You don’t have to do much research outside of yourself preparing for that. Not all of us have robbed a bank. I remember I was really wanting to meet a bank robber to talk to him about how he did it. I asked the cops, “Do you know any bank robbers out here?” They said, “We might know of a couple.” I was sitting in my office with Ben Mendelsohn when all of a sudden there’s a knock on the door and two police officers showed up with this kid who spent nine years in jail. Was just out for a year. They were like, “This is so and so, he spent nine years in jail. Robbed 15 banks in Schenectady.” Here he is and the guy is freaked out. Why had the cops had come and picked him up? I asked to the police to kindly leave, thanked them, and Ben and I spent a couple of days with this guy just learning about him. Having a camera has been such a ticket in my life to enter different worlds. I’ve done so many documentaries. I’ve been able to go all over the world and meet people. To meet that kid that robbed those banks, he was such a great guy. I could understand his story. It was such a gift to meet him like it was a gift to meet the cops that were hunting him down. That’s what I’m trying to do with my movies is just tell human stories that respect everybody.

What did you learn from that bank robber that you didn’t know going in?

What he said is movies always get it wrong. Bank robbers are so clean and perfect in movies but in real life they are messy. I learned about how he felt. The anxiety he felt when he walked into a bank. The desperation that he felt. The desperation he felt that led him into the bank. The process of how he did it. I can’t give away everything like how he made sure he didn’t get a dye pack. I learned from him, that actually, to rob a bank all you need is a note. If you write a note to someone saying, “Give me all the money in the bank,” that they have to give it to you because they’re covered by the FDIC. I learned about him as a man. What consequences. When I see movies I want when people have choices, and they make choices, and they have actions, there’s actually true consequences to that. Things aren’t taken lightly. This guy, he felt the consequences for his actions. It just raised the stakes for us with Ryan in the movie.

Here’s the full audio:

[banner picture via Vanity Fair]

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