Ryan Gosling may have started to truly turn heads with 2004’s The Notebook, and netted the Academy’s attention with his work in 2006’s Half Nelson, but his current surge as both actor and star can probably be traced to 2010’s Blue Valentine, an aching romantic drama that firmly hoisted the hunk’s rep, and may still boast his best performance. It was a performance coached out by writer-director Derek Cianfrance, a relative unknown at the time, who, this year, returns with The Place Beyond the Pines, a sprawling saga of bloodlines and ripple effects that reunites the filmmaker with Gosling. It also features Bradley Cooper, Dane DeHaan, Rose Byrne, Bruce Greenwood, Ray Liotta, and Gosling’s squeeze, Eva Mendes, in a shifting trio of tales that breaks the usual rules of narrative. It’s a big story, with big twists, and, according to Cianfrance, it sprouted from a growing desire to push himself further.
The director—who began working professionally in his early 20s, and has a lot of documentary experience under his belt, profiling the likes of Diddy and Run-D.M.C. for television—adheres to a philosophy about drive and perfection of craft, a philosophy he can credit to his father, which, given his new film’s paternal themes, is only too appropriate. For The Place Beyond the Pines, Cianfrance carries over a handsomely gritty look many will recognize from Blue Valentine, but he gives himself far more room to work, a raise of stakes that doesn’t seem to have daunted the filmmaker. Recently, Cianfrance took some time to chat about his blooming filmography, which, evidently, points to even broader projects to come. He talked about Gosling, family, fateful collaborations, and how, in art and life, choices mean everything.
One might say that Blue Valentine charts the epic evolution of a relationship, but The Place Beyond the Pines has a much more epic feel in terms of scope. Were you determined to be much more ambitious this time around?
Yeah. I mean, I started writing this movie before I did Blue Valentine, but I felt like I had to finish that one before I did this one, just as part of my own evolution. Blue Valentine is about intimacy on a very microscopic level. It’s about two people. This movie has 56 speaking roles and takes place over two generations, with three stories. But at its heart, it’s still that intimate story about people, and families, and their secrets, and these personal tragedies that they’re trying to avoid but just keep running into. With Blue Valentine, by the time I made it, I honestly didn’t want to, because it was an old idea. I had been working on it for 12 years. I came up with the idea when I was 24. [The Place Beyond the Pines] is more close to who I am as a man now. It’s about me dealing with my experience of being a father. It’s more personal. And I should also say that, as an artist, I think it’s important that you push your own boundaries. I was interviewing Danica Patrick a few years back, because I was doing a lot of documentaries, and I asked her, “How do you go so fast? How did you do this in your life?” And she said that her whole life she’d always known how fast she could drive, so whenever she went out to drive, she would drive to her limit, and then go a little faster. When she did that, oftentimes she would crash, but she was also able to push her boundaries by going to that dangerous place. So that’s been a theory of mine—to risk failure, and to put yourself in a place that is ambitious. That’s how you push yourself forward and that’s how you push the cinematic medium forward too. After Blue Valentine, I had a number of offers to make these pre-approved ideas—movies that were already okayed by people and had a lot of money behind them. But I felt it was my responsibility as an artist to go back to the well, and to do something that was really personal and challenging.
The red jacket Ryan Gosling wears at the start of the film becomes very emblematic of his character, and it recalls the scorpion jacket he donned in Drive. Is there any intentional nod or connection happening there?
No. I hadn’t seen Drive when I made this movie, and I had been writing this a number of years before Drive even came out. I think any surface similarities between this movie and Drive are just that: surface. I think Nic Refn and myself are very different filmmakers with very different interests. The jacket is a motorcycle-riding jacket, but it also reminded us of the Michael Jackson “Thriller” jacket. Plus, he’s an entertainer in this movie, so the blond hair, and the jacket—that’s him playing this character, Handsome Luke. And if you notice, in that opening shot, the Heartthrobs also have the dyed-blond hair and the red jackets. We thought of them as like a boy band, or like the matinee idols that artists like the Shangri-Las would sing about.
The film’s first act, specifically, has a really strong kinetic energy. Would you say some of that stems from the relationship you’d already developed with Gosling?
Yes. I remember I was at Ryan’s agent’s house back in 2007. We were having dinner and we were talking about Blue Valentine, and I kept asking him, “What are your fantasies, man? You’ve done so much in your life—what haven’t you done?” And he said, “Well, I always wanted to rob a bank, but I’ve always been too scared of jail.” And I said, “Really? I’m writing a movie about a bank robber. Have you given any thought to how you would do it?” And he said, “Yes, well, I would do it on a motorcycle. Because I could go in with a helmet on and no one would know who I was, and motorcycles are fast and agile, so I could get out of there quickly. And then I’d have a U-Haul truck parked about four blocks away, and I put the bike in the back of the U-Haul truck, because people would be looking for a motorcycle, not a U-Haul.” And I said, “That’s crazy. That’s exactly what I wrote into my script. I’ll make your dreams come true.” And that was one of those moments when I knew we were destined to work together. We had a lot of similar ideas.
And, of course, this movie has a lot more action in it than anything you’ve done previously.
Yeah, well, in terms of how the whole thing works with that first segment—I’m dealing with guns and violence in this movie. As a filmgoer and as a father, I’m really turned off by violence in movies. I don’t know when violence became such a cinematic thing. I guess Sam Peckinpah? I love Peckinpah’s violence, because I feel like he’s really riding in the flames with his characters, but too often, nowadays, I’m seeing this fetishized, cool violence. If I have to see another slow-motion bullet come out of a gun and pierce someone’s skull, I’m gonna throw up. I can’t stand the way violence is dealt with in movies. So I wanted to put a violent moment in my movie that would actually have an effect. And you can see, in the first part of the film, all of the choices, and all of the adrenaline, that leads someone to a violent moment. And then I wanted that violent moment to come out, and I wasn’t interested in the violence itself, but the narrative of it—how a gun could come in and actually derail this life, this story that you’ve been watching. And then, as an audience member, as in real life, if you’ve experienced tragic violence, you’re forced to see that there’s no going back. You have to go forward. I wanted the viewer to experience that effect, of seeing violence approach, and then having to stick with the reverberation of it.