Derek Cianfrance channeled John Cassavetes with his raw, doomed 2010 romance “Blue Valentine.” His third film, “The Place Beyond the Pines” (his 1998 debut feature, “Brother Tied,” was well received on the festival circuit but never released) aims for Scorsese territory in its operatic fusion of crime and family drama as the sins of fathers are visited on sons.
So it’s a bit surprising to hear that one of the films he considers most influential to his career is the 1982 horror anthology “Creepshow.”
“For one of my brother’s birthday parties we rented a VCR and two movies: ‘Creepshow’ and ‘Airplane 2.’ Then for my birthday I had a slumber party and we rented two movies: ‘Creepshow’ and ‘Airplane 2.’ In the fourth grade, I watched ‘Creepshow” every day after school,” says Cianfrance, 39, during an interview in Boston. “[The film’s director] George Romero is a hero of mine. There’s a lot in my films that comes from Romero, not consciously, but I’ve watched ‘Creepshow’ so many times it’s part of my subconscious. With Romero, there’s always something deeper going on within the story.”
After what he calls “putting two people under a microscope” in “Blue Valentine,” which netted an Oscar nomination for Michelle Williams, Cianfrance says he wanted to raise and broaden the emotional stakes. “The Place Beyond the Pines,” which opens here Friday, is about “being haunted by your past, it’s about legacy,” he says.
The film is a triptych that re-teams Cianfrance with his “Blue Valentine” star and doppelganger, Ryan Gosling. With bleached hair and a face tattoo, Gosling plays Luke, a stunt motorcyclist who quits his job with a traveling carnival to stay in Schenectady, N.Y. after he finds out he has a son from a former fling (Eva Mendes). To support the child, Luke robs a bank, then tangles with the rookie cop (Bradley Cooper) whose story makes up the movie’s midsection. The last act takes place 15 years later with a pair of high school students, Jason and AJ (Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen), who become friends without knowing they share a complicated heritage.
“It’s a masculine movie because it’s about fathers and sons. As a son and as a father I’m talking from a very specific place,” says Cianfrance, scruffily handsome in faded jeans and a leather jacket. “The Greek idea of tragedy is that everyone tries to avoid something but ends up crashing into it anyway. Luke tries to avoid letting his son grow up like him. But in trying to avoid it, it happens anyway. Inside him there’s a toxic shame that manifests in his child.”
Cianfrance started working on the script in 2007 with co-writer Ben Coccio (Darius Marder is also credited) two years before he shot “Blue Valentine.” It famously took Cianfrance 12 years to bring “Blue Valentine” to the screen — the blue leaf he tattooed on his forearm is a permanent reminder of his commitment to it. “I always stubbornly believed in that movie to the point where people in my life thought I was delusional,” he says. “I had to make that movie before I died. Once I’d pushed that boulder up the hill, and had a modest success, now what? Scripts and money were offered to me. But I wanted to go back to the well.”
That included tapping Gosling (“Ryan is a magic person,” says Cianfrance) to star as Luke, a reckless, tragic figure who can’t escape his destiny. “They’re a lot alike. The look similar and they’re both soulful and intelligent,” says Coccio of the film’s director and its star. “It’s hard to work with Derek without coming away as a friend.”
Both Cianfrance and Coccio say fatherhood had an impact on their collaboration. “I had a kid of my own literally right before we finished the script and that had a profound effect on me and produced a new kinship with Derek,” says Coccio, a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design. “He’s a charismatic guy; he’s good with people and we hit it off right away. Once I saw ‘Blue Valentine’ I knew I was in good hands. It was easier for him to make another movie after that. He chose to go from intimate to epic.”
Part of that epic vision was the role that violence plays in family legacy. “Everything is choice and consequence. I’m sick of guns in movies especially since having kids,” says Cianfrance, the father of Walker, 9, and Cody, 5. “I hate when violence is fetishized and [made to be] cool. I wanted one violent moment — I went out and shot a .44 Magnum and I was amazed by the speed of it; how fast it happens and you can’t go back from it. I wanted the audience to have that experience of violence in the narrative.”
Cianfrance set the film in Schenectady — its literal translation serves as the film’s title — which is the hometown of both Coccio and Cianfrance’s wife, the actress and filmmaker Shannon Plumb. “I’ve been going there for 10 years and always dreamed of doing a movie there,” he says. “It’s an American city much like Scranton, where I shot ‘Blue Valentine.’ These are cities with a fighting spirit and tough economic times. To me, making modern movies about America, these are the places I want, not the ones with a Home Depot or a Starbucks on every corner. Massacres [of native Americans] happened in Schenectady and it still felt haunted by that legacy.
“On a practical level, I’m trying to be good husband and father as well as filmmaker, so by shooting it there, my wife could be with her family and I could see my kids every day. I’m not going to be hypocritical making movies about family and abandoning my own,” he says.
Cianfrance already has his next project ready: a dramatic series for HBO called “Muscle” based on the story of Sam Fussell, son of writer Paul Fussell, who entered and then abandoned the world of bodybuilding. “It’s about masculine identity and reinvention,” says Cianfrance. “Sam is a fascinating character: an intellectual going into the world of the physical. The pilot is done; I’m just waiting for HBO to give us a budget. I’m a ship in a very busy port right now. I’d like to come in or go to a different port.”
Both “Muscle” and “The Place Beyond the Pines” reflect Cianfrance’s passion for stories that examine legacy, both familial and communal. “I believe in destiny, in nature,” he says. “You can’t escape legacy but ultimately ‘Pines’ is about forgiveness because that’s the only way to move forward. It’s the only way to keep evolving.”