Derek Cianfrance knew his movie, “The Place Beyond the Pines,” would be ambitious.
“My shooting draft of the script was 158 pages, and my financiers told me I could do it if I got it to 120,” Cianfrance said in a recent phone interview. “So I found the ‘shrink font’ button.”
That may have been the only shortcut Cianfrance took in making “The Place Beyond the Pines,” a multi-generational drama about cops and robbers, fathers and sons, and the past and the present. It opens Friday, April 12, in select Salt Lake City theaters.
Cianfrance, who made a huge impact three years ago with the marital drama “Blue Valentine,” said the idea for “The Place Beyond the Pines” started when he was “thinking about a making a movie about legacy.”
It was 2007, and Cianfrance was about to become a father for the second time. “I really wanted [my son] to come into the world clean. I didn’t want him stained with my bad decisions.”
So began the idea for a story of Luke (Ryan Gosling), a motorcycle stunt rider in a traveling carnival who tries to settle down when he learns from Romina (Eva Mendes), a woman he once dated in Schenectady, N.Y., that he’s a father. The pressure to provide for his baby son, Jason, leads Luke to bank robbery — which is why he encounters Avery (Bradley Cooper), a rookie cop who becomes the lead character of the movie’s second section. The third section takes place 15 years later, when Jason and Avery’s son A.J. meet as disaffected teens.
“I always wanted to make this triptych movie,” Cianfrance said. “It’s almost bigger than a movie, because it’s three stories — but it always had a oneness to it.”
The three segments are presented chronologically, which is different than the structure of “Blue Valentine,” which shuttled back and forth between timelines. “We wouldn’t put it in a blender,” Cianfrance said. “Here, the bravest choice would be to never look back.”
Gosling, who starred in “Blue Valentine” with Michelle Williams, was always on board to play Luke, Cianfrance said.
While he was still writing the script, Cianfrance met with Gosling and asked him if there was anything the actor had never before done in a movie. “He said, ‘I’ve always wanted to rob a bank.’ I told him I’m writing a movie about a bank robber. I asked, ‘How would you do it?’ He said, ‘On a motorcycle. They’re fast and agile. I’d park the motorcycle in the back of a cube truck.’ I said, ‘That’s crazy. That’s exactly what we’ve written into the script.’”
Casting the role of Avery, an idealistic cop who turns into a jaded prosecutor, was more challenging. Cianfrance met with several actors, but none felt quite right. Then he got a call saying Cooper was interested.
“I said, ‘That guy from “The Hangover”?’,” Cianfrance said. “I didn’t think much of it. I said, ‘I’ll meet with him, but I doubt he’ll be in the movie.’”
Meeting Cooper, Cianfrance said, “I had this immediate kinship with him. Some of the same things were raging in him.” Cianfrance rewrote the script to incorporate some of Cooper’s ideas about Avery.
Then, Cianfrance said, “I think he got scared. It challenged his idea of good and evil, and of a leading man.” Cooper told Cianfrance he was dropping out of the film. Cianfrance raced from his Brooklyn home to Montreal, where Cooper was shooting “The Words,” to talk to him. This was before Cooper had shot “Silver Linings Playbook,” for which he received an Oscar nomination.
“I had dinner [with Cooper] from midnight to 4 a.m., and for three hours and 45 minutes, he was not making my movie,” Cianfrance said. “I said, ‘I’m not making this film without you.’… But I also said, ‘Don’t make it just for that reason. Make it because you want it, because it goes to a dark place and makes you uncomfortable.’”
Cianfrance, who is also a cinematographer, won an award at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival for his work on the little-seen street-racing drama “Quattro Noza.” He makes an impressive start to “The Place Beyond the Pines” with a complicated single-take shot that establishes Gosling’s character and the carnival world in which he thrives.
The take, which follows Luke from his trailer through the midway and finally into the “Globe of Death” in which he rides at high speed, was not easy to get.
Andrij Parekh, who was Cianfrance’s cinematographer on “Blue Valentine,” wouldn’t take the job. “He called me up, and said he had a dream that he would die making the movie,” Cianfrance said.
Cianfrance hired cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (“Hysteria,” “Shame”), who wasn’t fazed. “He said, ‘I was a war photographer for eight years. I’m not going to die For the long opening shot, Bobbitt insisted on taking the camera inside the “Globe of Death” with Gosling’s stunt double. “He said, ‘No, we must go into the center,’” Cianfrance recalled. “Then my monitor went static and there was a gasp from the audience. And I thought Andrij’s dream came true.”
Bobbitt got clipped by a speeding motorcycle. “He wasn’t dead, but he was mad at himself for messing up the shot,” Cianfrance said.
Bobbitt wanted a second take. “This time he improved the shot somehow,” Cianfrance said.
Then there was another gasp. A motorcycle stalled in midair, and hit Bobbitt in the head.
The next night, Bobbitt — wearing a helmet — shot the take again, and nailed it.
Sean P. Meanswrites The Cricket in daily blog form at www.sltrib.com/blogs/moviecricket. Email him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @moviecricket, or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/seanpmeans.