Derek Cianfrance is establishing himself as a director who, as he puts it, drops his actors into the "the aquarium of life" to see if they can swim. With The Place Beyond the Pines, he got Ryan Gosling onto a motorcycle, moved Eva Mendes into a house with their onscreen son Dane DeHaan, and made the two of them go bowling together — and that was all before they started shooting. Vulture sat down with Cianfrance over a plate of French fries to talk more about his process, his love of Metallica, and Ryan Gosling's robber fantasies.
Cianfrance: I don't know if you want to eat off of my plate? Here, I'll move it, put you next to Ryan's bacon.
[Picking up package.] What is this?
Gummy bacon. This is what I was going to give him, as a gift, on the first day of shooting, and I forgot. I've been carrying it around in my backpack all these years, so I have to finally remember to give it to him today. He likes gummy things. He likes candy. He's a candy guy.
First you have Ryan climb over the Brooklyn Bridge in Blue Valentine, and now he's doing daredevil motorcycle stunts and risking his neck in The Place Beyond the Pines. So, are you trying to kill him? He thinks you might be.
Really? [Laughs.] I really don't want to kill Ryan, because he's such a magical person, and I love him so much, you know? I love actors that are brave, that are courageous. And courage to me is not the absence of fear, it's the presence of fear, and they go to places that really scare them, because as an audience, that's where you feel danger. But I'm really not out to get him! [Laughs.] I love him too much.
Ryan's about to direct his own first film, How to Catch a Monster, so has he sought advice from you?
We've talked. You know, we're collaborators, so we're intricately linked in our process. I can only say that Ryan brings out the best in the people around him, and to me, that's the mark of a good filmmaker. That's what I'm always trying to do. I'm trying to be the coach. My actors are my players. They're doing things that I'm too cowardly to do myself. Ryan as a director, I think it would be second nature to him. That's what he's good at — he's good at making people great. He's good at seeing what's special about you. He's made me a better filmmaker, as an actor in my movies.
You guys seem to be on the same page.
Oh, yeah! I've been writing this since 2007, since my wife was pregnant with our second son, and I was over at his agent's house with him, and we were talking about Blue Valentine — this is two years before we shot Blue Valentine — and I said, "Man, you've done so much in your life. What haven't you done?" And he says, "Well, I've always wanted to rob banks, but I'm too scared of jail." And I said, "That's funny, I'm writing a movie about a bank robber." And then I said, "Have you thought about how you'd it? Have you given it a lot of thought?" And he'd given it a lot of thought. He said, "Yeah, I'd go in with a helmet on, because no one would know who I was; I'd leave on a motorcycle, because they're fast and agile; and I'd go to a cube truck parked four or five blocks away, because cops would be looking for a motorcycle, and not a truck." And it was exactly what I had written in the script! That was one of the things when I knew we were destined to work together, because we had similar inspiration points, and so I told him that I'd make his dreams come true.
I heard the people in the bank-robbery scene, the extras, were a little too happy to be robbed by Ryan Gosling? So it required a lot of extra takes and some dirty tricks?
I'm always trying to create the collision between real life and acting, and so my idea was to cast all these people who had been in bank robberies before because they know what it's going to be. So they're all ready, and Ryan comes in, and they're all happy to see him, you know what I mean? They were happy to be robbed by Ryan. I imagine if you're really robbing a bank, the gun does all the work for you, but the gun wasn't doing anything. So between takes, Ryan and I were like, "What are we going to do? They're not scared!" So I said, "You got to scare them." So by the eleventh, twelfth take, Ryan is just desperate and trying so hard to affect these people. His voice is cracking, he's going hoarse, and I love those moments in movies. I'm interested in the part of the process where they stop acting and start behaving.
So what kinds of things did he do?
He just jumped up there, grabbed the guy by the tie, taking the guy around by his tie like a dog. Kicking candy. Screaming. He just became an animal. He became unhinged.
You consulted a real-life bank robber for tips of the trade. What advice did he give?
He told me about the feeling he had, that anxiety, the desperation, the feeling of time elongating, feeling the carpet on his feet. Everything was amplified. And we tried to do that, get inside the guy's head, without changing the frame rate or anything — I'm not that interested in slow motion. He also told me that all you need to do, really, to rob a bank is to wear a hat. Because the cameras are up top. Wear a hat, write them a note, and ask. He said if you put "please" on the note, that makes a big difference as far as your intent to hurt somebody. He said, "Just write a note and say please and they have to give you the money." Don't try that, though. [Laughs.]
You gave Dane DeHaan his first Metallica CD to get into character.
Really? Can I tell you something that's crazy? Lars Ulrich, he was my hero growing up. I wanted to be like him. I played the drums. So I make Blue Valentine, I'm up in Schenectady, and I get a text message, "Hey, Derek, it's Lars Ulrich. I just saw your movie, and it blew me away!" He says, "I'm going to go to every rooftop I can in San Francisco and tell people about it." And I was like, "You don't know this, but man, I'm only ... I stopped playing the drums because I knew I would never be as good as you. I thought maybe I could make movies the same way you play the drums, with integrity and aggression and passion and fire." So he became a friend! He had a movie tent at a music festival in Atlantic City, and he showed Blue Valentine to a bunch of sweaty kids with their shirts off at a Metallica concert! It was a really strange manifested dream come true.