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Toronto: Derek Cianfrance on The Place Beyond the Pines and Ryan Gosling’s Motorcycle Stunts

Derek Cianfrance. Photo: Nicholas Hunt/Patrick McMullan

In The Place Beyond the Pines, director Derek Cianfrance’s follow-up to Blue Valentine, Ryan Gosling plays a motorcycle stunt driver-turned-bank robber who gets shot mid-heist by a rookie cop (Bradley Cooper). The incident reaps moral consequences that last an entire family generation, as well as through a triptych of stories. The film premiered in Toronto and is just as weighty as Blue Valentine, with some harrowing motorcycle sequences for adrenaline relief. Cianfrance spoke to Vulture about reining in Gosling’s thirst for motorcycle stunts, working with real-life bank robbers, and embarking on a mission to bulk up his next protagonist by 90 pounds.

Ryan shot a lot of the motorcycle scenes himself. Were there moments where you were like, Why am I letting him do this instead of a stunt man?
When we were just prepping the movie, maybe six months out, Ryan would send me pictures of guys standing up on motorcycles going 50 miles an hour down the street doing handstands. He was like, “I wanna learn how to do this.” So I tried to cut out the crazy ideas. But at the same time with the motorcycle stunts in the film, it was important to me that they felt fast and that they were real. If Blue Valentine was known for anything, it’s a frank take on sexuality. And for this, if there were any action scenes — the performance had to be real and when we went to action, it had to be cut from the same cloth as the rest of the movie. It had to still feel like it was in the real world. My inspiration was America’s wildest police chases. And we were doing a lot of long takes in the film, because I always think whenever you cut, there’s a lie. So we would have these long takes where Ryan would have to park his bike, go into a bank, rob the bank, get on his motorcycle, go into traffic, be pursued by a police officer, and go into an intersection and narrowly avoid 36 cars. And we had to shoot that scene 22 times. Every time we went through the intersection I felt like he was gonna crash, you know?

Drive was shot before this. Did Ryan have any stunt driving experience from that?
Yeah, Ryan used to send me these videos of him doing 180s in parking lots. For actors, they’re in a fortunate place because they can go live these other lives, you know?

This kind of gave you a taste of shooting an action movie. Did you like it? Do you feel like you might want to do something more action-oriented at some point?
Yeah, I love the action scenes in the film. They made me incredibly nervous. I felt like if I was biting my shirt — which is what I do when I’m nervous — if I was doing that on set while shooting the action scenes, then it was in the right spot.

You had Bradley Cooper and Rose Byrne* live together like you did with Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling in Blue Valentine. How long were they living together?
They played house for a week or so. Bradley spent about a month shadowing police officers up in Schenectady. He learned that the police officers called chewing gum their Prozac because it was the thing that calmed them down. He learned about holding a gun and he learned about what the protocol was for being on patrols. My first initial draft of the script ten weeks out had Avery [Cooper’s character] and his partner driving in the car pursuing this guy. Then we found out that in Schenectady there were single-cop cars — they didn’t ride with partners. We always look into real life and real people to kind of be our consultants in the movie so that we’re sure to tell true and authentic stories. Bradley and I met a police officer who had been shot ten years ago, and the same police officer had killed somebody in the line of duty, and he told us about how killing someone was much harder to get over than the wounds of being shot himself and that he’s still not over it. It’s important to delve into the real details. [Actor] Ben Mendelsohn and I were one day in my office and I really wanted to meet a bank robber because none of us had ever robbed a bank before.

You haven’t?
No, never robbed a bank. And all of a sudden the police showed up at our office with a guy and they’re like this is so-and-so, he just got out of jail, he robbed twenty banks in Schenectady. He was like, “What’s going on guys, I was just working at the tree nursery and these cops came and picked me up. What do you want?” He said the thing that movies always get wrong about robbing a bank is that they’re perfect in movies, but in real life robbing a bank is really messy. And he told us every detail. So we tried to make it true to that. When we robbed the banks, we cast bank tellers who’d been robbed before.

How did you find those people?
The town of Schenectady really helped us make this movie. The police force, the banks. When you’re shooting the scene with real people, I’d ask are you sure? Is this the way it happened when you were in it? Tell me about how it happened with you.

What are you working on next?
I’m doing a series for HBO called Muscle, which I’m writing with this great author Sam Fussell. It’s his life story. It’s the story of how when he was an Oxford grad and moved to New York City in the eighties, he was just terrified by the city. So in order to protect himself he put on this wall of armor in the form of muscles. He gained 90 pounds in muscles to protect himself, to insulate himself in a way from the rest of the world. We’re doing it as a TV series because we can try to redefine what character development is. I could never do that in a movie in 90 minutes or in nine weeks of shooting — have an actor transform themselves. But in five years we could do that. And it talks a lot about similar themes that are going on in Blue Valentine and Pines about masculine identity. You know, reinvention of the self and transformation and what happens over time.

You seem to have a keen awareness of the themes in your movies.
Yeah, well, not to say that’s the only thing in the movie. But mostly I’m just trying to think about the stories. I mean, I wanna see somebody that looks like me transform themselves without CGI.

*This post has been corrected to show that Cooper lived with Byrne, not Eva Mendes.

Derek Cianfrance on The Place Beyond the Pines