Six years ago Ryan Gosling ate dinner with director Derek Cianfrance during the closing stages of production of their first collaboration Blue Valentine. Cianfrance asked Gosling, considering the Hollywood A-lister was so young, was there anything he still hadn’t done that he wanted to.
“And then Ryan, tells me that he always wanted to rob a bank, but he was too scared of going to jail,” Derek Cianfrance told Heavy.com. “He had this entire plan, he would use a motorcycle, but when he got out he’d drive into a U-Haul truck parked four blocks away. The cops are looking for a biker, not a U-Haul.”
And what was Cianfrance’s response to this admission of fantasy crime from Gosling? Call the police to report a Minority Report style future crime? “I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me, I’m writing that movie right now.'” The scenario of Gosling robbing banks on a motorcycle and riding into a waiting truck to make a scot-free getaway is one of the intense sequences that makes their second collaboration, The Place Beyond The Pines, so special.
The movie follows three linear stories, in the small city of Schenectady, in upstate New York, told by writer/director Cianfrance with the feeling of a hard-hitting documentary into crime and punishment. Gosling plays a motorcycle stunt-driver (Luke) who is drawn into using his skill to rob banks, when Eva Mendes (Romina) becomes pregnant with his child. His robberies bring cop Bradley Cooper (Avery) into the movie as he trails Gosling. But this isn’t cops and robbers, as both Gosling and Cooper become racked with guilt over their respective actions.
“I wanted to make a movie about real people”, Cianfrance says. “I wanted to meet cops, I spent a lot of time with them … then I realized I needed to meet a bank robber, so I asked them could they introduce me to any bank robbers. And they did, they let me meet this kid who had robbed banks. He told me about the state of mind, the desperation you have to be feeling to rob a bank.”
This was the feeling Cianfrance tried to create as he added extras who had been bank tellers who were robbed in real life, in order to give them “catharsis,” he says.
So then Ryan Gosling comes bursting in and robs the bank, drawing the raw emotions out of the extras, right? “The extras just weren’t panicked, some of them starting taking out their cell phones to take photos of Ryan, so we had to do take-after-take … I just had to keep telling Ryan, you have to scare them to get the proper reaction.”
Improvisation is a big part of Cianfrance’s movies, helping to add to the documentary feel. “Eventually we got it, Ryan was screeching by the time we got it. We didn’t realize it right away, but we got the desperation that the bankrobber told us about.”
The linear story shifts and it becomes focused on the other side of crime and punishment, rookie cop Avery: “This is a guy who, since childhood, has had the ability to see and find his way. He’s been the high road example, known and renowned for his best traits: a good fellow, popular, fair, honest, truthful, strong, high IQ,” says the director. Cianfrance is aware that many fans will flock to the movie to see Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper together, but the linear method prevents this: “The non-linear narrative is such a great movie-making tool, used by so many filmmakers, going back to DW Griffith … [But] I have always loved Psycho, and how the movie managed that amazing hand-off from Janet Leigh to Tony Perkins as the protagonist. I wanted to do something similar.”
It’s clear Cianfrance loved working with Gosling. He knew they were “destined to make more than one movie together.” But what about Cooper and Gosling, the first time the director has worked with two A-List stars? “They are both so much more than actors in this film, they are true collaborators. Ryan and Bradley both have tremendous instincts for character and story and dialogue, and they are both brave enough to go to the vulnerable places I needed them to to up on the screen. They each do a lot of research and go the distance for you.”
Also cast in the movie is Ray Liotta, as a cop who works with Cooper. “I wrote the part for him, I’m such a huge Goodfellas fan, I saw that movie so many times, it was surreal to work with him.” There is at least one scene that Cianfrance tells me is a direct homage to Martin Scorese’s gangster epic.
Eventually in the final chapter, we meet the next generation, Gosling and Cooper’s children. “This is a movie about legacy, it’s a evolution.” Gosling’s child, who grew up without really knowing his father, struggles between his loving family, and his father’s loner, violent streak. It’s nature vs. nurture, to which Cianfrance tells me, “But you can’t escape your nature.”