Bradley Cooper and Derek Cianfrance on the set of "The Place Beyond the Pines"

Bradley Cooper and Derek Cianfrance on the set of “The Place Beyond the Pines” (courtesy Focus Features)

They come in waves — family from Colorado, friends from Brooklyn, loyal producers, all passing through the door of a Toronto hotel room to share congratulations with filmmaker Derek Cianfrance on the debut of his third feature film, the highly-anticipated and acclaimed working-class drama The Place Beyond the Pines. The film stars Ryan Gosling as a circus stunt motorcycle rider who takes to bank robberies in order to provide for his infant son and Bradley Cooper as the Schenectady, NY, cop who aims to stop his string of robberies.

The soft-spoken Cianfrance greets them all warmly, transforming our interview into a group session with the close-knit community that has stood by him through frequent rough spots, when it often felt like he would never get the chance to make another movie. That’s the price of risky storytelling: the realization that at any moment you may lose the chance to do it.

The thirty-something Cianfrance remembers fighting to make his marriage-in-trouble drama Blue Valentine (2010), to the point where he forfeited his director’s salary to save the film from the bonding company. And the risks in Blue Valentine, which took Cianfrance twelve years to make, are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to The Place Beyond the Pines.

Derek Cianfrance (click to enlarge) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

“This [Pines] is a riskier film because of what it is doing narratively, because of its ambition, because of the incredible large canvas it was dealing with and the amount of money I had to work with, which is not really enough but it never is,” Cianfrance says, speaking after his friends and family leave the room. “I was on the bench for twelve years just hoping the coach would give me a shot to go in the game and show him what I can do. After making Blue Valentine, which had a moderate level of success, the coach kept me in the game, and the next play is this incredible risk.”

In addition to directing, Cianfrance cowrote The Place Beyond the Pines with Ben Coccio and Darius Marder. The movie starts out as an edgy crime thriller but reaches its full potential in its second half as a heartbreaking father/son melodrama after a surprising plot twist.

“This is a movie about legacy, and legacy is linear,” Cianfrance adds. “The actual form of this movie goes way back to film school at the University of Colorado when Stan Brakhage showed me Napoleon by Abel Gance, and I heard I could see this triptych and it blew my mind. Ever since, I always wanted to make a triptych film. In another film class I saw Psycho, and I had never seen Psycho before and only heard about that shower scene, but I had no idea that I would spend 45 minutes with Marian Crane before she went into the shower. When I saw Psycho for the first time, it blew my mind. So I had this formalist idea of a triptych, and the structural idea of this baton pass that would happen.”

Gosling, Cooper, and Eva Mendes (as the girlfriend to Gosling’s character) are receiving some of the best reviews of their careers, while newcomers Dane DeHaan, recently seen in the films Lawless and Chronicle, and Emory Cohen, best known for the TV musical series Smash, are enjoying early praise as the embattled sons from opposite sides of the tracks. The critical praise helps convince Cianfrance that the creative sparks he continues to draw from the American avant-garde and his University of Colorado teachers Phil Solomon and the late Stan Brakhage are leading him in the right direction after his debut student feature, Brother Tied, and commercial documentaries about Mos Def, Sean “Diddy” Combs, Cassandra Wilson, and Annie Lenox.

What’s more, the praise is just as strong from the actors who work with him. “Working with Derek is like nothing else,” Gosling says, speaking earlier at a premiere screening of the movie. “I don’t know how to explain it, but it’s changed my life and it’s changed me as an actor and it’s one of the greatest things that have ever happened to me.”

Ryan Gosling in “The Place Beyond the Pines” (courtesy Focus Features)

Place Beyond the Pines is brutal in its honesty and gritty in its depiction of the working poor. Cianfrance, who cast real tellers for scenes where Gosling’s character robs a series of Schenectady banks, finds high drama and deep emotion in blue-collar landscapes. Cianfrance and his family also make their home away from the glamour of Manhattan, in the diverse Brooklyn neighborhood of Clinton Hill. Like the characters in his movies, he wants to be grounded.

“You know, I grew up in Colorado,” he says. “When I came to New York City for the first time, I was twenty years old, and I came to pick up a camera to fly back to Denver so I could shoot my student feature Brother Tide. Immediately when I was in New York, I felt this great sense of freedom and great sense that people could be anonymous in the city, and they could do anything they wanted to do and be seen or unseen. That’s where the American dream was and that’s where the world was. I felt like I was where the whole world was and moved out here after I made my first feature. But Manhattan was stifling to me because I grew up in wide open spaces in Colorado, and in Manhattan I had a window through buildings. Then, I found Brooklyn. I wandered across the Brooklyn Bridge one day, and I felt the pace change and I felt peace. In Manhattan, people were running over each other, so I moved to Brooklyn and I could see the sky all of a sudden. I just loved it.”

As our conversation winds down, Cianfrance talks about his twin childhood nightmares, nuclear war and his parents divorcing. He shares his concerns about always providing for his family and the sacrifices his loved ones make on his behalf. Most importantly, he talks about his need to push the boundaries of moviemaking and his craft.

“I think boundaries are incredibly important, because if you know where the edge is you can go all the way to the edge,” he says. “If you don’t have an edge, where are you going to go? You’re going to make those amorphous, amoeba-shaped, shapeless things.”

The Place Beyond the Pines is now out in theaters across the country.

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Steve Ramos

Steve Ramos writes about art and art cinema; contributing to New York Magazine.com, indieWire, Boxoffice.com and The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel among others. He programmed a monthly film series for...