Derek Cianfrance and Ryan Gosling are adventurous in their moviemaking. In The Place Beyond the Pines, their second collaboration after the heart-wrenching marriage break-up drama, Blue Valentine, Gosling was inspired by a real-life daredevil for his character, Luke, a motorcycle stunt driver in a travelling carnival. When Luke needs money for Romina (Eva Mendes) to support herself while raising their child – who was conceived during a one-night stand Luke can barely remember – he decides to rob banks around her hometown of Schenectady, New York. (In the Mohawk language Schenectady means 'the place beyond the pines'.)
Andrij called me one morning and he said, 'I just had a dream last night that I died making this movie. So I’m out."
Gosling came up with the idea of how Luke would execute the robberies and these scenes became the most exhilarating in the film. It's no wonder that after re-teaming with his Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn for the Cannes Competition entry, Only God Forgives, Gosling is now making his directing debut, How to Catch a Monster, which stars Mad Men's Christina Hendricks, who had appeared in Drive, as well as Mendes.
“When I was meeting with Derek to discuss Blue Valentine I told him how I'd always had this fantasy of robbing banks but I'm scared of jail so I won't do it," Gosling explains. "My fantasy would be to do it on a motorcycle because I could drive into a U-Haul when it was over and the police would be looking for a motorcycle and not a U-Haul. And then it turned out that there was this Israeli guy that did like 15 bank robberies this way.”
We spoke to Gosling and Cianfrance at the Toronto Film Festival after the film's premiere. They talk amongst each other as much as answer questions
There's an interesting paradox within the character. When Luke's riding the motorcycle he's supremely confident and yet when he's interacting with Romina he seems to constantly fear that he can't do the right thing. Is that puzzling to you? To have total confidence in one area and a lack of confidence in another?
RG: I think the deal is when you work with Derek that you do everything you can to create this character. But at the end of the day when you are there, you have no idea what is going to happen or how the decisions that he has made leading up to this will affect the scene or will affect you. I remember walking into the church and watching the baptism and sitting down and feeling overwhelmed and not expecting that at all – that idea that you had been so careless with yourself and with your life and all these decisions that you can't take back, these things that are permanent, and then to be faced with this idea of having this person that is pure. And everything that is bad about you will be passed on to this person and you are soiled and dirty in some way and wondering if the best thing to do for them is not to even be there. I didn't expect any of those things.
How did you achieve the opening tracking shot through the carnival, shot by your director of photography Sean Bobbitt? (Bobbitt shot Steve McQueen's Hunger and Shame and more recently Twelve Years A Slave as well as Spike Lee's English-language remake of Park Chan-Wook's Oldboy.)
DC: I was planning on working with Andrij Parekh, who shot Blue Valentine [and Half Nelson, which starred Gosling] and about eight weeks before we started production Andrij called me one morning and he said, “I just had a dream last night that I died making this movie. So I'm out.” And he quit. I was so bummed out. I didn't have a lot of time to find another DP and I met with Sean because I had really liked Hunger and I asked him, “Do you think you are going to die making this movie?” And he said he had been a war photographer for about eight years and so he thought he could survive it.
Given this movie is such a large canvas, we thought that the opening shot had to define the movie. In the first 5 to 10 minutes of any movie you are showing the audience how to watch, and they are entering this world. Any time you cut, there's an inherent lie in a cut, so we wanted to have this moment that just brought you into this world and revealed this character. We were planning it so that we start out in his trailer, go through the carnival, go into the tent and do this thing called a Texas Switch where Ryan goes off screen and another motorcycle goes in. Then Sean said, “And then we must go to the centre of the Globe of Death”. He wanted to go inside the Globe of Death and have the motorcycles spin around him and I said, “It's going to be kind of dangerous in there Sean” because there are three motorcycles in this space. And he said, “We must go to the centre.”
So Sean suited himself up and he kind of looked like RoboCop with a camera on – he had a helmet on with full-on gear. I was watching the shot on my monitor and we were going through the carnival and into the tent and he goes inside the cage and the people rev up their motorcycles and they started spinning around. And all of a sudden my monitor went static and I heard a gasp from the crowd. I guessed a motorcycle had stalled in mid-air above him and fallen on him. And when I looked up he was on the bottom of a pile of three motorcycles! I opened the gate and dusted him off to see if he was okay. And he wasn't okay. He was angry; he was like mad at himself for not getting the shot. And I said, “Okay, we're done, you're not going in the cage again.” And he said, “No, I must go into the centre.”
So we did the shot again and I was like, “Please don't get run over by a motorcycle this time…” And we did it again but the same thing happened. The shot was even better than it was before but Sean was again at the bottom of a pile of three motorcycles. We opened up the cage and this time he was really shaken up and we had to cancel the shoot that night. We later received a report from the person who worked at the front desk in the Holiday Inn that one of our crew members had been wandering around the hotel looking for tomatoes in his pyjamas.
RG: Sean had too many motorcycles fall on his head. He was trying to find tomatoes in the Holiday Inn.
Was it worth risking his life to get that shot?
RG: That's a good question. I guess for Sean it was and that shows his level of commitment. But again, he was a war photographer so I don't know if he's comfortable unless the stakes are that high.
But what about you? You did a lot of the motorcycle riding yourself.
RG: Yeah, I did some. A lot of the cool stuff I didn't do.
DC: One of the most amazing stunts in the movie was done by Ryan. We were trying to shoot again in long takes and there's a moment where he has to go and rob the bank, leave the bank, get on the motorcycle and drive into traffic and be pursued by police officer and narrowly avoid traffic in the intersection. So Ryan had to avoid 36 cars at this intersection and it took us 22 takes to get there. And it's Ryan doing it every time and still when I watch the movie I feel like he is going to get hit because it was death defying.
The film has a second section starring Bradley Cooper as a lawyer/cop, who, like Luke, adores his son. Cooper only shares one fateful scene with Ryan before the film skips ahead 15 years. While there is an ultimate pay-off, moving ahead to the present day is confusing at first.
DC: The real challenge with this movie is in its inherent existence and what it is. It's an almost impossible film to make, to do these baton passes between the stories, but at the same time to be telling one story and that's a story about legacy. It's about the choices we make and the things we pass on. I don't even know what we are passing on to the next generations. I really wrote it as a response to becoming a father for the second time and seeing my new son, this clean baby, Cody, be born into the world and thinking about all of the things that I had inside of me that had been passed down from my father and from his father. I wanted this baby to be clean and new and to start on his own. So that's what the movie was about.
You have Mike Patton (from Faith No More) scoring the music. How did that come about?
DC: When I was a teenager in Denver I saw Mr Bungle play. I was 16 years-old and Mike was wearing a bondage mask and I saw him licking this bald man's head in the first row and from that point on he became a hero. I always thought that his music was so cinematic during my adolescence and in college I would put his music in my student films. To be able to work with him was a real thrill. I used to wish I was just like him.
The Place Beyond the Pines is in cinemas from May 9.