Of all the chases that break out during the upcoming film The Place Beyond the Pines, writer-director Derek Cianfrance’s ambitious, multigenerational crime saga starring Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper and Eva Mendes, perhaps none is as treacherous as the pursuit of truth. Although it’s a quarry that may never be caught, that didn’t stop Cianfrance from doing everything he could to hitch to its bumper.
Take the very first extended tracking shot, in which the trick motorcycle jockey played by Ryan Gosling (working again with his Blue Valentine director) is followed by the camera as he walks toward a giant globe in which the bikes do complete vertical loops for a cheering carny crowd. Cianfrance knew the shot had to be as authentic as possible – to establish the existential cool of the soon-to-be-outlawed Gosling character, and to announce to his audience they were watching the real deal.
Sitting with Gosling at a table in a hotel boardroom, Cianfrance is recollecting the shot, in which everything went beautifully – until his video monitor went dead and he was told that Sean Bobbitt, his director of photography, was currently beneath a motorcycle.
“It fell on him,” Gosling says. “I mean I saw it. A bike was having a problem. The throttle was off and there was air in the line. So when it was at the top of the globe instead of getting fuel it got air and it just cut out and dropped on Sean Bobbitt’s head. Then the bikes crashed and he was at the centre of this thing.”
When Bobbitt got back up, Cianfrance insisted he return to the original plan: Shoot from outside, not inside, the globe. But Bobbitt was stubborn: Unless he was shooting inside the globe, he said, the shot wouldn’t be true. “I say, ‘Okay Sean. You got one more take at it,”’ Cianfrance says. “So we did the whole thing again. All of a sudden, at the same exact moment, my monitor goes static. A gasp from the crowd. The same exact thing had happened. He was on the bottom of the motorcycles. We pulled him out, cancelled the shoot. At three in the morning, he was wandering around the Holiday Inn and didn’t know what country he was in.”
Although the incident demonstrated the limits of Cianfrance’s pursuit of realism (after being taken to a hospital in New York State, the daredevil D.O.P. was treated and released), it reinforced for Gosling why the director was such a valued collaborator.
They met in 2005, when Cianfrance, an award-winning newcomer with a single feature to his credit, approached Gosling with the concept of Blue Valentine, a movie that would track the dissolution of a marriage over several years, and with an unblinking regard to – any guesses? – the truth. Gosling loved the idea and the man behind it, but he felt he was too young to convincingly play a guy that much older and worn down than himself.
“I said to him that I wanted to make this film more than anything, but that I just couldn’t pull it off,” Gosling says. “The only way I could do it is if we shot the first part now and we waited like five years or six years and then shoot the next part. And Derek was like, ‘Okay.’ He was in. I’ve never had an experience like that where somebody was willing to go with me on these kind of crazy ideas. I just knew in that moment that we were supposed to work together.”
Although the original plan proved unfeasible – “I think,” Gosling says with a grin, “it would have been very difficult for us to find anybody who would finance that idea” – when it got to the making of the movie few other compromises were made in the name of getting something true: Gosling and his co-star Michelle Williams spent a month living together in a tiny home to prepare to be convincingly and unhappily married, and both were encouraged to forget the script if the moment called for it. When it came to the movie’s sometimes wincingly raw domestic set-tos, Cianfrance contributed to the tension by telling each of his actors to do and say things the other had no idea was about to be said or done.
“These films have changed my life and they have changed me as an actor,” Gosling says. “It’s not like a regular movie experience where you feel like you’re making scenes. The whole environment on the set is different. He gives you an opportunity to live through these characters’ experiences. You’re not playing their experiences. You’re actually having them.”
When it came to preparing The Place Beyond the Pines, which chronicles the legacy of crime and violence as it seeps insidiously through three generations of criminals and cops in Schenectady, N.Y., Cianfrance was typically scrupulous in creating his environment of simulated authenticity. For a key scene involving a bank robbery that goes horribly awry, he insisted that people who had real experiences like the ones the actors were pretending to have – tellers, customers, guards, cops – be on hand. Not only would that contribute a semblance of actuality, they could also call the filmmaker out if anything seemed bogus.
“They would be our consultants,” Cianfrance explains. “I like to blur the line between real life and fiction and see where those two things meet. Throughout the whole movie, whether it was a real bank robber, or a real teller who had been robbed, or real cops or high-school teachers and judges, those people all play themselves, so the actors are kind of immersed in this world with real people.
Beside him, Gosling is nodding in complete agreement.
“All of the sudden,” Cianfrance adds, “those real people are telling us if this is fake or not. Or if it’s not true. So we have to try to make it so it’s going to be true. … There was certain moments where he had to have stunt drivers, but there was also certain moments where we didn’t want to cut. Every time you cut in a movie, there’s a lie that can be associated with it.”
That’s the funny thing about making a movie: It’s not the lying that’s the crime, it’s getting caught at it.