/Film Interview: Derek Cianfrance On Fatherhood, Movie Violence, and His First Feature ‘Brother Tied’
Posted on Tuesday, March 26th, 2013 by Angie Han
Between his debut feature Brother Tied and his sophomore effort Blue Valentine, filmmaker Derek Cianfrance spent twelve years in what he describes as “the cinematic desert.” But he himself readily acknowledges that bounced back a better director, and the excellent Blue Valentine and the upcoming The Place Beyond the Pines seem to bear him out.
The new crime epic follows two families over two generations and fifteen years. Ryan Gosling plays a new father desperate to make some money, Bradley Cooper an eager rookie cop who tries to stop him, and Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen their respective sons, who feel the consequences of their fathers’ actions. The film earned strong reviews at TIFF last year, and and is just now beginning its theatrical rollout.
At a recent press day in New York City, I got to sit down for a few minutes with the director. Despite his proclivity toward emotionally devastating movies, Cianfrance was quite friendly in person, even offering me a Pines-printed cupcake on my way out. But before that, we chatted about that first feature, fatherhood, the “irresponsibility” of violent films, the difference between movies and TV, and much more.
Be warned that there are some spoilers for the movie up ahead. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, just skip over the questions about The Place Beyond the Pines.
[Cianfrance and I began talking almost as soon as I entered the room, so I didn't get a chance to hit record until a few seconds into our conversation. You didn't miss much -- I said something along the lines of "How's the press tour going?" and then started recording his answer a few words in.]
… I’ve been on the road for like three weeks doing this press tour. It is exhausting but it’s also a good problem to have. When I made my first feature Brother Tied back in the day, no one wanted to talk to me afterwards, and I was out in the cinematic desert for like twelve years.
/Film: Oh yeah, I actually wanted to ask you about that because I know that that’s not really available. So between Blue Valentine and this film, do you think that we’ll be seeing that on DVD soon?
There’s more interest in Brother Tied right now. I hope maybe it’s after this film, or maybe it’s another film, or a couple other films, but yeah, one of my goals in life is to let that film get released again. Make films that make people interested enough, if there’s enough voices calling for it it will be released. There’s some unlicensed doo-wop Christmas songs that I have to pay for in that film, so there’s a little price tag.
Do you think it’s going to be weird when it comes out because it’s from so long ago?
Oh, yeah. It’ll be completely embarassing and mortifying for it to come out. You know, that film was very megalomaniac approach to filmmaking for myself.
What do you mean?
It was all about my tricks as a filmmaker. My command of the cinematic grammar. Half the movie’s shot in slow motion, it’s black and white. You know, I was trying to make the most cuts in movie history. I thought that Wild Bunch had 1600 cuts and I was going to get 1602, you know what I mean? So it was about form. It was content illuminating form instead of what I’ve learned since then, what I learned sitting on the bench, sitting in the cinematic desert, was that form is there to serve content. Form is there to illuminate what your story is, not the other way around. No one cares about how tricky, or how many dolly setups you do in a film. Film isn’t a technical thing, it’s an emotional thing, it’s a human thing. So that’s what those 12 years taught me. So yeah, it’ll be quite embarassing. But it’s a very ambitious film and I admire it for that.
So it’ll be embarassing but exciting.
So, congratulations on Place Beyond the Pines. One character I found really interesting that wasn’t one of the central three characters is Kofi, the stepdad. I wanted to ask you how you think he fits into the story about biological fathers and sons and blood ties.
I think Kofi is, especially as portrayed by Mahershalalhashbaz Ali, is one of the great characters in the film, is the person that if I could choose anyone to aspire to be like in the film, it would be like him. I feel like he does the right thing in the movie. His choices seem to be built out of selflessness, as opposed to selfishness, and I think he’s a good father. Unfortunately, it’s not enough for this character of Jason in the movie. It’s not enough for him. He still needs to know his nature. Nurturing isn’t all there is for him. He still has something in him that’s screaming out.
There was a documentary I did on somebody one time, and this person told me that they had lived their life always being told that their father had died in some kind of accident. But he always felt that it was untrue, and it wasn’t until he was a teenager that he realized, that he did his own research and realized that his father was killed in a drug deal. And he realized that that thing in his life he’d always known about himself was true, all those feelings were now true.
I think a lot about Romina in this film, and Kofi, and I think Kofi thinks his stepson should know his history. But his mother, Romina, who is trying to provide security for him, doesn’t want her son to become that. And so she tries to keep him from that, keep him from the truth, in fear that he’s gonna turn into that. But this movie is built a lot around this kind of idea of tragedy, and tragedy as manifested through avoidance. People trying to avoid certain outcomes. In trying to avoid her son turning into his father, she ends up lying to him, and it ends up running him straight into his father.
It happens all over the film. Luke is trying to, he grew up without a father, he doesn’t want his son to ever feel that way, so he tries to become a father, tries to be present, but he has no skills to do it. By trying too hard, his ambition there leads him into this tragedy, that he gets pulled from his son’s life. By avoiding it, he ends up crashing into it. So every character in the movie kind of has that, has that collision that happens.
It’s like a Greek tragedy.
Yeah, that’s how we tried to build it. My imagination tends towards the tragic, and that’s why I need to make movies. Because I’ve lived portions of my life without a film to make, and what I end up doing is turning my life into a tragedy. Which is no good. [laughs]
I read in some other interviews that you said you started working on this right before your son was born.
I assume that means your son was probably born and growing up as you were making this film. How did that inform your filmmaking and vice versa?
Yeah, becoming a father — twice — has just been a monumental experience in my life. Just a groundshaking experience. You know, as an artist, you live as a very selfish person, and as a parent you live as a very selfless person. But in 2007, when my wife was pregnant with our second son, I was thinking about legacy. I was thinking about everything I was gonna pass on to him. And I was thinking about everything that was passed on to me, and I was just wanting him to come into the world clean. Without my sins, without my faults, without my wrongdoings, without my stain. Wanted him to be pure. Just this clean baby comes out. I just wanted him to live his own life. And so that was the inspiration for this film, was trying to give him his own fresh legacy.
What do you think he’ll think when he sees the film someday? I assume he’s too young now…
Oh yeah, he’s too young. My kids can’t see my movies. They keep asking, Daddy, why don’t you make a movie that we can see? The point is, they will be able to see these movies later on, when they’re ready, and I’ll be very proud to show them these movies. Since making this film and after Blue Valentine, I’ve had many choices, opportunities fall in my lap to do other films. I get offered a movie, and on page 20 there’s a rape scene, and to me, not for all the money in the world. You can’t pay me enough money to rape someone onscreen. ‘Cause my kids, I could never show them that. It’s so irresponsible.
And it’s kind of how I feel with violence in this movie. I’m so sick of gun violence in movies and I feel like it’s so irresponsible, and fetishized. It must have started with like [Sam] Pekinpah, this idea of violence being this cinematic thing. But I think at least in Pekinpah’s film you feel a real humanity that’s burning in the flames. A hell of violence. Nowadays, if I see another slow-motion bullet come out at a thousand frames a second, cracking someone’s skull, I’m going to puke. I don’t want to see that stuff. I think it’s so irresponsible. If you’ve ever lived and had violence happen to you or a family member, you would never think it was cool. You would never fetishize it on the screen.
To me, I’m interested in putting violence in a real responsible way on the screen, in a way that it’s narrative, in a way that as an audience member you actually experience the story of violence, and you see all of these choices that lead up to a violent moment. You see this kind of adrenaline that puts this person in this violent place, and then you see that violent moment, there’s no coming back from it. There’s no flashback.
That was one thing I loved about it. We’re so used to seeing a million bullets and then it’s rated PG-13, that kind of nonsense. But I love that this is a movie where guns are taken very seriously, violence is taken very seriously, there are serious repercussions. Do you think that the industry as a whole is moving away from that? Lately I’ve noticed that there seems to be some kind of backlash against hyper-violent movies, especially with the shootings in the news.
I don’t know. I haven’t seen any effect. When I watch the football games with my kids on Sundays, I can’t believe the trailers that they have to see. I’m no prude, either. I love cinema. But I just don’t know why violence is cool. I don’t think it’s cool. I don’t think it should sell action figures. I would hope that there’s a responsibility about it. I would hope that filmmakers who put violent images in their movies are brave enough to answer questions about it. Because it’s a responsible thing. What you put into the world — you make it. I feel like filmmakers who kill people on the screen — they’re doing that. I take the responsibility for doing that in this movie, and the audience has to live with it in the movie with me. They have to live with those choices. They’re real choices.
I know that you like to let the actors improvise a little bit. Can you talk about which scenes were improvised or maybe one moment that really surprised you?
I think actors have a deep responsibility in my films to co-write their people. It’s all about process for me. I never rehearse with actors. It’s just all about building the person, the character they’re going to play, and then kind of unleashing them into a real world, and seeing if they can swim or not.
So, there’s a story. Ryan, a couple months before we were going to shoot, called me up and said, “Hey D, how about most tattoos in movie history?” I said, “You want a lot of tattoos for this, huh?” And he says, “Yeah, and I want a face tattoo.” And I said, “A face tattoo? Really?” And he said, “Yeah, face tattoos are the coolest, and this one’s gonna be a dagger, and it’s gonna be dripping blood.” I said, “Well, if I was your parent, I would tell you don’t get a tattoo. But you’re big boy, you’re a grownup, this character can do whatever he wants.” He says, “Don’t worry about it, it’ll be cool.”
So first day of shooting, we’re at lunch, and there’s something bothering him. He comes up to me and he says, “Hey D, can I talk to you for a second?” I said, “Yeah, what’s up?” He said, “I think I went too far with the face tattoo.” And I said, “Well, that’s what happens when you get a face tattoo. You regret it.” And he says, “You think we can take it off and reshoot that stuff?” And I said, “Absolutely not. You gotta live with it now. It’s your choice. You gotta live with it.” So all of a sudden this thing that was cool, all of a sudden becomes something that he’s ashamed of. So when he holds his baby for the first time, he doesn’t feel worthy of it. Which is the same way I felt, as being a father.
All of a sudden this scene happens in this baptism, where he walks into this church and there’s the whole, 500 people from Schenectady show up all dressed in their Sunday finest. You got Eva Mendes looking beautiful, holding her baby with Mahershalalhashbaz Ali, and everyone is in their Sunday finest. And here comes Ryan walking in, and I told him, “Find a place to sit.” So I had the camera at the back of the church, he walks in, and he’s got no place to go. He literally walks in a marked man. All of his choices are screaming now. He can’t sit anywhere with the rest of the people, he’ll stand out. So what he does he do? Goes to the corner. That’s the only place he can go.
So, okay, fine, pan camera over here, follow him to the corner, move into a closeup now. We’re shooting this closeup, and I notice Ryan starts trembling. It’s not written that he’s gonna cry here or whatever, and as his friend I wanna shut the camera off and hug him, tell him it’s okay, it’s just a fake tattoo, he can rub it off. But it wasn’t. He was living with it. And he broke down. It’s one of those moments when the acting stops and the being begins. That’s what I’m always looking for. The film is a series of, you know, all of the characters in the film, every scene, has an element of these choices that are actually being, actually living up on the screen, and that’s my favorite part of filmmaking, is to find those living moments.
I wanted to ask a little bit about your upcoming projects. I read that you have been working on something called Metalhead for a while.
Yeah, Metalhead I was shooting before I made Blue Valentine, because I’m a drummer and because I have tinnitus. I never have silence. There’s always a ringing in my ears. I wanted to make a film about this kind of journey from that world to the world of silence, the deaf world, which to me, the deaf world is so cinematic ’cause it’s visual, it’s watching with your eyes. But that movie is also in a little bit of a state of abandonment right now because I was making it before Blue Valentine and I’ve been moving forward so it’s hard to go back to it, which is hard to even say.
What I’ve been working on, I wrote a series for HBO called Muscle which is based on the book Muscle by Sam Fussell. That’s something that I read a long time ago and I’ve been working on the script with Sam for a long time. He’s such an interesting human being. He’s the best writer I’ve ever met. The emails he’s sent me over the last seven years, I feel like I could put into a book and publish. His perception, perspective on life is really unique. I’m interested in telling stories about the modern American male psyche…
Yeah, I’ve noticed that.
… And Muscle is all about that. It’s about the reinvention of the masculine self. And the thing about Sam’s story is that he became a bodybuilder to protect himself. He became that because he got mugged in the city in the ’80s, he had no place to go, he wasn’t gonna follow in his parents’ footsteps and be famous writers and scholars like his parents were, he was gonna be his own man, kind of like these characters do in this movie. He saw Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s biography one day and he decided that if he put a wall of armor around himself, that he could remain a coward and no one would ever know. It’s not like learning kung fu, like Bruce Lee or something, where he’d actually have to use it, he could actually just be muscle-y and keep everyone away.
And then what happened to him, five years of being that bodybuilder, he got — at his strongest, he was his most weak. He couldn’t walk anymore because his thighs were so big they would chafe against each other. His arms too. He couldn’t sit down because of all the steroids he injected into his ass. He could barely breathe because his lung capacity was so diminished. I like that dichotomy, of, again, his strength was his weakness. That’s what I try to do with all my characters. Now Sam, he’s a hunter and a rescue diver in Montana. The reason why we’re doing a TV show with that is because I couldn’t figure out how to get a guy to put on 90 pounds of muscle in a 33-day production. But over five years, I could do transformation. And again, find that place where acting stops and behavior begins.
How do you think television is different from movies, other than, obviously, the longer process, like you said? Do you think TV is — some people have talked about whether TV is starting to overtake movies or go on par with movies in cultural importance.
I think in terms of writing for television… Now, I’ve written an overview of six seasons, for sixty episodes. It’s great because it’s about expansion of ideas, instead of contracting an idea. Especially dealing with this book, that’s a 250-page book. We can include the whole book in the series and so much more outside of it. If I was making that into a movie — there’s more of a sculptural aspect to movies. It’s about a lot of subtraction, about taking away pieces to see a shape, something that fits into a two-hour format. With Place Beyond the Pines, I was dealing with this a lot in the editing room. I had written a 158-page script. My ideas were, the characters were really alive. And my financier said, you can have the budget, but you’ve gotta get it down to 120 pages. So I found the shrink font button, and extended the margins. And no one knew.
Oh, that trick from high school.
Yeah, except it wasn’t blowing up the font. But then I’m six months into the edit, and I have a three and a half hour movie on my hands. The thing about TV is, you can expand your ideas. And for me, I’m also excited about it because I find all these moments with actors that are so alive that can’t always make it into the movie. Like there’s a great scene where Ryan, we put him in jail, and it’s not written into the script, but he gets processed. And so before he went to jail, I wanted to just shoot Ryan getting processed. So there’s this incredible moment where they make him take off his clothes and put on an orange jumpsuit, and they ask him about everything. And I don’t train Ryan on that, on what to answer. They ask him where he’s from. Ryan knew where he’s from, knew his birthday, knew all this stuff, everything, his whole history. And you found that out in there but there was no room for it in the movie. But on a television show, you can put more of that. So that’s what excites me the most about TV. But I still love the movies. To me, that’s the temple, that’s the church. The movie theater, to sit in a dark room, and to share this experience with a bunch of strangers. It’s like church.
I never thought of it that way.
Yeah, yeah. So that’s crucially important to me. And to go into a place where you don’t have control to pause it, where the movie just starts, and it goes and it’s alive, to me that’s the place.
… Beyond the pines?
The place beyond the pines. Cinematic experience.
I’m really curious to know what happened to AJ and Jason after the movie.
Well, I like movies that live on. I like endings like the end of Five Easy Pieces, or the end of The Searchers, and Blue Valentine ends the same way. It ends with people living on. There’s no finality. There’s actually no ending. Because there’s no ending in life, do you know what I mean? So I have a very hopeful view of the end of the movie, more so for Jason than I do for AJ. But he goes down the road, and he enters, to me, at the end of the movie, he enters the fabric of real life. And that real life is in every one of the viewers who’s watching it. They can have their own narrative, their own hopes and dreams or fears for this guy. He’s become their child. And it’s open. It’s open to your interpretation.