Derek Cianfrance Light Between

Before, you wrote original material, but now you’re writing your second adaptation. With adaptations, are you easily able to look at the material and think, “I see myself in this”? 

Very rarely. It never happens. I never read something that I want to do. But Empire of the Summer Moon was something I actually read…It’s a historical novel on the rise of the Comanche nation, basically, Indian wars. I grew up in Colorado, and I grew up in this American landscape that’s filled with Home Depots and shopping centers. But under our feet where I grew up there were whole other civilizations there, not too long ago either, and a whole ‘nother set of life there.

I feel like as I travel through this country, I feel like it’s ignored in some way or forgotten. I’m trying to revisit the ghosts of our nation’s past. And I’m trying to make the same movies that I’ve been making where there’s no, necessarily, good guys. There are no heroes. There are no villains. There’s just people. I want to make a movie about the Comanches that I haven’t seen before. I don’t want to make the John Wayne version of it and I don’t want to make the Kevin Costner version of it. I want to make what I see as the real version. I want to make the American home movie version of the epic western. I don’t even consider it a western. I just consider it an epic.

And then I have originals that I’m working on as well. I have a movie called I See Red that I’m working on which is an extremely personal movie. We’ll see. We’ll see what happens. But Empire is the next one.

How’s your experience been making commercials? The Dick’s Sporting Goods ad you did is great. Can you make those personal? 

Well, that’s an assignment, right? I do commercials so I can keep my art pure. I do commercials because I never have to take a movie to make money. I haven’t yet anyway. It’s so I can do exactly what I want when I make movies. And in commercials, I get to experiment. I get to work with different DPs. I get to try things out. I get to work with actors in different ways. Every once in a while, you get a commercial presented to you that feels like an extension of your work where you don’t feel like you’re really selling anything.

I actually just came home yesterday from Toronto where I shot another…it became like my calling card, I guess, in commercials, like the single take guy. I just did this other crazy single take with Sean Bobbitt (The Place Beyond The Pines) as my DP, which is in the subways of Toronto. It’s 25 people and 350 extras and this kind of symphony of people. On that one, I had an incredibly deep process with each and every one of my actors, and I got to really deep places with them.

But those commercials wouldn’t be something I would do on my own, though. I gotta get paid to do those. Someone’s gotta pay me for my time.

How did you end up working with [cinematographer] Adam Arkapaw (True Detective)? What do you look for in a DP? 

I didn’t know who my DP was going to be. I invited him over to my house for dinner. He went in the backyard with my kids, and he played basketball with them for two hours. It was regardless of any of his work that I’d ever seen that won him the job, because it showed me that he was able to go into situations and live in those situations. And my process is all about the experience.

We went out to this lighthouse location, and we lived there for five weeks. I needed a DP that was going to be able to go there as a human being and make discoveries with me. The fact that he could go in the backyard and play basketball with my kids showed me that, that he could be open enough not to have to control a situation; he could embrace a situation that unfolded before his eyes.

He told me when the movie was done that he had never been as exhausted making a film because he said he was used to making movies where the images told the story. And in this movie, the actors were telling the story. I said, “Yeah, that’s what I’m trying to do as a filmmaker, have an incredible patience to instigate moments and to wait for the moments to happen.” I feel like a chef is all about being consistent. A chef is someone who has to make the same meal 300 times a night the same way.

As a filmmaker, what I’m trying to do is I’m trying to find moments that happen once. I’m trying to find moments that can never be replicated. That means my DPs have to be super alert, and they can’t miss it. Like Ryan Gosling and Ben Mendelsohn dancing with the dog in Place Beyond the Pines, you can’t get a take two on that. That doesn’t happen again. You could say make it happen again, but it’s never going to be Halley’s Comet. You have to sometimes wait 77 years for Halley’s Comet to come by. When it’s there, you gotta get it and then it’s gone. And then you can show it forever. I saw Halley’s Comet once. I was there. And that’s it. I’ll never see it again. I don’t think I’ll live another 77 years to see it.

So that’s what I talked about with him. And the look of it, we wanted to make something that was unaffected. Early on, when we were out location scouting, I was there with the head of production from DreamWorks, and they were talking about, “So where does the green screen go?” And I was like, “There is no green screen. We have to find locations that are real.”

So that’s the whole idea of discovery to me. I have to get DPs on board that are interested and ready to discover with me. And Adam was there. He was totally there for me.

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