“The Place Beyond the Pines,” the new film starring Ryan Gosling, hinges on a pivotal moment of violence; however, the film’s director, Derek Cianfrance, hardly took it lightly. Though the film’s action is impossible to describe in detail without spoiling, a gun and a split-second decision to shoot are involved. Cianfrance, who previously worked with heartthrob-of-the-moment Gosling on “Blue Valentine,” spoke to Salon about the glut of violence on film — and why it disgusts him.
Well, personally, as a father, first, before I’m a filmmaker, I feel like I am responsible for my actions. I am responsible for what I put into the world, because this is a world for my children, and my kids cannot watch my movies now, but someday I will be proud to show them my movies. Sometime along the way, all of a sudden violence was deemed cinematic, for some reason. I think it must have been Peckinpah or something who turned it into this, like, ballet of violence.
I love Peckinpah’s violence, in, like, “The Wild Bunch” or something, but I feel like he’s kind of writhing in the flames with his characters. I feel like oftentimes recently, I’ve been seeing violence which is just fetishized and violence that is just cool. If I have to see another slow-motion bullet come out of a gun and hit someone in the cheek and spray their brains, paint their brains on the walls, I’m gonna throw up, because I don’t think it’s beautiful. I don’t think it’s art. I don’t think it’s cool.
Yes, it’s aesthetic, a fetish, you know? To me, violence – I wanted to deal with violence in this movie not in a viscous way, not in a “How realistic can I paint the brains?” [way]. Not ,“How can I make the sound of the skull crack?” I wanted to deal with violence in a narrative way. I wanted you as you’re watching this movie to experience the story of violence, to experience all these choices and adrenaline and decisions that lead to a violent moment with a gun. A gun is so fast – so fast, if you’ve ever shot a gun. It’s so fucking fast. The speed at which there’s no going back from. It happens in real time, and so there’s no sanctity of flashback. There’s no going back, and there’s a sense when you’re watching this film that it’s like, “no, no.” There’s a transcendent moment of denial that happens in the audience.
Yeah, it happened to me. I knew absolutely nothing about the movie going in and that’s exactly what happened to me.
And I think in your life if you’ve experienced violence, if you were ever so unfortunate as to experience that, it’s more what the audience is experiencing what you’d experience in a violent moment in life. There’s no turning back. And all you have is aftermath. It’s all the events that lead up and aftermath. And the aftermath, I think, never goes away. I think it lasts – it echoes – throughout generations.
This is a very American movie, and I think about – it’s about legacy. It’s very personal to me, about becoming a father. And I’m also thinking about American legacy, I’m thinking about this country and it’s built on massacres, you know what I mean? And now we’re sitting in the Waldorf-Astoria and eating with knives and forks and saying please and thank you, but that history is with us. It’s still present, it’s still happening. The eternity of every moment is still there.
So ultimately, how do you deal with that? Is it with vengeance? Is it with hopelessness? So I had to think of my characters at the end of this movie: how do they deal with it? Are they gonna be vengeful, are they gonna be suicidal? Ultimately this is a movie about forgiveness, and to me – again, I think about my responsibility as a father first, filmmaker second. To me, that’s about healing. Forgiveness is about how you move on, not continuing the cycle. So long story short, as a filmmaker I feel a great amount of responsibility for what I put out to the world.
Have you ever shot a gun?
What was the context?
I went out and visited Sam Fussell, who I’m doing this show “Muscle” with. Sam was a bodybuilder in the 1980s in NYC and in Pasadena. He stopped body-building and became a writer, wrote about his body-building experience, which is what our series is about. Then he became a motorcycle driver, and then he became a hunter and a rescue diver. So he lives on a little acre of land in Montana. I spent some time with him. I’ve gone hunting with him, and the one time I shot a gun was his .44 Magnum. And I shot it a target, and my first shot was kinda touching the bullseye.
People always describe it as exhilarating.
It was so fast. That’s how I remember – and I shot it before I made this film, because I knew I needed to do that to be able to make this movie. Now I understood the speed. That was the first thing. And the speed was so fast that it made me nervous. It made me nervous thinking about a moment – not being able to take back a moment because of the speed of the thing. It’s just a little squeeze and then – there’s no going back from it ever. It was so quick that the bullet went there.
My next shots never hit the target. It was just – pfft, pfft, pfft, pfft. Because I couldn’t take it. I couldn’t handle it. I put that idea, my experience, into this character Avery [played by Bradley Cooper] in this movie. I feel like he’s expected to assume this mantle that his father has set for him to be royalty in this small town. But he doesn’t want to be his father, he wants to be his own man. He wants to prove himself. It often happens when people have very powerful fathers: they want to just get out of their fathers’ shadow, you know? Just look at me for me. So he tries to be a cop. Is he ever meant to be a cop? No. I don’t think so.
He definitely doesn’t seem as though he has the temperament to be a cop.
So what does he do in this one moment? He acts with too much ambition, too much eagerness. And it happens. And that moment corrupts him, because he doesn’t own up to it. He hides it. Because there would be some trouble he would be in. He doesn’t want to be in that trouble, but he can’t get away from it because it corrupts his soul. And it’s manifested in the corruption of his son. So he can’t deal with it, but he still gets in trouble.
It’s kind of postponed for a few years.
Yes, it’s trapped – it’s the idea of avoidance. Tragedy in avoidance. So I put all of my feelings of my experience with guns in that character, in that he’s not actually prepared for it. You know, I think people – guns are – for hunters, and people need them for protection, and I understand the 2nd Amendment. All I can speak for is myself, not everyone else. But for me, I don’t want guns in my life. I don’t want to live my life with a gun.
A lot of the film is about ambitions for one’s children. There were expectations on Avery that he can’t or doesn’t want to fulfill. In becoming a director, were you fulfilling an ambition that your parents had for you? Was it a total divergence, or were there strong expectations on you?
I grew up in the suburbs of Denver, Colorado, in a place called Lakewood. My mom’s a schoolteacher, and my dad’s in retail. My brother now is a high school math teacher, my sister works in a retirement home in an old-timers unit. Filmmaking to me was always the thing I wanted to do. Ever since I was – since I don’t remember, it was always my thing. And I have to say this doesn’t really relate to the movie. My parents always supported me in such a great way that allowed me to believe in my dreams. They allowed me to be a filmmaker because if I believed in it, they believed in it.
So that aspect of the movie is clearly not autobiographical?
You know, the movie’s all fiction, know what I mean? “Blue Valentine,” I made that movie because I had two nightmares when I was a kid: one was nuclear war, and one was my parents getting divorced. And then they divorced when I was 20, and then I’m a young man here, and I’m trying to have a good, healthy relationship myself. I’m trying not to repeat those things. So I’m very conscious of – with having kids, you all of a sudden see the cycle of life. I become my parents, and my kids are me, and my parents are my grandparents, and the cycle – pretty soon I’m gonna be a grandparent, y’know? I can see the cycle: I can see what’s happening before and what’s happening after and what I want is – I’m interested in my kids not having to deal with any of my shit, just to be fresh and pure and clean. When they come out into this world, they already kinda are.
And everything else that happens after that is what gets you into trouble. Tell me a little bit about working with Ryan. I know that in two movies now you’ve been working with him, and in the interim all of this stuff has happened with his level of fame. Do you like casting him against type, or is it even like that?
I feel it’s destiny, our working relationship. I was at his agent’s house back in 2007. We were having dinner, we were talking about “Blue Valentine,” and I asked him, “You’ve done so much, man. What haven’t you done that you’ve always wanted to do?” And he said, “Well, I always wanted to rob a bank, but I’m too scared of jail.” And I said, “That’s funny, ‘cause I’m working on a movie about a bank robbery. How would you do it?” And he said, “I’d do it on a motorcycle, ‘cause I’d have a helmet and no one would know who I was. I’d leave on a motorcycle, because they’re fast and agile. I’d have a U-Haul about four blocks away, I’d pull into the back of the truck and drive off, and no one would find me because they’re looking for a motorcycle, not a truck.”
And I said, “That’s crazy. That’s exactly what I wrote into the script.” That’s when I knew we were meant to make stuff together. I said, “I’ll make your dreams come true.” And all I can say about Ryan with the level of success he’s had, I’m not surprised by it. He’s a magical person. He makes the world a better place. It only makes sense that people wanna see more of him, because he’s magic.
Without getting into any specifics: I came into the movie without knowing anything about it. And I’m curious, are you worried at all that while the events that happen in the movie that are surprising to a new viewer, once people know about them, the movie might not be built to withstand the element of surprise getting removed?
I think so. I think so. I love the surprise, know what I mean? But I think if you don’t know the surprise, the movie works on that kind of explosion level. Now, there’s – it’s a Hitchcockian thing that I used to talk about, the difference between surprise and suspense. Surprise is – people are sitting at a table, and a bomb goes off. That’s surprise. That’s when you go into the movie fresh. Suspense is – first shot is a shot of a ticking bomb under the table, and then we cut to the people having dinner. So the whole time they’re having dinner at the table, you’re thinking, “So when does this bomb go off?” Dramatic irony: it’s when the audience knows more.
So I think – I don’t think it ruins anything to know about it. I would rather have it not be spoiled, but I’m also realistic in the age of spoilers. You can’t keep it forever. There will be people who experience it pure and there will be people who know things about it. But it’s still the experience of the film, and if you know what’s happening, then you want him to stop. “No, don’t do that, don’t do that,” you know? It gets you the talk-back crowd.
“Don’t go through that door!”
Yeah, “Don’t go through that door.”