After he saw Abel Gance's 1927 film Napoleon when he was in film school, director Derek Cianfrance knew he wanted to emulate it and one day make a triptych film of his own. So he spent the next few years thinking about a movie about a stunt man who uses his motorcycle to rob banks. In 2010 when Cianfrance was working on Blue Valentine with actor Ryan Gosling, he discussed the project with Gosling, who expressed an interest in playing the motorcycle-riding robber.
"I knew we were destined to work together on this film," says Cianfrance, who ultimately cast Gosling in the lead role as Luke in The Place Beyond the Pines, which opens at the Cedar Lee Theatre on Friday. Gosling's contribution to the character is significant; he put some thought into what his character would look like and even told Cianfrance that he wanted him to have a face tattoo.
"I said, 'Really? That's pretty permanent,'" recalls Cianfrance. "He said his would be a dagger and it would be dripping blood. I told him to do what he wanted. The first day of shooting there was something bothering him. He said he thought he went too far with the face tattoo and wanted to take it off and reshoot everything. I said, 'Absolutely not. That's what happens when you get a face tattoo. You regret it.' For his performance, it created this shame and this regret."
It's appropriate that Gosling's Luke feels a sense of regret throughout the film. On a trip through Schenectady, he stops to see old flame Romina (Eva Mendes) thinking that they might hook up again. But he eventually learns not only that she's got a new boyfriend but also that she has given birth to his son. Even though she makes it clear she doesn't want the child to know that he's the father, he quits his job as a stuntman to stay in town and try to support the kid. He takes to robbing banks and that's when he has a run-in with Avery (Bradley Cooper), an ambitious cop who catches him in the act.
"I was interested in dealing with violence," says Cianfrance. "I haven't dealt with that before. I have an allergy toward gun violence. I'm sick of it. If I have to see another slow- motion bullet come out a gun and pierce somebody's cheek, I'm going to puke. I wanted to deal with narrative violence and tell the story that leads up to that violent encounter and that aftermath of that violence. There's also that echo and it doesn't go away."
That "aftermath" continues some 15 years after Avery's encounter with Luke. Avery's son AJ (Emory Cohen) befriends Luke's son Jason (Dane DeHaan) without knowing any of his father's history with Luke. Eventually, he would learn what happened between the two, but there's an abrupt shift when the film begins to focus on the story of the two troubled teens.
"Pines is about fathers and sons and it's about legacy," Cianfrance says. "It's built around this Greek tragedy about trying to avoid destiny."
If the movie, which has a lengthy 140-minute running time, ultimately comes off as a challenging piece of work, that was certainly intentional on Cianfrance's part.
"I was interviewing [race car driver] Danica Patrick for a documentary film and I asked her how she could drive so fast," Cianfrance says. "Her whole life, she knew how fast she could go, but she'd drive to the point where she would sometimes crash. That was how she could push her boundaries and get good. With this film, I felt like I needed to go to a crashing point and a dangerous place and not make any safe choices as a filmmaker."