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Monday, April 1, 2013 - Page updated at 05:00 a.m.

Director followed a winding road to ‘The Place Beyond the Pines’

By Moira Macdonald
Seattle Times movie critic

Derek Cianfrance’s new drama “The Place Beyond the Pines” sprang to life from a wildly varied assortment of influences: “Napoleon,” “Psycho,” “Goodfellas,” “America’s Wildest Police Chases,” Jack London, an intersection in Schenectady, N.Y., and Ryan Gosling’s long-held dream of robbing a bank.

In Seattle last month, Cianfrance (writer/director of “Blue Valentine,” with Gosling and Michelle Williams) talked about his latest film, which has been simmering for many years. The initial idea came to him, he said, in 2007, when his wife was pregnant with their second child.

“I was basically trying to read everything that I could get my hands on that Jack London wrote,” he said, “and I was just really taken with this idea of ancestry, the calling back of your ancestors. It made me start thinking about my ancestors — the fact that I was here, alive, must have meant that they had gone through some really brutal experiences to survive ... I was thinking about my son, my baby that was about to be born, and I just wanted him to be clean. I wanted him to come into this world and not have to deal with all my sins, all the wrongs I’ve ever committed.”

“The Place Beyond the Pines” is a story of two father/son pairs: Luke (Gosling), a motorcycle-stunt rider surprised to learn that his ex-girlfriend (Eva Mendes) has given birth to his child, and Avery (Bradley Cooper), a rookie cop with a wife and son. The two men cross paths, on either side of the law, and what happens then reverberates to the next generation; in the movie’s final third, we see the two sons grown-up, facing the legacy of their fathers, hearing the echo of previous lives.

Cianfrance, who’s been good friends with Gosling since 2005, wrote the role of Luke with the actor in mind — and was delighted to learn, after he’d written a sequence in which Luke robs a bank, that Gosling had long been intrigued by just that.

“I said, hey, I’ll make your dreams come true, and you don’t even have to go to jail,” Cianfrance said, laughing. In real life, he said, Gosling’s no lawbreaker but a “really magical human being — he makes things around him better.”

The screenplay, written with Ben Coccio and Darius Marder, hearkened back to Abel Gance’s 1927 silent “Napoleon” (Cianfrance said he’d been inspired by that film’s triptych technique, which led to his film’s three-part form), Hitchcock’s “Psycho” in its structure, “America’s Wildest Police Chases” in the one-take reality of its car-chase scenes (with Gosling and Cooper doing many of their own stunts), and by the screenwriters’ longtime reverence for “Goodfellas,” which inspired them to write a role for Ray Liotta. (He plays a scary cop.)

Cianfrance knew all along that he wanted to shoot the film in Schenectady, where his wife grew up. “I’ve been going up there for 10 years,” he said. “That Trustco bank you see [in the film] — every time I drove by that, I would imagine a movie. I always dreamed of shooting a bank robbery there.” (The film’s title is a translation of the Iroquois word “Schenectady” — which is, Cianfrance said, surrounded by forest.)

Though the filmmaker’s moving on to his next project (the potential HBO series “Muscle”), the multiyear undertaking that became “The Place Beyond the Pines” is still with him, and he’s still haunted by scenes that didn’t make it into the final cut. “The final [written] draft of this movie was 158 pages, and the financiers said, ‘I’ll give you $10 million, but you have to get it down to 120,’ ” Cianfrance said. (With screenplays, each page translates to roughly one minute of screen time.) “So I shrunk the font and extended the margins. In editing, [the film] was three and a half hours, and I couldn’t shrink the font.

“A lot of scenes that happened in the movie had to go away, but they still live there,” he said, speculating on the life movie characters have beyond what we see on camera. “I think you can feel it.”

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or

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