By Julie Miller, Vanity Fair
Cianfrance with Gosling. (By Mike Gardner/patrickmcmullan.com)
While prepping for Blue Valentine--Derek Cianfrance's critically acclaimed falling-in-and-out-of-love story starring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams--Cianfrance and Gosling started discussing another project that the filmmaker had in the pipeline. Centered on a mythical motorcycle rider who turns to a life of crime to support his new family, The Place Beyond the Pines intrigued Gosling, not just because of the mysterious main character but because he himself had dreamed of committing a motorcycle-related crime. One that Cianfrance and his co-writer Ben Coccio had unwittingly already incorporated into their screenplay. Six years after that fateful conversation, Cianfrance and Gosling's second collaboration premieres this Friday. The crime drama, which takes place over 15 years in Schenectady, New York--and takes its name from a rough English translation of the Mohawk word "Schenectady"--also stars Eva Mendes, as Gosling's onscreen love interest, and Bradley Cooper, as a cop whose ambition puts him on a collision course with Gosling's motorcyclist.
In anticipation of the film, VF.com spoke by phone with Cianfrance last week to discuss how he'd made Gosling's dream come true (just before his recently announced sabbatical from acting, no less), how death taunted The Place Beyond the Pines' cinematographer, and how Gosling truly is "a magic human being."
Julie Miller: Serious question . . . how did you keep people from staring at Ryan Gosling while filming? You open with this incredible, several-minute tracking shot during which Ryan walks through a crowded fairground and into a circus tent. Amazingly, none of the hundreds of carnival-goers in the background looked at him, even though he was shirtless, covered in tattoos, and followed by a camera guy.
Derek Cianfrance: I had about a dozen A.D.'s [assistant directors, at the fairground] with Dr. Seuss hats to distract people and make sure they did not look in the camera and did not look at Ryan Gosling with his shirt off walking through the fair. I would say that there were many takes ruined by people doing that.
The shot ends with Ryan Gosling's character actually performing the Globe of Death stunt with two other motorcyclists, and it looks as though the cameraman is inside the cage with them. Can you talk about the shot?
It's kind of a long story. Do you want to hear the long version?
So Andrij Parekh, who shot Blue Valentine, was supposed to shoot this movie. I got a call from Andrij about eight weeks before we started shooting, and he was crying. I was like, "What's wrong?" He said that he had a dream that he died while making the movie the night before and did not think he could do our movie. I said, "It was a dream! It's not real." He said, "No, I have a kid, and I can't do it." So we were stuck eight weeks out without a D.P. [director of photography]. So I met a bunch of people, including Sean Bobbitt, and I loved his work on Hunger. Sean very quickly, very directly asked me, "What is wrong with your movie? Why did your D.P. drop out eight weeks out?" I said, "He dreamed he was going to die making it. Do you think you're going to die making it?" He said, "Silly boy, I was a war photographer for eight years. I'm not going to die making your movie." So great, he agreed to make my movie with me.
We started coming up with this visual style. Sean quickly decided that we needed to start the movie off with an epic opening shot, like so many of our favorite films, whether it be a Béla Tarr film or 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days or The Player or A Touch of Evil. A shot that will kind of teach you as an audience how to watch the movie. At the end of this shot, Ryan Gosling goes inside this circus tent and he goes inside this cage where he is going to perform the Globe of Death.
Now the Globe of Death has been around for 60 or 70s years. There's 22 people in America who can do it. And Ryan Gosling is not one of them. So we had to do this Texas switch. I'm sure if you watch the movie and pay attention, you can [where the stunt driver takes over for Gosling]. Now at the end of the shot, Sean Bobbitt insisted that he go into the globe for the end of the shot. I said, "Well, Sean, that's crazy. There are going to be three motorcycles around you." But he was determined that we end the shot in the center. I said, "O.K." So he put on a helmet. He put on all of this body armor. He kind of looked like Robocop with the camera. He did this beautiful opening take. And the cage closes behind him at the end. He's at the center of the cage, and the motorcycles start spinning around him. I was watching on my monitor, kind of hiding behind the bleachers, and it was beautiful. He had nailed the shot. All of a sudden my monitor went static and I heard a gasp from the audience.
I looked up and there was a pile of motorcycles with Sean Bobbitt on the bottom. We pulled the motorcycles off to see if Sean was O.K., and my initial thought was, "Oh my God. Andrij's dream had come true. The D.P. of this film did die while making it." But Sean didn't die while making it. He was alive and angry. He was angry at himself for not getting the shot. I said, "Look at the bright side: you are still alive." Even though I tried to convince him to get the shot from the outside, he insisted on going back in the center of the cage. He got the shot, and it was even better the second time. I don't even know how he improved it. I was watching ,and then the screen went static at the exact same moment and heard a gasp from the audience. I looked up and I watched as a motorcycle dropped from the top of the cage onto Sean's head and it knocked him out. We had to send him to the hospital. He had a concussion and then we had to cancel the shoot so that we could come back the next night. Sean was so grumpy and in such a bad mood, mostly because I would not let him go back into the center of the cage again.
That is a sincerely epic story.
I am full of epic stories.