"If I have to see another slow-motion bullet come out of a gun, pierce somebody's skull and spray their brains on the wall, I'm going to puke." So says, or rather spits, the director Derek Cianfrance. His new film, The Place Beyond The Pines, stars Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper and Eva Mendes, and features just two bullets, neither slow-mo, only one fatal.
"I have kids," continues Cianfrance, 38, a livewire American, rocking back and forth on his chair at New York's Waldorf Astoria Hotel. He looks a little like Gosling in the latter segments of Blue Valentine, only better. "I can't hardly watch an afternoon football game with them without having to turn off the TV during the commercials. It's too much. I don't know when violence was deemed such a cinematic thing."
Suffice it to say, Cianfrance will not be teaming up with Quentin Tarantino. "I think it must have been Sam Peckinpah who started it. But Peckinpah's violence was always writhing in the flames of his characters. I felt like there was a true human suffering in his violence. Nowadays, I'm seeing violence that's so fetishised and so cool, and I can't stand it. I can't stand the irresponsibility of guns, and gun violence in movies. I didn't even want to have a gun in this movie, but it's a cop and robber story – there had to be guns. I wasn't interested in how realistic I could make the brains or the blood, I was interested in the events and the adrenaline and choices that led up to this one violent moment."
The Place Beyond The Pines stands in stark contrast to Blue Valentine, Cianfrance's 2010 breakthrough starring Gosling and Michelle Williams (who was Oscar-nominated for the role) as young lovers who go from the heady highs of new romance to the spite, recriminations and verbal violence of marital breakdown.
Cianfrance says his long-time professional relationship with Gosling is "meant to be. We were discussing Blue Valentine a couple of years before we made that movie, and started talking about other things. I said, 'Man, you have done so much in your life. You're so successful. What haven't you done that you always wanted to do?' And he said, 'Well, I've always wanted to rob a bank, but I've been too scared of jail.' I said, 'Well that's funny, I'm writing a movie about a bank robber. Have you given any thought to how you would do it?' He said, 'I thought I'd do it on a motorcycle, because I could go in with a helmet, no one would know who I was, and then I'd leave. Motorcycles are fast and agile so I would be able to get out of tight situations, and I'd have a truck blocked four blocks away. I would pull it into the back, and the cops would be looking for a motorcycle not a truck.'"
Cianfrance's getaway scenario was identical. "And I knew it was one of those times where we were destined to do it. So I told him, 'I will make your dreams come true. And you won't even have to go to jail.'"
Gosling suggested his friend (and, since shooting, partner) Mendes for the role of Romina but Cianfrance thought her too glamorous. At the end of his casting day, Mendes suggested a drive round her old neighbourhood while they discussed the role. "She was trying her hardest to be unattractive and failing, miserably," laughs Cianfrance. They drove around for two hours during which she pointed out her school and the house where she'd grown up. The ploy worked and Mendes is grateful. "I have a theory", she says. "That nobody can be bad in a Derek Cianfrance film.He gives you everything you need to succeed."
Cianfrance had been equally hesitant about Bradley Cooper. "I said who? That dude from The Hangover?" He chuckles. "This was before Bradley shot Silver Linings Playbook, but immediately there was something that struck me about him. The image I had was a pot of boiling water with a lid on it. I felt like there was a rumbling, a great storm beneath him." He was so taken that he rewrote the character Avery for him.
Cianfrance grew up in Colorado, the middle of three children. From an early age, he started obsessively photographing heated household arguments. By 13, he was renting a video camera from the local library and making his own films. He enrolled in the film programme at the University of Colorado, where he was tutored by the experimental film-makers Stan Brakeage and Phil Solomon and won the department's Best Film award. His parents divorced when he was 21, which shook him to the core. He dropped out of university and poured his efforts into his first film, Brother Tied, a black and white tale of brothers coming to blows over a woman. It was accepted at Sundance and other festivals, won six awards, universally positive reviews, but no distribution.
He became a director for hire, for MTV, VH1 and Channel 4 among others. In 2003, he was director of photography on Quattro Noza, directed by his university friend Joey Curtis. It won him the Cinematography Award at Sundance in 2003. In 2006 he won $1m for a short film he entered for New York's Chrysler Film Project, which which funded Blue Valentine, long in development with Gosling. In the meantime, he married film-maker Shannon Plumb, whose current indie release Towheads stars her husband and sons in a family mockumentary.
In 2009 Blue Valentine won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize, distribution from Harvey Weinstein and, once again, almost universal praise. Suddenly every agent wanted to set up their clients with him. "I had a little bit of modest success," he smiles. "I had some suitors out there and that's why I was able to do this film."
At his suggestion, Gosling and Williams lived together for a time with their screen daughter before Blue Valentine began production. This time, he did not have such luxuries but he still asked the police department in Schenectady, New York, if they could set him up with a real-life bank robber, and they did. "He told me, 'Look, in movies, it's always so perfect when people rob banks, but in real life it's always so messy'. He told us how he did it... I cast all tellers who had been in bank robberies before, and I put Ryan in the scene. The first couple of takes were disastrous, because people were so happy to see Ryan Gosling." He laughs his slightly demented laugh. "I told Ryan, 'You have got to scare them!' By the 15th take, he was just desperately shrieking, doing whatever he could to scare these people."
Gosling and Cianfrance's relationship got heated at times. Having decided he wanted a facial tattoo for his character, Gosling later changed his mind, telling Cianfrance he felt ridiculous. Cianfrance insisted , to Gosling's fury. He wanted Gosling to feel ridiculous, that was the point. Director and muse eventually made up and Gosling is effusive in his praise.
"Derek's film-making is incredible because it's so cinematic, and yet it's invisible. As an actor, I am never conscious of the camera, and as an audience member, I never see the shot. He finds what's naturally cinematic about life and frames it in the moment, catches life on the wing, has life torpedo the scene, interfere with it, so you have this kind of magic."
Cianfrance loves making films "where acting stops and behaviour begins, and you are kind of blurring the line between a real moment and kind of a staged moment." He also loves to laugh. Pines opens with a tight shot of Gosling's abs, which have taken on a life of their own since starring in Crazy, Stupid Love. But it is not at all what you might think or expect. Which is just the way Derek Cianfrance likes it.
'The Place Beyond the Pines' opens on 12 AprilReuse content