At a quick glance, filmmaker Derek Cianfrance bears a striking resemblance to actor Ryan Gosling, who Cianfrance worked with in Blue Valentine (2010) and the director's new film, The Place Beyond the Pines. They could be brothers, or at least cousins. Cianfrance's forehead is higher and his hair thinner, but their features are remarkably similar.
There's something, too, about the pitch of his voice and his slightly timid way of speaking, as if he were embarrassed to be the center of everyone's attention. Despite that, his eyes have a gentle intensity that's also reminiscent of his co-worker's. When he fixes them on you, they almost dare you to look away. That contradiction between the eyes and his halting, searching way of talking creates an impression of humility mixed with certainty -- a man open to ideas and inspiration from outside sources, but in complete control of his own vision.
Cianfrance was in Dallas last month for a special screening and Q&A for Pines, a large-scope drama that pairs Gosling with Bradley Cooper and Eva Mendes. It tells three stories, and on Gosling's side there are similarities to the actors' 2011 movie, Drive.
In both, his character is involved with stunt work and crime. Both characters also share heartthrob qualities that are subverted by pent-up aggression and anger. But the similarities only go so far, and when Cianfrance cites his inspirations for Pines -- which he co-wrote with Ben Coccio and Darius Marder -- he lists four things: Abel Gance's 1927 silent film, Napoleon, Hitchcock's Psycho, the work of the Dardennes brothers, and his own wife's pregnancy.
It was from Napoleon, which he saw 20 years ago, that he got the idea for telling three different stories. "At the end of that movie, if any of you have seen it, it's three screens going at once," he said. "It kind of blew me away, and I always wanted to do this triptych movie." Pines never breaks down visually into three panels running side-by-side, but it does move from one story to the next in a way similar to how Hitchcock moved from Janet Leigh's story to Tony Perkins' in Psycho. "I was always thinking, 'How can I do this kind of structural baton pass between characters?'" he said. Hitchcock showed him the way.
Visually, the movie borrows from Cianfrance's own experience making documentaries and from the Belgian filmmaking duo of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (The Kid with a Bike). That means an abundance of handheld camera shots that literally follow characters through the different spaces, like homes and workplaces, where they live out their lives. The result is a strong sense of real people living real lives.
"I made a lot of documentaries in the last 10 years, before I made Blue Valentine, and in documentaries you would always follow people," Cianfrance said. "You couldn't, in a documentary, get out in front of someone, because, how do you know where they're going? You would have to follow them. And so I felt like I was very humbled as a filmmaker when I was making documentaries. It was no longer about my control -- you have to come here, make this choice, do this. All of a sudden I was following people into their own worlds. I've tried to pull some of that into my narratives."
The movie's narrative and stylistic elements aside, its true heartbeat is found in its themes. Every storyline touches on the relationship between fathers and son. With his wife's pregnancy in 2007, he found what his bare bones idea had been missing. He started thinking about what kind of legacy he was going to leave, and what he would pass on to his son.
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"I wanted my son to come into the world clean," he said. That's a fate that Cianfrance's characters aren't able to share. The movie's overlapping narratives are tinged with tragedy; you can almost see Cianfrance's anxieties writ large over every plot point. The fathers in The Place Beyond the Pines want to be good men, and good fathers in particular, but their circumstances conspire against them.
If the road for them is hard, though, perhaps the future is brighter. Or perhaps not. That part of the story Cianfrance wants to leave with the audience, speaking again the mixture of control and openness that guides his creative process.
"I like movies that have open endings," he said. "I like it when I watch a movie and I feel like I experience something and the characters are really alive and I can go home and kind of create my own story for them. I like including the audience in on the imagination of the movie."
The Place Beyond the Pines opens Friday at the Magnolia and expands to other theaters on April 12.