Derek Cianfrance, a Gritty Visionary Breaks Out

Colin Lane

Derek Cianfrance has lived in ever-more-gentrified Brooklyn for 13 years, but the filmmaker found it impossible to pick a favorite local spot to meet. “I don’t go anywhere,” says Cianfrance, 39, sitting on a rusty chair in the back of a Fort Greene coffeehouse where he’s an occasional customer – the best location he could come up with. “I don’t have a life, really. I take my kids to school, and I go home, and I write. Then I go pick my kids up, make them dinner, put them to bed, and write some more.”

Cianfrance instantly became one of Hollywood’s hottest auteurs with 2010’s ‘Blue Valentine,’ the wrenching, visually inventive tale of a dissolving marriage he co-wrote and directed, after pursuing the project with self-abnegating tenacity for 12 years. Like ‘Blue Valentine,’ his new film, ‘The Place Beyond the Pines,’ stars his friend Ryan Gosling, but it works on a larger scale and may have wider commercial potential: It’s a crime drama with an unusual three-part structure – Gosling’s story is told in the first, Bradley Cooper takes over in the middle, and the third part deals with the two men’s children.

At its heart, ‘The Place Beyond the Pines’ is a tale of fathers and sons: There’s a key scene early on in which Gosling’s character, a face-inked stunt motorcyclist who travels with carnivals, is overwhelmed by his first encounter with an infant son he didn’t know he had. Cianfrance started working on the film in 2007, while he and his wife, filmmaker Shannon Plumb, were expecting their second son, Cody. “We knew it was going to be another boy,” says Cianfrance.

“And I was reading Jack London and becoming obsessed with the idea of ancestry, thinking a lot about what I was passing on to my kids. I grew up Catholic, and I was thinking about this baby coming into the world that was going to be clean, you know, and I just wanted him to be able to make his own choices. I didn’t want him to have my sins. The sins of the father, basically.”

Cianfrance sets the parameters of his life as precisely as he composes his shots. When his first child arrived in 2004, he decided he had to pull in tight – starting by giving up his hobby and secondary artistic outlet of playing drums in rock bands (he had grown up worshipping Metallica’s Lars Ulrich). “I felt like I didn’t have time to try to be good at everything,” he says. “Right now, I think I have time to be three things, in no particular order: a father, a husband, and a filmmaker. That’s why I don’t go out – I have no space for it. I feel like one of those main things would suffer. For what? For drinking? I’m not interested. Sacrifice. It all goes back to Catholicism. Sacrifice.”

He speaks in a geographically indistinct tough-guy drawl not unlike the one favored by his friend Gosling. “Maybe I picked up Ryan’s mannerisms in the editing room,” he says. With his blazing, unblinking hazel eyes and sharp features, Cianfrance also looks enough like Gosling to be his slightly less glamorous brother, the Billy Baldwin to his Alec. He used to hear this comparison more often. “People still tell us we look alike,” he says, “but Ryan’s getting more muscles, and I’m losing more hair. We’re slowly separating.”

Overall, Cianfrance’s look doesn’t scream “movie director” – you’d be more likely to peg him as a pork-obsessed downtown chef, an aging grunge musician, or a small-time criminal. He has the word amigo tattooed across the knuckles of his right hand, and a leaf inked on his right forearm. (On his back is another tattoo, an eyeball inside a camera lens – a reference to 1920s Russian filmmaker Dziga Vertov – that Cianfrance calls his “wedding ring to filmmaking.”) He’s wearing his favorite shirt, a Pendleton snap-button plaid number, over a T-shirt and jeans, and he has several weeks of untamed blondish beard going: He shaves just once a month, because he likes to be in “a constant state of transformation.”

Even as he approaches middle age, Cianfrance’s career is just getting started: ‘The Place Beyond the Pines’ is only his third feature. He was very nearly one of the Nineties indie-film boom’s many instant-success fairy tales. He grew up in suburban Colorado, the soccer-playing son of a teacher mom and a retail-working dad. By sixth grade, he’d watched a video of the campy horror movie Creepshow more than 100 times, memorizing the camera movements.

By the time he started at the University of Colorado, he’d made 20 short films on VHS. He took what turned out to be a permanent leave from school to make his 1998 debut film, ‘Brother Tied,’ piecing together a $40,000 budget: He sold T-shirts, got $5,000 from his dentist, and went door to door selling chocolate bunnies. ‘Brother Tied‘ initially seemed like a winner, scoring some prizes on the festival circuit, but it failed to find a distributor and disappeared altogether. The dentist still hasn’t gotten his money back, though Cianfrance hopes to change that someday.

Cianfrance blamed himself. The film was overstylized, full of attention-grabbing techniques. “It’s very naïve and ambitious,” he says. “It felt like I had to serve a cinematic penance after that movie. That I had to pay for all the sins I’d made.” He mentions, again, that he grew up Catholic.

Around 1998, he began work on a new screenplay, ‘Blue Valentine,’ based on his childhood fears that his parents would get a divorce. Meanwhile, he started shooting documentaries (on subjects from basketball to hip-hop), trying to strip down his filmmaking to the essentials, while pushing to get ‘Blue Valentine’ made. There wasn’t a lot of money coming in, and he found himself paying for diapers from a change jar. He quickly decided to start directing commercials. “I got over myself a little bit,” he says, “got rid of the 36-piece drum set and became a workman.”

The story of his amigo tattoo explains everything you need to know about Cianfrance. While helping a friend with a documentary about Latino street racers in L.A., he found himself in a deserted Home Depot parking lot. He heard a voice in the darkness calling, “Hey, amigo.”

Cianfrance has a vivid recollection of the man who approached him – a moment he’s gone over and over. “He was covered in sweat. His eyes were kind of wild, and his shirt was dripping wet and had turned yellow like an egg yolk at the bottom. He lifted his shirt, and he had a two-inch wound in his abdomen above his navel. It was bloated and festering and looked like his intestine was coming out of it. He said, ‘Can you help me?’ And I just wanted him to go away so bad. I reached into my pocket and gave him all my change.”

Heading back to his car, Cianfrance realized that the guy might have wanted an ambulance, not spare change. He turned around, but the man was gone. Wracked with shame, Cianfrance spent the entire next day in bed. He took a ballpoint pen and wrote amigo on his hand as a reminder he later made permanent, “so any time I ever shook anyone’s hand or gave anyone money or got in a fight, I would be responsible for that action. And I would always remember that guy.”

Cianfrance wants his films to reflect the grime and guilt of real life as he sees it. There are only three gunshots in ‘The Place Beyond the Pines’ – and each has real consequences. “I’ve always thought that guns are a cowardly tool in the hands of men and women trying to solve problems with each other,” says Cianfrance. “And cowardly in the hands of filmmakers. It’s taken so lightly in films.”

He’s the last of the Gen-X idealists, wary of selling out. In the wake of ‘Blue Valentine,’ he’s gotten multimillion-dollar offers to direct studio films, and turned them down – even though his family could use the money. (When ‘Blue Valentine’ ran over budget, he gave up the $75,000 director’s fee for his 12 years of work – and still had to pay taxes on it.) “I’m reading these scripts, and every woman is like a prostitute,” he says with genuine disgust, running a hand through his thinning hair. “And there’s, like, rape scenes on page 20. And I can’t do that. Even for $3 million, I can’t rape somebody onscreen. It goes back to the amigo thing. Responsibility. Those choices will follow you around your whole life.”

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