TORONTO—At the beginning of Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines, there’s a long tracking shot that lasts several minutes without a cut (or so it seems). The camera follows a heavily tattooed Ryan Gosling as he puts on a motorcycle jacket, emerges from a trailer, weaves through the crowds at a carnival, enters a metal orb, mounts a motorbike at the centre, revs it up, and begins a Globe of Death–style ride around the middle of the sphere.
From that opening shot, we know that we’re going to follow Gosling right into the movie’s dark heart and that it’s the kind of movie where hearts get broken.
Bradley Cooper and Eva Mendes also star in The Place Beyond the Pines, a dark crime drama about the legacies passed on from fathers to sons, a film in which every tense encounter brings its characters closer to an inevitable, tragic denouement. (The film’s title is a reference to the Iroquois meaning of the word Schenectady, as in Schenectady, New York, where the film is set.)
During an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall, Gosling and Cianfrance admitted to the Georgia Straight that it was a stunt rider, not Gosling, in that globe. I was fooled by what they called a “Texas switch” (although they told a story about the DOP, Sean Bobbitt, who was determined to shoot in the centre of the globe and was hospitalized after he twice ended up under a pile of bikes).
They also recalled other sequences that were purposefully hairy. Cianfrance, who has filmed mainly documentaries in his career, said he’s interested in getting at “the messiness of life”.
“I like to blur the line between real life and fiction and see where they meet,” he said. “I think any time you cut in a movie, there’s a lie that can be associated with it. Our reference point for this was not other movies. It was America’s Wildest Police Chases; it was Cops. Ryan had to train for months with a professional stunt driver.”
In one long, uncut shot that took 22 takes, Gosling’s character, Luke, robs a bank at gunpoint and escapes on his bike through an intersection containing 36 vehicles to a waiting U-Haul a few blocks away. For the actor, all this was more than appealing: it offered him a chance to live out one of his cherished fantasies.
“I just always wanted to rob a bank,” he recalled. “But I’m scared of jail, so I was thinking about how I could do it and really get away with it.”
As the story goes, while he and Cianfrance were shooting their first collaboration, the heartbreaker Blue Valentine, Gosling confided his dream to Cianfrance. The director responded: “That’s funny, because I just wrote that in a script I’m working on.”
“It was one of those moments when I knew we were supposed to make movies together,” Gosling continued. “Then we found out that it’s so much easier to rob a bank than we thought, because you just ask for the money and they have to give it to you. Most bank robbers are really messy, so to capture that messiness, all the bank-robbery scenes were one-take wonders.”
“I want the viewer to know that this is the kind of movie where the shots are long and things are true,” added Cianfrance. “It’s Ryan every time, going through the intersection with 36 cars. It was a little insane. Even when I watch it now, I think he’s gonna get hit.”
That scene was also, Cianfrance said, populated with actual survivors of bank robberies, just as the school in his film contains real teachers and the courts contain real judges and attorneys. He said he casts real people alongside the actors in his films as a technique to increase verisimilitude.
Mendes, who plays the mother of Luke’s baby and his on-again, off-again true love in the movie, confirmed that she also took some risks in making the film. As an audition process, the director had Mendes drive him around her hometown of L.A. She showed up wearing no makeup, a gesture that Cianfrance has said helped him decide to offer her the role.
During the film, Mendes has to age 15 years. “That was the funnest part, to really let myself go,” the actor said in Toronto. “The way that Derek works is my favourite way of working, now that I know it is possible to work like this.”
Mendes continued: “This is where my heart lies. You want to work with amazing directors, amazing costars, do work that challenges. I am constantly trying to go outside the box, outside the limitations that not only I have put on myself but the industry has. For me, I find it exciting every time I can go outside the box. I give in to the glamorous look when I have to, but it’s not what I want to do on-screen.”