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The Roots of THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES

Focus Features 01.29.2013
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Q: What is the significance of the imagery of the trees, and why exactly are they pines?Derek Cianfrance: Let's start with the title - the Iroquois translation of Schenectady is "the place beyond the pines." Schenectady is where my wife grew up. So I have been going up there for a decade visiting her family, and it's such an interesting place. There are different tribes in a contemporary city. It has a rich history and it's definitely in the midst of the economic struggle. My co-writer, Ben Coccio, who grew up there, describes it as a smaller version of Detroit. Ben came up with the title of the movie, and I loved it because it has a literal meaning - there is a clearing that characters visit on-screen - and other, more metaphorical meanings; it's where you can find your demons, or your destiny, or both.

We shot the film in Schenectady for 47 days, which was a long time given our budget. Because of my training in documentary film, it was important to me to shoot in real places - I felt strongly that it could only be made in Schenectady - and to surround the actors with real people as much as possible to give the film that sense of place and truth. So we shot in live locations: a functioning police station with Schenectady police officers, a working hospital with nurses and patients in the next room, an active fair with 500 people who we were counting on not to look into the camera lens, real banks with real bank tellers and bank managers who had been robbed before, and a high school with actual students. This was all to lend authenticity to the moments we were capturing. I asked everyone everywhere - cops, bank tellers, doctors, judges - to make sure that the scenes we were doing were true. And if I was told that they weren't, then I would rewrite scenes on the spot until we were being honest.

Q: Aside from Schenectady itself, where did your inspiration come for this story?

DC: It started with Abel Gance. In film school, I saw his Napoleon, which plays out on three screens at once. So I became obsessed with the idea of making a triptych film. I had been a student with Stan Brakhage and Phil Solomon, who rooted me in aesthetics and formalism. However, Phil used to always tell me, "Form must illuminate content." I thought I could make the three screens sing, but I didn't know the song. So I kept marinating on the idea of three until I had a story with purpose.

In 2007, a few months before the birth of my second son, the film finally came to me. I had been thinking a lot about being a father and becoming one again and the responsibility that came with it, what I was going to pass down to my new boy.

That got me to thinking about the fire I felt inside me, which had been with me for as long as I could remember. It helped me to do many things. But it was also, many times, a destructive and painful force. It shapes who you become, but you have to take control of it. I knew that my father also had this fire in him, and his father as well...I started wondering how many generations back it went. I began to wish that my new boy would be born without this fire. I didn't want to give him all of my pain and mistakes; I wanted him to have his own path.

I had also been reading just about everything that Jack London wrote, and I was taken with the idea of legacy and the calling-back of ancestors - which happens in The Call of the Wild. You want your bloodline to survive, to be better than you. I thought about how time does things to people and their families. I felt I now had a story to tell.

Q: Did you start writing the script at that time?

DC: Not until I went out to find somebody to write with, because I simply cannot write alone; I'm a filmmaker because I like working with others. If I wanted to create alone, I would be a painter.

I was introduced to Ben Coccio, who made this great underappreciated movie Zero Day. We met at The Donut Pub in NYC and he told me he was from Schenectady. We hit it off: we had read the same books, watched the same films growing up - GoodFellas is a favorite - and we had read the same books. Ben latched on to the idea of THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES; he just lit up. I went off to keep trying to make Blue Valentine, and he started writing.

Blue took a while longer, and Ben kept writing. I'd give notes on PINES and every so often we would work on it together. The first draft was over 160 pages. Ben would always reference Giant, and his script was definitely ambitious. When Ben and I started writing together at length, we spent a lot of time refining the script.

Q: What was the involvement of the third credited screenwriter, Darius Marder?
DC: About four months before we started filming PINES, my good friend Darius got involved. His documentary feature Loot was all about fathers and sons, men who were haunted by their past; I knew he had a handle on those themes. He and I have kids in the same school - there's more of a connection with fathers and sons - and we would drop our kids off in the morning and write all day until we had to go pick them up. The story and the characters continued to jell. This movie was so big it did take all three writers to get it together. By the time of filming, we'd hit 37 drafts.

Again, as with Blue, I considered all of the actors in the film to be true collaborators. That could also mean being additional writers; I was always urging them to go off-script and make it fresh, make it alive, make it true.

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