Derek Cianfrance, age 38, won acclaim for his 2010 film Blue Valentine, which tells the story of a doomed relationship in time-jumbled fragments, through raw performances by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. Prior to Blue Valentine, Cianfrance worked on documentaries for television, mostly about music and sports. His latest film, The Place Beyond The Pines, strings together three related vignettes, starring Gosling as a stuntman with criminal ties and Bradley Cooper as a cop whose life intertwines with Gosling’s in unexpected ways. The Place Beyond The Pines is out on DVD and Blu-ray this week.
The China Syndrome (1979)
Derek Cianfrance: I went to see that at some movie theater in Estes Park [Colorado], where we used to go for our family vacations in the summertime. It was 1979. It was my first experience in a movie theater, and I remember being incredibly… I mean, that movie is all about a nuclear meltdown. It’s kind of about the end of the world. The China Syndrome was about a nuclear meltdown that would melt a hole in Pennsylvania all the way through to China, right? So my first impression of a movie theater was that it was a very dark, mysterious, kind of scary, kind of paranoid place. And I loved it. I loved that feeling. I remember coming out of that theater into the daylight and being worried about the world. [Laughs.]
I’m a Cold War child, and two of my greatest nightmares as a kid were nuclear war and my parents getting divorced. Eventually, I went on to make Blue Valentine, which was dealing with that second fear, of my parents’ divorce. At 5, I didn’t understand The China Syndrome, really. I would later go on to read about all that stuff. But I still remember The China Syndrome. I remember the music. I haven’t seen it since then, but I remember the dampness of that movie theater, you know? I remember it had an atmosphere to it. And I left the theater so worried. I’ve carried worry with me ever since. I think my films are written from a place of extreme vulnerability and extreme worry. The Place Beyond The Pines, I wrote from a place where I was worried that my kids were going to be born with all of my baggage and all of my sins.
So, yeah… the movie theater and the Catholic Church. The China Syndrome and the Catholic Church, hand in hand.
Cianfrance: My brother is two years older than me, and when I was 8 years old, my brother had a slumber party, and my parents rented a VCR, and Creepshow and Airplane II. I was just so blown away to actually be able to watch a movie at home. A couple months later, I had a slumber party, and we rented a VCR, and rented two movies: Creepshow and Airplane II. And I showed it to all my friends that night. And then by April of that year, we had HBO, and we bought our own VCR and started recording movies off HBO. One of the movies we recorded was Creepshow. I used to watch Creepshow literally every day after school when I was in the fourth grade. I brought all my friends home—boys and girls—and watched Creepshow with them. I memorized every square inch of that movie: every line, every lighting cue, every edit, every music cue, every camera move, every bit of performance. It’s still deeply rooted in my memory, that movie.
I feel like George Romero is one of the great American filmmakers. After seeing Creepshow, I eventually started to research what else he’d done, and watched his Night Of The Living Dead/Dawn Of The Dead/Day Of The Dead trilogy, Monkey Shines, etc. I became a George Romero fanatic when I was very young.
Back then, people would come over to our house and we had this huge library of stuff we had recorded off HBO, and we’d all watch everything together. I remember my dad watching George Carlin’s extremely profane comedy shows with my grandparents. Sometimes it got me in trouble. I remember going to the video store—I loved the video store when I was a kid—and seeing the box for Xtro, and renting that movie and bringing it home. That was a little bit too extreme for my family. Too extreme for me, you know what I mean? Too violent. I think a woman gets raped by an alien and gives birth to a monster or something. It’s a terrible movie. And I got in trouble for that. But yeah, it was very strange having a VCR in your house and being able to watch Risky Business with your parents. And The Road Warrior. All these R-rated movies. I think about it now—I have a kid who’s 9 years old now who would never be able to make it through Creepshow. I would never show it to him.
Cianfrance: Can I cheat on this and say Goodfellas? I could say that when I was 15, I saw Do The Right Thing, and that it blew me away. That would be true. But one year later, when I was 16, I saw Goodfellas on opening day, and then I went to see it about 30 more times in the theater. It was important to me, because it started this change, away from the horror films I was interested in when I was 10, 11, 12. I feel to this day that Goodfellas is one of the great masterpieces of cinema. One of the greatest films ever made. Even watching it in the theater at the time, I felt that I’d never seen a film so perfect, that I could just continue to watch and be so entertained. I used to love Creepshow because I felt like I could watch it so many times, and there was always something going on. There’s, like, red and blue lighting, and great montage, great music, Dutch camera angles, and five different stories in one movie. Then when I saw Goodfellas, it was doing that to another extreme, in the way it used music, the way it used voiceover, the way it handed off the voiceover and the perspective from character to character, the way it journeyed through these three different times—boyhood, young adulthood, and middle age—with this character, through three decades. Even now, if Goodfellas comes on cable or something, I can’t stop watching it.
A Woman Under The Influence (1974)
Cianfrance: I started to make things when I was 6 years old, on audio cassettes. I was doing a lot of interviewing of my family, and putting little performances on tape. I used to hide these cassette players in my jacket, and then I’d go spy on people and get them to say things, and then use it as blackmail against them. Basically everything that I do now, I was doing with a tape recorder when I was a kid. Then when I was 13, my librarian had a camcorder, and so I started making movies. A lot of it was dealing with that horror stuff. Real immature. Kids’ movies. Then when I was 20, I went to the University Of Colorado film school. I was disappointed at first, because by the time I saw Goodfellas, I’d learned about Martin Scorsese and the film-school generation, and I wanted to follow in their footsteps and go to NYU or USC. I used to sleep under a picture of Scorsese after I saw Goodfellas. But we couldn’t afford it, so I settled on the University Of Colorado.
The moment I got there, I realized I was in a really special place, because I was being taught by these great experimental filmmakers: Stan Brakhage, Phil Solomon. I can only say this in hindsight, because I’ve gone and sat in on other film programs, and I think the education I received at the University Of Colorado was unique. I had Brakhage as my film-history professor. I remember he would instruct the projectionists to rack certain films completely out of focus. Like Ivan The Terrible, Part II. I remember watching that movie completely out of focus, because Brakhage wanted us to see the interplay of shadow and light on the screen. And that movie came to be one of my favorite movies, and I understood it on a whole other aesthetic level—on a formal level, beyond just pure storytelling. I started to understand form a little more.
But the single biggest revelation I had in film school would be A Woman Under The Influence by John Cassavetes. The first film I saw by Cassavetes was Faces, and honestly, I didn’t like it at all at first, until about halfway through, I realized I couldn’t look away. By the end of the movie, I had no idea what I’d just seen, and I went back to watch it again. I worked at a video store in Boulder, and I went through all of Cassavetes’ films, over and over. I love them all. The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie. Love Streams. Minnie And Moskowitz. But A Woman Under the Influence, for me, really perfected this idea of family filmmaking that I was interested in—that felt like what I’d been doing with my home videos for all of my childhood. I felt like it went inside the really private, vulnerable place of this household. Cassavetes was casting his wife and friends and kids as the actors in this movie, and he was shooting it in his own house, and these moments with these people were moments I didn’t know you could achieve in film.
Watching A Woman Under The Influence, I realized where Scorsese got a lot of the energy in the performances in his films. Like Goodfellas, for instance—I don’t think the acting would be at that level in Goodfellas had it not been for Cassavetes paving the way all those years before for improvisation and capturing life upon the screen. The thing about A Woman Under The Influence, too, is that when I first saw it, I was pretty sure Gena Rowlands was crazy in the movie—that it was a movie about a crazy woman. But I’ve watched that movie a hundred times, and the last time I watched it, I realized she was the only sane person in the movie. Everyone else was crazy. I love that about that film, that it’s actually alive in that way. It has the ability to change, based on who I am as a viewer. There’s an openness to it. You can participate in it. It’s like a friend almost, that movie. I feel like it’s a living, breathing organism. It’s not set in stone.
I still don’t know how he was able to do that with that film—to make it so alive that it actually changes every time you watch it. And it’s not necessarily new discoveries. To me, the film actually changes every time I see it. And yeah, it was hugely influential on the relationships in Blue Valentine. In Pines, too, I paid a little homage to it with the spaghetti scene with Ray Liotta. Actually, I paid homage to it in Blue Valentine with the scene in the Moon Room, where Ryan’s eating spaghetti and meatballs. I’m going to try to put a spaghetti scene in every one of my movies as my personal love letter to A Woman Under The Influence.
The Gospel According To St. Matthew (1964)
Cianfrance: I dropped out of film school when I was 20, wrote a film called Brother Tied, and spent four years making it. Then I was flat broke. I was traveling around the world, going to film festivals with that film, surviving off hors d’oeuvres and complimentary cocktails. After a year on the road, I wound up living in Boulder, Colorado, and the film was obviously not going to get picked up, so I didn’t know what I was going to do with myself as a filmmaker.
Right around then, I remember going to see The Gospel According To St. Matthew by Pier Paolo Pasolini, at the international-film series at my old film school. We were running late because I was waiting for my friend to get off work. I used to hate going into a movie after it had started, you know? We were about six minutes late, and we parked the car about a mile away from the theater. And my friend Joey Curtis, who co-wrote Blue Valentine with me, and Jim Helton, who edited both of my movies—Blue and Pines—we were all running from the car to the movie theater. Sprinting. And I actually made it to the movie theater first, and we were sitting down in the movie theater, and I was covered with sweat and out of breath.
Now, I grew up Catholic. But in my whole life as a Catholic, I never really paid attention in church. I was always daydreaming. All of a sudden I was watching this movie in black and white about all these stories I knew, but done in a way that felt like a documentary. And it felt so real to me, and so beautiful. And I noticed that my heart was not slowing down—it was actually speeding up. And my sweat wasn’t drying up—I was sweating more and more.
There was a scene where this kind of deformed man is walking to the camera, and I think Pasolini cast a real deformed man in this role, and it seemed like we were tracking back with him for five minutes. And he stops, and the film simply cut to the actor playing Jesus, and Jesus says, “If you believe in me, you’ll be healed.” And it straight cuts back to the deformed man, and he’s no longer deformed. It’s such a beautiful, magical, cinematic moment, with no CGI. It’s just in a cut that there’s this magic that happens. And the whole left side of my body went numb, and I couldn’t breathe. I felt like I was having a heart attack.
It was the greatest movie I had ever seen, and it took all of my strength to get up out of my chair. I went and knocked on the projectionist’s door, and I told him I thought I was having a heart attack, and asked if I could call my girlfriend. He let me use his phone in the projection booth, and I called my girlfriend—my high-school sweetheart—and she came and picked me up in her Volvo. I remember it was snowing at that time in Colorado, and she had all this dirty snow on the top of the roof of her car, and my mouth was so dry, I put all this dirty snow into my mouth. And I remember her taking me to the emergency room, and waiting in a room for the doctor to come in, and thinking to myself that if the doctor that opens this door looks like Jesus Christ from the Pasolini film, I’ll know I died watching that movie.
Thankfully the doctor came in and he didn’t look like Jesus from the Pasolini movie. And I think he told me I was just having a panic attack. So, anyway, yeah, The Gospel According to St. Matthew. I can barely watch it now, because I have muscle memory of my almost heart attack.
Gimme Shelter (1970)
Cianfrance: I saw Gimme Shelter at Film Forum a number of times when it was rereleased. What I loved about the Maysles brothers’ movies—and especially that movie—was, again, just how alive they felt. I was getting away from my first inspiration of movies, which was about technical perfection. This was just a handheld documentary. But it was really capturing these moments that were fleeting—that could never happen again. I was making documentaries at that time when I saw it, and I had always had a problem with people talking about the fly-on-the-wall approach, because as a filmmaker, I never felt like I was a fly. Flies are pests. You want to get rid of them. I don’t want to be a pest. I want to be part of their world. The Maysles brothers have a real gift of being able to do that—of being really present in other people’s lives. They bring out the best and the worst in people when they’re filming them. I could have picked any one of their movies, but Gimme Shelter would be my 30 one.
Umberto D (1952)
Cianfrance: I don’t really get to watch movies that much any more, now that I’m making them, and now that I have kids. The movie at 35… I’d say Umberto D by Vittorio De Sica. Mostly because it has the best, most cathartic ending I’ve ever seen in movies. I remember Harvey Weinstein used to always tell me when we were finishing Blue Valentine that it’s all about how you end. How you leave the audience determines whether they’re going to like or not like your movie. I remember seeing Umberto D around that time and thinking, “That must be why it’s one of the greatest movies ever made, because it has absolutely the best ending.” Umberto D and Nights Of Cabiria—those are the two films I was watching then that really had the greatest endings.