The cast of “The Place Beyond the Pines” on Schenectady, developing character and searching for tomatoes at four in the morning

Focus Features recently hosted a college press junket to “The Place Beyond the Pines,” and I was lucky enough to be in attendance. Director Derek Cianfrance (“Blue Valentine”) and actors Ryan Gosling (“Drive”), Eva Mendes (“The Other Guys”), Dane DeHaan (“Chronicle”) and Emory Cohen (“Smash”) took questions at a press conference featuring exclusively college journalists.

The press conference opened with a question about the town the movie was filmed and set in, Schenectady, N.Y. Cianfrance said that he had been thinking about setting a movie there since he had married his wife, who is from the town.

“The movie is all about legacy, and one thing about Schenectady is that is has a real past, a real history. If you look at the police badge, there’s like a burning building with a bunch of Indians chasing these Dutch people out with spears. That happened in Schenectady; there was massacres in the 1600s. And I feel like whenever I go there, they tell you about the massacres. It was a good place to talk about American legacy and everything that doesn’t go away,” he said.

While the setting was important to the mood and conception of the movie, Cianfrance also had his actors spent a lot of time in Schenectady as research for their roles. Cohen and DeHaan hung out together before the shoot started to get used to the atmosphere of the high school and other places they would be filming. And Mendes worked in the same diner as her character on the days she was not filming.

“I went and I got to know the women that worked there, and I heard some amazing stories and they were born and raised in Schenectady, and, you know, it was great ’cause a lot of people didn’t recognize me, so it wasn’t actress trying to be normal or whatever…it’s almost got this ghost town vibe about it. And, I don’t know, it really helped me get into my role and know the people. They were hungry. They wanted their food; they wanted it fast, and if I didn’t get it to them, they would not leave me a tip and say something mean,” Mendes said.

While it was Gosling’s second time working with the director after “Blue Valentine,” all of the other actors were new to this more naturalistic direction style. Mendes came onto the project before she even knew the script existed. She just really wanted to work with him.

“We had a quick coffee in New York, and I think I told you something like I’ll be an extra in your next film or something ’cause I just think—I just love what he does. He’s obviously an incredible filmmaker and a real risk-taker, and I think that word along with ‘genius’ gets thrown around a lot these days, but I think he’s just such a risk-taker, and when I read the script, I was just like, ‘Derek’s doing this, and it’s so unconventional,’” Mendes said.

Cianfrance expanded on her audition process, which was rather unconventional. “When Eva [Mendes] showed up to the audition, I was going to have her read the movie, and she was wearing some, like, 1990s high-waist jeans and a big baggy t-shirt and she had no make up on and her hair was a mess,” he said.

“I had brown lip liner on. Dark brown lip liner. You know that look?” Mendes added, drawing laughs.

In fact, all of the actors seemed enthralled with Cianfrance and his process. Cohen said that he decided he wanted to be in the movie when he saw Cianfrance’s name on it.

Cianfrance spent a lot of time discussing the movie’s opening shot, a memorable long take that ends up in the middle of a spherical cage of death between three motorcycles. The cinematographer of the movie, Sean Bobbitt, insisted on being inside of the cage despite fears for his safety.

“Sean [Bobbitt] follows him into the cage, the cage closes, there’s these beautiful images of throttles revving and all of a sudden the motorcycles start spinning around Sean, and it’s abstract and visceral, and all of a sudden my monitor goes static and I hear a gasp from the audience, and there’s a pile of motorcycles with Sean Bobbitt at the bottom of it,” Cianfrance said.

Cianfrance continued with the story, recalling that Bobbitt got up and brushed himself off and insisted on trying the shot again. Predictably, it ended up the same way: with the cinematographer at the bottom of a pile of motorcycles. This time, Bobbitt was not completely okay—he was concussed.

“They found him wandering around the Schenectady Holiday Day Inn looking for tomatoes at four in the morning.” Gosling added, somewhat jokingly.

The film itself is told in three separate but related parts, a relatively unconventional move for a film starring box office draws like Gosling and Cooper. Gosling said that this unconventional structure was one of the things he was excited about with the movie and that he admired Cianfrance’s stubbornness to change the structure.

“I think you have all the conventions of why you go to the movies. You’ve got the conventions of the heist film or the crime drama, family drama, thriller; you have all these things that you love, but he constructed them in a way so you can experience them in a slightly different way.” Gosling said.

“The Place Beyond the Pines” comes out in St. Louis on Friday, April 12.

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