Derek Cianfrance spent nearly 12 years bringing Blue Valentine, the 2010 film about a corrosive marriage starring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, to the screen. The Place Beyond the Pines, Cianfrance’s small-town epic, took even longer to complete—almost two decades. “I’m sort of obsessed with time,” the 39-year old writer-director says. “Blue Valentine was about how time betrays true love; in this movie, I’m still thinking about the effects of time.” Set in the blue-collar upstate–New York town of Schenectady, the multigenerational family drama unfolds over 15 years, in three distinct acts: The first introduces Luke (Gosling), a motorcycle stunt driver and drifter who discovers that he is the father of an infant son from a fling with a local waitress (Eva Mendes). To provide for them, he turns to robbing banks. During a heist gone awry, he has a violent encounter with a rookie cop, Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper). Act two chronicles Cross’s political rise in the face of rampant police corruption. And the film’s final act shifts focus—and generations—as we meet the respective sons of these two men on opposite sides of the law.
Cianfrance’s ambitious narrative was inspired by what he calls “the baton pass” that occurs in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, from one lead (Janet Leigh) to the next (Anthony Perkins), and by Abel Gance’s three-screen finale in the 1927 version of Napoleon. Both classics have stuck with the director since he first saw them in film school 18 years ago. “I’ve always wanted to make a work in some sort of triptych form,” he says. The story came to him six years ago, when his wife, the video artist Shannon Plumb, was pregnant with their second son. “I was thinking about how the choices you make now have an impact on your children years down the line,” Cianfrance explains. “That’s what this film is about. And I just happen to do things really slowly.”