Derek Cianfrance, director of the beautiful but emotionally claustrophobic 2010 film "Blue Valentine," thought and shot bigger on his follow-up, "The Place Beyond the Pines."
"Pines," playing at Sacramento's Tower, Davis' Varsity and Roseville's Century theaters, reunites Cianfrance with "Valentine" star Ryan Gosling for a story that aches like "Valentine's" but spreads the unease further, through generations of two families in upstate New York.
" 'Blue Valentine' was a movie about love under a microscope," Cianfrance, 39, said by telephone from San Francisco during a publicity stop for "Pines." " 'Place Beyond the Pines' has 56 actors and has a much larger scope, but is intimate about the inner workings of a family and the secrets with families.
"It is about legacies," he said.
A veteran commercial director, Cianfrance broke through as a feature filmmaker with "Valentine." Gosling's co-star in that film, Michelle Williams, was nominated for an Oscar.
During interviews, Cianfrance speaks articulately and quickly, giving the sense that he never will run out of things to say. One can recognize in his manner and tone the passion fueling Gosling's characters in his films.
Cianfrance wanted to collaborate with Gosling again because "he is just a magic human being," the director said. "He makes the world a better place. He makes the movie a better movie."
In "Valentine," Gosling played a flawed blue-collar husband desperate to keep his family together.
In "Pines," he plays Luke, a motorcycle trick rider who robs banks in a misguided attempt to provide for his infant son and to be a better dad than his father was.
"I made 'Blue Valentine' because I had nightmares as a kid that my parents would divorce," said Cianfrance, a Colorado native who is married and the father of two boys. (Cianfrance's parents did divorce, when he was 21).
"('Pines') is about being a father, and thinking about all I would be passing on to my children and not wanting them to have the things that stain me," he continued. "I want them to be clean."
In "Pines," Luke is visiting Schenectady, N.Y., riding motorcycles for a traveling carnival, when he discovers a former flame a waitress named Romina (Eva Mendes) has given birth to his baby. Luke sticks around Schenectady, trying to win back Romina even though she now has a more stable boyfriend.
Luke's criminal activities lead to a run-in with rookie police Officer Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), who also has a young son. Avery comes with his own set of father issues.
Cianfrance shot "The Place Beyond the Pines" in summer 2011 in and around his wife's hometown of Schenectady ("place beyond the pines" is the rough translation of the city's Iroquois name).
Each time he had visited Schenectady, a town at once picturesque and scruffy, "I felt like I was on a location scout," Cianfrance said.
Cianfrance's Schenectady fascination intensified when he met independent filmmaker Ben Coccio, who would become one of Cianfrance's two co- writers on "Pines." Cianfrance discovered Coccio's favorite film was the same as his: Martin Scorsese's "Goodfellas."
"And then I found out (Coccio) was from Schenec- tady," Cianfrance said.
Schenectady suddenly seemed like destiny.
The city's tree-lined streets let Cianfrance open up visually from the close-ups he favored in "Valentine." In "Pines," those streets become the courses on which motorcycle-riding Luke tries to elude police. And Schenectady's modest, well-kept homes suited his "Pines" characters' working-class lives.
Cast and crew stayed at Schenectady's Holiday Inn during the shoot. Cianfrance shot Avery's workplace scenes in a police station and Romina's in a busy roadside diner. He filled background roles with real cops and food servers.
"I like taking actors and characters and dropping them into an aquarium of real life and letting them swim," Cianfrance said.
This immersive approach paid off, with Gosling, Cooper and Mendes dimming their movie-star wattage just enough to blend in with townspeople sharing their scenes.
To prepare for her role as a waitress, Mendes worked several shifts at the Route 7 Diner. She tapped her food- service experience from her Southern California teen years, when she worked at "every place in the Glendale Galleria," Mendes said, including Hot Dog on a Stick.
Some diners recognized the woman slinging their hash as a Hollywood actress, but "it wasn't a big deal," Mendes said during a phone call from New York. "They just wanted their food, fast and hot."
Gosling had suggested his friend (and now his reported girlfriend) Mendes as a possibility for the Romina role. When she met with Cianfrance, she told him they should take a ride around Glendale, so she could show him "where I grew up and how I am like the character,' " Mendes said.
Cianfrance recalled that Mendes had shown up to the meeting dressed as Romina, sporting big hoop earrings and high-waisted jeans ("Pines" starts in the 1990s) and little makeup, attempting to downplay her attractiveness.
"She was really trying, and it meant so much," he said. "You have to trust your collaborators, and I trusted Eva immediately."
Cianfrance was "not excited" about the prospect of meeting Cooper about the Avery role, he said. This was well before the release of 2012's "Silver Linings Playbook," which earned the actor an Oscar nomination.
"To me, he was the guy from 'The Hangover,' " Cianfrance said. "But (in person) he was not what I expected. He had a real energy."
Cianfrance encouraged experimentation with all his actors. Mendes took the instruction to heart during a diner scene in which Luke tells Romina that he wants to leave town with her and the baby.
As her character's response, "I buried my face in a plate of french fries," Mendes said. "I had to go through the whole scene with grease and fry residue and salt on my face, and I felt like an ass. Derek said, 'OK, that choice didn't work, but always feel like you can try something.' "
Cianfrance discovered his limits of boundary-pushing when cinematographer Sean Bobbitt risked his own safety trying to complete the extraordinary, unbroken shot that opens "The Place Beyond the Pines."
The shot follows Luke from his trailer through the carnival midway, onto his bike and into the steel-cage "globe of death" where Luke and two other riders race in circles, barely missing one another.
To complete the shot, Bobbitt took his camera inside the cramped cage with the riders.
"All of the sudden, my monitor went static," Cianfrance said. A motorcycle had stalled at the top of the globe and fallen on Bobbitt, who ended up in the hospital with a concussion.
Upon release, he still wanted to shoot from inside the globe, but Cianfrance said no.
"He still hasn't forgiven me," Cianfrance said.
The completed shot, which evokes the unbroken kitchen sequence from Scorsese's "Goodfellas," amazes, even if it was filmed outside the globe.
Cianfrance said he wanted to start with an awe-inspiring opening to give viewers a sense of his movie's "scope and scale."
"The first 10 or 15 minutes of a movie, the lights go down and you are in a world," he said. "And that world has to define itself quickly."
Call The Bee's Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118.. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.