Plot ties to city police troubles ‘tenuous at best’
Like every element in "The Place Beyond the Pines," Derek Cianfrance wanted his fictional Schenectady Police to be as close to the real deal as possible.
The director of "The Place Beyond the Pines" met frequently with police brass and his actors studied officers both on- and off-duty. Stars like Bradley Cooper and Ray Liotta took turns riding with patrol officers, studying their language and mannerisms during actual calls.
Cianfrance also wanted his film to show the reality of police work — that fighting crime is not always black and white. He wanted to show the large swath of gray that separates right and wrong instead of portraying the department in hues of absolute good or total evil.
"To me, that's the portrait I'm always interested in," he said, "human truth, not human perfection."
Not surprisingly, the Schenectady Police in "The Pines" reflect Cianfrance's almost obsessive attention to realism. But they also conjure images of the department's dark and tumultuous past, when federal authorities were called in to clean up rogue elements of the force during the late 1990s.
An FBI investigation later revealed an extremely effective clique of officers had been conducting illegal searches, grabbing crack cocaine from suspects and then using it to entice information from informants. The probe ultimately led to the conviction of Michael Hamilton Jr., Nicola Messere , Richard Barnett and Michael Siler, each of whom would later serve prison time.
The corruption case was also followed by a high-profile suicide of an officer.
The Schenectady Police in "The Pines" have a similar clique of officers operating outside the boundaries of the law. The group of detectives approaches Avery Cross — an idealistic young police officer played by Cooper — after he shoots dead a bank robber holed up in a residence and tries to indoctrinate him into their method of operation.
During one scene, Cross is urged to steal several ounces of cocaine from the department's evidence locker. Scott, a veteran cop played by Gabe Fazio, tells Cross the drugs are for a prostitute helping him set up a large bust.
In another scene, Cross is goaded into accompanying the plain-clothes detectives during an illegal search of a residence. Led by Deluca, a crooked cop played by Ray Liotta, the group makes off with large stacks of stolen cash they divide among themselves.
Cross eventually records a conversation with one of the officers and uses the tape to force the district attorney into cleaning up the department. When the officers are finally arrested, news reports reveal they were employing the pilfered drugs in an effort to spur crime in the city and bolster their arrest records.
Some similarities between "The Pines" — part of which is set during the mid-1990s — and the history of the Schenectady Police could be somewhat expected considering some of the film's influences. Writer Ben Coccio and Cianfrance's wife, Shannon Plumb, both grew up around Schenectady, though both left the area before the big shake-up of the city police department.
Coccio recalled how the father of his brother's girlfriend at the time quit amid the scandal that unfolded in the department and remembers some of the disparaging reports about the police when the scandal broke. But any similarities between the film and the history of the real police were largely unintended.
"At the end of the day, any connections between what happens in the movie and what happened with the Schenectady Police are tenuous at best," he said. "But it is there."
The police corruption shown in "The Pines" is intended to make a broader point, Cianfrance said. The fictional department's sordid element is intended as foil to the virtue Cooper's character initially displays at the beginning of the film —a device used to draw him into a gray area of morality.
Cianfrance said the intention was never to dredge up the checkered past of the Schenectady Police. He said the film borrowed from elements of police corruption that can be found in the history of almost any small-city police force.
"That aspect was not specific," he said. "The movie was never intended to be nonfiction about what happened in Schenectady."
The police were also under no illusions about the film either, since many officers were either working crowd control or appearing as extras. In a sense, the department was almost inextricably linked to the production, meaning officers were at least tangentially aware of its story line and some of the negative connotations it presented.
"There's a lot of movies out there with less than favorable impressions of law enforcement," said Assistant Police Chief Michael Seber, who worked as a liaison with the production crew during filming in 2011. "It’s kind of common to have something like that in movies. I don't think anybody took it as a slap to the police department."
Even if parallels are drawn between the film and the department's history, fewer than half the officers on the force during the 1990s are still with the department. And those who are still around aren't likely to take offense to similarities presented by "The Pines."
"For us, it's just a movie," Seber said. "It's not a documentary."
The department has also evolved considerably since its darkest hour. Public Safety Commissioner Wayne Bennett said the troubled past was followed by a period of increased discipline that ultimately helped to shed many of the negative elements that resided with the Schenectady Police.
"The department has clearly changed gears when it comes to disciplining personnel," he said. "It's not the same department."
Don Rittner, who heads the New York-Capital District Film Community and who helped bring the production to Schenectady, views the similarities between the film and the department's history as an example of art imitating life. Part of the creative process is taking elements of reality and translating them into a fictional narrative.
"It's a fictional story, and when you're writing fiction, you're borrowing from real life," he said.
Even Barnett, one of the officers convicted in the federal probe, didn't seem fazed by the elements of the film that may bear semblance to actual events. Though he reserved final judgment until he sees it in the theater later this month, he didn't find anything personally disparaging about the narrative from accounts he's gotten from friends who helped out with the film.
Barnett now runs the Bad Pig Saloon, a roadside bar in Rotterdam Junction, and is far removed from the events that sent him to prison more than a decade ago. And any parallels presented in the film aren't likely to change that.
"It's water under the bridge now," he said. "That was a long time ago."