Filmmakers Derek Cianfrance and Shannon Plumb talk shop ahead of Albany Film Festival

Derek Cianfrance and Shannon Plumb arrive at the Oscars on Sunday, April 25, 2021, at Union Station in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello, Pool)
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Derek Cianfrance and Shannon Plumb arrive at the Oscars on Sunday, April 25, 2021, at Union Station in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello, Pool)

For Derek Cianfrance and Shannon Plumb, husband and wife filmmakers, coming back to the Capital Region is a homecoming of sorts.

Plumb grew up in the Schenectady area and Cianfrance spent months filming “The Place Beyond the Pines” there just over a decade ago.

On Saturday, they’re slated to speak at the New York State Writers Institute’s Albany Film Festival at the University at Albany.

Cianfrance will be in discussion with author Wally Lamb, whose novel “I Know This Much Is True” he adapted into an HBO series starring Mark Ruffalo. Plumb, who is a Mohonasen High School graduate, will be discussing her comedy/variety show series called “Chopped Liver,” which follows in the tradition of “Carol Burnett” and “Saturday Night Live.” Joining them is a strong lineup of other authors, actors and filmmakers like Karen Allen, Russell Banks, Michael Caplan, Danielle Colin, Michael Connors, Samantha Fuentes and Stanley Nelson, among others.

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Plumb and Cianfrance caught up with The Daily Gazette last week to talk about their roots, what it was like to film in Schenectady and what they’ve been working on during the pandemic. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Tell me what made you interested in filmmaking?

Plumb: I didn’t start out as a filmmaker. I studied acting at SUNY New Paltz . . . But filmmaking didn’t happen for me until I went to New York City. It was a long story to get to that point.
When I got to the city, I had to find work any way I could, so I just landed a bunch of different jobs. Then I started doing modeling because I found a job in a catering company, which happened to be delivering food to these really big photographers in the fashion world. One of the young kids there was [Mario Sorrenti], a hot fashion photographer. [He was] popular and he was like, ‘I want to take your picture’ and I started modeling and that got me inspired to be in front of the camera.
That’s when I started to think about learning more about filmmaking. I eventually bought a Super 8 camera; back then it was so cheap, you could buy a camera for $24. You could process film and buy films really cheap.
I put myself in my own movies, and I just really fell in love with it. I learned in a roundabout way and when I met Derek, I really started to learn more about editing. [I learned] a lot about filmmaking through Derek and then it became my path.

Cianfrance: I was a member of the VHS generation. My earliest memories were of renting VCRs and watching movies at slumber parties and just being obsessed with movies and recording movies on HBO and watching them repeatedly every day after school.
When I was a kid, I used to have a tape recorder that I used to do skits or . . . I would try to get my grandma to tell an off-color joke or hide the tape recorder in my big puffy jacket and get my brother to say something mean to me then use it as blackmail against him. Basically, I was using recordings to [instigate].
I made my first movie when I was 13. It was 15 seconds long [and] it’s about a rubber bat that attacks a kid on a couch.
I had struggled with reading as a kid so I went to the library not to check out books, but I went to the library to check out a camera. I would take this camera and just make movies all the time.
By the time I went to college, I’d made like 24 short films, and they all starred my family and my friends and then I went to film school at the University of Colorado.
But with Shannon, the thing that was always fascinating about seeing Shannon’s movies is that she was living that life of someone who was discovered. It’s tough for an actor because you’re always putting yourself out at the whim or the discretion or the decision of other people. It’s hard to fit in that way.
The thing I always admired about her films was that she wasn’t going to wait for anyone to give her permission to be accepted in their world; she wasn’t looking for that validation from another person.

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Q: Do you often problem-solve together when you’re working on different film projects?

Plumb: Definitely. I always asked Derek for help with editing to look at my final edits, and I really trust Derek’s eyes and his feeling when he sees the end result of what I’ve made. Whenever I ask someone to give me notes, Derek’s are always the notes that I really take to heart because I do respect his craftsmanship and how he sees things.
Also, to know each other, to know what he’s after in his work and for him to know what I’m after, it takes years to understand that with each other.

Cianfrance: It’s a complete mutual respect and admiration. We both do such different things because Shannon works in comedy and I work in drama, for the most part. Shannon taught me so much about acting, talking to actors, [and] working with actors.
I’m always so jealous of her ability to find comedy because I really want to be able to find that in my work too. We’re like the comedy and tragedy faces and we’re married.

Q: I have to ask about “The Place Beyond the Pines.” Did you end up filming in Schenectady because, Shannon, you grew up in the area?

Cianfrance: First off, I felt so fortunate, and blessed to be able to have Shannon take me home to meet her mother in Schenectady. I remember that first time I went to Schenectady and we went to the Grog Shoppe. Schenectady just became this really romantic place in my mind. I felt so blessed to be there and I love that place because that’s where Shannon came from and that’s where I met her mom for the first time. So years passed, we get married, we had kids and we just kept going up to Schenectady all the time.
If it was love at first sight with Schenectady, then it started to reveal all of its other colors and I was compelled by the place. I had this idea for this movie that was going to be told in three parts and I was looking for a co-writer to work with. I met this writer, Ben Coccio. When we sat down, I told him my idea and midway through our first conversation, he told me that he’s from Niskayuna. And I [said] “My wife’s from Schenectady,” and he was like, “Why don’t we set the movie in Schenectady?”
A few months later, Ben [said] “Hey, I have an idea for our title, ‘The Place Beyond the Pines.’ It’s the [Mohawk] translation of the word Schenectady.” So that became our location and we just decided to make it in that city, about that place.
It takes years to get a movie together and budgets are always tough. There was a time when I was having conversations with my producers about moving the film to North Carolina because there [are] pine forests in North Carolina and a better tax credit. But for me, it was so central to the movie that it was about Schenectady, and it took place in that place. I had my own romance about the place and the people and just thought that was the town to make it in.

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Q: Was it strange to come up there to Schenectady to work versus visiting family?

Cianfrance: It was amazing because I make movies about family, and the sacrifice, whenever I go to make a movie, is that I have to be away from my family for a long time while making it.
The beautiful part about shooting in Schenectady is that we were all able to be up there together. I was shooting the film with Shannon, and my kids were there, and her family was all there. It felt like being home. [I’m] not from there, but I felt like I was home because home is wherever Shannon and the boys are.
We rented a house in the Stockade, which was amazing. That was 2011, the year the hurricane came through. We had to move out of that house [because of the flooding]. But it was amazing to be able to have Ray Liotta come over for spaghetti and meatballs and [have] Ben Mendelsohn hang out with Shannon’s mom and take my kids to the park and go on a canoe trip with Ryan [Gosling] and Eva [Mendes]. My brother and sister-in-law came out too, so it was great.

Plumb: We were there for the whole summer and I had not spent that much time at home since I was 18 or something. It was really amazing for me to reconnect with my family and see my mom whenever I wanted.
When I grew up in Schenectady, there was nothing. There wasn’t a lot of culture, there wasn’t a lot of opportunity. But when I got to see kids getting the opportunity to be extras or get involved with this huge movie, it was so exciting. I could see it even in my family; they were just lit up.
When they [filmed] at the Altamont Fair — I never would have thought Ryan Gosling and Eva Mendes were going to be at the Altamont Fair — I got to bring my cousin Michelle and we were in this exciting motorcycle scene.
My mom brought me up as a kid [and told me] ‘You dream it, it’ll come true.’ As a kid, I didn’t think about being a filmmaker, but I always wished I could be in the movies but there was no chance of it when I was growing up.
It was so exciting to see Schenectady light up and to have just the idea that anything’s possible.

Cianfrance: That was crucial. We couldn’t have made the film without the town, without the city, without all the people. One of the things that I’m always trying to do with my movies is take actors and see what’s ordinary about them, and then take regular people and see what’s extraordinary about them.
Oftentimes with actors, I try to put them in real situations and surround them with real people, and it makes them have to up their game because a real person can tell immediately if you’re faking. If you surround actors with real people, they can’t fake it, they have to be real. So [if] Bradley Cooper is surrounded by real cops; he’s got to bring it. So the town allowed us to do that. They allowed us to be truthful.
All the people that had small roles in it shined in such a beautiful way. They actually brought up all of our actors to get to their level.
The stuff that we were able to do with the action scenes and having the police help us to block off streets, you couldn’t do those things in New York City. We live in Brooklyn, and whenever they shoot a movie on our block, everyone is so annoyed.
When I shot “Blue Valentine” in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and when I shot “I Know This Much Is True” in Poughkeepsie those towns . . . they were excited to see us and they were excited to help.
It was crucial to me [that] we’re not just gonna come in there like Hollywood and use and abuse the place. Let’s cast from the people who were here. Let’s try to give jobs to people that are here, let’s buy food from restaurants that are here.

Q: Jumping ahead, what projects have you guys been working on during the pandemic?

Plumb: I’ve just been doing a comedy show the past four years, so I’ve been writing and trying to go shoot them. I have four episodes right now. It’s called “Chopped Liver.” I did an episode with Eva Mendes [and] an episode with Rosie O’Donnell that was the last one. The first one was with Gabe Fazio, who’s in “Place Beyond the Pines,” and I should mention Hazelle Goodman.
It’s a comedy show that is just me and another actor and each episode is one of us or two of us doing all different skits. I’m posting them up on YouTube now because there’s so much out there and it’s so hard to find a platform. So I think once again, I’m going off on my own to do this because they need a home and an audience. YouTube is kind of a good platform to step off of.

Cianfrance: For me, when I finished “I Know This Much Is True,” I was finished editing right when the pandemic was starting up. I normally go through these periods where I go off to make a movie, and it takes a couple years to make a movie. Then I go and write and I spent a couple years writing. So [the pandemic] didn’t derail what I was going to do. The last two years I’ve been writing.
I have been writing “Empire of the Summer Moon” for HBO. It’s been 11 years that I’ve been trying to get that one made . . . I’ve been working with some great Comanche and Cherokee writers and trying to just tell the most honest version of that story, which has been great.
Then I’m writing “Wolf Man” for Ryan Gosling and Universal right now.
That brings me back because those movies I used to watch when I was a kid in my suburban home in Lakewood, Colorado, [were] horror movies. So the chance to make a horror movie has been pretty cool.
Then I have another series for HBO which is called “Muscle,” which is something I’ve been trying to make since 2007, about a guy who becomes a bodybuilder, and then I’m writing something about this guy named Jeffrey Manchester who was infamous for robbing 45 McDonald’s and then escaping prison and living in Toys “R” Us for six months. Then I’m also working on this thing called “Let it Break You,” which is kind of a folk horror movie.
I feel like I’m juggling four chainsaws and a bowling ball. I just try to balance my time between those every day.
Beyond work, another thing that’s very important to Shannon and me is our family, our kids. We have two boys and we spend a lot of time being parents and that’s just a crucial aspect of our life. It’s probably for me, one of the reasons why I haven’t made more movies . . . because I want to be present also as a father, and I don’t want to be gone all the time. I take a lot of opportunities to say no so that I can focus on family and being here because time doesn’t last forever.

Q: When you are adapting a book, either nonfiction or fiction, how does that process work in terms of how much interaction you have with the author?

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Cianfrance: I’ve worked on three adaptations now. “[The] Light Between Oceans,” “I Know This Much Is True” and “Empire of the Summer Moon.” For the fiction projects, like “I Know This Much Is True,” I met with Wally. Wally told me that he loved my movies, that he trusted me and that I should do whatever I wanted. That was so generous and awesome. I didn’t talk to Wally while I was writing it but I felt like I was talking to him every day because I had his book and those were his words and those were his ideas.
Writing that was a process of curation, of trying to figure out how to curate these 1,000 pages and transform [them] from a novel form into cinema. He trusted me to do that. The reason why I felt like I could do that was because I just felt so close to that story and the Italian American legacy thread of it all. So I made it very personal to myself as well and I took Wally’s blessing and just ran with it.
When I did “Light Between Oceans,” it was the same thing. M.L. Stedman basically gave me her blessing to do what I wanted. At the end of the day, I remember when she saw that film, she said . . . my characters and her characters are different people, but that she wept because she felt like she was understood. Even though it was different, she felt like she had communicated what she wanted to communicate and it was realized by another person.
When it comes to the nonfiction stuff with “Empire of the Summer Moon,” that’s a more complicated one because [it’s] strictly from written history. One of the things I’ve tried to do in my translation is not only rely on written history but take from the oral history of the Comanche people too. When you’re dealing with history, there’s so many different perspectives on what happened. I’m turning in a script actually tomorrow to HBO and that project has been rewritten probably 100 times now. This new draft I’m turning in, every word of it has been rewritten because there’s so many stories beyond what has been written down in the white history books, and I’ve been really leaning on my collaborators and people steeped in the oral traditions and people who know the oral history of the Comanche people.
When you’re adapting someone else’s work, you have to be a bit of a rebellious child. The work that you like, it’s like your parents and you have to love it and you respect it. The reason why you’re here in the first place is because of that person, because of that thing. I wouldn’t be making “I Know This Much Is True” if it wasn’t for what Wally had done. But I have to rebel against certain things too so it can be its own thing. That’s been the process of adaptation for me; equal parts respect and rebellion.

Q: At the Albany Film Festival, you’re mostly going to be discussing that particular adaptation.

Cianfrance: I think so. I’m so excited to be up there with Wally and talk. We never got to have that because the pandemic hit and we never were able to really be together and celebrate together and talk about it together. This will be our first time years removed that we’re able to kind of share our experiences of what that was like.

Albany Film Festival

WHEN: Saturday, April 2
WHERE: University at Albany
MORE INFO: AlbanyFilmFestival.org
NOTE: Wally Lamb and Cianfrance will be in discussion from 1-2 p.m. at the Campus Center West Auditorium.
There will be a screening and discussion with Plumb from 3:45-4:45 p.m. in Lecture Center 2. To view more of Chopped Liver, visit Chopped Liver Show! on YouTube.com.

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