Schenectady seems almost tailor-made for the canvas Derek Cianfrance used to paint his generational epic, “The Place Beyond the Pines.”
The city’s post-industrial grit accentuates his characters, casting them in shadows and hues that make them seemingly explode with life on the silver screen. From the first scenes at the Altamont Fair to the last moments in the gymnasium of the St. George Greek Orthodox Church on Clinton Street downtown, the locations breathe life into Cianfrance’s characters much in the way he intended when he decided to film in the Schenectady area.
“Because of my training in documentary film, it was important to me to shoot in real places and surround the actors with real people as much as possible to give the film that sense of place and truth,” he said in an interview after the premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival Friday.
Described as “an epic crime drama,” the 140-minute film is a raw and cathartic tale about how one misstep can lead to a generation of turmoil. Ryan Gosling plays Luke Glanton, a carnival stunt motorcycle rider who unexpectedly learns he has fathered a son with Romina, a Latino diner waitress played by Eva Mendes.
Learning about the child brings new meaning to the life of Gosling’s character, but also drives him to a sinister corner of life. During a botched robbery, his path intersects with Avery Cross, a 28-year-old rookie cop played by Bradley Cooper.
Cross traps Glanton in a house after the heist, but an itchy trigger finger leads him to fatally shoot the cornered robber, who plunges to his death from a second-floor window.
Glanton’s death triggers a sequence of events that ultimately leads Cross to the brink of death himself. And his only reprieve is to make penance for Glanton’s death.
Cianfrance’s all-star cast for the “Pines” are surrounded by scores of local people who were given prominent parts in the movie, including several Schenectady police officers, a city school district guidance counselor, an area television reporter, a local pharmacy operator and one of the county’s public defenders. The rising-star director even tapped longtime state Sen. Hugh Farley, who played himself during a speaking role that made the final cut.
Cianfrance’s realism relied upon countless hours of having his actors trail real-life people as they plied their trades. Cooper spent several weeks riding along with Schenectady patrol officers so he could accurately portray a rookie patrolman. Supporting actor Bruce Greenwood followed Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney to learn the mannerisms of a prosecutor; and actress Rose Byrne met with the divorced wives of police officers so she could prepare for the demise of her marriage to Cooper’s character in the film.
Cianfrance’s preparations for the film were so meticulous that he consulted with a local ex-con who had just gotten out of prison for robbing a half-dozen banks in Schenectady. The man, whom he didn’t name, helped teach actors Ben Mendelsohn and Gosling the ugly side of bank robbing.
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“He was fresh out of prison and very open with us about everything,” Cianfrance recalled. “I remember him saying, ‘the one thing movies get wrong is that bank robberies are messy in real life and in the movies they are always perfect.’ We tried to make him proud.”
Mendelsohn and Gosling give the robberies a jagged edge that sharply slices through the narrative. Each heist — all of them performed at Schenectady County banks — is orchestrated with such precision that they almost seem captured from a documentary.
Of course, this meant several local figures needed to get roughed up. Bob Dieterich, a candidate running for U.S. Congress and chief financial officer of First National Bank of Scotia, is among the people roughed up by Gosling in the film.
Schenectady County Historian Don Rittner also takes a whipping at the hands of the star actor. Rittner, who was instrumental in coordinating for the film, said he had to persuade Gosling to use a heavy hand on him during the second bank robbery featured in the film.
“I didn’t think it was hard enough,” he said Saturday.
Frank Falvo, the pharmacist at Aumiller’s on State Street, was also roughed up a bit. Only he was shoved around by Dane DeHaan, the young actor who played Gosling’s drug-addled teenage son in the film. Falvo said the scenes he shot with DeHaan left him smarting the next day since Cianfrance insisted on shooting it so many times.
But without a doubt, he’d do it all over again. Like many others who were given talking roles in the film, acting with big-name Hollywood stars and appearing in a major motion picture was an golden opportunity.
“It was a once in the lifetime chance,” he beamed, still astonished his role in the film made the cut.
Sarah Curcio, a guidance counselor at Schenectady High School, agreed. Her brief talking role with Ephraim Benton — Cooper’s delinquent son in the film — gave her a taste of the Hollywood life.
Curcio was afforded her own trailer, hair dresser and makeup artist when they shot her scene. Afterward, a secretary from her office jokingly put a star on her door, denoting her as an actress in the film.
“I still have it up there,” she said.
Schenectady police Lt. Mark McCraken was also pleasantly surprised to have his role with fellow Officer Adriel Linyear included in the action. The two cops are featured in a scene when they tackled DeHaan and Benton during a drug bust.
“It’s my five minutes of fame,” said McCracken when told his name appeared in the closing credits.
McCracken admitted he may have had an inside track to keeping his scene in the film. He befriended Cooper while he was studying the police and frequently struck up conversation with the actor while he was working security at sets around the city.
“One time he said ‘don’t worry about it, I put in a good word with Derek [Cianfrance],’ ” he recalled.
“The Place Beyond the Pines” was shot exclusively in the Schenectady area over the course of 47 days and featured roughly 500 local people. In addition, Cianfrance tapped thousands of others who appear in backdrop scenes throughout the film, which wrapped up shooting its final scenes in September 2011.
Schenectady could have missed out on the film were it not for some of Cianfrance’s strong local connections. The filmmaker said he was pressured into relocating it to states where the tax credits make shooting far more lucrative.
“But I knew that this movie, made this way, only could happen in Schenectady,” he said.
Of course, his wife also might have had something to do with it. Shannon Plumb, who grew up in Schenectady and Rotterdam, lobbied him to use the Electric City rather than seek another location.
Plumb, who had a small role as an ice cream shop worker in the beginning of the film, was at a loss for words to describe how the movie made her feel about her old hometown. Hearing Schenectady mentioned at the festival almost seemed surreal.
“Every time I heard ‘Schenectady’ being spoken of in the real world … at press junkets, it seemed a place of such mystery to me,” she said Saturday. “I felt pride seeing it.”
Ben Coccio, a former Niskayuna resident who wrote the screenplay, was also supportive of using his old stomping grounds. And Jamie Petricof, the movie’s producer, had ties to the area through his family, which once operated Duane’s Toyland on State Street.
For Schenectady, the film is the gift that keeps giving. Rittner, who helped persuade Cianfrance to film around the city, estimates the production brought more than $2 million in economic stimulus to the area — the crew and cast spent more than $350,000 on hotel rooms alone during filming.
The film is also bound to bring international fame back to the Schenectady, a city that was once known around the world but is now often considered a forgotten relic of the nation’s industrial age. Now with the film expected to be distributed around the world and drawing rave reviews from Toronto, Schenectady could once again be a name that is recognized.
The premiere on Friday at the Princess of Wales Theatre with more than 1,600 seats was instantly sold out when tickets went on sale earlier this month. The media and industry screening at Scotiabank Theater was also a sellout on Saturday, with roughly 500 people packed in to watch.
Tickets to a third screening later in the day at the 1,250-seat Ryerson Theatre were being hocked on Craigslist for $100 apiece late Friday evening.
Some said the hype around the film might have even been greater had Cianfrance released a trailer before the film.
“This is going to put Schenectady back on the map,” Rittner said. “It’s really going to show Schenectady is great place to shoot movies.”