Like many cinematic ventures, the film adaptation Ben Coccio was doing for a producer had run its course.
The project to bring the short story to film didn’t get the support needed to make the jump to production, and the screenplay began to languish. The Niskayuna native was looking for something new to work on when his agent recommended he talk with a relatively unknown director who was shopping for a screenplay writer.
The director’s idea for the film was a rough sketch with vague details that didn’t immediately catch Coccio’s interest. But as the two talked, he found himself increasingly intrigued by the generational epic he was being solicited to write.
“It was a simple enough guide that I could put whatever I wanted along that guide,” he recalled to an audience of Niskayuna High School film students Friday.
The director and writer also found commonality in Schenectady, the place Coccio suggested as a backdrop for the film. The director’s wife had grown up in the city, which they agreed would serve as the perfect gritty backdrop for the narrative.
The process of writing the screenplay took roughly four years. And along the way, the little-known director started winning awards.
Director Derek Cianfrance struck it big with “Blue Valentine” — a film that won him praise as the most promising filmmaker at the Chicago Film Critics Association Awards in 2010. Suddenly, the screenplay for “The Place Beyond the Pines” began to take on new gravity.
The end result was a movie shot on location in Coccio’s hometown that was unveiled at the Toronto International Film Festival last month. The 37-year-old writer watched a rough cut of the film with one of its stars, Emory Cohen, and was impressed to see his work come to life on the silver screen.
“Seeing it — especially since it was shot in my hometown — was incredible,” he said.
The film staring Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper is scheduled for a limited release on March 29. Shot almost exclusively in the Schenectady area last year, the movie follows a generational feud that erupts between two families after a fatal encounter between an outlaw stunt man and a rookie cop.
Coccio, a 1993 graduate of Niskayuna, credited the education in the arts he received at the district for giving him the foundation he used to build a film career. He urged the students to identify their goals and realize there’s no exact path they need to take to get to them.
“There are a lot of different ways to get to where you want to go,” he told students.
Coccio discussed his path from making amateur movies with a VHS recorder in high school through his first experiences with film at the Rhode Island School of Design. He talked about making the film “5:45” — a thriller shot with a 35 mm camera later sold to the Independent Film Channel — and his experience doing sound for “Bar Fight,” a four-minute animated short that aired in the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim block of programming.
In each instance, Coccio found himself learning the ropes of a very difficult industry but still falling short of success. Then, following a near-fatal car accident, he had a revelation to do a film based on the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School.
His idea was to fictionally recreate a video diary that the Columbine shooters apparently kept. For Coccio, the notion of shooting a documentary-style film was both economical and powerful, especially with the memory of the tragedy still fresh.
“Zero Day” relied upon high school students Coccio gathered from several schools in Connecticut. He wrote dialogue for the young actors, but in a way that allowed them to improvise slightly.
The 92-minute film he produced seemed startlingly realistic to audiences — so realistic that some of its footage posted online has since been mistakenly identified as video from the actual Columbine killers.
“It got into enough of the film festivals that it got attention,” he recalled.
That attention also landed him notoriety in the news and in the talk show circuit. Coccio was interviewed by a CNN reporter just days after the film’s release in September 2003.
Coccio appeared on NBC’s “John Walsh Show,” where the host and Columbine survivor Craig Scott grilled him over his motives for creating such a controversial film. Though somewhat rattled by the outrage he faced, the young filmmaker also used the experience to learn.
He noticed how the producers used subtle stagecraft to tell the story they were trying to convey. He later watched a finished product that seemed spontaneous and real, even though the audience was being guided by cues.
“It was a really interesting experience, and I learned an awful lot from it,” he said.
Coccio said his time with Cianfrance was also a learning experience — one that took 20 draft scripts to complete. By the end of their work together, he felt as though he had explored every possible reality for the characters written into the script.
“With writing you have a blank page,” he said. “You can do anything you want. And it’s very difficult.”