Only Schenectady could have served as the backdrop for Derek Cianfrance's "The Place Beyond the Pines."
There are certainly other small cities with gritty streetscapes partially arrested in a bygone century. And there are plenty of other areas with a looming sense of hopelessness created amid ebbing industrial prosperity.
But no other place could offer the sincerity of the Electric City: the palpable reality forged by a community that quickly became vested in Cianfrance's picture. From the thousands of area residents answering his first casting call to the countless others who supported the production crew, Schenectady bared its soul for "The Pines," lending the triptych crime drama a sense of realism that would have been impossible were it filmed in any other city in the nation.
"We could not have made this movie anywhere else except Schenectady," Cianfrance said during a recent interview.
No doubt, "The Pines" is distinctly Schenectady, with nearly every scene either shot in the city or in adjacent towns. Cianfrance also surrounded his all-star cast of Ryan Gosling, Brad Cooper and Eva Mendes with scores of extras and small-role actors he pulled into the picture from everyday walks of life — from local police officers to area high school students.
"He told me from the beginning that he likes to get the community involved in his movies," recalled Don Rittner, who heads the New York Capital District Film Community and worked closely with the production company throughout filming. "And he did."
The 140-minute film drifts from the outskirts of the city in Glenville through the clusters of row houses downtown and into the mansions of the GE Realty Plot. In between, Cianfrance folds in shots of distinct landmarks: The rotunda at City Hall, the corridors of Schenectady High School, and the ornate sanctuary at St. John the Evangelist Church, to name a few.
Even the production crew had its local influences. Writer Ben Coccio, a Niskayuna High School graduate, pulled from his experiences growing up in Schenectady County while writing the script, while Cianfrance's wife, Shannon Plumb, grew up in the city and still has family in the area; Jamie Patricof, one of the producers, spent summers and holidays working at Duane's Toyland, a popular Niskayuna business once operated by his grandparents.
In some respects, "The Pines" mimics a documentary: The strife feels as real as Schenectady itself. There's almost a sense the city is one of the actors; a living, breathing entity clutching onto the characters as they move through the narrative.
"In every home there's a struggle," Coccio said. "And in every city that holds these homes, there's struggle. That's what this movie is about. There's a place out there —maybe just beyond the pines —where this struggle disappears."
Described as "an epic crime drama," the film is a cathartic tale about how one misstep can lead to a generation of turmoil. Gosling plays Luke Glanton, a carnival stunt bike rider who unexpectedly learns he has fathered a son with Romina, a Latino diner waitress played by Eva Mendes, as his act is passing through the area in the mid-1990s.
Gosling's character is caught between wanting to provide for the boy and the suffocating reality he's faced with: settling in a city with few opportunities for an unskilled drifter. Feeling trapped and ineffectual, he turns to robbing banks as a way to provide for his family and eventually spring them from the urban melancholy.
Yet each robbery seems to push Glanton further into the darkness. Then during a botched job, 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 shoot the cornered robber and cause him to fatally plunge from a second-story window. Glanton's death reverberates through time, triggering a generational conflict that comes back to haunt Cross more than a decade after he fired the fateful shot.
Cianfrance had mulled an epic like "The Pines" for some time, wanting to create a story based on what happens when two starkly different lives collide. Yet when it came time to put words to the page, the script proved illusive.
"It took me a year and I got ten pages," he recalled.
Cianfrance's agent suggested he meet with Coccio, a writer struggling with his own pursuits. The two knew each other tangentially through others, but quickly found they had a lot in common; in specific, the connection to Schenectady.
"We both had the ambition to make the same movie," Cianfrance recalled.
Working together, the script gradually materialized. And by 2010, Cianfrance began shopping for a producer to make the film a reality. "You really look back on that first day and you realize how much of it was already there," he said of the script.
Buzz about "The Pines" grew steadily from the time Cianfrance announced plans for another collaboration with Gosling, his star actor in "Blue Valentine," in late 2010. Then, several weeks later, the director leaked an important detail about his project during an interview at the Critics’ Choice Awards in Hollywood: His intention to set his narrative for "The Pines" in Schenectady.
Still, few thought such a hot director would bring his film and a cast of A-list actors to the Electric City. After all, the last production that put Schenectady's name in Hollywood's spotlight barely filmed any scenes in the city.
Charlie Kaufman's "Synecdoche, New York" was shot almost exclusively in New York City and Yonkers. Only a few scenes featured the city, and none that distinguished it from any other movie set.
Rittner, who was acquainted with Patricof, quickly started lobbying him to shoot "The Pines" on location. At the time, he recalled, the production company was feeling pressure to move the film to an area offering lucrative incentives.
But there was also a sense "The Pines" was an American epic indelibly linked with Schenectady. A feeling that the film simply wouldn't coalesce in any other community other than the one that served as its inspiration.
"We stood by the integrity of it and we're really proud and happy we did," said Alex Orlovsky, one of the producers.
Filming began in late June 2011. Some sets remained closed to the public, but many more were done in areas that simply couldn't be disconnected from everyday traffic. Information about filming locations spread like wildfire through social media, drawing dozens and sometimes hundreds of curious onlookers.
The filming created an electricity that pulsed through Schenectady during the hazy summer months — a time when the city isn't known to be particularly busy. Wherever the film crew touched down, droves of people followed.
"You could see it everywhere," recalled Rittner. "There were trailers, there were crowds and for three months that summer, Schenectady was hopping."
The actors blended within the community too. On any given evening, some of Hollywood's brightest stars could be seen grabbing a bite to eat at area restaurants or turning up at a local bowling alley.
Cooper had the chef of Ambition Cafe in Schenectady cater him diet-sensitive meals. Eva Mendes exercised at the track at Union College. Gosling once bought out the stock of bread from Laurie's Gluten-Free Goodness in Scotia.
Cast and crew frequented Scotti's Restaurant on Union Street. And when filming was completed in late September, the remaining production crew threw a late-night wrap-up party at 20 North Broadway Tavern in the city.
"The Pines" brought a marked economic boost to a county still struggling to pull free from the national recession. The film's stars leased homes in Schenectady's Stockade and members of the production crew rented rooms in local hotels.
They also visited local businesses and ate at area restaurants. For three months, they were as much a part of Schenectady as the city was part of the film.
Estimates suggest the production brought more than $2 million in economic stimulus to the area. The hotel rooms alone brought more than $350,000 in revenue.
"It brought a lot of money into the community that we needed at the time," said John Buhrmaster, the president of the 1st National Bank of Scotia, which was featured in the film.
For many, waiting for the film to wend through the production process has been the only drawback. The film debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival to generally positive reviews in September, and was quickly bought by Focus Features, a subsidiary of NBC Universal.
Screenings and premieres in Manhattan have already drawn national publicity, though reviews have been mixed. Still, there's a sense of excitement among those who watched and participated in Cianfrance's film as the day of its local release draws near.
"It was a total community event that produced something that people are going to see for years to come," Buhrmaster said. "And everybody around is going to be able to say they had a piece in that movie."