Oculus Interview: Ben Coccio, Part 2

One year ago, I had the opportunity to interview the filmmaker Ben Coccio, the writer/director of the indie films Zero Day and The Beginner. During our conversation, he alluded to the upcoming project that he had co-written with director Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine). That film, The Place Beyond The Pines, was released this past March to commercial and critical acclaim, bringing Coccio his greatest professional success to date.

The Place Beyond the Pines is a moody and morally complex multi-generational saga about crime, family, redemption and damnation as seen through varying perspectives in the upstate New York town of Schenectady (a Mohawk word whose translation inspired the film’s title). It features an all-star cast of Hollywood stars and respected character actors, including Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Ben Mendehlson, Rose Byrne, Bruce Greenwood, Ray Liotta, and Dane Dehaan.

Ben Coccio spoke with me in July of 2013 regarding the origins of the story, the evolution of the script, and some of the key decisions made during the creative process.

 

(Please note that the  interview below features a detailed discussion of the film and contains heavy *SPOILERS*. You are urged to see the movie first)

How did you link up with Derek Cianfrance?

I started off as a writer/director of my own microbudget projects. My first feature, Zero Day, was released theatrically In 2003. Back then it was exceedingly rare for a movie that did not play Sundance, Toronto, Tribeca or Cannes to get into theaters. It played and won a bunch of regional fests though, and it was about a school shooting, so the movie got attention and made its improbable course to art house theaters. I was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award and I got a manager, an agent and a shot at writing and directing something in a new way – from microbudget to low budget.

I had a script that made the Blacklist, but no one wanted to actually produce it. That got me an offer to adapt a short story that a producer had optioned. I grabbed onto that opportunity with both hands, but it was one of those maddening situations where the more I tried and the harder I worked, the farther I got from actually making a movie. This started in probably ’05 and went on for a couple years.

I was trying desperately to figure out what I was doing wrong, and the best answer I had was that writing a script in this new way was something I didn’t know how to do. I had always written for myself – I never had to write in a way that would compel a producer to take something from development to production.

As that situation was on its downward slope, my agent, who represented Derek at the time, told me that he had a client in New York, where I lived, who was looking to hire a non-guild writer to write his idea. I saw this as an opportunity to learn to write in this new way, in a safer environment. I would also make a little money and maybe make a friend or a collaborator.

This was before Derek had made Blue Valentine. When I met him; he was just a guy with tattoos who had a movie idea, so there was no intimidation factor or anything. That said, Derek is an incredibly soulful and charismatic person, and he is great with people. He listens in this intense way that makes you feel like you’re the only person in the room.

We hit it off on that first meeting. I think it also was helpful that I was a point in my life and my career where I really could not even conceive of saying ‘no’ to any opportunity. That is a really important skill, and one I am only now learning to master. 


What was the genesis of the story, and how long did it take to develop?

At our first meeting in the (Manhattan) ‘Donut Pub’ on 14th street, Derek explained to me his idea: an itinerant performer – like a circus performer – comes back to the town he was in the year before to find out that he has a son from a one night stand the previous year. He decides to stick around, gets into something bad and is killed by a security guard. The security guard becomes a hero and then years later, the security guard/hero has some kind of interaction with the teenage son of the itinerant performer.

Derek was just about to get Blue Valentine going at that point, and wanted to use the same non-linear approach he was using for that movie on this one. I told him he shouldn’t do it that way, that his movie sounded like it was about fate to me, and that it would work best if it built in order.

I also had years of ideas in my back pocket – things I had wanted to make into a movie that I never had the chance to or thought were maybe too thin or hadn’t yet crystalized for me. A couple of those ideas fit his story so well so quickly that I pitched them right then. Derek liked all my suggestions and we were off to the races.

By the end of first meeting, we had more or less entirely figured out the first part of the story, had mostly figured out the second, and really had very little idea about the third. But it seemed to me that what happened in the third part would have to come from the first and second.

I thought of this as an opportunity to learn how to write, and here I was writing three movies at once. It was like a crash course.


How did the process work with two people writing the script? To give any amateur screenwriters out there a glimpse of what they are in for, can you estimate how many drafts you went through?

At first, I was doing all the writing and Derek was the arbiter of the different big choices I could make. But even there he had a really light touch – he was in no way dictatorial while I suffered through the first draft. He wanted me to do what I thought was best in that first draft no matter what. And it took me a while.

What I’ve learned is that writing is the hardest part of making a movie. It’s not the most important part – no single part is, I don’t think. Writing, acting, directing, editing, Cinematography – I really think they are all equally important. But writing is the only facet of production where you have no limitations imposed on you by the process. A director has to work with the script and the budget and the cast, an actor has to work with the director and the script, an editor has to work with the footage, etc. But a writer has no limitations. That’s why it’s hard. I think Derek felt the same way. Also, he’s just too much of a people-person to chain himself to a desk and write alone.

Derek’s a terrific manager of creative people, which I suppose is a simple description of the director’s day-to-day job. He really loves to let the people he works with do their own thing, which in turn encourages them to bring their best to him.

I think for me the tough part was that I was not sure how to land the story. I usually know the ending immediately, but not on this project – or at the very least, the ending I had that felt right on the first draft also felt like the journey was so bleak it was no longer honest or particularly interesting.

After a couple drafts, I hit upon an ending that is what you see in the movie, and it was much easier after that. There were still a lot of drafts, but they were not total rewrites. At that point, it felt like we were just exploring the multiverse of these characters: What if he did this instead? What if she didn’t work there anymore?

By the end, the process felt like this mathematical proof of fate – as if we had charted the paths of the different choices these characters could make, and their trajectories always trended in a similar direction.


How closely did the shooting script stray from the idea’s original seed?

Ultimately, this was Derek’s idea in a simple and important way – emotionally. Derek understood instinctively long before I learned it intellectually that people feel before they think. His understanding of Luke as a romantic lost soul was something I really never got until I watched the movie. So in a way, the movie never strayed from the original seed, because it was Derek’s seed.

Working on this movie was also a terrific lesson in the difference between plot and story. Story is emotional and elemental and general and plot is intellectual and incidental and specific.

So the story was basically always the same from the first day. It’s a story about fate and fathers and sons and legacy.

 

David Lynch once famously noted that his experiences living in Philadelphia in the 70s provided his inspiration for “Eraserhead”. In that same vein, the corruption, tension, and moral ambiguity of The Place Beyond the Pines seem well suited to the decaying neighborhoods and foreboding forests in the fictional version of Schenectady portrayed in the film. I was hoping that you might comment on your own personal relationship with the town, and what role it may have played in inspiring the story. What was it about the setting that you were trying to capture?

I grew up in a suburb near Schenectady called Niskayuna. Schenectady used to be GE’s headquarters. My dad came to town in the late 60s to work at GE as an engineer, and even then things were starting to get bad. The manufacturing jobs had mostly dried up, and what was there was R&D and the kind of thing my dad did – selling huge turbines to cities and towns in other countries.

We lived in a suburb that had the most PhDs per capita anywhere in the country, and right next door, was this decaying city with sky high crime and no tax base. The comparison between our high school and Schenectady high school was so obvious, it wasn’t even lost on us sheltered teens. Our school had three gyms. So you had this crazy division between well-off and poor, urban and suburban right next to each other.

In the 90s the Schenectady police department had a lot of corruption. There were all these bizarre episodes where the corrupt cops did these things I could see Henry Hill, Jimmy Conway and Tommy DeVito doing. I thought it would be interesting to make a movie that was like Goodfellas with cops. This was something that I never knew how to start on until I met Derek and realized it could be the second part of the story.

I could just see this guy who wanted to be a cop and was a hero for doing something he was not proud of being kind of brought down to earth by these corrupt cops who want to own him and make him their creature. Ultimately, Avery is the character I identify with the most.

I also thought it would be cool to actually have the movie take place in a town like Schenectady, and coincidentally, Derek’s wife grew up there, so when I suggested it, Derek was all for it.

But Schenectady is a lot like a lot of places around the country, and I’ve always been inspired by those kind of communities and landscapes – small towns, suburbs, little cities past their prime. When I was making Zero Day I was living in a small town in the middle of Connecticut in my then girlfriend’s house. She went to grad school in Baltimore and dumped me and I was just left in her house paying her mortgage. It was a weird time for me, and it inspired the script I wrote for the producer that never got made, but it was also this moment where I was just kind of soaking up the weirdness of that place. The isolation of it is so different than the alienation you can feel in a big city.

There was a guy who was robbing banks around my town in Connecticut for months – he would drive up to a bank on his motorcycle and run into the bank wearing his helmet and brandishing a pistol. He’d vault the counter, grab the counter cash and take off. The police couldn’t catch him. I remember one press conference where some small town chief of police said that they thought he had an accomplice with a truck that the motorcycle bandit was driving up into. That just seemed like the kind of plan that grew from the landscape and the culture.

And when I met Derek, and heard his idea, it was like I found a container for this story that made it part of something bigger.

 

The script has an unorthodox structure, with each of the three acts covering a different character’s perspective (Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, and arguably Dane DeHaan) and the impact that these disperate lives have on one another. Was there a specific reason that you chose to execute the story in this manner? 

I thought this movie was about fate, and I felt the story needed to build the fate depicted in chronological order. I never felt it was three different stories, really – just one story told through different people. It’s the story of how things go. And maybe it’s an expression of a more recent conception of fate – we have free will and can make choices, but we make those choices from options limited by what’s come before.


The morality of the film’s characters are often murky, at best, with virtually all of them ethically compromising themselves at some point. Furthermore, the motivations of Ryan Gosling’s criminal character are arguably more selfless (albeit tragically misguided) then the ultimately amoral ambition of Bradley Cooper’s (ostensible) Hero Cop. Have you found that any audiences or critical interpretations of the characters have surprised you? 

Your interpretation, which I think is what most people feel, often surprises me. Or I should say it used to before I really learned that people feel before they think.

In my opinion, Luke is more selfish than the other characters. There’s no question that in order to be a father to his son, he has limited options. But he further limits those options by equating fatherhood with financial power. Again I totally accept he may have learned all the wrong lessons about how to be a father, and that this limits his him, but I think even with those limits, the choice he makes is pretty lazy and self-centered. He also fucks up Avery’s leg for life. He could have just as easily killed him and taken away any chance that Avery and his own son could ever find redemption with one another.

Avery, on the other hand is a guy who is essentially forced to shoot and kill Luke. Sure, maybe Avery should have waited for backup, but Luke barged into a home with a pistol and took a woman and child hostage. Avery is not happy or proud about killing Luke – on the contrary, he is sickened by how people celebrate this deed and make him a ‘hero’ for doing it, and he recognizes in Luke a father and a man and a life he ended and it haunts him. Did Luke give Kofi that same courtesy or sensitivity? Avery is also sickened by the corruption on his police force, and he tries to do a lot of things to not take part in it or stop it – but the world won’t let him. He tries to use his hero status to get a leadership role and clean up the department, but no dice. The chief doesn’t want him to put a brick of cash on his desk. The DA doesn’t want to take the corruption case until he’s forced to. Hell, Romina won’t even take back the money. Ultimately, Avery does get corrupt cops off the street and behind bars, which in my opinion, is a good thing regardless of the motivation.

But people love Luke because his story is so elemental and simple, and they hate Avery because his story is so complicated and thorny. Luke makes the baby stop crying and Avery wears a wire on his friends. I’m not trying to be dismissive by saying that – that’s just part of how movies work. There’s nothing wrong with loving Luke even if you agree with me that he makes the most destructive decisions. He’s totally lovable.

One of the strengths of the actor’s portrayals in this movie and Derek’s direction is that you recognize the humanity of all the characters and you feel for them all. Even A.J..

When I met Derek, he was just about to make Blue Valentine, so he wanted Ryan Gosling to play Luke from the get go. When I was writing, I made Luke considerably more ornery and tough than he turned out to be – I modeled him after my favorite Cormac McCarthy characters; I even gave him the last name of Glanton to relate him a little to the kid in Blood Meridian. But in the back of my mind, I was always like ‘doesn’t matter what I do, people will love him because he’s Ryan Gosling.’

For my money, Kofi is the only sane one; the only mensch. He’s a good father because he understands to be a good father, most importantly you need to stick around and care. Ultimately, his levelheaded common sense is completely unappreciated by Jason who has this deep emotional desire to ‘know where he came from.’ And that’s sort of the biggest tragedy in the movie because it doesn’t matter where Jason came from. If he could let go of that story, and look around him and see what he has in the present, he could break the cycle then and there.

Derek does a ton of improve, and I knew that my dialogue would get heavily reworked by the actors. But Kofi’s lines to Jason at the ice cream joint are the only lines in the movie that are verbatim what I wrote. I am so happy it was that scene, I can’t tell you.


Did the actors bring anything to the characters and/or story that wasn’t originally on the written page? 

Tons. The biggest change overall is Robin, who I always saw as a dark father for Luke – a manipulator who kind of slowly seduces Luke into robbing banks. But Ben Mendelsohn turned him into this kind of odd loner who just happens to suggest a good idea to the wrong kind of person.

Luke is very different than on the page. Ryan Gosling turned him into a person that people love, regardless of the fact that I think he makes the worst choices and does the most harm of any character in the movie. Ryan and Derek together created in Luke a kind of personification of regret for your choices and your fate, but also a kind of angry pride in it. That’s very romantic and very lovable.

One line in particular that I never even conceived of that just really does both so much for the characters and the story and even the plot was an adlib that Gosling came up with. Over the phone, he tells Romina not to ever tell Jason about him. That really says a lot about Luke’s shame and self-pity and makes you deeply empathetic.

Derek likes to say that his actors deserve screenwriting credit, and while I don’t think the WGA would approve of this notion and I personally think screenwriters already get too short shrift for their work, in Derek’s movies, I see his point.


Tonally, the film’s ending seems to superficially suggest that the characters have found some measure of redemption and peace (Bradley Cooper wins his election, Dane DeHaan discovers, and makes peace with, his father’s nature). However, a closer look would seem to hint that, in fact, everyone has actually found their own damnation (Bradley Cooper becomes the manipulative politician that he tried to avoid becoming but that his father wanted him to be, Dane DeHaan follows in the drifter footsteps that his father wished to save him from). Without asking you to necessarily tip your hand, I was hoping that you could talk about your decisions regarding the major character arcs.

I think the fact that people speculate on the ending means that this movie succeeds at deeply involving the audience. I certainly don’t want to mess with anyone’s interpretation, and I actually think that even if I laid out my intentions clearly, it wouldn’t make them the correct interpretation.

I will say this  – it’s hard to look at that ending and not see the cycle of fate coming full circle, renewing itself and starting over. But nothing is ever exactly the same and there are always new choices to be made, even when you only have limited options. I would say some new choices were already made by these characters, even if they trended toward where we would expect them to go.


Ray Liotta was absolutely terrifying in this movie, particularly in the scene where he Bradley Cooper to follow him into the woods. This is not a question, just an observation.

To me, having Ray Liotta in a movie I wrote is one of my proudest achievements. Meeting him a high point in my life. I actually wanted him to play Robin, but Derek didn’t see Robin that way. I was very flattered when Mr. Liotta remembered a detail I had written into Robin’s character that never made it to the screen.

I really wanted him to come to the special Schenectady screening, so I could force him to go to my friend’s bar around the corner and reenact the Billy Bats beating. I mean, all he would have to do is he’d have to do is appreciate that I didn’t mean to get blood on his floor.

 

The Place Beyond the Pines will be available on DVD 8/6/13.