When writer-director Derek Cianfrance and Ryan Gosling — who also worked together on Blue Valentine — were conceiving Gosling’s character in the crime thriller The Place Beyond the Pines, the actor called Cianfrance one day. “Hey, D,” Cianfrance remembers Gosling saying, “How about the most tattoos in movie history?”
It’s hard to write about why Gosling felt like these markings would work so well for his character, because The Place Beyond the Pines is hard to describe without spoiling it, but here’s an attempt: Gosling plays Luke, an itinerant motorcycle-in-a-cage performer, who at the beginning of the movie finds out he had gotten a one-night stand, Romina (Eva Mendes), pregnant with a very cute little son. Wanting to be a part of his son’s life even though Romina has a stable relationship with another man (Mahershala Ali), Luke decides to stay around — in Schenectady, New York — but has no money. How he goes about getting money to prove to Romina that she should start a family with him is not legal! End of summary. The movie opens in limited release Friday.
Gosling and his friend Ben Shields designed Gosling’s (temporary) tattoos, which are all over his arms, torso, neck, back, and even his face. About Luke and his tattoos, Cianfrance said, “As Ryan later put it, all these tattoos kind of show a character that had a history of bad decisions, of impulsive decisions, and he didn’t really think things through.”
Luke follows Romina to church, only to find out it’s his son’s baptism.
Cianfrance: “As written, Ryan Gosling comes into this baptism, sits down in the middle of the pews with all the people, and is enraged that another man is baptizing his son. So I had 500 people from Schenectady show up in their Sunday finest. You had Eva Mendes, Mahershala Ali, and the baby: Everyone’s dressed to the nines. I had the camera in the back of the church, and I told Ryan, ‘Come in and find a place to sit.’ Ryan walks into the church, and he’s literally a marked man. He cannot fit in anywhere.”
“He moved over to the corner of the church, and I just panned with him as he sat down. Then I cut and moved my camera into a close-up. And I was shooting this close-up of him, and behind us, there was this baptism going on. I noticed Ryan wasn’t getting enraged as I had expected, but he was trembling. And I noticed that this well of emotion was building in him, this humiliation, this deep shame. And he started to break down on camera. As his friend, all I wanted to do was shut the camera off and give him a hug. Give him a napkin and wipe it off: It’s just pretend. But that’s what we were there for. You’re always trying to get to a place where the acting stops and behavior begins. That’s what these tattoos are for — actors are very much like athletes to me, I work with them on a very physical level. I feel like the physical level affects the psychological and the emotional.”
Cianfrance: “Ryan says, ‘I want to get a face tattoo!’ I was, like, ‘Really? A face tattoo?’ He says, ‘Face tattoos are the coolest! And this one’s going to be a dagger, and it’s going to be dripping blood.’ I was, like, ‘Look: If I was your parent, I would tell you, don’t get a face tattoo. You’re going to regret it. But. You’re the guy, so do whatever you want. You have to be this guy, not me, so do what you want.’”
“We were shooting the first day, and I could tell at lunchtime there was something bothering him. He said, ‘Hey, D, can I talk to you for a second?’ I said, ‘What’s up?’ He said, ‘I think I went too far with the face tattoo.’ I said, ‘Well, that’s what happens when you get a face tattoo: You regret it.’ He says, ‘I know. You think we can take it off and reshoot everything?’ I was, like, ‘Absolutely not. This movie’s about consequence. And now you’ve got to live with it for the rest of the movie.’”
“What happened was this beautiful thing — to me. I don’t like coolness. I have an aversion to cool things. To me, coolness is next to coldness. I always like warm things; I like human things. Anyway, what this choice was that he thought would be a cool choice, all of a sudden, he became ashamed of it. It added this kind of mortification to him. When he’s confronted with this baby, he doesn’t feel worthy. Which is what the whole movie was about.”
Cianfrance: “I’d written this character named Luke, and I’d always thought of him as one of those guys that those girl groups like the Shangri-Las used to sing about. Like, he looks dangerous, but the girl says to her dad, if you only knew him, he’s really a sweetheart. But I also wanted to make a movie about a guy who’s literally an animal: He performs in a cage.”
Luke’s act is Handsome Luke and the Heartthrobs. If you look closely, you can see how Gosling incorporated that — down to his knuckles. “He has a Bible on his hand; on four fingers of one hand, the knuckles say ‘hand,’ the other four say ‘some.’”
Cianfrance: “I have tattoos. I have tattoos on my knuckles. To me, my tattoos on my body tell a story of my time. They’re reminders — markers — of places where I’ve been. I love seeing old guys with faded ink on their arms. I think it looks so beautiful.”
Cianfrance: “There’s a moment in the film and they’re watching the TV report and they’re talking about Luke as having an extensive criminal record. Of course, we’re not privy to that. But you know there’s a deep history with him. Ryan and I figured that everything that could have happened to Luke in this life has happened to him. Everything that he could have done wrong, he’s done it.”
Cianfrance: “I have a tattoo of this beautiful oak leaf on my arm, and I remember one time we were getting off an airplane together, and I was getting my bags from the overhead compartment. And this elderly lady said, ‘Oh my god, that is such a beautiful tattoo.’ And Ryan started laughing at me, and said, ‘That’s the death of any tattoo when an old lady tells you it’s beautiful.’ He likes tattoos that look tough, I guess!”