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The Place Beyond the Pines: Writer Ben Coccio

By Meredith Alloway · April 6, 2013

It’s safe to say that The Place Beyond the Pines is one of the most highly anticipated films of the year (And not just because Ryan Gosling is making his bleached-hair debut). It’s the return of Blue Valentine director and writer Derek Cianfrance. His skill with illustrating emotional human interaction has evolved from a microscopic scale to the scope of an epic. It’s no surprise he brought on Ben Coccio to co-write the script.

The film introduces us to Luke (Ryan Gosling), a high-wire motorcycle stunt performer who after returning to Schenectady and reconnecting with past lover Romina (Eva Mendes), learns he has a son. He resorts to bank robbery to prove himself a worthy father and support his family. Soon, his criminal actions fall on the radar of rookie cop Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper). Cross has a son the same age, and we find that these seemingly different men have more in common than we expected. 

The Place Beyond the Pines has the remarkable ability to balance three linear story lines, explore the complexities of father/son relationships and weave them together into a web of serendipitous events. It’s a long time since I’ve seen a film with such lofty goals accomplish them so gracefully. It’s also arguably the most beautifully shot film this year. When Ben Coccio agreed to chat with ATW, let’s just say I was ecstatic. With the unexpected twists and turns that the film takes, I warn you, there are a few spoilers below.

ATW: Tell me about your background.

C: I went to Rhone Island School of Design, and there they taught us you could be a one man band; that’s how I made Zero Day. I tried to come up with a way to tell a story to work within my limitations. It was outside of any kind of system. That movie got me a manager and an agent. My agent said Look I have a client in New York who’s looking for someone to write his idea. Derek hadn’t made Blue Valentine, yet. I figured I would take this job for very little money, but the idea would be to write a screenplay where I wouldn’t direct it. I’ll learn something from this guy. We met up. I chose this place where I always go: The Donut Pub!

ATW: That sounds amazing.

C: Derek was instantly cool with it! The big lesson I took from him is that he knows how to look into people; you really feel like he’s listening. He had this simple idea. He wanted to have this performer come back and find out he has a kid, and then he gets into something bad. and then a security guard kills him. The security guard years later has some sort of relationship with the guy’s son who is now a teenager. Right off the bat, I thought it was very intriguing.

ATW: Derek has said that the story started when Gosling exposed his fantasy of robbing a bank some day. Is this where the story began?

C: When I met Derek, he was in the process of getting Blue Valentine going. He had always had Gosling as a constant on the cast for years. When Derek talked to me, he didn’t say anything about robbing a bank, but he did say he wanted Ryan to play this role. When I was shooting Zero Day in Connecticut, there was a guy robbing banks on a motorcycle. The police thought he had an accomplice with a truck. When they did catch the guy, he was robbing banks for the same reason Luke was – for his family. I don’t know which idea happened first, but either way, it’s one example of many things on this project that were a convergence of stuff. When [Derek and I] first met, I said “this movie should take place in Schenectady’ and he’s like ‘my wife is from Schenectady!’” Weird coincidences.

ATW: You and Derek have a story credit and then brought on a third writer for the script. Darius Marder has done a lot of documentary work on fathers and sons, and apparently, you guys had 37 drafts! Describe what that process was like.

C: I worked with Derek, and then he worked with Darius. It was Derek’s movie to make and his story to tell. I think if you have three writers in a room, you’d just go nuts! When I saw the finished project, I saw decisions made after me, but it was still the same basic story. [SPOILER] The scene where Luke is in the bedroom after he’s been cornered and he gets on the phone, we always had that he tried to call Romina to talk to his son Jason. I don’t know if this was Derek or Ryan, his actors deserve writing credits! When he says ‘Don’t tell him about me’, it was a perfect line to charge the moment in a way I had never thought. It was another moment to learn you can always keep re-working and adding new layers.

ATW: There are three linear stories in play: Luke, Avery and then their sons. How did you tie them all together?

C: I really just felt it was quite a simple story, a classic tale in a new way. It’s one beam of light shining through three different prisms. You exist in a world of theory as a writer, and it’s fun. Derek has this really tight group of collaborators, and I was a new addition. We did tons of drafts, and one thing that blew my mind is how much people we shared them with loved Luke and how much they hated Avery for ratting off the cops. I always thought Avery is doing the right thing! People love bank robberies, and people hate when people betray other people.

ATW: Where you intentionally drawing parallels between a culturally acknowledged criminal like Luke and then more covert criminals like Avery and his staff at the police force? Are you saying they’re one in the same?

C: One thing for me, as a person who makes movies who hasn’t made that many, I never want to say what I was trying to do in that way. I would ask you, ‘What would you think?’ There was always this idea that Luke and his fatherhood experience with his son would have to echo with Avery and his experience. In this movie, the themes that we were playing with end up being like a piece of music. You hear an oboe and then a guitar; it’s a different instrument, and it takes you a second to recognize it’s the same theme. It’s all an intuitive process. None of us had read Save the Cat (note: we were discussing the benefits of the book before the interview began). We were trying to make the characters and their choices as real as possible.

ATW: There’s amazing hand off of protagonists, from Luke to Avery. It does feel very real and natural.

C: Derek talks a lot about Psycho and the hand-off between Janet Leigh to Tony Perkins. It’s a modern existential narrative. You identity with each character in the moment; there’s not one main character. Pulp Fiction is a similar thing.

ATW: The story is extremely epic. What other films did you take influence from to balance the intimacy of character interactions with the broad scope of the plot?

C: Giant! At some point along the way I told Derek it reminds me of Giant. It’s sort of like a contemporary way to do a similar story. It’s an intimate level of relationships and feelings in a way that movies of Giants’ time wouldn’t do. But Giant is about cattle people and oil people and how they co-existed in Texas and the friction between them. I feel like that’s what movies can do. They can take a story that’s something real, but turn it into a cinematic reality. We’re in this moment where it’s harder to make movies like that and there’s a lot of smaller movies that get made on their own that’s great. But there’s this itch that needs to be scratched. People do really want to go and watch a movie that’s complicated and deals with big things; that’s what I’m most proud of right now.

ATW: [SPOILER} I must compliment you on the casting. Because Gosling is such an adored actor, we wanted his character to come back to life. We empathized with him till the very end. Was this intentional in the casting process?

C: Funny you say that, a friend of mine said Luke’s character haunts the rest of the movie. When we started to write it, I thought of it differently. I wanted to render a character for Derek that was bad news. That’s who he was; you get Ryan Gosling to play it, and you don’t have to worry about likeability. Derek always knew in his heart he wanted a romantic soul for Luke. I had a less romantic idea of him. I thought of him like the “Man with No Name”. He’s a man of little words and not much thought. He’s going to act in the moment. Derek had another layer. That’s the fascinating link between the movie I saw on the page and the movie he made.

ATW: How did Avery and Luke evolve as characters once you had amazing actors like Gosling and Cooper on board?

C: The way I remember the time line is that Derek was casting, and it was down to who would play Avery; Gosling was already attached. We were still trying out new ideas, and the script was definitely enough to interest actors and financers. I’m pretty sure, based on reading the version [of the script] they used and knowing how Derek works with actors, I really think there’s a lot of credit that should go to those guys [the actors] who come up with new ways to say things that are for the better.

ATW: As a viewer, we’re constantly wondering how all these characters will tie together in the end. You guys did a great job of connecting all the loose ends. But after those ends are joined, how did you come to the ending of the film? [SPOILER} We have such a specific image of Jason riding into the horizon.

C: That’s a great question. In earlier drafts, we tried a lot of endings. One instance, Jason ends up in New York City as one of those guys on the subway selling pencils! All these different things. It was a year before it was shot that the ending occurred to me, of him driving away on a motorcycle, and then it never changed from there. That image was set for a while because you need something that brings the story full circle that’s not too heavy handed.

ATW: I appreciated that it was open ended. I felt it was saying Jason may be traveling the same path as his father, but there’s hope he won’t make the same mistakes.

C:  It was the idea of something connecting him to his father. We don’t know what decisions he’ll make, but they’re just two guys on their motorcycles. It’s open for you to take what you want from it. When [Jason] doesn’t kill Avery, it’s a redemptive moment; he can break the cycle. That was something Derek intended.

ATW: Tell me about your writing nest!

C: I started off listening to music while writing, and I had to stop. If you’re new to writing or new to the format of the screenplay, that attention getting pulled away is murderous. When I got here to LA, I was going to look for an office building to work in. I’m thinking it’s the middle of a recession, and someone’s got to have an open office! The only place that returned my calls was the Greater Los Angeles Agency on Deafness. I ride my bike up there, and she shows me a cubicle, and I think I want an office! She’s like everyone around you is deaf! They can’t hear me, and I can’t hear them! It’s ideal!

ATW: That’s probably the most specific answer I’ve ever gotten. I love it. So what’s up next for you?

C: I hope you can look forward to Fordlandia for River Road [Entertainment]! It’s a nonfiction book that tells a story of how Henry Ford decides to build this little town in the middle of the Amazon jungle, so he can make rubber. He controlled every raw material that went into his cars except for rubber. At the end of the day, he wanted to make a utopian town. But Utopia never happens because people are involved! The material was so rich, and they’re doing the things I like to see in movies. Writing it was pure joy, and I just finished the first draft! Anything could happen from here on out; I’m just happy to write it. I was recently hired to write a supernatural detective thriller for Regency, and it’s an adaptation for So Cold the River.

The Place Beyond the Pines is currently in theaters!