Cianfrance went to great lengths for realistic bank heists
SCHENECTADY COUNTY First came the loud bang.
The door to the 1st National Bank of Scotia branch on Albany Street in Schenectady had crashed open and Ken Swain — then covering for another manager — was watching two robbers force their way inside. A customer instinctively shrieked.
“A girl let out this short scream I’ll never forget,” he recalled of the robbery.
The bandits were waving guns and shouting profanities. People in the bank were in shock.
Then the robbers were gone, throwing the bank into an eerie stillness. Everything happened so quickly.
“These guys were in and out in a matter of 45 seconds,” he said during an interview last week.
But there was nothing short about Swain’s memory of the events that occurred during the mid-1990s. To this day, the terrifying experience remains permanently burned into his recollections, as clear and vivid as if it occurred yesterday.
And that’s why Swain was a good source for Derek Cianfrance to tap for the bank robbery scenes he staged in “The Place Beyond the Pines.” Cianfrance used Swain’s experiences during the real-life armed robbery to help mold the action in the ones he staged at three banks, including the one where Swain now works as a vice president.
Swain and John Buhrmaster, 1st National’s president, both agreed to help Cianfrance with the film because they wanted the robberies to look realistic. They wanted his film to show the gut-churning emotion that rides in with every bank robbery, no matter how quick or simple.
“It’s a scary thing, and it’s a life-changer for everyone in the robbery,” Buhrmaster said. “These people have nightmares for a long time.”
In the film, Ryan Gosling plays Luke Glanton, a likeable motorcycle stunt rider stuck between wanting to provide for his infant son and an inability to find any steady source of income. Then after a chance encounter with a former bank robber, he’s convinced to participate in a heist at a local bank.
Glanton’s first few robberies are successful but come at a price. The character initially portrayed as likeable takes on an increasingly dark persona as he travels deeper into a life of crime.
Cianfrance’s preparations for the film also involved consulting with a local ex-con who had recently been released from prison after robbing a half-dozen banks in Schenectady. The man helped teach actors Ben Mendelsohn and Gosling another side of bank robbing — that even robbers feel the emotional tumult caused by the intrinsically violent act they’re committing.
“The basic thing that he told us was in movies, robberies are perfect, and in real life, they are messy,” the director recalled during an interview after the film’s debut at the Toronto International Film Festival last year. “The adrenaline and the desperation — this clouding up of your judgment in order to do something like robbery — makes things very messy.”
Cianfrance declined to name the ex-con, but said he was introduced to the man by Schenectady police. He said the man had committed the robberies many years ago, served time in prison and has since lived a law-abiding life.
“I became friends with him, really,” he said. “I was proud of him, and I could admire him for the fact that he took a dark chapter and he was brave enough to speak about it and turn it into something positive.”
The result was a sequence of robberies that seem very realistic. Buhrmaster, who served as an extra during a scene shot at 1st National’s main branch in Scotia, had a visceral reaction when Gosling burst through the doors.
“When he came in and he started screaming, my heart was racing, and I had the same sort of feeling as if we were really getting robbed,” he said.