Schenectady’s claim to fame: ‘The Place Beyond the Pines’

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By Gabriella Levine

I still cannot fully grasp that my co-editor and I luckily stumbled upon a weekend long press-junket at the Waldorf Astoria in New York for a screening of The Place Beyond The Pines, a film featuring Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes and Ray Liotta. After all, the weekend was an endless blur of some rather dreamy circumstances, which led me to pinch myself numerous times just to be sure that I wasn’t actually dreaming.

We were entranced at the press conference by the real-life versions of Ryan Gosling and Eva Mendes, who sat three steps away from us and spoke candidly about their experiences whilst filming the movie.

The dream continued when Ryan graciously granted us the privilege of taking a picture with him, wrapping his arms around the two of us and posing with that Gosling-ish smirk of his.

Then, a moment happened when Eva Mendes mentioned the time she spent at Union sitting on the “little grassy knolls” of our campus, places that we’ve all sat on for a moment of peace and quiet. For Mendes, the grassy knolls were places that she grew to love in her time spent throughout Schenectady. I distinctly remember saying to myself, “Eva loves the grassy knolls on our campus? Am I dreaming?”

Our trip to New York City to report on the screening of a major Hollywood film was quite the adventure for two college newspaper editors. The star-struck side of me feels extraordinarily lucky and honored to receive this opportunity.  However, our encounter with Hollywood didn’t happen because of a lucky twist of fate. It happened because of a city that has now earned its rightful distinction in the film industry: Schenectady.

As an Albany native, I have been around the Capital Region and Schenectady my whole life. I think most of us who live here and have experienced the area firsthand would agree that, though it may represent home to many of us, Schenectady isn’t the most glamorous of places. Yet despite this, the city that we call home was thrust to the forefront of the plot for The Place Beyond the Pines.

Schenectady wasn’t just the area that the movie was filmed in— it was embedded within the story and message of the film, providing a realistic backdrop for the characters’ lives. The plot itself actually took place in the real version of Schenectady. For me, this still left behind a lingering question as to why our lackluster city was chosen for the setting of this Hollywood blockbuster.

After our weekend spent in New York City to cover the press conference, the film’s major players, including Gosling, Mendes, and the director, Derek Cianfrance, shed some light on the critical role that Schenectady played in the production of the film.

From the explanations primarily given by the cast and director, I’ve gained an understanding that Schenectady was the vital link between Hollywood and reality in the film. According to Gosling, the film featured many conventional aspects of a typical Hollywood hit. I struggled to actually hear the words coming from his mouth because I was too busy drooling over him, but I managed to gather the following: “You’ve got all the conventions about why you go to the movie; you’ve got all of the conventions of a heist film, a crime drama, a family drama—you’ve got all of those things,” Gosling captivatingly explained.

But Cianfrance did not want his film to become a typical Hollywood drama filled with fictitious elements. He wanted it to reflect the authenticity and truth of real people and real places. Cianfrance noted that, “[b]ecause of my training in documentary film, it was important to me to shoot in real places— I felt strongly that it could only be made in Schenectady— and to surround the actors with real people as much as possible to give the film that sense of place and truth.”

Schenectady was chosen precisely for its unspectacular, unpretentious nature. Schenectady is real, and it does not conform to stereotypical movie backdrops that depict the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. For a film that illustrated the realistic and sometimes harsh truths of life, Schenectady provided an ideal setting.

In and around Schenectady, Cianfrance was able to find authentic locations for most of the key scenes in the movie. “We shot in live locations: a functioning police station with Schenectady police officers, a working hospital with nurses and patients in the next room, an active fair with 500 people who we were counting on not to look into the camera lens, real banks with real bank tellers and bank managers who had been robbed before, and a high school with students. This was all to lend authenticity to the moments we were capturing.”

Local spots used as locations in the film included the Schenectady Police Station, Ellis Hospital, Schenectady High School, Vale Cemetary, Trustco Bank on State Street, which is shown in the film’s main movie poster, a Route 7 Diner (fun fact— Eva Mendes actually worked as a waitress there to prepare for her role as a waitress in the movie), the Dairy Circus in Scotia, Shenanigans strip club in Albany, and multiple residences and neighborhoods throughout Schenectady. Even a few aerial shots of the GE headquarters and the Nott Memorial were featured in the movie.

During the screening of the film, I was struck by the many familiar things I recognized. At first, I assumed that many of the scenes looked genuine and authentic due to the handy work of an artsy Hollywood movie set. But when I paid closer attention, I realized that the movie truly was a constant image reel of Schenectady itself.

In many of the scenes, Daily Gazette or Times Union news boxes were spotted in driveways of neighborhoods throughout Schenectady. At one point, I almost was tricked into believing that I was watching an actual local News Channel 13 broadcast when Elaine Houston, one of our local newscasters from WNYT in Albany, came on the screen to do a mock report.

Cianfrance captured the atmosphere of Schenectady to a tee, right down to a sausage and pepper sandwich from Schenectady’s one and only Civitello’s restaurant that was served to Bradley Cooper’s character, Avery, in a scene at Ellis Hospital.

Cianfrance, who is quite the masterful director, encouraged his cast to not only act as Schenectady civilians, but to delve into what it would actually be like to live a life similar to those of the characters they were depicting. In some senses, Schenectady became the medium through which the actors developed their roles.

Eva Mendes eagerly shared her own personal stories from her time spent in Schenectady. The beautiful Mendes, who plays the character of Romina, was transformed into a tired, haggard and unsightly woman in the movie. This transformation, in part, was facilitated by Mendes’ time spent working covertly in the Route 7 Diner to learn about the ins-and-outs of a job as a diner waitress, Romina’s occupation in the film.

“Derek had the idea of working at the diner that my character works at in the movie on my days off— to go be a waitress. I was like cool, yeah, and I went and I got to know the women that worked there, and I heard their stories, and they were born and raised in Schenectady,” Mendes explained. “It was great because a lot of people didn’t recognize me. It wasn’t like, oh, this actress who’s trying to be normal. [Schenectady] has almost got this ghost-town vibe about it, and it really helped me get into my role,” she continued.

Imagine that— the sultry, stylish Mendes serving french fries and tuna melts as a learning experience at a local diner. Only in Schenectady.

In Schenectady, Cianfrance located the true grit of a city with its own rich history, which is exactly what he was looking for. Schenectady boasts of being the city in which Thomas Edison founded what would eventually become the General Electric Company, where the first historic district in New York, the stockade, was named, and the very place that Westinghouse invented the air brakes and rotary engines. At one point in time, our city was known as the “City that Lights and Hauls the World.”

Cianfrance detailed his quest to find a place that fit the story of his film: “Schenectady is where my wife is from, and for like the last ten years I’ve been visiting there…Then I met this writer, Ben Coccio, who was going to write the script with me, and he was also from Schenectady. We just talked a lot about that place, this American town that had kind of a brighter day.”

“I felt like it was a good place to talk about the American legacy and everything that doesn’t go away,” he continued.

Schenectady’s legacy reflects the thematic message of the film, which centers upon a trifold chronological plot that spans 15 years, a duration rife with the daunting consequences of actions passed down from one generation to the next.

Maybe this brings clarity to my question posed earlier as to why Schenectady was chosen for this film. Perhaps Schenectady is now the remnants of what was once a place that lit and hauled the world, a place with a past legacy of better times, making it a prime environment for the message of Pines. But that’s only one metaphorical interpretation of our city amongst the many potential elucidations.

For Cianfrance, the title of the movie “has a literal meaning—there is a clearing that characters visit on screen, and other, more metaphorical meanings; it’s where you can find your demons, or your destiny, or both.”

A haunting legacy remains as the focal point of the movie, and as for the characters in the film, Cianfrance notes that the past “doesn’t go away,” but rather persists in Schenectady, the looming place beyond the pines.

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