When Derek Cianfrance was shopping the script for his latest film "The Place Beyond the Pines," the biggest note he received from a potential producer was that the story was too long.

The initial script was 156 pages, and the financier said if Cianfrance could whittle it to 120 pages, he would finance the film.

"I couldn't figure out how to do it, so I just found the shrink-font button, and I extended the margins," Cianfrance said. "No one caught on."

Cianfrance told the story in late March during an appearance at the University of Colorado -- his old stamping ground -- for a screening of "Pines." The film, which boasts Bradley Cooper, Ryan Gosling, Eva Mendes and Ray Liotta among its cast, had the biggest per-screen box office when it opened on both coasts last weekend, according to estimates by boxofficemojo.com. It's scheduled to open at Century Boulder today.

Cianfrance grew up in Lakewood, a Denver suburb, dreaming of becoming a director. When it came time for college, Cianfrance wanted to attend a noted film school such as the ones at New York University or the University of Southern California. But he attended CU from 1992 to 1995 because he couldn't afford out-of-state tuition costs. In retrospect, Cianfrance said, CU was the most fortuitous choice.

"I had a really unique education here," he said.

Among his tutors at CU were the late Stan Brakhage, the influential experimental filmmaker, and Phil Solomon, still a professor at CU.

"Not only did I get to learn from them about filmmaking, but I got to observe them and the way they lived their lives," Cianfrance said. "I got to see what the life of an artist was like."

Cianfrance, 39, said he still uses lessons learned while a student at Boulder.

"To this day, when I'm editing my movies, in my head I have a constant dialogue with Phil," Cianfrance said. "He's infiltrated my mind; he's constantly teaching me and guiding me."

"Pines" marks the second time the 39-year-old director has worked with Gosling, after 2010's "Blue Valentine." "Pines," co-written by Cianfrance, Ben Coccio and Darius Marder, is an epic story about legacy. It takes place in upstate New York, telling the story of two fathers and how pivotal choices they make affect their respective sons.

The late Stan Brakhage
The late Stan Brakhage (Daily Camera file photo)

Gosling plays a motorcycle stunt man with a troubled past. When he discovers he has fathered a son, the new father is profoundly affected by the child's innocence, and he's determined to provide for the boy. But he chooses to do that through criminal means. Cooper is a policeman, born into a well-placed family in the town.

The film is unique in that it is told in linear fashion, without flashbacks or interweaving narrative about Gosling, Cooper and their two sons.

"The movie is about legacy," Cianfrance said. "I feel like it has to be told linearly.

"I had made a movie that was parallel edited before -- it's a great tool for filmmaking -- but this movie ... was about consequences."

Cianfrance said having two young sons of his own sparked the idea of making a film about what fathers leave their sons. In 2007, his wife was pregnant with the couple's second son when Cianfrance started to get down to business.

"I was thinking about all the things I was going to pass on to my son," he said. "I just wanted him to be born clean. I didn't want him to be stained with any of my sins.

"I also started thinking about American legacy and the legacy of brutality and ruthlessness on which this country was founded. ... And it became very clear to me that I had to make a movie about that passing of the fire between one generation and the next."

As in "Blue Valentine," Cianfrance elicits emotionally vivid performances from his cast in "Pines."

"I love actors," he said. "I'm nothing without an actor ... To me, actors are brave."

"Pines" was shot in Schenectady, N.Y., where the story is set. Along with professional actors, he employed non-actors in several roles -- bank tellers, a former judge, for example -- to help create authenticity.

He also required his actors to conduct extensive research. Cooper spent time with local police; Rose Byrne, who plays Cooper's wife in the film, spent time with police officers' wives. Finding authenticity for Gosling, whose character robs banks in the film, was tricky, however.

Cianfrance eventually asked some local police if they knew any bank robbers, and one day, he said, a couple of undercover cops showed up with a 29-year-old who had spent the past decade behind bars for bank robbery.

"This kid sat down with us and told us everything about why he robbed banks, how he did it, how he felt doing it," Cianfrance recalled. "The thing that really stuck with me after spending a few days with him was that he said, 'In movies, it's always perfect when people rob banks. But in real life, it's messy and it's incredibly desperate.'

"So I tried to prepare these bank robberies in a way that would do him proud, so he would watch the movie and say, 'Yeah, that's right.' ...

"I'm always trying to do that with my films; finding a place where real life and fiction kind of collide."

As for advice to young filmmakers hoping to be the next Derek Cianfrance? The former CU student simply said: "Make things. There's no reason not to make things in this day and age ... Phil (Solomon) once said to me, 'Risk failure. Put yourself out there and finish things.' "

And when you're pitching a lengthy script to a potential producer, don't forget about the shrink-font tab on your computer.