Blue Valentine director Derek Cianfrance discusses this drama's long road to the big screen, his directorial style, new projects and more.
At the young age of 23, director Derek Cianfrance wrote, directed and edited his first feature, Brother Tied in 1998. 12 years later, after initial difficulties to secure funding, his follow-up Blue Valentine was released, although, due to the critical acclaim of his second film, we won't have to wait that long for his third. This fantastic drama stars Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams as a couple trying to save their marriage, as we also see how their relationship started through a series of well-placed flashbacks in this intricately-structured drama.
I really enjoyed the movie, so it's cool to see it come out on Blu-ray and DVD.
Derek Cianfrance: Yeah, I agree. 12 years, well, I guess, 13 years now. It's nice to have it beside me.
I read that there were over 70 drafts of the script and that it went through so many variations. Can you talk about when you actually started writing this and the original impetus in getting this story out?
Derek Cianfrance: When I was a kid, I had two nightmares. One was nuclear war, and the other was that my parents were getting a divorce. When I was 20, they split up, and it was such a confusing and bewildering time for me that I thought I needed to confront it in a film. When I was in my early 20s, entering my adulthood and I was trying to have healthy relationships of my own. I just think it's the job of any artist, or as a human being, to look into the things that scare them, so that's what I did with Blue Valentine. I think that 12 years ago, the movie I was going to make was inspired by other movies. 12 years later, I think it is really inspired by life. In those last 12 years, I have gotten married and had kids myself. I started directing a lot of documentaries and my life and my work informed the realism and the naturalism inside Blue Valentine, the thing that makes it what it is.
Is there something that vastly changed in the concept during those 12 years, compared to the finished product?
Derek Cianfrance: It felt it was inspired by movies back then, and now it's inspired by life, just across the board. At one point, the movie was about archetypes and about movie people making movie decisions. The movie that came out 13 years later was a movie about humans making human decisions. For instance, in the first draft of the script, the scene where he plays the ukulele and tap dances. That took place at beach carnival on a stage in front of 1,000 people, as he played a song for her out in the audience. That doesn't really happen in real life. It happens in the movies. In the process of trying to make that, you realize that it's impossible for our production, for us to do that anyway. It's fake, and it doesn't really happen. We just needed the two people and let them show each other something. It was as simple as that. It was taking the movie scope and the crane shots and the manipulation and just put them into real life.
One of the things I was really intrigued by is how you used the Super 16 camera for the past shots and the Red camera for the present shots. There are a lot of movies that can get confusing when you go from past to present like that, but it felt very fluid and very natural. Can you talk about that decision, and do you think it will show up more prominently on the Blu-ray, the difference between the past and present scenes?
Derek Cianfrance: Oh, I don't know how it's going to look. I'm very excited to see the Blu-ray. The choice to shoot half 16 and half Red was I had always seen this film as a duet, a duet between a man and a woman, a duet between their past and present, between their physicality and their wisdom, their long-term memory and their short-term memory. I just felt I had to define these respective times of their lives. In the past, it was more nostalgic, shot on 16 millimeter, all handheld. I wanted to make a very visceral film. Shooting on film does something to your actors, because it creates an urgency. It's almost like a quarter of football. You've got to get a touchdown before the clock runs out, the actor has to make something happen. In the present, when we shot on the Red, we shot really long takes. There's a sense of mystery in the film, about what happens over six years, you know, and how time erodes this love between these two people. So, what I did was I shot on video and I would shoot extremely long takes. The long takes would allow me to break down these moments between the actors. In the past, I was going for spontaneity, and in the present I was going for erosion. Dean and Cindy, when they were in that shower in the present, Ryan and Michelle were in that shower for about two days. By the ninth hour of the second day, their nipples were bleeding. They gave me everything they needed to give for that scene.
Can you talk about your style with the actors themselves? I read you gave them separate instructions that the other actor didn't know about. It created a wonderful chemistry and tension in the film. How did the actors take to that unique style?
Derek Cianfrance: I think they loved it. I'm interested in getting to a place where acting can stop and being begins. When you do things like that with the actors, they all of a sudden don't have to act anymore, you know what I mean? They actually have a job to do. I have two great actors with Ryan and Michelle that can make magic happen. It's kind of like an old trick of directing. What you want is this and what the other character wants is this, they're at odds with each other and it creates tension. It's juts a very simple way to create it. Shooting the past, I spent so much time with Ryan and Michelle individually, that when they came together, I thought they actually got to know each other on screen. In some ways, I felt like I was making a documentary about these characters falling in love. For the present, I had them basically live in a house for a month and make food, shop on a budget, fight with each other every day so that, by the time they started shooting again, they had a shared history. To me, it's all about intangibles. Blue Valentine is a very intimate and nuanced portrayal of a relationship, and the only way to get the nuance and detail of it is through the intangibles. I had two great actors. They would have done fine without all my things I would make them do, but the fact they would do certain things and we filmed scenes that were actually real, adds to the nuance and the believability of this relationship.
Can you talk about your initial response to the MPAA rating? I know a lot of people who saw it at Sundance and they didn't really understand why that rating happened. Eventually it was fixed, but did you understand what they were going for there?
Derek Cianfrance: No, I was shocked when I heard about it. I wanted to make a film about a relationship, and I wanted to look at that relationship with honestly. I think, whenever you talk about a relationship, you have to talk about sex, because sex is a dialogue, when things are going well and when things are not going well, it's a bone of contention. We had to include sex in the film, but I tried not to exploit the actors or gawk at them. I didn't want to make it titillating or sensationalized. I just wanted to show sex as it was. There was not much nudity in the film, and when they came back with an NC-17 rating, I thought it was shocking and insulting to the actors. They had done such a good job and put themselves in these situations, on the screen, and then they were almost punished for it. The best thing that happened with the MPAA is, one, they reversed it by a unanimous decision, and it opened up a public discussion about why is violence OK and why is sex taboo? I think it was a victory for free speech.
I believe your next project is entitled Metalhead. Is there anything you can say about that project? Is there anything else that you are writing?
Derek Cianfrance:Metalhead is a project I have been working on for a number of years, and it probably won't be finished for another 10 years or something. That's something I was working on long before Blue Valentine. Actually, the next film I'm making is called The Place Beyond the Pines, which we'll shoot this summer. We're just locking up all our financing right now. It's a film about fathers and sons. It deals a lot with ancestry. Ryan Gosling is going to play a motorcycle stunt rider who comes back to the town of Schenectady to find out he has a young son from this one-night stand. He has to choose whether he's going to be a father, or whether he's going to be a motorcycle stunt rider. It's kind of a crime movie and it takes place over a couple of generations, and it's definitely very epic in scope. I'm super pumped about doing it.
Are there any other cast members you have lined up?
Derek Cianfrance: I can't talk about it yet, because the deals aren't done, but we're trying to create a neopolitan ice cream cast.
That sounds awesome. I can't wait to hear more about that.
Derek Cianfrance: Yeah, yeah dude. I'm excited about it. It's going to kind of end like a family trilogy I've been working on, from Brother Tied, which is about brothers, Blue Valentine is about husbands and wives, and this is about fathers and sons. At the same time, there are guns in the new one. I remember shooting Blue Valentine, that scene at the end of the film with Dean and Cindy in the kitchen and it was so emotional, so painful, and so difficult to get to that moment, I thought, 'This is why people put guns in movies.' Emotional violence is more difficult to get to. At the same time, when you put guns in movies, people shoot like 10,000 bullets. In The Place Beyond the Pines, there are bullets that get shot. When the bullets get fired, they do damage. It's going to hurt.
Finally, what would you like to say to anyone who didn't see Blue Valentine in theaters about why they should pick up the Blu-ray and DVD on May 10?
Derek Cianfrance: Oh, I'm not a good salesman (Laughs). I'll tell you what, as an audience member myself, I wanted to make a film that respected an audience, that didn't look down upon an audience, and allowed an audience to have its own opinion and its own choices, and a film that wasn't going to betray their expectations of their own life. There was a time in my early 20s, when I would leave a movie theater and just feel so alone and lonely afterwards. I just felt like my life was nothing like those characters up on the screen, so perfect all the time? Why didn't I talk like that? Why don't I look like that? I wanted to make a film where people aren't betrayed by the fantasy. I think people need fantasy, but I think they also need to know that they're not being lied to. I think sometimes the fantasy can betray people and become more difficult for people's lives than just truth. I can't stand delusion. Delusion makes me sick.
Well, that's about all I have for you. Thank you so much for your time and best of luck on your new project. It sounds really cool.
Derek Cianfrance: Thank you, man. Look out for it.