Derek Cianfrance Talks Blue Valentine

Director Derek Cianfrance goes deeper into this drama, which has garnered Golden Globe nominations for Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling

Blue Valentine, the long-gestating passion project of director Derek Cianfrance, will finally be released on December 31st. The drama centers on Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams), a young married couple whose relationship teeters on the brink of oblivion when they lose sight of their commitment to one another. Over the course of many years, Dean and Cindy find themselves focusing on aspects that rest just outside the walls of their relationship, rather than coming to terms with where they are as lovers.

It's a touching and truthful journey that parlays its time shifts into the neo-realism of a gritty essay on modern day domestic partnerships. Both Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams have garnered Golden Globe nominations for their strong performances. And early fans rallied around Derek's movie when it was unjustly slapped with an NC-17 rating. Shortly before Blue Valentine won its appeal and received an R rating, we caught up with Cianfrance to talk both about his commitment to bringing this tale to the screen, and his actors' willingness to stand by him for so many years.

Here is our conversation:

Are you at all concerned that Ryan Gosling has two dramas coming out on top of each other where he is acting opposite a blonde in the lead? Are you worried that the less savvy audience member might get confused? Or that one movie might get lost in the shadow of the other?

Derek Cianfrance: I don't concern myself with that. No. I haven't thought too much about it. I am just excited that this film is getting out there. I spent twelve years trying to get this movie made. I am just excited about that fact. I don't think this movie can get lost. It has had so much attention. It's been on tour all over the world this past year. People have been relating to it and the characters. The actors are so good in it. There is real magic in this movie. I think people will discover a good movie no matter what.

Seeing a lot of the press material for both movies come in at the same time was confusing for me at first, so I didn't know how a general audience member would react to that. Knowing the backstory on Blue Valentine, it would be a shame if audiences missed this great drama, especially considering the hard work you put into it this past decade...

Derek Cianfrance: I know. Its true. Its kind of...I think they were being a little tricky about that other release date.

This is a film full of true emotion, and poignancy. It seems that it would be more challenging to sit down and write a script like Blue Valentine, that is so full of authenticity, and based on a real grounded relationship...More so than sitting down and delving into some fantasy world. Why are you drawn to this type of dramatic material in an artistic sense, and do you find it more complex than structuring something that isn't so heavily based in the reality of the world that surrounds us?

Derek Cianfrance: I won't say that it is more difficult. But I will lay out the facts. It took me twelve years to get this film finally made. I stopped counting at sixty-six drafts of the script. To me, this movie is intensely personal and intimate. I think it takes a lot of life experience to be able to tell it in an honest way. It also demands that you be very brave and vulnerable as an artist. Not just me as a writer, but also with Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams as performers. To go up on the screen and show such vulnerability. And such intimacy. To show these things that are so personal. I think that is very, very difficult to do. You are really risking failure. And you are risking falling flat on your face. Embarrassing yourself, and being a fool. I love that. That is where I always want to be in my life. Right on that edge of being a fool or being brilliant. I think there is a fine line between the two. I think you have to walk a high tightrope. And risk a lot in order to have great things. Its what happened to that guy in Man on Wire who walked between the World Trade Center. It's not that amazing to watch him do it when there is not much risk. When the tightrope is six feet off the ground. But when he is one hundred and sixteen stories up, there is a lot of risk. People like him are my inspiration. Because you have to risk total failure to get something that is magical and great.

Did you constantly go back to Man on Wire for inspiration while you were making this particular movie?

Derek Cianfrance: Oh, sure. I looked to so many other people, too, throughout the years. I think great artists and great performers, and great scientists, great people...Architects, people who design cars, doctors...They always try to do something that is new. And they always risk absolute failure. My old film teacher told me this one time: You must risk failure! If you are not risking failure, then you are not in the right place. I think some bigger films with bigger budgets...What they are risking is money. Because there is so much money at risk, they make safer bets. They don't risk as much. When you are doing a smaller film like this, when it costs four million dollars...That is a lot of money, but there is not as mush at risk financially. So you have more room to experiment and try things out. That is exactly what we did with this movie.

Going back to the sixty-six different drafts that you wrote of the screenplay, and how that plays into true architecture, was there ever a point midway through the writing process where you threw out the script completely and started from scratch? Or does what we're seeing now still hold the essence of that very first draft you wrote way back in the day?

Derek Cianfrance: That is the thing. This movie isn't a particularly plotty movie. The structure of the script is very similar to the first draft I wrote in 1998. I think what I took the time in those years to do was realign it, and strip the artifice off of it. Yes, I wrote the frist twelve drafts with my co-writer Joey Curtis, my friend back in Colorado. In 1999 I moved to New York. He moved to Los Angeles. We stopped working on the film together. I gave the script to my friend Cami Delavigne. She read it. And then we basically started over on the script. But it was always the same structure. When I met Ryan and Michelle, the same thing happened. I met Michelle in 2003 and Ryan in 2005. I started working with them on the script. They are not credited as such, but I consider them to be co-writers on the script. We were just constantly trying to take the artifice off the film. And give it the essence of who these characters were. We wanted to get to the raw emotional truth. The truth of relationships. That is what we spent our time doing. I felt cursed those twelve years where I wasn't making the film. But when we finally started shooting, I felt blessed, because we had done that. We had stripped the layers off, and we had gotten to the heart...To the vascular system of this film. To the blood of it.

In saying that, this obviously had to be the reason why you made sure Michelle didn't leave the project when it looked like she was going to.

Derek Cianfrance: Yeah. Michelle loved this script. As she put it to me, it was her reason for being for so many years. When I first met her in 2003, she came bearing gifts. She had a book of poetry for me. I couldn't get the film financed with her, because she was not financable back in 2003. This was pre-Brokeback Mountain days. But we had talked about the film all the time over these six or seven years. Finally, in the winter of 2009, I said, "Michelle, we got the money. Ryan's on board. Pack your bags. We are going to California. We are going to shoot the movie." The movie had always been written to take place on the beach. They lived in a beachside town. That played into the characters and the story. But Michelle says, "I can't do it." I said, "What are you talking about?" She says, "I made a promise to Matilda that I would tuck her in bed and take her to school every morning. I can't do it." I told her, "You can tuck her in bed out in California. We can get her a tutor." She says, "No, you don't understand. I promised her." I am a father. I understand not breaking your promise to your kids. She was sobbing. I was lost and confused. I hung up the phone and I started thinking about it. I realized the fact that she could make such a selfless decision like that, for someone she loved, was the reason she was the only person who could play Cindy. I humbled myself, and realized that it wasn't a movie about the place. It could happen anywhere. I realized that it was about people. The heart and soul that Michelle had. That is the heart and soul that Cindy had. I called her back the next day and said, "Look, if I can get you home every night, where you can tuck your little girl into bed and bring her to school every morning, and I can get you an hour away from your house, will you do it?" She said, "That is the most generous thing anyone has every asked me." She said yes, and we made it. That became the spirit of the movie. Lets not ruin the movie with our own expectations about what we think it should be. Lets let it be alive, and let us let other things make choices for it.

Leading off of that, the title Blue Valentine? That brings images of deoxygenated blood to my mind. Is that sort of the meaning you are going with, that this is a relationship being sucked of its oxygen. Its something that is no longer allowed to breath?

Derek Cianfrance: That is great. The title is an homage to Tom Waits, because he has an album called Blue Valentine. The title means so much to me. Whatever you draw from the title is true. That is what I wanted to do with this movie. I think movies can be very arrogant sometimes. They can show these perfect people up on the screen, speaking perfect sentences. They always know what they want. They have exciting instances in their life, and they have cathartic moments in the film. The people in the theater always see the same film, and they pull the same thing from it. That is just not my experience in life. There is a great line in the John Cassavetes movie Killing of a Chinese Bookie where Ben Gazzara says, "What is my truth is your falsehood, what is your falsehood is my truth." Vice versa. I believe that is true. I don't think there is one right truth to anything. I don't think there is any one right answer in this movie. There are a bunch of questions. If that is your interpretation of the title, I love it. I love to hear people's interpretations of the characters and the story. Because its not so closed off. Its not a movie made in the image of God, where everyone is perfect. It's a movie made in the image of man, where there are flaws to people. And there are questions. One of the biggest compliments when I screened this film at Sundance...I used to hide out at the back of the bus at Sundance, and listen to people after the movie. They would be arguing about the movie. And some people would be taking sides. Some people would take Cindy's side. Some people were in the middle. I thought it was so great. That the film had that sort of life to it. That people had different interpretations of it.

What is interesting to me is that when the MPAA slapped this film with an NC-17 rating, the genre film fans really came to the movie's defense, demanding that this be changed to an R rating. They wanted audiences to know what Blue Valentine was, and why it should be seen. Why do you think those people, who are more inclined to talk about super hero movies and horror flicks all day, came rushing to support this particular drama?

Derek Cianfrance: Its because they deserve a choice. Audiences need a choice. I'm the biggest fan. I love movies. All kinds of movies. I think, sometimes, there is just not enough choice in the movie theater. If all you have are genre movies, or superhero movies, what are you going to do? People need a choice. I know people need fantasy. They also need to not be lied to. My goal with this film? I sat for twelve years on the sidelines. Watching movies. I always dreamed about what kind of movie I would make if I ever had the opportunity. I wanted to make a movie that didn't betray the audience. I wanted a movie that respected the person I was, sitting out in the audience. I wanted to show people something up on the screen that was reflective of their lives. Or my life. Again, that was about bringing characters to the screen that weren't perfect. That weren't flawless. Characters that didn't know what they wanted. Characters that were confused. That were lost. That were struggling. This movie is supposed to be a reflection of people in that way. It's just a great compliment, and I am thrilled that people do relate to the movie. That has been the biggest compliment to the film. That audiences have related to it so much.

I've heard a story that, even with sixty-six drafts under your belt, you threw out the script on the first day of shooting and told Michelle and Ryan to rely on improv. Did you do that just to find the truth in their relationship on screen?

Derek Cianfrance: To me, the dangerous thing about spending twelve years on a movie, and going through sixty-six drafts, was that you might get to set and find that its flat. And too expected. I told them, "The script is great, right? Well, if you only do the script, I am going to be so bored. No? I want you to make it alive. Please break it. Please surprise me." They had done so much work. In the past twelve years, to put food on the table, I started making documentaries. In documentary filmmaking, I learned to listen as a filmmaker. You don't get a second take in documentaries. You have to be very sharp. Your instincts have to be very in tune to the moment that is happening. I trusted these actors. I had the bones of the script. I asked them to throw it away so that they could make it live up on the screen. When I shot the first scene of them together, they had never done a rehearsal. They had never been in the same room together before we started shooting. I put the camera in the back of the room and just watched them. It's the scene where he brings flowers over to the house, to come over for dinner. When I saw them together for the first time, I breathed a sigh of relief. Because it was there. There was a tangible chemistry between them. All of the work that Ryan had done in those four or five years on his character, and all of that work that Michelle had done on her character, they were now showing it to each other. Suddenly, I felt like I was making a documentary about two people falling in love. Or at least two people getting to know each other. I had the scenes, but on top of that, I just let them get to know each other. That is when all of that magic connection comes out between them. I can give you an example. That scene on the bridge where she tells him she is pregnant. That was two pages of dialogue in the script. Before we shot it, I took Michelle to the side, and I said, "Just forget the lines. Throw the script away. All you have to do here is don't tell him your secret." Then I went over to Ryan and I said, "Do whatever it is you need to do to get her to tell you." Then I set them loose on the Manhattan bridge. For thirty minutes, for thirty-five minutes, for forty minutes...Michelle is just strong. She is such a strong person, she wouldn't give it up to Ryan. My producers were freaking out because we were wasting so much film. Ryan starts getting desperate, because he can't figure out how to get her to tell him. So he climbs up on the fence of the Manhattan bridge. There is no safety net. There is no stunt double. We don't have insurance for that kind of thing. Thankfully Michelle tells him the secret, and she gets him down off the fence. I could see at the other end of the bridge, my producer was running. It's a long bridge...Thankfully, we were able to get the whole scene done before he came and shut us down. But that was the spirit of the movie. How do we find these real moments? Moments where you can find the truth.

Before you go, I want to ask you about your next project Metalhead. The concept of that movie is fascinating to me. Is that going to be something we see soon, or is it something we may not see for another twelve years?

Derek Cianfrance: That is a long term project. I am a drummer, and I have pretty much blown my eardrums out. I have tinnitus. I have a constant ringing in my ears. I started on this project many years ago, without a script. We are in the process of writing it. We are in a bit of a difficult place with it right now. But it will be completed in due time. Again, it's a personal movie. It's about how you have to change and adapt. It's about time. Again, there is this mystery of time. What time does to things. How time can take a mountain and erode it into a pebble. Or how it can take a seed and grow it into a redwood tree. I love things that take time. The longer it cooks, the better it tastes. Whenever I cook food, it's an epic marathon. I am interested in seeing what time does to people. With this project, it's about a real band. Jucifer, who have been living in a motor home for the past twelve years. They have been on the road, and it's breaking down. They are getting older. It's a film about that. It's a film about aging.