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Interview: Director Derek Cianfrance Discusses Blue Valentine

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Blue Valentine, directed by Derek Cianfrance, became one of 2010’s most talked-about movies, from the critically acclaimed performances by actors Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams to the highly publicized ratings battle with the MPAA.

On May 10, Blue Valentine will hit store shelves on DVD and Blu-ray, and I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to talk with director Derek Cianfrance earlier this week about the film for which he earned the Chicago Film Critics Association Award for Most Promising Filmmaker.

I understand that Blue Valentine overall was a 12-year process, and I was wondering going back to Sundance last year, to the issue with the initial NC-17 rating from the MPAA to the film’s release, how are you feeling now that the film is being released to DVD?

It’s great. You know the drama and the struggle of Blue Valentine never ceased all the way through that 12 year process. There were always uphill battles. From financers going bankrupt to heads of production getting fired to people Derek Cianfrance. credit: Makingof.com dying to the ratings battle, there was always drama. Now that it’s coming out on DVD, I’ve got my fingers crossed that there’s no more drama. And I’m really looking forward to moving forward.

This was a part of my life; it defined me for about a third of my life. I’m 37 years old now. For a third of my life this was like my battle. This was the rock I was pushing up the hill. And it’s nice to have finally done it. The film is better than I thought it would be. It asks all the questions I wanted to ask. I’m glad that I stubbornly pursued it and got it out there.

When I saw the film earlier this year, I noticed that it comes across almost like a documentary. I was wondering if that was something that was intentional while you were shooting it?

During the 12 years I was trying to make the film, in order to put a little bit of food on my table and support my family in a very modest way, I started directing documentaries. Documentaries transformed me as a filmmaker. I think there’s an archetypical image of a director as the kind of Cecil B. Demille version of the director. Kind of the guy that’s pointing with a megaphone, telling people what to do. That wasn’t what it was like to direct a documentary.

On a documentary, I had no second takes. There’s choices I wouldn’t have to choose. When I ask someone a question in a documentary film, it wasn’t necessarily answered the way I would expect it would. And I found in making documentaries, whenever I was surprised by something, it was always the best. My favorite moments were when actually life came in and took a hold of it. And I kind of learned as a documentary filmmaker to take that megaphone, that Cecil B. Demille megaphone, and turn it to my ear and use it as a funnel to capture the world. I kind of sharpened my instincts and learned how to capture people that were real. And I learned how to set up situations in a way that they would happen; I’d kind of instigate things to happen.

In making Blue Valentine, I basically used all of my tools as a documentary filmmaker and tried to create a narrative that actually had true life to it. As I grew up, I always loved movies. I always wanted to be a filmmaker. I’ve always been making films. I think there came a time in my life where I started to get very bored with expectations that films bring up on the screen. For instance, when I was watching Pirates of the Caribbean I thought to myself, “This is so boring. All these swordfights are so boring, I’m falling asleep.” I know that they’re never going to kill Johnny Depp, you know? If only they would take their swords and stab him through his heart. There would be actual consequence and actual danger and actual unpredictability up on the screen.

And I’ll tell you another thing is, with the advent of YouTube, I think the audience is so sharp nowadays. I don’t think you can fool them, I don’t think you can trick them. It’s one thing to be like James Cameron and just kind of like have amazing things from your imagination up on the screen, otherwise I think people – they know what’s a fake moment and what’s not a fake moment. There are real things out there that people can see. I just think that they can’t be lied to. For me as an audience member, I have an allergy to fakeness. I wanted to make Blue Valentine filled with real moments. Real living, breathing moments.

While you were shooting the film, had you always planned on interchanging the past with the present instead of telling Cindy and Dean’s story chronologically?

12-years ago in 1998, I was first inspired by the structure of The Godfather part two; which is basically the rise of the father cross-cut with the fall of the son. I think cross-cuts parallel storytelling. It’s long been a valued tool to filmmakers, starting with basically D.W. Griffith in Tolerance on through Star Wars, Godfather. Countless movies use that back and forth aesthetic.

And you know, Blue Valentine to me was always about a duet. It was a duet between a man and woman, between their past and the present, between love and hate, between long-term memory and short-term memory, between film and video; it’s basically a film about dualities. I wanted to make a film that juxtaposed those dualities; that showed the magnet, the positive side and the negative side of a magnet at once, because those things exist in nature, the push and the pull, the head and tail of a coin is on one coin. It’s not two coins. I wanted to make a film that was that one thing, the duality of an experience.

I’ve read that there was some improvisation in the movie and I was wondering how much of the movie is improv versus what was in the script?

I had written 67 drafts of the script and I had storyboarded 1224 shots and I had written a manifesto and it was really for 12 years, every day I would close my eyes and watch the film in my mind.

When I got to production the first day, I was so nervous that the film was going to be stale. I think that you can over-think things sometimes. I think you can

Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams, and Derek Cianfrance. Photo by Jeff Vespa
 spend too much considering things and then it becomes a film about ideas and preconceived notions. So I told Ryan and Michelle the very first day of production, “Look, we have a script here that we believe in, that works, but if all we do is the script, I’m going to be so bored.”

I said, “I’ve been living with this thing for 12 years. I’ve been reading these words on the page for 12 years. Let’s throw the script away now, and lets make something that’s alive. Let’s capture some life.”

The film, same things happened as it happened in the script, but the way we get there is different. I would say it’s maybe 50 percent different. Like I told my actors, “I want to be surprised. Surprise me. Do things that aren’t on the page and you can’t get it wrong. There’s no wrong way to do this.”

I had two great actors in Ryan and Michelle, and they explore moments and they had a real connection on screen. I remember the first day I shot them together. I had never really seen Ryan and Michelle together. They had never really spent any time together either before we started the shooting. They both just basically did this individual work and on the first day I was shooting them together, it was the scene where Dean shows up to Cindy’s house with flowers and his face is all beat up, and I just put the camera in the back of the room, and just kind of watched what happened when they came together. It was just an immediate magnetism between them. I just breathed a sigh of relief, because knew I didn’t have to have to manufacture their love,or manipulate this connection between two people, because Ryan and Michelle actually did have this connection. I felt like I was making a documentary of two people falling in love.

What drew you to Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling to play Cindy and Dean?

You know, I had met so many actors over the years, great actors, from every actor that I’ve ever met, I’ve always learned something. But, it was clear when I met Ryan and Michelle that they were the people for the movie.

I met Michelle back in 2003, right when she was off of Dawson’s Creek. She came to a meeting and she had a book of poetry for me and a CD for me, and she told me that the script, the Blue Valentine script, was her reason for living. She’d read like the 46th draft of something. It was clear to me that she was the one. So I went back and tried to get the film made with her, of course at that time, she wasn’t financeable in the Hollywood sense or whatever. She wouldn’t bring the money, so I had to wait.

With Ryan, I met him in 2005. Ryan had read the script and loved it, but Ryan had thought that he didn’t know if he could play the second half of the movie; he thought he could play the younger version of Dean. He didn’t know if he could play the older version of Dean, yet.

So, I said, “Okay that’s no problem, let’s just do this; let’s shoot the past now, and then we’ll wait six years and we’ll do the present.” And he said, “Oh my God, that’s the best idea I’ve ever heard,” and we gave each other a high-five, then I went home and called up my representatives and he called his people, and my people and his people both told us that we were crazy, that we would never finance a film like that. But, it was in that experience that both of us realized that through this thing that everyone thought was crazy that we realized that we were brothers, and we had to work together. We just waited until the time was right, we basically waited another four years.

What ended up happening, I felt cursed for all those years that I wasn’t making the film, but it turned out to be a blessing, because I was able to talk with Michelle for six-seven years about the film. Just constantly, we would always discuss it. And Ryan, the same thing. So by the time we started shooting the film, they had kind of become co-writers on it. They knew their characters so well, that they could go out on set and just be that person. That was the lesson of Blue Valentine. What at one time could seem like a curse, could turn out to be a blessing.

For the audience that’s already seen the film and the audience that will see it after Blue Valentine comes out on DVD, what are you hoping that they take from it?

I’m not a filmmaker that has a message I’m trying to give people. I don’t stand up on a pulpit, I’m not trying to force feed my views down anyone else’s throat. I’m a filmmaker that likes to ask questions. I like to provoke and instigate people and get them to talk.

I think one of the things that’s happened, from the first time that I ever showed the film at Sundance last year, it started creating a dialogue with the audience. I remember at Sundance, I would hide out at the back of the bus after the Blue Valentine poster. Credit: bluevalentinemovie.com screenings and hear people argue about the film afterwards. Argue who was right, who was wrong, Dean or Cindy? And to me, it was the biggest compliment of the film. That the characters and the movie was so alive that people would argue it and discuss it, and that’s kind of what I always wanted. I’ve been at Q&A’s where audiences turned into The Jerry Springer Show on me. Fighting with each other about Dean and Cindy’s characters, and I love that. I love that the film can create that kind of feeling in people.

And I think what happened was, I tried to make something that was deeply personal to me and I know my co-writers did the same thing. We’re all children of divorce. Ryan and Michelle came into the film, and they’re both children of divorce, too. They tried to make it as intimate and personal as possible to them as well. But, I think what’s happened is, many audience members have gone into the film and have taken it personally as well, too. I still get a handful of Facebook messages every day from people who’ve seen the film, and tell me this is their story or this is their brother or sister, or this is their mom and dad. And I think that’s another lesson for me to learn from Blue Valentine, when you put yourself out there, people will also take it very personally.

My ultimate inspiration for this film was that song by The Supremes, “Where Did Our Love Go?” And I think the thing about that song is that it ended in a question mark. I think many films are about answers and that many films are statements and Blue Valentine is not a statement. It’s a question. That question mark results in inspiration.

Blue Valentine will be released to DVD and Blu-ray on May 10.

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About Kirsten Coachman

Kirsten Coachman is an Entertainment Writer from the San Francisco Bay Area. She has interviewed a variety of people from across the entertainment spectrum, including singer-songwriter/Matchbox Twenty frontman Rob Thomas, Andrew Dost from the Grammy Award-winning band fun., singer-songwriter Christina Perri, and acclaimed writer-director Derek Cianfrance.
  • http://speaking4lines.blogspot.com/ Jessica

    This movie is brilliant hands down. I’ve seen it four times and can’t wait to see the DVD. Thank you so much for making this film!