Interview: Derek Cianfrance Stages True Love in ‘Blue Valentine’

| May 4, 2011

For many moviegoers, Blue Valentine cut close to the bone when it debuted in art house theaters during last year’s Oscar season. The film’s raw and uncompromising depiction of a damaged relationship had the authenticity and visceral impact of an uncommonly intimate documentary. By intercutting between the origins and breakdown of his love story, filmmaker Derek Cianfrance was able to indelibly illustrate how the end of a romance is often built into the beginning. Neither Dean (Ryan Gosling) nor Cindy (Oscar nominee Michelle Williams) is portrayed as the “bad guy,” allowing audiences to draw their own conclusions as to why their flame fizzled out. Yet Valentine is anything but a depressing dirge. Cianfrance elicits extraordinary performances from his actors, who spent a month living together in order to develop their own dynamics as a couple. The resulting film felt so real that the MPAA initially slapped it with an NC-17 rating, despite the fact that it was no more explicit than R-rated fare like Black Swan. Perhaps even the ratings board could sense that Cianfrance and his crew had captured something intangible, something that hit all too close to home.
Film Monthly spoke with Cianfrance about his instincts as a documentarian, his close collaboration with Gosling and Williams, and his methods for setting the stage in order to capture moments of spontaneity.
Film Monthly (FM): How did your background in documentary filmmaking influence your approach to scripted narratives?
Derek Cianfrance (DC): Documentary filmmaking really transformed me as a filmmaker. For my whole life, I had been making short films. I made a feature when I was 20 years old called Brother Tied, which was a very stylistic flourishing of a narrative. After I made that, I went and wrote Blue Valentine. That was back in 1998. I wrote the first draft of it, but it just never got off the ground. I collected unemployment checks for a while. Eventually, I had children, which [motivated me] to make a modest living and get some food on the table. So I started directing documentary films. In making documentaries, I learned to listen.
I think there’s an archetypal image of the movie director—which was based on Cecil B. DeMille—of a guy sitting in a chair with a megaphone, pointing with his finger and projecting his voice to tell people what to do. In documentaries, I did not have that experience because I didn’t always have a choice about what was happening. Things wouldn’t happen the way I would necessarily expect them to happen. I wouldn’t get a “take two” for things. I would ask people a question and imagine getting a certain answer and they would give me a completely different answer. I realized that all the things that surprised me ended up becoming my favorite moments in the editing room. I started to train myself on how to capture these fleeting moments, so I tried to take all my documentary aesthetics and bring it into Blue Valentine. In the context of the Cecil B. DeMille metaphor, I felt that as a documentary filmmaker, the megaphone is turned on your ear and used as a funnel to listen to the world, not to tell the world what to do. So I just tried to use that training while I was making Blue Valentine. I think it’s a good time for it because audiences have become so sharp. They see these moments on YouTube, whether it’s the double rainbow guy or whatever, and you see these moments that can’t be faked. As an audience member and as a director, I have an allergy to fake moments in movies. I just tried to fill up Blue Valentine with a series of real, living, breathing moments.
FM: In a Blu-Ray featurette, you describe the intimate collaboration you developed with your actors, and how they ultimately became co-writers. Can you name an example of a scene or character trait that they contributed?
DC: Yes, the classic scene of him playing the ukulele and her tap dancing in front of that shop window. Of course, there was so much more than just that. There were all these things that they had come up with, such as the history they had created for each of their characters…I had written [Ryan’s] character as a musician, so about a year before I started to shoot the film, I called him up and was like, “What instrument do you think this guy plays?” Ryan said, “How about a ukulele?” and I said, “Uh…how about not? Can you pick another instrument?” He said, “No, the ukulele is the one, just trust me.” So about a week later, he called and left me a voice message where he played that song, “You Always Hurt the Ones You Love.” It was so great, it reminded me of Elvis in 1955 recording for his mother. And I was like, “Keep that in your back pocket. Whatever you do, don’t tell Michelle about it.” Meanwhile, I spent time with Michelle and asked her if she had any special talents. She said, “I can read palms,” and I said, “Good. What else?” She said, “I can tap dance.” I said, “Great, that’s going to be your secret talent. When you have an opportunity to show it in the film, that’s what you’re going to do.”
Then I built a night where we walked down twelve blocks of a small town called Honesdale in Pennsylvania. We had this street and we walked up and down it. We didn’t have any lights and we were shooting at night, so we basically paid every store owner twenty bucks to keep their lights on and that’s what lit our scene. And then I spent all night, from dusk till dawn, just following them. Ryan as Dean was getting to know Michelle as Cindy. They were showing each other everything that they had been discovering over the years about their characters. It was really like shooting a documentary about two people falling in love. My direction to them was, “When they reach the shop window, that would be Ryan’s cue to ask Michelle about her special talent.” Each of them knew they had a special talent but neither knew what it was. So that scene, as it plays out, came from them. It came from Ryan’s choice to use the song and learn how to play the uke and Michelle with her history of learning how to tap dance and practicing a little bit. All of a sudden, they were showing [these talents] to each other. It was the first time Ryan was experiencing it, it was the first time Michelle was experiencing it, and the first time I was experiencing it, and then, the first time that the audience experiences it. It’s a real, fresh moment. We tried to do a “take two” of that, and it was great but it didn’t have that intangible [feeling] that it was real. That was just the spirit of the film. There were no bad ideas. Everyone’s ideas were valuable, everyone’s thoughts were worth something. I tried to encourage the actors to embarrass themselves and to try everything that they could try. I think you can feel that in the film. 

FM: Was it true that Ryan risked life and limb by climbing over the fence of the Manhattan bridge? That felt very real.
DC: That scene was two pages of dialogue. [Cindy] has a secret, and [Dean] is trying to get her to tell him her secret on the bridge. And right before we started shooting, I told Michelle to throw away the script. I had spent twelve years working on the film. I had written 67 draft of the script, storyboarded 1,224 shots and had written a manifesto. As soon as we started shooting, I was nervous that the movie would be stale. So I told Ryan and Michelle to surprise me, and I tried to give them an opportunity to surprise me whenever they could. So we’re on the bridge that day and were ready to shoot. I went over to Michelle and said, “Don’t say any lines in the script. Your only job is to not tell him anything. Don’t tell him what’s wrong with you.” And then I went over to Ryan and said, “You gotta do what you gotta do to get her to tell you her secret.” And then I said, “Action.” We started shooting and about 45 minutes in, my producers are freaking out because we’re shooting so much film. My DP is freaking out because the sun is going down and we’re losing the light. Ryan is freaking out because Michelle is tough as nails and he can’t for the life of him get her to say what’s going on. So finally, in an act of desperation, he climbed on the fence of the Manhattan bridge. There are no safety nets, no stunt double, no insurance, that kind of thing, and thankfully, she told him. And thankfully, that bridge is long and my producer, Jamie Patricof, is slow at running, because we got the whole scene out before he came up to us and shut us down. That was the spirit of making the film: ‘How do we find a real, living moment? How do we remain patient enough to wait for a moment like this to happen? And when that moment comes, let’s make sure we have film in the camera.’
FM: How was Penny and Quarter’s “You and Me” chosen as the couple’s song?
DC: That’s another choice of Ryan’s. I had a number of songs that I thought Dean could give to Cindy, but when we got closer to shooting, I thought it would be much more personal if Ryan could give Michelle a song. Ryan’s got great taste, and he found “You and Me.” I was like, “It’s f—king great, give her that song.” So the scene where Dean gives Cindy the CD, and she listens to it for the first time, that’s really happening, and it’s a real gift that we’re watching onscreen. We’re watching these two people share a gift. If I were to choose a gift for him to give her, it wouldn’t have been as good because it wouldn’t have had that intangible [feeling]. I wanted the film to fill up with that feeling. As a documentary filmmaker, there are a certain amount of choices that you have no control over. For instance, I was shooting a documentary on Puff Daddy at his home. His house is going to look the way it looks. I’m not going to be able to go in there and move around [furniture]. He’s going to have his own personality and make his own choices. I like dealing with real people who have choices to make, and when you deal with two great actors like Ryan and Michelle, they bring a lot of choices to the table, and in doing so, they bring a lot of life.
FM: How did you go about appealing the MPAA’s initial NC-17 rating for the film?
DC: Well first off, it was absolutely shocking to us when we received the rating. We never set out to make an X-rated film. We set out to make a film about relationships, and [paint] an honest portrait of a relationship. We thought that sex was a crucial part of that, and thought we should look at sex in the movie in the same way we would look at any other scene, with a kind of raw naturalism. Sex between two people would be a dialogue when they were falling in love, and a bone of contention when they were falling out of love. We decided to treat it very respectfully. I didn’t want to exploit anybody. So when we were handed that rating, we were shocked and insulted. But we had the backing of the whole industry and the media. Fans came on our side, and there was just a lot of good will. It became a universal fight for artistic freedom and freedom of speech. I think it opened a dialogue in America about why violence is okay and why sex is taboo. It’s kind of a double standard. Ultimately, we had petitions that we sent out. Harvey Weinstein hatched a brilliant idea in the 24th hour, the night before our appeal. He decided to four-wall a theater in Kansas City and invite 300 parents to come and watch Blue Valentine. After the movie, the research and development team asked them how they would rate the movie. Seventy-five percent of the parents said it should be rated R, five percent said it should be rated PG-13 and twenty percent thought it should be rated X. With that information in hand, Harvey went in, fought it and won. We weren’t going to touch a frame of the film anyway, but what it ended up doing was allow more people to see the film.
Blue Valentine on Blu-ray and DVD on May 10th, 2011.

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