THE WAY WE WERE: DEREK CIANFRANCE’S “BLUE VALENTINE”

Here Oscar-winner Robert Benton interviews Derek Cianfrance. The piece was originally printed in the Fall 2010 issue. Blue Valentine is nominated for Best Actress (Michelle Williams).

As a child, Derek Cianfrance always worried his parents would divorce. When he was 20 his fears were realized. Both upset as well as curious about his own emotional antennae — how he somehow sensed discord in his parents’ relationship — Cianfrance decided to tackle the subject head-on with a movie. After gaining notice in the indie community with his debut feature, Brother Tied, in 1998, Cianfrance got to work on Blue Valentine, a storied film in the New York production community on account of its 12-year, 66-draft journey to production.

Blue Valentine stars Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams as married couple Dean and Cindy Periera. Struggling to regain the spark in their relationship, Dean, a house painter, and Cindy, a nurse, try to hide their increasing disinterest in one another from their young daughter, Frankie (Faith Wladyka). But when Dean attempts to spice things up by setting up an evening in an adult-themed motel, Cindy’s true feelings explode on screen in a display of ferocious honesty that is at times hard to watch. The heartbreak of this good couple in present day is underscored by the film’s structure, which flashes back to scenes capturing the romantic thrill of their courtship.

After years of developing the story (five years with Gosling and seven with Williams) and falling in and out of money, Cianfrance finally had his window last summer and shot the film in 30 days using Super 16mm for the past and the RED One for the present. Premiering at Sundance in January, many critics compared its realism to the work of Cassavetes, and the gripping performances by Gosling and Williams could garner them both Oscar nominations.

No discussion of films about marriage and divorce would be complete without a reference to Kramer vs. Kramer, Robert Benton’s film about a recently divorced father’s attempt to care for his son while engaging in a custody battle to keep him. It swept the Oscars in 1979, winning for Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Benton for direction and screenplay, and Best Picture. When we learned that Benton was a fan of Blue Valentine, we asked him if he’d talk to Cianfrance. The Weinstein Company opens Blue Valentine on December 31.

Derek Cianfrance. Photo by Henny Garfunkel

I love your film. I think it’s an exceptional, exceptional film. Do you come from a family that’s divorced?

Yes. When I was a kid I had two nightmares: one was nuclear war, the other was that my parents would get a divorce.

And did they get a divorce?

Yeah, when I was 20 they split up. It was so confusing to me that I decided to confront it with a film and just started writing it. I had various co-writers over the years, including Joey Curtis and Cami Delavigne, and they are also children of divorce, so we tried to confront our fears and confusion together. And then when finally Ryan and Michelle became a part of it they too are children of divorce, and they eventually became what I considered to be co-writers on the film. I worked with Michelle for maybe seven years on the film and with Ryan for about five. They never sat down with me at the computer to write, so to speak, but I would have countless meetings with them that would inspire the movie and the characters.

Actors can inform the material of the screenplay by their presence and by theirideas. They do act in some ephemeral, powerful way as co-writers. I think that’s both generous and true of you [to acknowledge that]. The film has a seamlessness that comes from the actors knowing exactly what they’re doing in the narrative.

I also feel that from watching your films too, like Kramer vs. Kramer.

Dustin [Hoffman] was really a co-writer and at moments a co-director [on that film]. And Meryl [Streep] — I’d written one version of that big speech in the courtroom and given it to her because I felt it needed a woman’s voice. What you see in the film is Meryl’s version, not mine. So I understand what you’re saying, and I think that’s an extremely healthy way for a writer-director to work. It’s too easy to lock yourself into a room and protect everything.

Let me go back to the inception of your film, because it seems to me, in the best sense of the word, such a fragile story. As the narrative unfolds you understand that neither of them are good and neither of them are bad, and yet [their relationship] doesn’t work out. Would you agree with that?

Absolutely. And I feel that Kramer vs. Kramer is another great example of a film where there’s no villain. With my own parents, there was no villain in their relationship, but there was a lot of pain. It’s hard when someone breaks up not to point blame at one or the other.

What do you think were the biggest changes from the beginning of your sitting down and writing until the first day of shooting?

Blue Valentine is not a tremendously plot-y film, so taking 12 years to write it wasn’t about necessarily honing the story. The feeling was always the inspiration for the film, the emotions that we were going for. That was always a constant. But over those years what we did was try to make it as raw and brutally beautiful as we could possibly make it, and to put these characters in situations that were as honest as we could make them. Right down to when we started shooting, [it was about] capturing real moments, and trying to find those moments that would play out [on screen]. For those 12 years and 66 drafts of the script I was watching a movie in my head every day. I think I storyboarded 1,200 shots, and the day I started shooting I threw all of that away, all of my expectations of what it should be away, and I just asked the actors to surprise me and to surprise each other. We were trying to make a film that was actually alive. I feel like a script can lock you into a certain set of expectations and you make something kind of flat because of that. I told [the actors], “Look, if I’m surprised behind the camera by what you guys are doing an audience certainly will be surprised too.” Sometimes we constructed things, especially in the past [sequences] where Ryan as Dean is getting to know Michelle as Cindy, that were almost partly narrative and partly documentary because the actors were also really getting to know each other on screen as these people.

Did you shoot Blue Valentine in sequence?

Well, we shot the past first, all the falling-in-love story. We took about a month off and then shot the present. In that month the process of building their memories was super important to us. We basically had the house, our location, for Ryan, Michelle and Faith Wladyka, who played the daughter, to live in. We had my production designer, Inbal Weinberg, stock the house, so there was dish soap under the sink — it was a fully functional place. They lived in that house for that month, and we would do things like come up with their budget and figure out how much a house painter made and how much a nurse made and how much their house payment was and how much their car payment was and how much was left at the end of the week for groceries. They had $200 every two weeks for groceries, so Ryan, Michelle and Faith would go to the grocery store and that’s all they had to spend. They had to fill up their house with groceries on that money, that was the food that they would eat for those two weeks, and they had to do their own dishes. By the time we started rolling cameras for the present they had a history. There’s nothing like having to do the dishes to erode a relationship.

[Laughs] How much of the picture was improvised? Because you don’t feel a sense of improvisation in it but it also feels like you’re watching life itself.

A lot of it was prepared and a lot of it was surprises and improvisations. I would try to get mad at Ryan and Michelle if they just did the script, if something new didn’t come out. And even if we didn’t always use the new colors they were painting, so to speak, I still forced them to go there. They were such generous and brave actors that at times they would do it completely wrong but it was because they could fail so greatly that they could also succeed. I’ll give you an example: In the scene where they’re walking on the bridge, I told Ryan, “Michelle has a secret and you have to do whatever you have to do to get it out of her.” For Michelle’s direction I said, “Whatever you do, don’t tell Ryan what’s on your mind.” So we started shooting on the Manhattan Bridge and for about an hour Ryan kept asking her, “Tell me what’s wrong? Tell me what’s wrong?” And she stayed true to her direction and wouldn’t tell him. Then finally he climbed up and over the fence of the Manhattan Bridge and my producer, Jamie Patricof, almost ran in and stopped the shot because there was no safety net. Thankfully Michelle stopped him and told him or otherwise I don’t know what would have happened in that scene. But that’s what we tried to do — create that kind of danger, so to speak, and to allow those kinds of accidents or unplanned things to happen. In the 12 years that I was trying to make the film I did a lot of documentaries so I had training in preparing for moments you can’t expect. In a documentary you don’t get a “take two,” you know?

Did you usually do a lot of takes or just a few?

Well, for instance, that bridge shot, that was it. That was a single take. Jamie basically shut us down after that take, but we were thrilled because we knew we got it. Conversely, there’s other scenes in the film that weren’t about spontaneity and freshness but endurance, especially a lot of the scenes in the present day. For instance, the scene where they take a shower together, for the first couple of hours that we shot that, where Ryan and Michelle are naked in front of each other, in front of the crew, inside this tight cramped shower, it was just kind of awkward and maybe a little cutesy and a little self conscious. But after being in that shower for two days it was not really fun anymore for them, and something else gave way. I have always been inspired by stories I heard about Kubrick, how supposedly when Vincent D’Onofrio in Full Metal Jacket blows his brains out, Kubrick would say, “Okay, let’s take it again,” and squib him up, reset the scene, and shoot for days until finally D’Onofrio wanted to blow his brains out!

It’s subtle, but it’s very clear the distinguishing characteristic of the past as opposed to the present.

Yes. I shot the past all on film, on 16mm. I think there’s an urgency with film. There’s an esthetic thing, but [shooting on film] also informed our process. We shot the past pretty much all with one lens, all handheld, in mostly master shots. The idea was about two people filling a frame, coming together as one, and when you’re rolling an 11-minute load of 16mm, you get the sense that the clock is ticking and you have to make something happen. Kind of like a quarter of football — you have to score a touchdown. But, conversely, with video, you have the gift of allowing longer takes and capturing moments that I guess are exhausted, where you get “beyond the point.” I would never have had the budget to shoot the present day on video because we would shoot hour-long takes. The shower scene was two days of shooting in the shower to finally get through to the moment that had the revelation in it.

When you’re shooting, are you aware of that moment of revelation, or does it often come when you see it in the editing process?

It changes. As a filmmaker, my greatest time to be alive is when I’m shooting a film. That’s when I feel like I’m actually living and being part of a moment that’s happening. That thrill I think is the reason I want to make films. That’s the drug of it.

It is. You’re quite right. It’s like surfing. At some moment you see an actor catch a wave and you see how long they can ride that wave and what they can do within that. I mean, if there’s something faster than the speed of light it’s what actors do on film. It’s miraculous what they do.

But then there’s so many discoveries to make in an editing room. Sometimes you can confuse yourself about whether something’s good or not in the moment because of your emotions.

Yes. The best thing about shooting is the excitement, and the worst thing about shooting is the excitement. There have been moments that I thought were brilliant and then I looked at them on the editing screen and thought they were just garbage. And something I dismissed turns out to be better than I thought it was.

What led you to choose Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams? Was there anything about them as people, not just their brilliance as actors, that lead you to the choice?

Honestly, it’s hard to explain. It’s like that moment when you fall in love with somebody — you don’t necessarily have a checklist of the things that they do, like maybe they are kind to animals, they have blonde hair, they read this book, whatever. There’s just this intangible connection that happens. When I met Michelle for the first time she was so connected to the script and she came bearing gifts, like a CD and a book of poetry. We started a dialogue and it was effortless. That dialogue lasted and [became] a relationship. We wanted to make this movie together for years; it just stood the test of time and never got stale. Michelle is one of the strongest people that I have ever met in my life. She has such an inner strength. For instance, here’s a good story: We spent seven years really dying to make this film. We talked about it all the time. Financing kept falling through but finally, the opportunity came to make it. I called Michelle and said, “Michelle, pack your bags, we’re going to Morro Bay in the central coast of California to make the movie.” The movie had always taken place on the beach. Michelle said to me, “I can’t do it. I promised my daughter that I would keep her home this year, tuck her into bed every night and drive her to school every morning. I can’t make the film.” I said, “Michelle, we’ve been wanting to do this for seven years, how can you give up on it now?” And she said, “Because I made a commitment to my daughter.” I said, “Okay, thanks.” And I hung up the phone and thought about who I could replace her with. And then I thought to myself about the reason that she would make a choice like that, such a selfless choice, a choice for someone other than herself. She had so much love inside of her and [sense of] commitment. That choice made me realize that she was the only person who could ever play Cindy. I called her back the next day and said, “Michelle, if I can make sure you’re home every night to tuck her in, put her into bed, and that you’ll be up in the morning to take her to school, if I can find a place close to where you live to shoot this film will you do it?” And she said, “Yes, that’s the most generous thing anyone has ever offered to me.” I figured the movie is not about location — it’s about people and could take place anywhere. So I took a compass and I figured out how far a distance of an hour from her house was. I drew a diameter and picked a location right on the edge of an hour from where she lived, and we shot the film there.

What about Ryan?

About Ryan, I would say that Ryan loves Michael Jordan. We talked a lot about Michael Jordan when we made the movie. Ryan has this theory that the reason Michael Jordan was so great was because he had the will of the world watching him. Everyone turned on their TVs back in the day to see Michael Jordan do something amazing, to do something that they’d never seen before. Everyone wanted him to succeed, and I feel like Ryan is the same kind of person as Michael Jordan. Everybody knows that Ryan is capable of such amazing things and people want to see him do it. He is also one of the fastest thinkers. His instincts are so sharp. He is ahead of things when they happen. One time I asked him, “How do you do it, how are you so quick?” And he says he just imagines every outcome of a situation before it happens and prepares himself at lightning speed for what could happen. I think that must be part of his craft as an actor. Ryan doesn’t know what he can’t do. Ryan can’t ride a skateboard, but he doesn’t know that.

How long did the editing process take?

My two great editors, Jim Helton and Rob Patane, and myself working together for a year. For me, editing is the most painful part of filmmaking because you have to kill so many things. The actors give you so many gifts, so many moments, and you have to leave them out. Sometimes entire performances, entire characters don’t fit anymore in the arc of a movie once you start piecing it together. It’s such a painful process. Editing Blue Valentine, we were trying to achieve a balance. I’ve always seen Blue Valentine as a duet between a man and a woman, their past and their present, their youth and their young adulthood, love and hate, joy and despair — we can continue to name all the opposites — and it’s just very difficult to find that balance, to walk that tightrope, so that one aspect of the film or one character or one emotion didn’t overshadow another one. That took a long, long time.

“A duet,” I think, is a perfect description of the film. It is exactly that. It’s interesting how many filmmakers use operatic terms to talk about films but I think you achieve that beautifully. While editing did you screen the picture very often?

Yeah, I screened the film probably 40 times.

Audiences don’t lie. I’m not talking about the screenings where they have Q&As, I mean the screenings where you stand in the back of the theater and you just watch an audience. When there’s something confusing you see a restlessness. When there’s something that they’re bored by you see squirming. Watching them is, I feel, an incredibly necessary part of the process. There are some extremely good filmmakers who don’t believe in it but [the screening process] certainly shows in this film. The truth and honesty of it are [because] you’ve been merciless about getting rid of those “favorite things.”

Thank you. I have to say in those 12 years where I was suffering to make this film I sat on the sidelines and was that audience member. I’ve been that audience member my whole life. Ultimately I’m trying to make a film that I would want to see as an audience member. I think there are a lot of challenges for the audience in Blue Valentine but it’s been a gift to have them accept them.

Oh, I think to do a film that’s a very moving love story but doesn’t end happily is an extraordinarily difficult and beautiful thing to see.

My favorite films don’t betray the audience. They have characters who are flawed. Kramer vs. Kramer is like that; Cassavetes and Pasolini would make films like that where you see people, humans, who aren’t perfect, who don’t speak in perfect sentences and who don’t have perfect story arcs. Their lives don’t wrap up so easily. I think the audience yearns for that kind of honesty because the fantasy that Hollywood is enamored with actually betrays people in the long run. If you’re a young Hispanic girl and you go to see Maid in Manhattan and you see Jennifer Lopez as a maid fall in love with Ralph Fiennes, I think it’s extremely harmful. If you believe in that fantasy your life will pale by comparison.

Last question, who are the filmmakers who’ve influenced you the most?

I’d say Elem Klimov with his film Come and See. John Cassavetes —
I can see the relation between the cinema vérité notion and the immediacy of [Cassavetes’s] work and your own work. Go ahead, keep going. Pasolini — when I saw The Gospel According to St. Matthew in the movie theater I thought I was having a heart attack. The Maysles Brothers — Salesman and Gimme Shelter are two of the greatest movies. Of course Scorsese, Goodfellas, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, King of Comedy. The best film I’ve seen recently is Enter the Void, by Gaspar Noé. I can’t believe that movie — it’s unlike any film I’ve ever seen.

I can’t remember his name but a Swedish director who did Songs from the Second Floor.

Oh yeah, Roy Andersson.

Yes. They’re just staggering films.

I love this idea of what can happen in a single take if you don’t edit. Like the Dardenne brothers and the new Romanian cinema. George Romero is the final filmmaker I’ll say. He never gets any play but he’s hugely influential.

I would not have thought of George Romero in reference to Blue Valentine but I know what you’re taking about.

He made me fall in love with movies. I’m part of the VHS generation. I remember renting my first VCR for my brother’s eighth birthday party and renting Creepshow and then for my sixth birthday renting the VCR and Creepshow again. And when Creepshow came on HBO, recording it on video and watching it every day after school — using the VCR to study filmmaking. Can I ask you a question?

Sure.

Longevity. How do you achieve longevity in your career?

Keep walking. Just keep walking. [laughs] I’ll tell you this story. When I started on the first screenplay I ever did, Bonnie and Clyde, which I co-wrote, I had never written before — I had taken one creative writing course in college and I flunked it. But I loved movies and my sense of narrative came from seeing movies all throughout my youth. I remember one day going down to get some research done on Bonnie and Clyde and thinking to myself, I don’t know how to write. I can’t spell, I can’t punctuate. I had a writing partner [who could], thank god. But I can listen to criticism and I can make it better and I can listen to more criticism and ultimately it will get good enough. The only thing I have to fear is my own despair. And that’s been true from that day in 1961 or ’62 until now. The only enemy I have is my own despair. You fight every day and the object is not to give up.