“This isn’t a medicated movie.” As I said right after I saw this film at Sundance, beware it’s brilliance (read the full Sundance review). This is a real film, made by a group of passionate filmmakers who set out to make something honest, something alive and most importantly something void of any kind of sedation. The film itself has a realistic quality that many directors try to achieve but few do as well as Derek Cianfrance.
Cianfrance was a joy to speak with and I left this interview not only educated but inspired. He looks like the “real” life version of Ryan Gosling and his love of filmmaking exudes from his every word. He’s poured his soul into this film and fought for the right to do so for 12 years. Any aspiring filmmakers out there, listen to what he has to say…
This film took you 12 years to make, what did you set out to make 12 years ago?
Derek Cianfrance: When I was a kid I had two nightmares, one was nuclear war and the other was my parents getting a divorce, and when I was twenty, they ended up splitting up. I was so confused and bewildered by it that I felt I had to confront it with a piece of work. It was mostly because I was entering my young adulthood when I was twenty, I wanted to try to avoid doing the same thing I saw my parents do. I wanted to make a movie that was a cautionary tale for me about what not to do in a relationship, and how not to love somebody.
And at the same time I wanted to tell a story that was honest and nonjudgmental about a situation of time. I feel like there’s been one story that’s been told that the love tragedy over the years and it’s Romeo and Juliet where two young people at the peak of their love die in each others arms and then their love is preserved for all time, but I’ve never met anyone who has a good romantic fortune to have that happen, you know, to die when everything is great, but I know a lot of people that when the fairy tale is over, this mystery of time comes in and it’s erosive. It can erode things sometimes. That mystery of what happens over time was the central question. So I wanted to make a film that was a love tragedy, but one that people could actually relate to. One that was about time, not death.
For me, this film was an experience. It’s more than a film. It’s amazing how real it felt. Is that something that you were aware of int he making of it? How do you as a filmmaker create that type of experience?
DC: That was key to me in telling my inspiration to make a story. That was something that I could relate to. It wasn’t a story where there were characters on the screen that weren’t me. I love movies, but I see enough fantasy people. People made in the image of god up on the screen. You know, that speak perfect sentences that know exactly what they want. They have inciting incidents in the end of act one in their lives and then they have these cathartic moments at the end and everyone in the theatre has experienced this same thing, and there is a message to that, but in life it’s not like that.
I contradict myself all the time. I don’t always know what I want. I wanted to make a film that was more reflective of life. I think that was always my intention. I was forced by the universe or something, to wait to have to make this film. In that time, I had a family myself. I have two boys. I’m married. I don’t think I could’ve told them a story that was honest about relationships and being a parent and being a spouse to someone without having that experience for myself. So that informs the realism.
And what about your documentary experience, how did that help you?
DC: I started making documentary films 12 years ago as a means to put food on the table and as a documentary filmmaker I learned how to listen — that’s another thing that informed me. There’s the archetypal image of the director as the Cecile B. DeMille person who’s holding a megaphone and who’s calling out commands and pointing the finger. In documentary film, it’s not like that. There’s no take two in documentary film. The megaphone to me, in documentary film gets turned to your ear and it becomes a funnel where you filter in the world. All my training in documentary film informed how I would go and shoot this movie.
To me, the danger was, after spending 12 years on this movie and writing 66 drafts and doing 1,224 storyboards and writing a manifesto and watching the film everyday in my head, the danger was that the film would be flat once I started shooting it because I had experienced it too much. I threw everything away when we started shooting it and just tried to rely on instant, I knew it. The actors I’d been with — Michelle (Williams) for six, seven years working on it, she knew it. She was ready. Ryan (Gosling) for four, five years. He was ready to go. So I just asked them to just break it, just destroy what we’ve done and let’s just make it new and make it fresh.
That must be so intimidating to have all that preparation and pressure to follow it through…
DC: To me, it was intimidating as if I had to follow the script or if I followed the way that you’re suppose to make a film. I dreamed about the film for so long and then you try to make it and you have to meet with like a bond company and they tell you, ‘here’s you rules.’ I don’t want to go by those rules. I wanted to film waking up in the morning.
The first scene of the movie where Ryan and Michelle wake up — he wakes up in his chair, she wakes up in bed, I wanted to film them waking up, they’re like, ‘you’re crazy, you can’t film them waking up.’ I was like, ‘why not?’ Because I hate fake waking up scenes in movies, it’s the worst thing. We’re just going to do it. The bond company said, ‘oh this movie is living on a wing and a prayer,’ and I was so insulted by that. I was like, ‘okay, I’ll be good, just give me the money, I’ll do it.’
The first scene of the movie in the present. We all hung out in his house and we all got drunk the night before and Ryan passed out in the lazy boy and we had our cameras set up around him, and at 5 a.m. I woke up with the sound of the alarm and texted my A.D. outside to send his daughter, Faith Wladyka who was playing Frankie Periera and to come wake him up and the cameras were rolling, she woke him up and we had it. The same thing with Michelle. They really wake her up too. I just tried to build it in a way where actors could actually experience things onset for the first time.
Like Ryan was a mover in the movie. Those aren’t actors playing the other movers, those are movers. What we did is give Ryan a job at a real moving company. I went around and searched all the moving companies in New York and found those guys. I thought they were the best and picked all my favorite guys who worked there and just put Ryan on a crew with them and then we spent the whole day moving with those guys. And we ended up moving our D.P. out of his lower East Side apartment where he lived for thirteen years to Brooklyn and Ryan carried every box down those six flights of stairs. He got his lunch break when those guys got their lunch break and he was actually that guy. That’s what made the reality of the
movie is that we actually are experiencing.
How do you keep the together with that level of freedom while you’re filming?
DC: I just knew all the beats we needed. It was written in the script that he ‘humps the boxes down the steps.’ The crew was a little strange on that day because they were like, ‘okay how many times are going to film him going up and down the stairs with the boxes?’ I was like, ‘he’s working.’ Ryan burying the dog in the film. When he has to bury the dog. We started shooting and the art department said, ‘okay we’ll dig the hole for Ryan,’ I was like, ‘what do you mean? He’s got to dig the hole.’ They’re like, ‘that’s going to take forever.’ I was like, ‘he has to dig the whole, he’s burying his dog.’ They wanted to go in there and dig a hole, and let’s call action and let him do like two scoops and they’re out.
Ryan had to dig this hole for the dog and took an hour-and-a-half and no one understood what we were doing waiting that long, and when he was done digging the hole, he broke down. And that was an unscripted scene, him crying at the table. He was actually so emotional and what he told me afterwards was that, that process tricked his body because his body was so exhausted and his body didn’t know that that wasn’t his dog. His body just buried his dog, and his body reacted in that way.
I hate that in movies. In that movie ‘The Dreamers’ (someone) there’s a scene where they run through The Louvre and it’s like, ‘they’re not out of breath at the end of the take.’ I like a physicality in movies. One of my favorite movies in Julien Donkey-Boy by Harmony Korine where Werner Herzog is spraying his son with a hose outside in the street and he’s saying, ‘don’t shiver.’ And it’s the only time I’ve seen it in a movie where you have actual true, involuntary response. He’s shivering, the kid is really shivering. I just love actors that will go there and be there in that place.
You actually gave them the chance to treat it like it’s real which is the basis of all acting. I see Michelle Williams as one of the bravest actresses working right now, is that why you knew she would be right for this?
DC: Yeah, I met her in 2003. Right when she was hot off that show Dawson’s Creek. She came to a meeting and she had gifts for me. She had a book of poetry and a CD. The script just reached her. There was an instant dialogue between us and it just had to be her immediately because it was just mean to be. How do you fall in love with someone? There’s not a checklist that goes by. Just a feeling and I just knew immediately that Michelle was the girl. Same with Ryan. When I met with him. There was a dialogue and it was just meant to be. There’s no convincing that I needed to do. It was just instantaneous, let’s just talk about this. As far as she is in the movie. It’s absolutely amazing how vulnerable she can be and for Ryan and Michelle in this movie, that they are so beautiful and magical people.
In our culture of like Facebook and everything and self-medication, everyone is perfect all the time. Everything is great all the time. Everything is about what’s positive in your life. I think it’s very difficult and I have so much respect for these actors to go on the screen to not only show what’s so great and beautiful about them as people and as these characters but also to go to the basement and just bring out the darkness. This film was about contrast. It’s duet between the man and the woman. The past and their present. Their love and their hate. Their happiness and their sadness. I needed two great actors who would go to both sides. I think a lot has been said about the darkness in the movie, but there’s also a lot of light in the movie too and I don’t think one works without the other. That’s ultimately what we tried to balance in the movie.
Q: Do you see Gosling in yourself at all?
DC: Yeah. My wife does especially. That’s how I met him, my producer is who produced Half Nelson. My producer Jamie Patricof called me and said, ‘you got to meet Ryan, he’s like your brother.’ And so I met with him. He’s much more handsome that I am. He’s bigger than me. He’s like the movie star version of me.
Q: You guys have similar demeanor though. Similar look, and vibe.
DC: Actually, I’m just doing my Ryan Gosling impersonation. He wanted to shave his hair and have a receding hair line like me for the present and I was cool with it. He took my shirt. I had this great Eagles shirt that he took and wanted to wear. It was cool. Maybe it feels like narcissistic but I feel like there’s a lot of great actors that have modeled their performances on their directors over the years. Like William Holden supposedly modeled his after Sam Peckinpah in Wild Bunch. Look Annette Bening looks exactly like Lisa Cholodenko.
Is the NC-17 battle taking place frustrating for you?
DC: It is frustrating because it’s can limit the amour of people that can see the film. I don’t agree with it. We tried to make a very respectful movie that was intimate and emotional and we don’t show. It’s very modest in terms of what it shows. In some ways I feel like it’s a compliment that we got this rating because the feeling and the emoting for the rating.
Yeah because they show a lot more in other films.
DC: They show a lot more, but to make a movie with no violence. But at the same time, I’m insulted because it’s censorship. It’s the assumption when you get an NC-17 rating is that you’ll cut it, to get the R. We’re not going to cut the movie. Mostly because we respect what the actors did. They went to those places which is great acting and I don’t want to touch their performance. More importantly I don’t want to insult the audience members which I respect so greatly because I myself am an audience member, I think they need a choice. I don’t think that this needs to be kept from them. I was outside a screening of Blue Valentine the other day and there’s some people talking, they’re like, ‘Why didn’t they just go to therapy?’ and this other woman is like, ‘I know there’s medication for this kind of thing,’ you know for this kind of emotion. And that’s the thing. This movie isn’t a medicated movie. There’s alcoholism in this movie, but these people can’t afford therapy.
These are real people who have real jobs….
DC: They don’t have enough money to afford a Babysitter. They don’t have time to do that. And so they’re stuck in the middle of this desperate situation and they’re just struggling for survival. It’s a thing that a lot of people have related to over the year its been on the road. I’m thankful that I have the distributor that I have with Harvey Weinstein that’s going to support my vision and fighting for the performances that the actors gave. And really fighting for the intelligence of the audience.
Is this cut the same cut that was being shown at Sundance?
What changed between those two?
DC: We cut maybe nine minutes of the, but we also added like three or four minutes to it. At Sundance you’re always rushing to get the film done for Sundance. I was very happy with the film we showed at Sundance, but it also wasn’t complete yet. There were some things that I was still working on in the edit.
It seemed complete to me!
DC: It’s better now. The last ten minutes actually in the kitchen scene, when they’re talking there’s actually one more back and forth between Ryan and Michelle that I put in so it extended it. There’s more emotion. There’s more of the performance. We made like a thousand tiny trims just to tighten things. I think the editing of this movie was murder. I hate editing movie. Especially shooting a movie this way because there were so many gifts that the actors gave me, so many different things that they did. When you get in the editing room you just have to be murderous and just cut those. There’s entire performances that are just lost forever. We made it a tighter and a stronger movie. I think this version is better than the Sundance version.
What about did you need to change?
The thing that it needed was balance. The tricky thing about this movie was balancing this duet. I always have seen this movie as a duet or a duel between a man and a woman, between their past and their present, their youth and their young adulthood, their love and their hate, the film and video, the happiness and the sadness, the lightness and darkness, and just to try and balance all those opposites. It’s like magnet. So to make sure one didn’t outweigh the other and to get to a balance and I think we found out balance with it.
(Notes: One of the best tips I’ve ever heard for up and coming filmmakers…)
What is a tip that you have for new filmmakers? What would you say is the most important thing to know?
DC: You have to be stubborn. You have to believe. You have to build up. Create an energy that makes the movie attractive to people, make people fight for it and believe in it as much as you. I think film is a collaboration. You have to humble yourself to that collaboration. I think at least me, with my style of filmmaking. A lot is said of the idea of independent film, how you make an independent film. I never saw it as independent. I’m very dependent. I’m not an independent filmmaker, I’m a dependent filmmaker. I need people.
If you’re going to make a film, get people to believe in it. Bring people around and make them get to a place where they love the film more than you do. Where they’ll fight for it and that’s exactly what started happening in Blue Valentine over those twelve years of venturing. I had people that it was as much their film as it was my film. Be dependent. Be dependent on other people.
Don’t miss Blue Valentine in theaters Wednesday, December 29th.