Interview: Blue Valentine Writer/Director – Derek Cianfrance
Yes! we interviewed the amazingly talented writer/director of Blue Valentine Derek Cianfrance but we’ll get to that later. Blue Valentine is the subject at hand. This film is a newly branded masterpiece of cinema that holds some of the best acting done in any film in the past 10 years. I swear I jumped at the TV when Ryan Gosling didn’t win for Best Male Actor. Derek Cianfrance is a new face in Hollywood only pulling one major picture before Blue Valentine, Brother Tied, which premiered at Sundance. Now you have Blue Valentine, a film that took years 12 years to make from concept to delivery by a Film-School-Dropout. From that whole independent film scene in the 90’s the world got an egomaniac filmmaker, and a film about Irish crap. What we only now realize is that these two failures helped to create Derek Cianfrance, a creative genius who from every level knew this movie inside and out. The raw-ness of the film is because of his passion for an accurate portrayal. Without him this film would have been a mush of bad drama. With him it is a film that you leave the theater feeling impacted emotionally. Transformers doesn’t do that.
Philadelphia tidbit – Did you know that you can rent out the “Future room” at the Valley Forge Radisson Hotel in Pennsylvania. The same room that the previously rated NC-17, now R-Rated sex scene was filmed in? Only 45 minutes from Philadelphia. Who doesn’t want to spend a night in Cupids Cove?
Now enjoy the lengthy questions from our talk with Derek Cianfrance who always has more to say, but not enough time to say it and go see Blue Valentine in a theater near you now. (Ritz 5 in Philadelphia) See it before the Oscars. So if Ryan doesn’t win we can curse at the TV together.
Why is the film called Blue Valentine?
It’s an homage to Tom Waits. He has that album called Blue Valentine. I think it’s kind of self explanatory what it means. Tom Waits, I’m such a fan of his. I feel like he’s saved my life
so many times ya know. When I was lonely or whatever. I named it Blue Valentine for him.
What was the inspiration in using Honesdale, PA as a location?
I worked on the script for 12 years and written like 66 drafts and story boarded 1224 shots, wrote a manifesto, really just watched a movie in my head everyday. That movie that I had watched in my head took place on the beach. I had searched all over the coastline of America over those twelve years and I finally found a great location in the central coast of California this place Moral Bay. That’s where it was going to take place. Blue Valentine was going to refer to the water and the sky. It took forever to get this film made everything that could go wrong did go wrong. I’m not trying to complain because every time you make a film it’s a small miracle if it gets made. I finally got everything together. I got the money together, I got Ryan on board, Michelle who had wanted to do the movie since 2003 I finally had the opportunity to make it with her. So I called her and said “Pack your bags were going to Moral Bay” and she got very quiet and said “I can’t do it” I replied “What do you mean you can’t do it? We’ve been talking about this film for 6 years” She said “No you don’t understand I can’t do it. I promised my daughter I would tuck her into bed every night and take her to school every morning.” I said “You know Michelle we can have beds out in California too, we can get her a tutor. It’s going to be okay.” She said “No I made a promise to her, I have to keep her home.” And being a parent myself I understand not lying to your kids. We were both heartbroken and she was crying on the phone. This is a film that she spend almost a third of her life dreaming of doing. So I hung up the phone and I was just so depressed I just started thinking about it. The fact that she couldn’t make a decision like that for her family to make such a selfless decision against her career was the reason she was the only person who could play this role. It was that heart and soul of hers. That’s what the movie was about, about people not places. I called her the next day and said “Michelle look I have a deal for you, if I can relocate the movie to within an hour of where you live, upstate New York, I can promise I can get you home every night to tuck her in and every morning to take her to school will you do it?” She said “Oh my god that’s the most generous thing anyone’s every offered me” So I hung up with her and typed in her address and then I just figured out what was an hour from her house and Scranton and Honesdale was right on the cusp of the hour from her house. So I got in the car that day and drove up to Honesdale and Scranton and really fell in love with the place. Actually it was a lot like Moral Bay. It was the same demographics. Kind of a blue collar place. Small town. There was a history there. I felt like there were ghosts walking down downtown Scranton. I just found everything I was looking for. My eyes were wide open and I think that’s just… we planted our flag there and it was just one of the best decisions we made regarding the film.
Your style feels to combine documentary and narrative. How do you think the visual aids Blue Valentine?
(Long Pause) I made my first film Brother Tied. I made it straight out of film school. I was 20 years old, dropped out of film school and made this film Brother Tied. I made it in response to the independent film movement in the mid 90’s which I had an allergy to. The films like Clerks and Brothers McMullen. I couldn’t stand those movies. I would go to those movies and closed my eyes because I felt like there was no reason I was watching that movie. I could just listen to it and get the same effect. So with my first film Brother Tied I tried to make something so supremely cinematic that it can only exist in the movies and I think I went to far. I tried too hard to make a point and what happened was that the form overshadowed the content. It was very awkward in that way. And for 12 years I had to think about how to make Blue Valentine in a way that the film making would be humbled. That the form would be there to illuminate the content of the film. So I started to think how can I do that. How can I create a form in this film that wouldn’t overshadow the content, wouldn’t take the attention away form the people in front of the camera. So I wrote this manifesto which basically set out the rules which we would approach the two sides of the film. Because I always saw Blue Valentine as being a duet. A duet between a man and woman, a duet between their past and present, their youth and young adulthood, their short and long term memory, between love and hate. Basically a duet of these battling dualities, these opposites. So how am I going to visually represent that? And I came up with this way with very simple ways. Like in the past I made this rule we would only shoot on film. Super 16mm. Completely hand-held the whole time. We would shoot with one 25mm lens The idea we were trying to create some visceral movie making. If an actor would run, the camera would run so you would feel the movie in the bodies of the characters. I always thought to myself when I was in my early 20’s I felt like I was more in my body than I am now. I wanted the film to feel more in the body in the past. With one lens, this 25mm lens, we were trying to create a sense of opportunity in the frame although we don’t really shoot any establishing shots it’s usually always a fixed either Dean or Cindy. In the past there was an opportunity around either Dean or Cindy’s frame.
So Dean, when he was alone there was space and that “space” would eventually be filled with Cindy. And same thing with Cindy, so it was really about two becoming one and entering one frame. So let’s flash forward 6 years later. How would we represent these people in their young adulthood. I started thinking of my own life. As a young adult I felt like I had less opportunities in my life that my focus had gotten more narrow. So I decided to shoot the present day thread on two RED cameras and put them always on the corners of the room. Basically as far away as I could get from each of the actors as I could possibly get and put long lenses on each of them and sort of relentlessly shoot each character. So I had one camera on Ryan all the time and one on Michelle and they just relentlessly followed them. So it was no longer about these two people living in the same world now they were living in the same house but they were separated violently through the edits of the film. Through the spaces. If you watch the film, we are very careful about when Dean and Cindy are actually on screen together in the present there are actually very few moments when they share the screen together and that really means something. The idea was to create a film where in the past these people can become anything. I felt like when I was 7 years old I could still be the President of the United States if I wanted to be. As I grew older I made decisions in my life and those opportunities narrowed. I wanted the past to feel like they were fish in the ocean and the present to feel like they were in a bucket.
This is all aesthetics, beyond that I had to figure out how these two forms would inspire the performers and they do two very different things. I don’t come from the school of thought like the George Lucas school of thought were “video will replace film” I think that they are two different mediums and they create two different things. The process behind film and video create two different attitudes with actors. When your shooting on 16mm. It’s almost like a quarter of football for an actor. They have this 11 minutes of time to make something happen, to score a touchdown they have to get something going in that time and make it alive it created a lot of spontaneity in the past of Blue Valentine, a sort of urgency. In the present by shooting on video you shoot very long takes, you could take for days on end. What we would do in the present I would always use the last take. For instance there’s the shower scene in the present where Ryan and Michelle are naked in the shower next to each other. And you know for the first couple hours that we shot that they were a little cute and a little awkward and self conscious around each other and it was everything the scene shouldn’t be. But by the 9th hour on the second day Ryan’s nipples were bleeding in the shower and he and Michelle wanted to get out of that shower. And that was the take we ended up using. When things broke apart and I thought I could use video to erode time because to me that was the central history of Blue Valentine is what time can do to things. I tried to use the process of film making to show what time can do to a performance too.