Recently we got the chance to sit down with Blue Valentine director Derek Cianfrance. Currently out in theatres, and receiving praise from both critics and audiences, the film has also earned an Oscar nomination for lead actress Michelle Williams. Focusing on a married couple, the film charts their evolution over six years by cross cutting between time periods. In the present day, the couple is fighting to save their failing marriage. As we watch them struggle to rekindle the love that was once there, these scenes are juxtaposed with scenes from the past, where they were young and in love and happy as can be.
While talking to us, Derek discussed a number of things, including but not limited to, how he achieved that sense of realism for the film, the NC-17 rating, the history of the project, his upcoming films and more!
Check out the interview below (audio version included at the bottom of the page). And check out our review on the film here.
We Got This Covered: Hi Derek, how are you?
Derek Cianfrance: I’m doing well, how are you doing?
WGTC: I’m doing great. I just wanted to start off by saying congratulations on the film and on Michelle Williams getting the Oscar nomination.
DC: Cool, thank you.
WGTC: I imagine it must feel great to see all the phenomenal reception that the film is getting. I read in previous interviews that it took over a decade to make, is that correct?
DC: Yes, that’s true.
WGTC: Can you tell us briefly why it took so long to get made?
DC: Probably I just wasn’t ready to make it, ya know? There were a lot of things that stood in the way of the making the film. Things like being rejected by producers for scripts was one thing. Also, there were a few times when we did get financed, the head honcho of the financing company would get fired and the person who took over would dump the slate of films that they had. And sometimes I would have a cast of a couple actors that I just didn’t think could do it and I would pull the plug on it. It was just elusive for so many years.
But there was a reason for that and I think the reason was that it just wasn’t ready yet. For instance, 12 years ago I wasn’t married, I didn’t have kids and I wasn’t in the right place. I didn’t have the experience yet to be able to tell the story as honestly as I wanted to and with that amount of raw intensity and reality that I wanted the film to have. So I had to wait so I could have that experience and be prepared to do it.
And I think I’ve also transformed as a filmmaker over the past 12 years. I started directing documentaries and I really became a different sort of filmmaker. I was able to listen more because you know in documentaries you have to be sharp and intuitive and really in a moment. There are no take twos. And that’s what I wanted Blue Valentine to be about. I wanted it to be about real people and I wanted it to take place in real moments. I wanted to fill the film with first time events and moments that could never be replicated, so it was just a big process.
As for the actors, I met Michelle back in 2003. She came to a meeting and we tried to get the film made with her. But this was 2003 and before Brokeback Mountain. Back then, Michelle WIlliams wasn’t a financeable name. So even though I believed in her back in the day and she believed in the film, I couldn’t get permission to do the film with her then.
Honestly, she probably wouldn’t have been ready to do it the way she did it now, back then. She was like 21 or something when she first read it. She would have done a great job with the early Cindy but as for the later Cindy, she probably wouldn’t have had the life experience to do that. So it was all meant to be. It was some universal power that was steering us in the right direction I think.
WGTC: Now you mentioned that you met Michelle early on, but what about Ryan, was he always your first choice?
DC: Well not always because 12 years ago he was on the Mickey Mouse Club and I had no idea who the kid was ya know? But I met him in 2005 when he wrapped shooting on Half Nelson. The producers on Blue Valentine also produced Half Nelson. He read the script and loved it. We met and were on the same page except he was nervous. Ryan’s smart. He didn’t think he could play an older guy yet.
So I said, ok let’s come up with a solution. How about we shoot the past now and wait six years and then do the second part of the story. And he was like ‘oh my god, that’s the best idea I’ve ever heard.’ We both talked to our people and our people both told us that we were crazy and that we would never get it financed. And it was true, no one would financace a film that took six years to shoot.
But what I found there with that expeirence was that I had a brother. And that Ryan and I thought alike and we wanted to go to extremes to make a film that would stand the test of time. So we just waited, until the time was right and about four or five years later, he had aged enough where he could play both sides, and we went out and got it made.
WGTC: Now you mentioned you wanted to break for 6 years, and while you didn’t end up doing that, you did break shooting it for a few weeks, correct?
DC: Ya, we broke for a month. And my financiers, they didn’t understand why I needed that time. They told me that I had a weekend. For me, I’m interested in tangible moments in movies. I have an allergy to fake moments in film. I didn’t want it to be just about make up. There had to be an experience. A lived in experience. To get that month of time, I had to barter a lighting truck for the second part of the film. I traded my lighting truck so I can have Ryan and Michelle and their daughter Frankie, payed by Faith Wladyka, and have a house for them and in this house we, the four of us, just lived together basically.
We weren’t rehearsing the script but we were just building memories. So I’d have them come up with a budget, to figure out how much they made and like little nitty gritty things. The meat and potatoes of their life. They’d have to come up with how much money they could afford for gorceries every week. Then I would send them to the store with that much money and they would come home and that was all the food they could eat for that week. They would have to do their own dishes and every morning they would get up and workout togehter. They would paint the dog house and go fishing and we would pretend it was their daughter’s birthday and so Ryan and Michelle had to make her a birthday cake and go shopping for her. We just tried to build all these memories that a family would really have.
My most difficult challenge of the film was to try and figure out how to get Ryan and Michelle to start fighitng because at the end of shooting the past, we were really on a honeymoon. I felt like I was making a documentary of two people falling in love when I was shooting the past.
Then we had to destroy this marraige and it was very difficult. I came up with an idea that I would have them burn their wedding picture and once they burned it, it seemed to unleash something in them that allowed them to fight. Then they would spend full days fighting. I’d lock them in the house for eight hours and just make Michelle pick a fight with Ryan. And that would go on for about an hour. Then Ryan would pick a fight with Michelle. And then I’d pick a fight for them to have. Then I’d bring in thier daughter and tell them to bring her to the park and do putt-putt golfing.
So they would have all this negative energy around them but have to put on a facade that everything was ok. By the time we started shooting, they were really in that space. And when we shot it, we were always trying to find real moments. For instance, the opening of the film where Dean and Cindy wake up in bed.
I can’t stand fake wake up scenes in movies where actors fake like they’re waking up. I wanted to start out the movie on the right foot so I basically had Ryan drink a six pack of Budweiser the night before and pass out on the lazy boy chair. I had cameras set up around him. I slept on the couch next to him and was up at 5 in the morning and turned on the camera, hit record and texted my assistant director who was outside with Frankie (Faith). I told him to send her through the door and she came in and woke up Ryan. And we had our take. So there was a different way that we approached shooting this. All of those kind of real moments in the film add up to something. I like blurring that line. I like it when acting stops and being begins.
WGTC: So you’re talking about how you don’t like fake moments and all. When it comes to the sexual content, that was pretty strong and real. Certainley didn’t look fake. And, as we know the film did originally get an NC-17 rating. Can you tell us if Michelle and Ryan were ok with all the raw sexual content right off the bat?
DC: For those 12 years that I was writing the script I was always thinking to myself that actors are going to love to do this. Actors have to get sick of being offered parts where they wear capes and tights. They probably make a good paycheque but it has to be hard for an actor to stand in front of a green screen and pretend like they are fighitng a monster or something. It’s gotta be tough on them.
I thought to myself, wouldn’t actors really want to be a human being? Wouldn’t that be the most difficult role? For me, actors are the brave ones. They go and do things that normal people like me would never do. I’m too cowardly to do what an actor does. They can go to deep emotional places.
I just wrote these characters as people. And this is a love story and when you’re talking about a relationship, sex is a key ingredient in any relationship. It’s a dialogue when things are going well. Michelle and Ryan understood that, that it’s a huge modelling factor in people’s lives. If we’re going to count on shooting a story about relationships, then sex is going to play a huge role. And it’s not going to be a classic Hollywood film where people kiss and you fade out on the kiss. We’re going to watch the kiss happen. To me, that takes the place of a dialouge scene. You don’t get to hear them talking and building trust, you get to see them building trust, through these physical sexual acts. Or you see how their miles apart. They may be physically close but emotionally their thousands of miles away from each other.
One thing I told Ryan and Michelle, to be physically naked in this film will be the easiest thing you have to do. It’s the emotional nudity that is going to require you to have courage and they got it. And there’s certain things we did with the sexuality in the film also. For instance in the past scenes it’s always left to the viewers imagination. We decided we would have all of our sex scenes fully clothed in the past and I think those scenes are so raw and intimate because as an audience you use your imagination more. Giving the audience an imagination is a powerful tool in cinema. We didn’t want the audinece to be gawking at their naked bodies. I didn’t want to just put my actors out there to hang and dry.
For the second part of filming, in the present, it was crucial that they be naked because there is no more mystery left. In a long term relationship you’ve seen the person naked for six, seven years and the mystery of that is not there anymore. So I wanted that to be an element of the film to.
WGTC: While shooting, did you ever even think you’d get the NC-17?
DC: No, we weren’t thinking that. We were just tyring to make an honest relationship story. When we got slapped with the NC-17 it was shocking. When I first got it I simultaneously felt like it was a compliment and an insult. It was a compliment because you don’t really see much in the film. So to get an NC-17 rating I think spoke to the power of the film. We got that rating not for what people saw but for what they felt. It created feelings in people. But at the same time, I was insulted because I think we were trying to present sexuality in a responsible way. The sex in this movie had consequences to it. It’s not sensationalized or overly eroticized. It’s a battle between people. I felt like they were insulting my actors by saying ‘hey you guys are really good in this movie but you’re a little too good in these scenes’. I don’t think they needed to be punished for that.
But I think the best thing that came from the whole thing was that we didn’t have to change a single frame of the film. Harvey Weinstein came out, just on fire and fought this thing and created a historic event. For the first time in history the MPAA unanimously voted to overturn one of their own rulings. What it did was it opened up a dialouge in America, about why is violence fine but sexuality taboo. It was a healthy dialogue to have. The majority of people were up in arms.
One of the brillaint things that Harvey did was he four walled a theatre in Kansas City and invited 300 parents to the theatre and showed them the film. After the movie, he had them fill out a survey where they rated the film. Over 70% rated it R, some even rated it PG-13. He used that information to bring in front of the MPAA.
I was happy as a parent myself that the MPAA reversed thier decision. What they basically did was they gave me my rights as a parent back, to decide for myself if my kids can see this movie. And my kids are 6, and 3 and I’m happy to say that they can not see this movie but when I feel they are ready, when they are middle teens, maybe they’ll be ready. And I’d much rather show them a film like this than an excessivley violent torture porn movie.
WGTC: Ya, definitley agree. Well just before we let you go, can you tell us a bit about some of your upcoming projects?
DC: Well, I’m in the process of financing a film called The Place Behind The Pines which is a script that I’ve been working on for about four years. Ryan will star in it. He’ll play a motorcycle stunt rider who learns that he has a son. He decides to try and be a father, in a beautiful yet very flawed way. It’s also kind of a crime story that takes place over a couple generations. It’s very much inspired by the works of Jack London. It deals with ancestry and Darwinism and survival of the fittest. It’ll shoot in upstate New York this summer. I also just sold a series to HBO called Muscle. It’s based on Sam Fussell’s body building memoir. It’s about immersion into the sub culture of body building.
I felt like Blue Valentine was the film that I was born tt make. Now that it’s finished I feel unleashed. Like I can finally get to work. Hopefully I don’t have to wait 12 years between projects anymore. But if that’s what it takes, that’s what it takes.
WGTC: Well thank you once again for talking to us, we really appreciate it.
DC: No problem.
Be sure to check out Blue Valentine, out in theatres now!