Director Derek Cianfrance Talks About ‘Blue Valentine’

Movie Talk
Derek Cianfrance Jeff Vespa/
Derek Cianfrance Jeff Vespa/

"I think I have an allergy to fake moments on a

movie screen," said Derek Cianfrance, director of the Oscar-nominated

movie "Blue Valentine."

The movie, which details the heady early days of a

relationship between two blue-collar 20-somethings, intercut with moments from

its painful dissolution, feels unnervingly, exhilaratingly real. Few films have

captured the subtle grace notes of falling in love and the ugly ambiguities of

falling out.

This isn't by accident. The movie was a passion project

for Cianfrance and he went to some extreme lengths to get on-screen cinematic

moments that didn't feel fake. That included having leads Michelle Williams and

Ryan Gosling live in their on-screen house during a month-long production

hiatus. During that time, they did all the mundane domestic activities a real

couple might do: wash dishes, prepare a household budget, buy groceries, and

even do the Jane Fonda workout together. And this was all before the camera

started to roll.

The resulting performances have been earning some serious

critical raves. Michelle Williams received an Oscar nomination for Best

Actress. Why Gosling was overlooked can only be chalked up the same opaque

logic the Academy used to give "Dances With Wolves" the Best Picture

Oscar over "Goodfellas."

I recently had a chance to interview Cianfrance. In spite

of the fact that it was late and his voice was shot after a long day of

interviews, he was more than eager to talk about his movie, his actors, and his


Yahoo Movies: I must confess I was resisting seeing this

movie because I got married. I felt like it might be a bit of a buzz-kill. But

it really wasn't. It got us really talking...

Derek Cianfrance: And I really love hearing that from you. I

think a lot has been made of about how this is the 'anti-date' movie. I don't

think people should be scared of the movie.

I made the film that didn't necessarily have a message,

or a bunch of answers. It's trying to instigate — instigate dialogue. "Blue

Valentine" was made as a question. What's happened in the last year since it's

been traveling around the world and now playing in theaters is that people talk

afterwards. It starts a communication. I think that's a healthy thing. It's a

healthy movie for people to see in a relationship. If it can get you talking,

then that's a great thing.

YM: How did this project start and how did it evolve?

DC: When I was a kid, I had two nightmares. One was

nuclear war and the other was that my parents would get a divorce. When I was 20,

they split up and it was such a confusing and bewildering time for me that I

decided that I needed to confront it with a piece of work. So I started writing

"Blue Valentine" in 1998 with the intent of getting it done three months later.

And it was just this elusive project for me. I took the rejections that came my

way, the false starts, as an opportunity to make this film better. I worked

with two different co-writers over those 12 years. I wrote over 66 drafts.

Well, I stopped counting at 66.

I felt like that time was kind of a curse. But when I

started shooting the film, I really felt like it was a blessing because I

wasn't ready to make the film 12 years ago. I was ready to make it when I made

it. Part of that is my own life experience — 12 years ago, I didn't have a

family. I didn't have children. And I don't think I could have told as honest a

story without having that experience.

YM: How did your very involved, intense way of making a

movie develop?

DC: When I was going to the movies in my early 20s, I started to feel

betrayed by movies that were coming out

of the Hollywood system. I realized that my

life wasn't turning out like they were in those [onscreen] fantasies that I've

been fed all my life. I didn't express myself as perfectly as these people up

on the screen. I didn't look the way they looked. I didn't have perfect teeth. There

weren't inciting incidents in my life and cathartic redemptions at the end of

my story. In fact, there is no ending — it just kept going on. I would leave

movies and I'd feel so lonely. And so I committed myself to tell stories that

wouldn't pull the wool over people's eyes. It would be stories about real

people and real situations. It wouldn't condescend to people, it wouldn't look

down on people, and wouldn't betray them with a false set of expectations in

their lives.

That became my big motivation for this movie. The first

draft I wrote all these years ago was more inspired by movies than real life.

Over those twelve years, what I was able to do, bit by bit, was strip away the

artifice, strip the archetypes out of it. It's hard to do because we grow up

programmed by watching movies. The film you see on the screen, "Blue

Valentine," was inspired by life, not by movies. I think I have an allergy to

fake moments on a movie screen.

The first scene in the movie is [Ryan Gosling and

Michelle Williams's on-screen child] Frankie coming in through the dog door and

waking up Ryan, who is sleeping on a Lazy Boy. How do you shoot that? I can't

stand fake waking-up moments in the movies. What I did: I had Ryan drink a

six-pack of Budweiser the night before and pass out on the recliner and I had

cameras set up all around. I slept on the couch next to him. I woke up with a

silent alarm and hit "record" on the camera. I sent a silent text to

my AD who was outside with Frankie, who was ready to go. She went through the

dog door and woke Ryan up and we had our take. There was no way he could get

that wrong.

YM: I understand that you shot the film in two parts. The

first part was the two characters falling in love. You took a month-long break

and then you shot the second half, the break-up, which takes place six years

later in the movie. Is that right?

DC: Yeah. When we shot the past, the stuff [about] them

falling in love, Ryan and Michelle didn't really know each other before the

shoot. I remember the first day, there was just an immediate connection between

them. I was so relieved. I felt like I was making a documentary about two

people falling in love with each other. Or at least, two people getting to know

each other. It was an amazing magic that was happening.

And then we had to jump six years. The first thing I

presented to the investors was 'let's wait six years.' And they said, 'You're

crazy. You have a weekend.' And I said, 'No, we need more time than that.' So I

bartered away a lighting truck to be able to buy a month with my actors. We had

this house and I had my production designer completely flesh out the house so

that we had dish soap under the sink and socks in the sock drawer. I had Ryan

and Michelle come up with a budget based on how much each made and they figured

out how much they could spend on groceries a week. They went to the store with

that much money. That was all the food they could eat in the house. They would

have to do their own dishes. They would do the Jane Fonda workout together as a

family. They would go fishing together. They'd paint the dog house. And they'd

have birthday parties and make each other birthday cakes and go shopping and

buy each other gifts. [In the past] they had individual memories as they got to

know each other. But in the present section of the movie, they had to have

shared memories. So we set up these moments for them.

The hardest thing I had to do in the film was to get them

to start fighting. I couldn't figure out how to get them to fight. They would

just hug each other all the time. I came home one night and my young son Walker

made this amazing tower out of blocks. At the end of the night, he had to clean

it up. It was painful for him to tear it down. And I thought to myself, that's

what needs to happen.

I came the next day to our rehearsals and I brought Ryan

and Michelle their framed wedding picture. I asked them if they would burn this

in effigy. They were very tentative about it. But they both doused it in

lighter fluid and lit a match and watched their love burn. From that point

forward, they would just stay in their house for five days, eight hours a day,

and just fight with each other. And at the end of those days, I'd bring their

'daughter' Frankie in, and I've have

them take her to a family park and go bumper boating. I wanted them to have

this muscle memory of how to fight with each other and then how to go and put

on a façade that everything was OK.

It's a very process-oriented thing. I have two great

actors but I think it was the intangibles in those performances which really

shine through. It's not faked. And I'm interested in when the acting stops and

the being begins.

YM: So how did you get these two brand-name, A-list actors to

go through this intense production?

DC: I thought that if I could write two characters that were

really human, great actors would love to play them. And I was right.

Michelle, I met her in 2003, and she told me that the

script had spoken to her deeply and she had to make the film. She was born to

make it. We just had this instant dialogue. Unfortunately, the way the business

was back in 2003, Michelle wasn't a marketable enough name. I couldn't raise

any money off of her. I couldn't get the film made.

A similar thing happened with Ryan in 2005. I met him

right when he finished shooting 'Half Nelson.' He was a little concerned that

he couldn't play the older version of the character. I said, "How about we

shoot the past now and we wait six years and do the present?" And he was

like, "Oh my God. That's the best idea I've ever heard." I went and

called my people and he called his people, and they both told us that we were

crazy. We would never get financing. But we learned that we were on the same


What ended up happening was that I felt cursed. I had to

wait. But in that time that I spent with Michelle, over six years, and the time

I spent with Ryan, over four years, I got to really know them as people. They

kind of became the co-writers of the film with me. I would meet with them every

six months or so, individually, and we would talk about the movie. Talk about

relationships. Talk about love. Talk about the characters. And I would go back

so inspired after these meetings and rewrite the script based on our


By the time we started rolling, I believed in Ryan and

Michelle so much. I trusted them and it was mutual. We just went for it. We

wanted to find living, breathing moments in time and we were going to capture

those moments. I'm the luckiness filmmaker alive to be able to work with those

two in the film. I feel like the reason I waited twelve years was to get Ryan

and Michelle at exactly the right time in their lives to create characters like

Dean and Cindy.

See a clip of "Blue Valentine":