October 27, 2010

INTERVIEW: Derek Cianfrance on Blue Valentine

One of the standout hits of Cannes and Sundance, ‘Blue Valentine’ is a gritty and infectious portrayal of a failed marriage. Director Derek Cianfrance has spent the past twelve years perfecting the film, stripping away the layers of sentiment to reveal a truly raw and original domestic drama. FAN THE FIRE met up with the director at the London Film Festival…

Q: Derek, I suppose this film has been something of a labour of love for you because you have been developing it for 12 years, can you tell us a bit more about that?

DC: Yeah, when I was a kid I had two nightmares: one was nuclear war and the other was that my parents would divorce. When I was 20 they split up and I felt like I had to make a film that confronted all those fears I had as a kid. I feel like that is the responsibility of the artist – to go into those things that scare you. So I worked on it and worked on it and I always thought, over those twelve years, that I would get it made; but I just kept getting rejected or it would get green-lit but then the president of the company would get fired. All these crazy things would happen, and I think it was some kind of force of nature, of the universe, telling me that I wasn’t ready. Twelve years ago I didn’t have kids, I wasn’t married, and I think my life experience has taught me a lot. What I tried to do over those twelve years is kind of strip the layers off this film. It’s not a particularly ‘plot-based’ film, it is a film about characters and people, and I think over those twelve years what I was really trying to do was make it more honest and more and more personal. So I am thankful, all those years I thought I was cursed but now I feel like I was blessed to have to wait to make the film now. The union of Ryan and Michelle, and everything else besides, is how it was meant to be.

Q: It must be difficult, having spent twelve years on it, to then find that you had been hit with an NC-17 rating?

DC: I was shocked, because I feel like we tried to respect the audience of this film. We didn’t try to exploit the characters, it doesn’t take advantage of skin, it is relatively tame, but it is intimate and emotional. The best thing that has happened is this outpouring of support from the industry and from fans that don’t understand why it has happened. We have great lawyers and we are going to fight it. I believe that the film that we are going to screen tonight is the film that people should see. I think people can take it. I don’t think we should sugarcoat these things or buff over the moments that they say are to hard to watch, I think people need it, actually.

Q: Do you think that one of the issues the MPAA have with it is the graphic sexual scenes?

DC: I don’t know, they haven’t told us what the issue is so I don’t know. If I was to guess what their issue was I would be doing their job for them. I think they have to respond and tell us what it is. We are going to meet with them; we respect them and their work and hopefully we will be able to straighten this boat out.

Q: If the MPAA don’t reverse their decision and it is to do with the sexual scene in the hotel, would you be prepared to cut anything?

DC: We’re prepared to fight it right now; I would say that is what all our preparation is going into. I really do feel like the audience can take it and I feel like this is the version of the film people need to see, so we are going to fight for that. That’s the only thing that is on the table for us.

Q: Is it an option for The Weinstein Company to distribute the film unrated? Has that been done before?

DC: I think there are challenges to that from certain cinemas, and that would be a shame because I made this film for people, and I think people should be able to see the film. I don’t think people need to have their cinema censored for them, I think they can make their own choices. Again, we respect the MPAA, but I have seen far worse and more explicit things, I have seen rape scenes in movies that go way, way overboard, that are violent you know? It seems that violence can get away with anything. I have two young boys and we watch football games on Sundays and I have to turn off commercials for them because there’ll be a horror movie trailer that they just cant take, so there is a bit of a contradiction going on and we are proud to be in the middle of that fight.

Q: The film is not judgemental at all with regards the relationship, and I felt that the flashbacks help this because a linear story would be more judgemental. Was the film conceived of in a linear way and then slowly changed over the years?

DC: No, it was actually twelve years ago one of the first inspirations for the film came from another film, ‘Godfather Part II’. I love the structure of that film – the rise of the father and the fall of the son. I think crosscut concurrent storylines, parallel storylines, have been around since ‘Intolerance’ (D.W. Griffiths, 1916) and I just love movies that have crosscut storylines. With ‘Blue Valentine’ I wanted to deal with this idea of a ‘duet’. It’s non-judgemental, and that was my goal with it, was not to pick one side – the ‘man’ or the ‘woman’ – for me it is a duet, it’s equal parts Dean’s story and Cindy’s story, and then it is between their past and their present, between their youth and young adulthood, between film and video, between their long-term memory and short-term memory, between love and hate. It is all these battling dualities, and you can just pick any and just put them in there. That’s what the film is about – juxtapositions that are put up next to each other. I would say that in the edit of the film the most difficult thing was walking that tightrope between these extremes – because the film works with extremes – and trying to make it balanced so we didn’t fall off one side or the other. That is to say that some people, when they see the film, do take sides, and I am fine with that. I think it is a compliment to the film because it means that the characters are alive to people while they watch it. One of my favourite movies of all time is ‘A Woman Under The Influence’ (John Cassavettes) and I remember the first time I ever saw that movie I thought it was about a crazy woman; and then I watched it about a year ago and my perception was totally different, I thought that she was the only sane person and everyone else in the world was crazy. I love a film that can actually be alive like that – it isn’t so carved in stone and it can actually change based on different perspectives or the different places we are in our lives. I have had reviewers watching the film at Sundance who said it is Dean’s movie and then saw it last week in the Hamptons and said it was Cindy’s movie. I love the fact that the film is alive in that way; that was the goal, to let it be a living breathing entity that you could have a relationship with.

Q: Could you tell us a bit more about your co-writers and what they brought to the script.

DC: I co-wrote the film first off with Joey Curtis and then Cami Delavigne. Joey Curtis was a close partner of mine, and the first person to put $10,000 in my student feature film. I shot his film, ‘Quattro Noza’, so we have just been partners for a long time. Joey and I wrote about the first twelve drafts of the script, and then Joey went on to direct ‘Quattro Noza’ and I was alone with the script. I looked around for some people to give me feedback and my friend Cami read it and sat me down and berated me for three hours on how much she hated the script. And I was trying to defend myself and she just said “listen, if you don’t want to hear it then fine, but you asked me for my thoughts so I’m telling you my thoughts.” And then I decided to ask her to co-write the film with me because, as I said before, I wanted the film to be a duet, and the problem with the drafts that Joey and I wrote was that they were too much on the ‘male’ side. I felt like I needed to take Cami to help balance out the ‘male vs female’ perspective.

Q: So what did she hate about it?

DC: Maybe it was the use of archetypes and the lack of honesty in some scenes? But so then we broke it down for four years and then I got the script to Michelle in 2003 and Ryan got the script in 2005, and from that point forward, Ryan and Michelle really became the co-writers. Cami and I sort of stopped working together at the computer and I would just go have a dinner with Ryan that would last nine hours and then go home and be so inspired I would just rewrite the script based on our conversations and what he was bringing to it. And the same thing with Michelle. They aren’t credited as co-writers but those guys wrote dialogue – I mean obviously they improvised some scenes but they also wrote a lot of the dialogue that feels improvised but actually isn’t. They challenged certain things in the film. They really helped to make the film what it is, and I consider them to be co-writers. Again, that process of writing was just twelve years of trying to strip the layers off. For example, at one point Dean and Cindy first met at a carnival, and when I started working with Ryan and Michelle we realised that we didn’t need to do some big movie archetypal scene. Lets just destroy that big set piece and make it something simple. Why cant they just meet on a bus? And maybe just get to know each other walking down the street? Why do we have to assume the ecstasy of their love by showing a Ferris wheel in the background? That is a movie cliché, so just let them walk down the street. And I could trust Ryan and Michelle, being the magical people that they are, to hold it. I think one of the best scenes of the movie came from that, when he plays the song on the ukulele and she dances. Ryan always had to be a musician in the film, so about a year before we started shooting he called me and said “I’ve got a song I think would work for the film” and he played me that song and I said “that’s it! That’s the song! Whatever you do now, don’t talk to Michelle and don’t tell her that’s the song.” And with Michelle I told her that, in this ‘walking and talking’ scene, Ryan was going to have a special talent, “you don’t know what it is yet, but you’re going to have to have a special talent too, so what is it?” She told me she could tap dance so I said “ok, keep that in your back pocket.” So they both know they are about to exhibit a special talent, but they don’t know what the other person’s talent is and when it is going to come. So what we have in that moment is Ryan, as Dean, and Michelle, as Cindy, actually experiencing this moment for real. We did a second take and it was great but it didn’t have that sense of the intangible… of being a real moment. I mean we are in the youtube generation now and I feel like audiences are so sharp, and they see all of these honest moments in one minute segments (even if its just a subway fight) and I feel like you can’t pull the wool over the audience’s eyes any more. They know what is real and what is not real or genuine. So even though there is a lot of stuff on the Internet that is self-conscious, I feel like those honest moments are what we were going for.

Q: I am interested in hearing more about the music. Was Grizzly Bear a part of your process and something that you just loved to listen to and felt was a part of the story? Or was it something that you heard after the fact and thought “well that kind of works for what we are doing”?

DC: Id say for about nine of the twelve years that I spent on this film I was going to use a Vangelis score from ‘The Apocalypse of the Animals’, which is like this old nature documentary and it’s just a great soundtrack. But then my old film teacher, Phil Solomon, introduced me to Grizzly Bear and I just found their music so cinematic. I would drive around in my car or have it on in my headphones and just imagine ‘Blue Valentine’. Every time I heard the music, images from the film would just pop up in my head so I would just start to write to that music. It just flowed, I never had writing block when listening to that music because it just seemed to match. I feel like their music is about relationships mostly, and I feel like their music is very modern and yet rooted in classical music, as they are such accomplished musicians. I feel like the aesthetics and the composition in ‘Blue Valentine’ kind of mirrors what goes on in their music, it’s kind of a cross between classical and modern, so I reached out to those guys and they read the script and they were into it so we just used their existing songs and stems and instrumentals and kind of recomposed it a little bit to fit the scenes and I feel like it was a perfect match for the movie.

Q: You spent so many years doing that film, and were so absorbed by it, now that it is over, is it a relief? Are you ready to do something else?

DC: Well, it’s not over yet because I am still on this promotional tour and then we have to fight this NC-17 rating. So it never leaves! When The Weinstein Company said they were going to pick it up they said they were going to release it December 23rd and I said “you have to pick a date that is a whole extra year into the future? So I have to spend a thirteenth year on this film!” But you know I love the fact that I spent so much time on the film and people are responding to it and relating to it the way that they are. I do feel weird sometimes and a little lost in a way because I sort of defined myself for so many years through this quest. And over that time so many people didn’t think I would do it, and of course I doubted it myself sometimes but I was just stubborn enough to keep it going. But I have my next project going on, HBO has hired me to do develop a television series that we are going to try to give a new meaning to the term ‘character development’ with. And then I have another movie that will hopefully shoot next summer with Ryan called ‘The Place Beyond the Vines’, which has motorcycles and guns. With ‘Blue Valentine’ I wanted to make a violent film without a gun in it. Maybe that’s why I got the rating!

Q: Apart from your next movie, how do you feel now that you are coming to the end of this vast project?

DC: I kind of started writing it as a therapy, to confront those fears, and I was trying to learn how to have a relationship that wouldn’t end in divorce. And I don’t know if I have learned any magic lessons from the film or anything, but I do feel good that I was able to complete something from start to finish and I feel like that is important for my kids, for them to know that it is possible. And for other people to know that it is possible to, that you can finish something, it just takes a lot of stubbornness. And I had always thought, for all those years, that this was the film I was born to make, and I knew I would make it before I died. I guess I just have to figure out what to do with the rest of my life now.

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