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Exclusive Interview With 'Blue Valentine's' Derek Cianfrance

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Feb 21, 2011 | 4:36am EST

Derek CianfranceIf you haven't heard of Blue Valentine, you must really be living under rock. Even if you haven't seen the heartbreaking drama that stars Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams as a troubled couple on the brink of divorce, the infamous ratings dilemma that sent the internet and film community into a frenzy late last year made plenty of headlines.

The film is a rare accomplishment; one that is as provocative and progressive as any I've seen in recent years. Do yourself a favor and catch it in theaters while you still can, but first you should check out this exclusive interview I conducted with its director Derek Cianfrance. The filmmaker was quite candid, discussing everything from his personal feelings about the characters to his upcoming projects. Read on below for the full interview and check out my review of the film here.  

It's pretty well known that 'Blue Valentine' took over a decade to get made. I don't want to make you repeat yourself because I'm sure you've had to answer this question a bunch of times already, but if you could just briefly elaborate on some of the challenges of getting the project off the ground in the first place.

Yeah, I mean twelve years of starts and stops. You know it was greenlit at United Artists back in 2003 with me and Ray as the executive producer. Then he lost his job and then the new guy came. There were so many starts and stops I can't even say how many, but I honestly don't know how special it is to our film, because I think any film that gets made is a bit of a miracle to get done, you know, and not all the starts and stops were other people's choices. Sometimes I chose to stop it because I didn't think that the actors I had were going to have the right chemistry onscreen, and so I would pull the plug. I met Michelle in 2003 and Ryan in 2005 and once I met the two of them, I knew it had to be them, so I couldn't get it made with Michelle in 2003 because no one would give me money for her, and you know, eventually it just worked out with the timing between Ryan and Michelle.

It became a blessing, I have to say. It felt like a curse going through all those years and not getting the film made, but you know it was the best thing that could have happened, because I became ready as a filmmaker; I made myself ready to make this film. I don't think I was ready to make it when I was 23 or 24 years old. When I first started back then I didn't have a family, I wasn't married, I didn't have kids and I was a completely different filmmaker than I am now. I spent the last twelve years directing documentaries and I think I've learned how to listen as a filmmaker. I've learned how to catch a moment in a different way, and the intangibles of Blue Valentine are all about the performances and all about where those actors are going. I think I've trained myself in the last twelve years to get those kinds of performances.

Gotcha. Now you mentioned a lot of the issues with getting the right actors and you happened to get two great actors to guide us through this story. Though it was grounded in your own personal reality, I'm wondering how Ryan and Michelle helped shape and make the characters their own.

I consider them to be co-writers of the film. I have such a great respect for them not just as actors but as collaborators. You know I started out with this film as like a seed in my mind and then next thing I know people start surrounding it, twelve years later, a million people have seen it now and that's a gift, but Ryan and Michelle - we had a dialogue about the film and I came out of that meeting and I re-wrote the script based on our meeting because I was inspired by her, you know? And the same thing happened with Ryan in 2005 and every time I would talk to those guys over those years I would be inspired and I would go back to the movie and re-see it again, re-see their characters. They had so much to give to it and so much to offer to those people in those situations, and something that I set up really early on with both of them was that there were no bad ideas, you know, because I feel like the biggest gift an actor can give me is to fail, to make a complete fool out of themselves and so I try to put them in situations where they can get it so wrong, because I know that if they can get it so wrong, they'll also be able to get it so right. But if they're too concerned that they won't get it wrong, then they're never going to give it as good as they can give it.

So I set up early on in my relationship with them that there would be no bad ideas and that I would never judge any of the ideas that they thought of that we talk about or consider. And when it came to shooting, we all trusted each other. I trusted them them so much, they trusted me so much and we never questioned each other, we just went into it and explored. I spent so many years with the script,and now I was shooting and I wanted to just explore, to keep it alive and find some living moments and two of the greatest actors of our time, of any time, they were able to help me do that.

You've said that the film is somewhat autobiographical, based on some of your own personal experiences and I'm just wondering, as a screenwriter and a filmmaker, how do you decide what's appropriate for the public to see and view and how do you decide what's best kept private.

Well you know, that's a tough one between a public and a private. I just feel like with a film like Blue Valentine its key element is intimacy and we're going into a private world. We're seeing their private lives and we're seeing it in extreme close-up, under a microscope. People have said it's a cinematic autopsy of a marriage and in order to get there you have to be absolutely embarrassingly vulnerable. You have to be incredibly naked, you know, I have to do that if I'm going to expect my actors to get naked. I'm not talking about physically naked, I'm talking about being emotionally naked, vulnerable. Then I have to be the same way. And you know that this movie is asking the audience to be naked, too. It's also putting the audience in extremely vulnerable situations, too, and people end up reflecting on their own lives.

I can't tell you how many emails I get every day on Facebook or whatever from people around the world who have seen the film now and they're opening up to me. Strangers are telling me their personal stories now. And it's a gift. It's a gift to see it come full circle because the film was still an imagination of things. I've had experiences like Dean and like Cindy in my life. I've felt like both of those characters before. I've broken up - I've done the breaking up before - and I know what it's like to be in both of their shoes And I live with my wife who is a beautiful woman, and I have two kids with her and I know what it's like to be a parent, so the film is inspired by life. It's not really inspired by movies and its been so nice to have life come back to it, to have audiences take it as their own, to take it as personally as I've taken it.

Of course not everyone does, some people see it and are like "Hey, enough. I don't need to see this shit. What is this shit? too many close-ups." But I just think it's amazing to have it come full circle.

Derek Cianfrance, Michelle Williams and Ryan GoslingI've heard a lot of people, not necessarily in criticizing the film, but describing it as depressing. But at the same time it speaks to new beginnings. I'm wondering how you view the story? as a more optimistic or more pessimistic story regarding relationships.

I think it's a very positive movie about relationships. I think what happens with Dean and Cindy is that there is a seed planted in their life and there are issues that are planted early on in their relationship that are never dealt with, and I think when you don't deal with things it turns into something like that movie Alien. If you don't deal with that monster inside you it's going to come out at some point. And when it does, the longer you wait the more violent it's going to be when it comes out.

But at the end of Blue Valentine there's a recognition of an issue, there's a recognition of a problem. And it's very violent in getting to that recognition, but at least it's out there and I think with that comes health. I think you have to recognize a disease. If you're feeling sick you have to go to the doctor to find out what it is and it's incredibly scary and terrifying to find, to get to that, but once it's out, then you can start figuring out how you're going to get healthy. So at the end of the movie I find it very hopeful, because there's this disease -- and there's great love between them too -- but there's something wrong and it needs to be brought to the forefront and it needs to not be buried anymore. It needs to be out in the open and once it's out in the open it can be dealt with and then maybe Dean and Cindy can get back together, you know, or maybe not. I look at that with my own parents. When they split up I thought to myself, I was twelve years old, you know maybe they just need time apart. Give them a week, next week they'll be back together again. Next week came and they weren't back together, of course, well maybe they need six months, you know? A little more time. Of course six months came, it never happened. Well maybe they just need a couple years. Of course a couple years went by, it didn't happen. But that's hope, you know what I mean? So at the end of Blue Valentine I'm still hopeful. And I'm glad that they've at least released this thing, released this demon into the world.

Were you were you trying to make a definitive statement with this film or were you simply painting a picture and letting the audience interpret it in whatever way they decided to? It seems like the latter to me.

Yes, there's no message in this movie. The movie is more of an instigation. It's more of a movie that was made as a question, not an answer. And the simplest question would be "Baby, Baby Where Did Our Love Go?" It's like that Supremes song. It's a question mark, it's not an answer. I'm not saying "This is where love goes" because I don't really know and I'm not going to be so arrogant as to be a know it all. I'm interested in starting a discussion about it. And that's what's been so great so far with the movie is that people are arguing about it. They're arguing about Dean's side or Cindy's side and I was so happy about it, that the movie was actually alive to people. That people were relating to it in that way and they were coming up with their own answers and anything that anyone can come up with is true. You know?  I don't think movie's need messages and that's what some of the critique of the film has been. "Well what's the point of this?" Well that's for the audience to decide, I'm just putting it out there as instigation.

Those are my favorite kinds of movies. And I know I'm running short on time, but I was wondering -- and it's not as much of an issue now as it was a few months back -- but I just had to ask about your initial reactions to the ratings fiasco that went down a couple months back, and what's your opinion on it.

Well, you know, my opinion now is it was a good thing. The two good things that came from it is one, we didn't touch the film, you know? The film that I made was fought for by Harvey Weinstein. He used his superpowers for good, not evil, and he helped us overturn a historic appeal. I don't think there had ever been a unanimous decision to overturn an MPAA ruling. The other thing that happened was that it started a dialogue in America about why is violence OK and why is sex taboo? You know? It got a lot of people talking about that and that's a great thing to be at the center of. I don't think that sexuality and relationships need to be secret. Why can my kids turn on a football game and see someone with a gun in a shoot-em-up movie or a torture-porn preview that scares the bejeesus out of them, but they can't deal with like, an intimate relationship, you know? I mean, my kids are six and three, they cannot watch Blue Valentine.

I'm thankful that the MPAA gave me my responsibility as a parent back so that I can make that choice for my own kids.

That's great. And I hope that you read my review of the film one of these days because I literally bring up that exact point. That's half of my review, arguing in favor of this point. I had to throw that out there. And I know I'm running very short on time but I just wanted to finish up with some updates on any of your follow-up features. I know 'Metalhead' is in post and you're developing 'The Place Beyond The Pines'. If you could give me any brief updates on that that would be great.

Yeah, The Place Beyond the Pines. I've been writing it every night, you know, we're in the midst of securing our financing on that right now. We'll be shooting that over the summer with Ryan and the rest of the cast  is to be determined. It's kind of an epic story -- Ryan's going to play a motorcycle stunt rider who finds out he has a kid. He finds out he has a little baby and decides to figure out how to be a father and it's a film that spans a couple generations. It takes place in Synecdoche and it's a crime movie, inspired very much by the works of Jack London. It's kind of a Darwinistic, like and ancestral quest for survival and I'm very excited about that one. That's really what I'm putting most of my focus and energy into.

MuscleAnd then I also have this HBO series, that I just sold them that's called Muscle. That's based on Sam Fussell's body-building memoir and the reason I'm doing it as a TV show is because there was no way I could figure out how to -- well it's kind of an urban retelling of "The Boy Who Got Sand Kicked In His Face" -- and there's no way I could figure out how to do that in a 90-minute movie, because no studio can give you money to spend five years letting a guy get pumped up. But on TV, with a five year series I could find an actor that will help redefine the term character development. So those are the two projects I'm really working on right now. And Metalhead, is a long-term project that will take more time. That's a film that I started making before Blue Valentine, and it's an unscripted blur between documentary and reality and it needs a little more time...the gumbo needs a little more time to cook in that pot before it comes out. It'll probably be ready in ten years.

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