The Blue Valentine director talks about bringing his 12-year labour of love to the big screen.
Twelve years after his feature debut, Brother Tied, writer/director and documentarian Derek Cianfrance blew away audiences and critics alike at Cannes and Sundance in 2010 with his brilliant second film. A bittersweet portrait of two lovers in a downward spiral towards domestic ruin, Blue Valentine is rightly receiving plaudits for the blistering central performances of Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams and Cianfrance's own unflinchingly sincere screenplay. LWLies caught up with the American filmmaker recently to discuss the making of Blue Valentine.
LWLies: Your film very interestingly shows two very different periods of a relationship which are years apart. These two parts, the falling in love and then the disintegration of a marriage years later, are very different stylistically. Can you explain the background of that?
Cianfrance: To me Blue Valentine is a duet. It a duet between a man and a woman, between adulthood and young adulthood, between the past and the present, between long-term memory and short-term memory, and film and video. And so I wanted the two halves of the film to be really distinct. I spent 12 years trying to make the film, and during that time I wrote a manifesto laying out how we would shoot the whole portion of the film that takes place in the past. That detailed how we would shoot it. It was going to be shot on Super 16, handheld, and all with a 25mm lens. We shot the present all on video, all with two cameras at a time, on tripods with long lenses, and we shot it just kind of relentlessly.
Where does the title of the film come from? It seems to encapsulate the tone of the film perfectly.
The title is an homage to Tom Waits, who recorded the album 'Blue Valentine'. I’m a huge fan. He’s so inspiring to me, and he’s one of the few people who still gets better, who still evolves with age. It’s longevity, he has longevity, and even if his voice doesn’t hold it's still better than ever. It evolves, hopefully like I will. I hope he sees the film and likes it someday.
Talking about the music that you use in the film. Was it always the idea to use music in the flashback scenes?
A big part of the manifesto was this rule that we had for the present, which was that there would be no movie music, no score. The rule was that any music that comes in the present has to be, what’s the word…
Diegetic sound, yes. But we would allow non-diegetic sound in the past because that’s how we see our memories: our memories have music to them. We don’t remember things exactly as they happened, we remember them emotionally. And those segments are memories, and it works in harmony with the other time period. I feel like in long-term memory we embellish our memories a little more and they become altered, coloured by emotion.
So it was always the idea to use music in those sequences, even before you heard the music of Grizzly Bear?
Yes. I had always wanted to use the Vangelis score from The Populace of Animals, the nature documentary. But then my film teacher Phil Solomon introduced me to Grizzly Bear, and as I started listening to their music it just brought to mind so many elements from the film. It was just so inspiring to me and the music would inform me as I wrote the movie. I would sit down and write to the music, and I would never have writer's block as I wrote to it. So I decided to reach out to them to see if they wanted to be a part of it. They read the script and related to it, and so we just started this collaboration. And I feel like the music fits the film, and the film enhances the music. Their music is very modern but it’s also very classical, and ultimately it’s all about relationships and emotions. I felt it was a perfect fit, a good match. So we just used their stanzas and their instrumentals and tried to kind of recompose their music for the movie.
Can you talk about the aesthetics of the film, and why you made the two parts so distinct visually? The film tells its two stories so well through the different looks created by the use of different lenses and cameras. It also does it through colour, such as the incredible blue suit that Ryan Gosling’s character Dean wears for his wedding to Cindy.
Well aesthetics have always been very important to me. With my first film, Brother Tied, I remember my film teacher saying to me that the film seemed like I was 'riding the bike with no hands' and that I should 'just ride the bike'. What he meant was that form must illuminate content, and he was right. I spent 12 years with that ringing in my head, that form must illuminate content. So in all of my planning for Blue Valentine I tried to come up with an aesthetic process that would illuminate the content. And the content of Blue Valentine is people. It’s about finding raw, honest intimate moments between two people, so everything I set up in the aesthetics would firstly support the subjective nature of these characters and their long-term and short-term memories, but more importantly it was there for the actors, to help the actors.
How did the methods that you used in making the film help the actors with their performances?
Well, shooting on 16mm you know you have 11 minutes to a roll, so there’s a certain urgency that happens naturally. You have to get a moment, and these moments have to happen. What you are actually doing in those circumstances is capturing the things that are fleeting, and the way we made the film was designed to create and capture those real moments. In those 12 years in which I was planning the film I started making documentaries, and I learned to be a better listener as a filmmaker. It taught me how to set up situations and how to capture moments. So for instance in the past Ryan as Dean has to give Michelle as Cindy a song. I had it written in the script, and when it became time, about a year before we shot the movie, I told Ryan 'don’t give her my song; you have to find a song to give to Michelle, that’s your job as an actor'. So he found this great song, 'You and Me'. It’s very personal, and it was better for him to give a personal gift to her than for me to give him a gift to give to her. It makes it more intimate, and what I also did was said 'whatever you do don’t share that with Michelle'. So that scene where Dean gives Cindy the gift and she hears the song for the first time is a real moment, because Michelle herself is actually hearing that song for the first time. What you have onscreen is a real, living, breathing, actual moment in which someone is giving a gift to another person. No matter how simple it is, it’s still very, very intimate, and we tried to use that all throughout the past scenes, in all our moments, finding spontaneous moments that just happened at one time. Then with the present we used the shooting on video as a way to erode those moments, to break down those moments, because while I feel that the past was about spontaneity, the present is about erosion, and the erosion of time. That’s the central mystery to the film. Not that killing of their love, but time.
Were you trying to heighten that effect by having that gap between the two time periods? Ryan Gosling's character asks at one point how can we trust our feelings if they’re just going to disappear. In a way you deprive the audience of the answer to that by taking the middle of the relationship out.
The answer to that is the mystery. That’s the mystery of the film. I feel that a lot of films are full of answers, and that’s fine but I also feel that it’s a little bit arrogant. We're humans, and I feel like a lot of times movies are made in the image of God, and there are perfect people on the screen saying perfect sentences who know exactly what they want, and there are exciting incidents in their lives and they have dramatic character arcs, and there are lessons and catharsis at the end, and you leave the theatre and everyone’s seen the same movie and feels exactly the same thing. But with Blue Valentine I was more interested in the questions than the answers, and from my personal experience of dealing with my parent's divorce and breakups of my own, it was the mystery and the yearning of those breakups that was more interesting. It’s not pointing to one thing that’s the problem: it's a thousand things that are the problem, and nothing at all. It’s just a feeling, an erosion, a mystery of time.
So the heart of the film is in fact the mystery of loves transient nature?
Well in all those years I was trying to make the film I was always drawn to the song by the Supremes, 'Baby, Baby, Where Did Our Love Go?' which ends in a question. And I feel like that is what we can all relate to. If I make it about one specific thing, this answer, then all of a sudden it’s not something which is a part of your life. But the film is open, specific and open enough that each person can put themselves into it, and it doesn’t exclude anyone in that way. It doesn’t talk down at all, and I feel like the film sits with the audience, and hopefully it inspires dialogue and conversation between the audience. The best arguments I’ve heard about it were at Sundance, where I would hang out on the back of the bus after the screening and hear people arguing with each other over the different points of the film, and I wanted a film that would be alive in that way.
So audiences all respond differently, and might even respond differently each time they see it, depending on how they are feeling emotionally?
Yes. One of my favourite films of all time is John Cassavetes' A Woman Under the Influence. The first time I saw that movie I thought it was a movie about a crazy woman. I saw that film a year ago having seen it 20 times, and all of a sudden she was the only sane person in that movie. Everyone else is crazy. And I love the fact that that movie is alive in that way, and I tried in some ways to emulate that in Blue Valentine. I wanted to let the movie be open to where you are, to where I am, to where we are at different points in our lives, and you can go back to it as if it were a relationship, and it lives in that way.