Awards Interview: Derek Cianfrance on the Love and Raw of ‘Blue Valentine’

By  · Published on January 8th, 2011

Someone should sit down all the Nora Ephrons of the world to watch director Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine, preferably Clockwork Orange-style. The Ephrons in the film universe are like little girls who play with ponies and dream of beach-side weddings, living in a picketed and beautiful suburban house and having everything be absolutely perfect. The greatest conflicts in their films are the tragedies of a broken nail or whether or not the wedding dress will make the bride look slim. Those films are mannequins; they’re artificial on the outside and hollow on the inside.

Cianfrance despises those films, or at least that’s the impression I got while talking to the honest man. Honesty is what he seems to care most about, including the harsher truths of life and love that we don’t see too often represented accurately on the big screen. This isn’t a film that felt like it was written by some teenage girl who just found out what love is from another Katherine Heigl rom-com, but instead made by someone tired of artificial love stories. Where’s the imperfection? Where are the dark times? That’s what Cianfrance is interested in: no fantasy.

Since I chatted with Cianfrance for around 80-minutes, expect a far more spoiler filled part two from our chat next week where we discuss the ending, the possibly negative impact of the NC-17 publicity, and further delve into the themes of Blue Valentine.

I believe you wrote about 66 drafts for the film, what changed since the first draft?

It would’ve just been fake. It pretty much would have been the same structure and the same things that happen, but what changed was that the artifice got took off over all those years. The fake-ness and archetypes got stripped away. We’re dealing with archetypes as an idea, like the idea of falling in love and the story of falling in love. We were dealing with some themes that way, but we were trying to break the traditional version of this story and shatter it to see what we could come up with. It just took time to do that. Twelve years ago I wasn’t married and I didn’t have kids. Twelve years ago I was inspired more so by movies. I think the first draft of Blue Valentine was a movie inspired by movies. Twelve years later, it became a movie inspired by life and experience. I think that’s the simplest way to put it.

I can give you a lot of details. In draft one of the script, Cindy was a virgin. You know, after 4-years of trying to make the film I realized, what’s with the idea of a girl being a virgin in a film? My co-writer Cami Delavigne and I said that, she’s a college girl and she’s backing up heat. I think movies now do sexualize girls, but they only let them sleep with around three guys. But what about a girl who’s had more of a sexual history than that? What about a girl that’s more like the girls that I know that are more like guys? There’s a moment in the film where she says how many guys she’s slept with, and it’s a shocking moment for some people. People gasp and start to think of her differently after that. I’m thinking, if it was a guy in the same situation, who would question it? Would anyone think twice?

Those were the things we did; we threw out the story we were suppose to tell and the archetypes we were suppose to tell. All of the sudden we made these people real people. Of course, I had Ryan [Gosling] and Michelle [Williams]. Michelle came on in 2003 and Ryan came on in 2005, and they really helped write their characters with me. The film just became more personal and more honest.

When Dean expresses his initial outlook on love he said he was inspired by movies. Is that you taking a knock out of those less realistic love stories?

Yeah, yeah. Maybe I’ve seen too many movies. As I stood on the sidelines for twelve years waiting to get this movie made and pleading desperately to get it made, I’d sit in the movies and start to feel betrayed by them. I started to leave movies and feel so lonely afterwards, because I was nothing like those people up on the screen. When I was trying to get the film made I’d hear, “Oh, who wants to watch that?” They’d say it’s “too heavy,” but I wanted to show people for who they really are. People would tell me no and that they want fantasy. People want fantasy, but people don’t want to be lied to. I think what fantasy does to us is that ‐ it sets our life up for disappointment. And that’s fine. I love fantasy. I’ll go watch Avatar and all that stuff.

But after a while… I think if a young Hispanic girl that goes to see Maid in Manhattan, with Jennifer Lopez, and believe in that fantasy of becoming a maid and falling in love with a rich, British guy, then her life will hit a point where she’s incredibly disappointed. That stuff is just not true. With Blue Valentine, I don’t see it as so heavy. I see it as a cautionary tale. I see it as a tale that is reality. It doesn’t lie to people, and people are better off because it doesn’t lie to them. It’s healthier for people.

The film itself is probably more character driven than plot driven. Can you talk about finding that structure for the film?

Twelve years ago, I was inspired by the structure of The Godfather: Part II; how it was the rise of the father and the fall of the son. I love cross-cuts in movies. It goes all the way back to D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance. It’s a uniquely cinematic tool to crosscut action. Star Wars is so successful and effective because of its cross-cuts. I just wanted to tell a story of two people living in two subjectively different time frames, and to see what happens if we cross-cut that. I see the movie as a duet. Not only a duet between a man and a woman, but between their past and the present, between their youth and adulthood, and their love and hate. It’s basically two battling dualities, and that’s basically what the film is about.

I would start mediating on the idea of a magnet, which has a positive and a negative side. It’s a balance with two sides of a coin. Throughout the movie, I thought about how far we could take this contrast and juxtaposition of a duet. It was about how far we could take it and keeping that balance to not tip over into one side or the other with not getting too much on the man’s side or the woman’s side. How can we balance it? It really became the trick of the edit, and that’s why it took a year to edit the film to really achieve the balance of it.

There’s a lot of ambiguity to the film and a lot of questions raised, especially when it comes to how Dean and Cindy got to where they are. Early on in the process, did you ever get notes about that?

Of course! In fact, the first note I ever got from a producer in 1998 from October Films was, “What about the middle?” For me, the middle was never a part of the film. The song “Where Did Our Love Go” by The Supremes inspired me. I love that song because it ends with a question mark. It’s the question I’m interested in, not the answer. I think it runs counter to a trend in Hollywood filmmaking, which I think is a very arrogant type of moviemaking, but it’s movies made by Gods in the image of Gods. I feel like movies are stone monuments made in honors of themselves. You’re just supposed to sit in movie theaters and gaze in awe at this God.

I would sit during these movies for twelve years watching just these perfect people up on the screen speaking in perfect sentences, having perfect teeth, and knowing exactly what they wanted to say. They knew what they wanted and didn’t want. They had exciting incidents in their lives and would end with these cathartic incidences. Like I said earlier, I would just leave these movies and feel so lonely. I couldn’t relate to that type of perfection. It’s really this arrogance in moviemaking where they feel like know-it-alls.

I talked to my friend the other day, a Jehovah’s Witness, and she asked me about where I think I’ll go when I die. I said I don’t know. I don’t know how to answer questions like that. I said some people think you go to heaven, and she said, “They’re wrong.” I asked how do you know? Is that faith or is that arrogance? What’s wrong about having to question things?

As a filmmaker, I have those questions. The people on my screen aren’t made in the image of God. They’re not perfect. Gods are perfect and flawless. What makes us human is what’s messed up about us. I think our flaws are what make us beautiful and unique. Our inability to express ourselves is more interesting than expressing ourselves clearly. I think it’s a struggle of defining who we are and asking those questions, which is what I’m interested in and that’s what the movie is. It goes back to the Supremes’ song. It’s a question. Not only a question of where love goes, but also where does it come from?

I think those two moments of when you fall in love and out of love with someone are very similar to each other. Whenever I’ve fallen in love with someone it’s not like I have a check list that I’m marking off and thinking, “I love this person because of this and this.” It’s all those things, and none of them. It’s the feeling. It’s the overwhelming feeling that you have. Blue Valentine deals with this erosion and curdles of that feeling. When they’re in the middle of it, they don’t know everything that’s wrong with them. I can’t be so arrogant as a filmmaker to say what the hinge or turning point of the movie is. It’s not like that in life with just one moment. It’s a slow and steady erosion. It’s a mystery. It’s time, that’s what happens.

I think the traditional love tragedy that’s made is the Romeo and Juliet version. It’s the story of two people at the peek of their love and dying at each others arms and having their love preserved for all time. I’ve never met anyone with that good romantic fortune.

At the beginning of their relationship, Dean and Cindy are so full of life. When they’re married, they’re just empty and lost. Can you talk about making that aspect of their relationship not cynical?

I don’t believe in cynical. I don’t believe the movie is cynical. I believe in relationships. I love people. Some of the greatest relationships in my life has been with strangers that I’ve met on a bus for fifteen minutes. I’ll never see those people again, but the connection that we had in that time was forever. It affected and changed both of our lives. With Dean and Cindy, I feel like they entered each other’s lives with this magic and purity that happens between them. Just because it doesn’t last forever, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth it. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth falling in love. I think the cautionary aspect of Blue Valentine is that there is this erosion and disease in their relationship, and they catch it too late.

I think the hope in the film is that, [Spoiler Alert] at least they do recognize it by the end of the movie. There is a change. I think that’s very helpful. I see the movie as kind of like Alien. Whenever a seed is planted or is growing between two people, you have to dig it out immediately. I don’t think you can let it keep growing. I think by the time Dean and Cindy confront it, it’s violent and comes out in a violent way, but at least it comes out. [Spoiler Over]

When my parents split up when I was twenty years old I thought, maybe they’ll get back together in a couple of days. A couple of days went by, so I thought maybe it’ll take a year or so. Now it’s been fifteen years, I don’t think they’re going to get back together. My wife, who’s forty, her parents split up when she was six years old. She’s still trying to get them back together and has hope. I wrote this film as a child of divorce. Ryan and Michelle were children of divorce. My co-writers, Joey Curtis and Cami Delavigne, were children of divorce. I think what we were doing while writing the film was dealing with our fear and pain of that. As we were entering our early adulthood during our early twenties, we were trying to move forward from that and not trying to repeat the same thing.

The last thing Cindy wants to do is become like her mom, which is like a shadow of a person. She can’t let her daughter grow up and be a woman who’s under a man’s thumb and just disappears. She can’t let that happen. The same goes for Dean. His mother left him when he was ten years old, and the last thing he wanted was for his child to be raised in a house where her parents weren’t together. They’re both fighting against a story of their ancestors. It’s very Darwinian, I think.

Blue Valentine is now in limited release and expands next weekend.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.