It’s taken Derek Cianfrance approximately 12 years to turn an idea into one of the most talked about films of 2010. But in the last month alone, it’s been almost impossible to avoid talk of Blue Valentine, whether it revolves around the raw performances of its two leads, Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, or its initial and unjust NC-17 rating, which has since been overturned. The film, which charts a relationship’s course by shuffling between its final, wrenching days and its idyllic, hopeful origins, has been lauded for its realism and unflinching, anti-Hollywood take on love, a quality Cianfrance attributes to his need to explore his fear of his parents’ divorce, as well as the dedication of Williams and Gosling (the actors lived together to embody the mindset of a real couple). Here’s the director on how he landed two of Hollywood’s most coveted stars, their real-life chemistry, and what happens after you make your dream project.
How did you get actors as famous as Ryan and Michelle to commit to such a risky project over such a long period of time? Michelle read the script in 2003 and came to a meeting with gifts for me. She had a book of poetry and a CD, because it just touched her. We had an instant dialogue about the film, but I couldn’t get it made with her back then, because she wasn’t financeable. Ryan and I met in 2005, and he loved the script but didn’t think he could play the older version of his character, so I just said, Why don’t we shoot now, and just wait six years to shoot the second part? And he thought it was the best idea he’d ever heard, but then we couldn’t get that financed, and we felt cursed—I felt cursed. I spent 12 years trying to make this film. Michelle was on for 7 years, Ryan for 4 or 5 years, and the script was getting better, the moments were getting more and more honest, more and more true, and Ryan, Michelle, and I were developing trust. By the time we started rolling the cameras, no one questioned anyone.
How different was the final script from when Michelle read it in 2003? A lot, because she had a lot to do with it. I consider Ryan and Michelle to be co-writers on this, because they had so many ideas, from lines of dialogue to full scenarios. They collaborated with me, so by the time we were going, everyone owned the movie. I set up certain rules, like there was no such thing as bad ideas. That means every idea is valuable, so it becomes a democracy of ideas and you put them out there and you don’t judge them. That created an openness on the set.
And how did you get the script into their hands in the first place? I was represented at the same agency as Michelle, and my producer had produced Half Nelson, and they got it to Ryan.
Did you ever consider making the film with unknowns? I worked for a long time with some great, great performance artists, but I was never going to get financing on that. That was before I met Ryan, and once I met Michelle, it was clear that it was them.
Did you ever come close to losing their participation? Yeah, because sometimes the movie was ready to go, but life wasn’t ready. For instance, I had always written this movie to take place on the beach. It was called Blue Valentine, and it took place on the ocean. I called up Michelle and told her that Ryan was on board, and I said, Pack your bags, we’re going to California. And she said, I can’t. And I said, Why not? And she said, I promised my daughter I’d keep her in school, I’d tuck her in bed every night and drive her to school every morning. And I said, Look, there’s beds in California, and you can get a tutor. And she said, I can’t do it, I promised her. I understood, because I’m a parent and I knew she didn’t want to break a promise to her kid, so I hung up the phone and thought about recasting. Then I thought to myself, If she could just make that kind of selfless decision for someone else in her life over a film that she loved so much, then that’s the reason why she is the only person to be in this movie. So I called her back the next day and I said, I’ve got a deal for you. If I can get you home every night to tuck her in and every morning to take her to school, will you do it?” And she said, That’s the most generous thing anyone’s ever offered me. So we picked a place that was an hour from where she lived, and for me, that was a turning point, because the film was never about the place, it was about the people.
Do you ever get self-conscious in your own relationship after making a move this realistic? No, I’ve already been like them, and the whole reason I started writing the film in the first place was to deal with my own fear of my parents divorce. When I was a kid, I used to be scared of nuclear war and my parents divorcing, and when I was 20, they split up. I wanted to make a film that would confront all those fears in an honest way as I was entering my young adulthood and trying not to repeat the same things. So this movie was a cautionary tale for me and my generation about love and about moving forward in love, or not.
Has the devolution of Dean and Cindy’s relationships reached the point of no return, or is there hope for them? I see the ending of Blue Valentine to be very hopeful, because there’s a recognition of a disease, and that there’s something wrong. For so long, they don’t recognize the issues they face. I think when you don’t talk about things and don’t recognize things, when the seed is planted, it’s going to grow, and you better dig it out quick. Otherwise, it’s going to be like Alien – it’s going to come out in a very violent way. That’s what happens in Blue Valentine, but at least it comes out. And so I think there’s hope, because at least it’s been confronted.
Is there part of you that is sad to see these characters leave your life? Do you feel the need to continue telling their story? I think in the movie world, there’s beginning, middle, and end. In real life, there’s not. This movie was more inspired by life than the movies, so at the end of this movie, their lives go on. Dean and Cindy keep going and yeah, I imagine different outcomes for them. Just like my parents, I used to imagine maybe they’d get back together in a couple months. I kept the hope open for that, so I think Dean and Cindy still have that hope. It might be a delusional hope, but it might be a possibility, too. I definitely think they are better at the end of the movie than they were at the beginning.
With the extent that Ryan and Michelle embodied their characters during the making of this film, how did that love not bleed into real life? Do you think they become extraordinarily close, to the point of feeling actual love for each other? You know, that first scene I shot, that scene where he shows up at her house with flowers, I had never seen them together before. He showed up, and I just put the camera in the back of the room and watched. It was pretty tangible, the connection and chemistry between them. I felt like I was making a documentary on love, and I’m not going to lie, I felt like, Wow, this is deep right here. I think what was happening though, was that Ryan had spent so many years on this character, and she had spent so many years on hers, and now they were showing it to each other. And they’re both amazing people, and so curious about people, that they were getting to know each other on screen.
Where do you go from here as a film maker? What do you do when your dreams come true? You keep dreaming.