Why does Derek Cianfrance think that waiting 12 years to make his movie with Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling was serendipitous good fortune?
For 12 long years, writer/director Derek Cianfrance kept on believing in his script for Blue Valentine, never giving up until he saw his vision realized on the silver screen. His persistence and resolve—and his willingness to rewrite, rewrite, rewrite—have paid off, with a critically beloved film that’s currently ranked 93% on RottenTomatoes.com, no small accomplishment.
The story is simple: we see Dean and Cindy (Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams) fall in love and decide to raise a daughter (Faith Wladyka) in rural Pennsylvania, and then six years later we see that what that relationship has evolved into, and we watch its painful, devastating end. The quiet devastation—more like a slow death than an explosive finish—feels utterly real, which makes it all the sadder. The performances are raw and intimate (the MPAA famously overturned the film's initial NC-17 rating), and the characters feel totally lived-in; this is a testament to both the powerful skill of the leads and the uncompromising vision of Cianfrance.
In a recent interview, we asked Cianfrance to let us in on how the film came to be.
Director Derek Cianfrance
Tribeca: So you’ve been working on Blue Valentine for 12 years. What made you so intent on telling this particular story that you didn’t give up after all that time? Where did it come from?
Derek Cianfrance: When I was a kid, I had two nightmares: one was nuclear war and the other was that my parents would get a divorce. When I was 20, they split up, and it was just such a confusing time to me that I felt like I had to confront it with a piece of work. As I was entering my young adulthood and trying to have a healthy relationship on my own, I thought I had to confront all those things that had scared me as a kid.
So it became like the film I was born to make, and I knew I would make it before I died. I just believed in it, and I would send it out, and the script would get rejected, and I would just take it as an opportunity to work on it and make it better. That process just kept happening over years and years, until eventually we were in the right place.
It felt like a curse all those years that we weren’t making the film, but when we finally made it, I realized we were blessed, because the first day we were shooting, Ryan was doing the [moving truck] scene, and there was this bulldog going down the street on a skateboard. We were like, “When have you ever seen that?” Any other day than this, the bulldog wouldn’t be going down the street on a skateboard, you know? So we just took that as an omen. Then a couple days later, there were rainbows in the sky. We kept on seeing bulldogs and rainbows.
Tribeca: That’s a good title.
Derek Cianfrance: Yeah, exactly. That’s the next one.
Tribeca: Can you talk about the writing process? How did it evolve?
Derek Cianfrance: I came up with the initial idea for the story, and then I wrote with Joey Curtis for about a year and a half. Joey and I were in Colorado, and we sat at this old beer hall in Boulder and just wrote out the whole story by hand in a notebook. Then we just typed it out, banged it out on the keyboard. We wrote about 12 drafts, Joey and I, in that year and a half. Then nothing ever happened with it, and Joey had to start doing his own stuff.
But I just couldn’t get the disease out of me; I couldn’t leave the movie. So I met Cami Delavigne in early 2000, and she read the script. I felt like the movie was trying to be a duet between a man and a woman, but it’s hard to do that unless you have a female voice in there. So I asked Cami if she would come in and help write it. That’s not to say that Cami was Cindy, but we needed a feminine voice in a relationship movie.
So Cami came in and we worked for about 3-4 years on the script and really got it to a good place where we were ready to start showing it to actors, and then in 2003 I showed it to Michelle.
Tribeca: How does that happen?
Derek Cianfrance: Well, we had the same agency, so they hooked us up, and Michelle loved it. She came to a meeting with gifts: she had a book of poetry and a CD for me, and we just had an instant dialogue. But I couldn’t get the movie made with her, because she wasn’t financeable.
Then I met Ryan in 2005 and wanted to do it with him, but he didn’t think he could do the older guy; he thought he could only do the younger Dean. So I said “Okay, why don’t we just shoot the past now and then wait 5 years or 6 years and just do the present later?” And he said, “Best idea ever,” but our producers thought we were crazy.
So we just weren’t able to do it, but I kept talking to them over those years, and I would have countless meetings with them—like a 12-hour dinner with Ryan—and go home and be so inspired and rewrite the script based on that. So eventually Ryan and Michelle became the co-writers. They’re not credited as such.
Tribeca: And were they together with you? Did they meet with each other?
Derek Cianfrance: No. Never once. It was all me with Ryan, me with Michelle. And they really spent that time working on their characters and rewriting. They would talk to me and I would go back and type the script out again and rewrite the characters based on their ideas—their ideas were so fresh.
Tribeca: And was that deliberate? Did you not want them to meet so they could have that freshness? Because Michelle talked about filming that whole first part and how they didn’t really know each other.
Derek Cianfrance: It wasn’t necessarily deliberate, but it was, again, a great accident of fate, because what ended up happening once we started shooting the past was they got to know each other on screen. I felt like I was making a documentary of two people falling in love, because Ryan had 5 years of this character and he was showing him to Michelle: “Hey look what I’ve been doing.” And Michelle was doing the same thing with him, and what they had been doing was great. They created these incredible, beautiful characters, and I’d fall in love with them too—anyone would have fallen in love with them—and it was just magic.
And then for the second part of the film, we shot for three weeks and then we took a month off—I wanted to wait the 6 years, and the financier wanted to give us a weekend, so we compromised on a month. We had this house that we lived in, and I tried to make it a fully functional house, where we had dish soap underneath the sink, we had socks in the sock drawer. Ryan and Michelle basically lived in that house for a month with their daughter Faith, and we just built memories together. I would make them argue all day together and do the dishes and cook food and make birthday cakes and take the kid fishing and do the Jane Fonda workout on record.
Tribeca: That sounds like such a luxury—to have that time to live with the characters.
Derek Cianfrance: People were definitely saying, “How is this going onto the screen?” And I would just always tell them it was for the intangibles of this movie. It’s the intangibles, the power of the performances, and the realism of it that are going to make the movie stand out. So they believed in it, my investors—Incentive Entertainment and my producers—they believed in it and they fought for it and they got it for me.
And the actors also believed in it, and by the time we were shooting the present, we’d actually had this shared experience. It worked so well because in the past they don’t need this shared experience; they need to get to know each other. In the present, they need to have collective memory.
Tribeca: Can you talk about the improvisation? Michelle said she was terrified and had tried to avoid it her whole career. How different is the film we see on the screen from the original script?
Derek Cianfrance: Well, the structure and story of the original script is kind of similar. What’s not similar is that over those years we stripped the layers off. We took the artifice out of it. In the original script, they met at a carnival with a Ferris wheel looming in the background, and it kind of tried to create a cinematic ecstasy of love: “This is how you feel when you’re in love; you feel like Ferris wheels.”
Tribeca: And fireworks are going off.
Derek Cianfrance: Yes, and you know what? That’s a movie. To me, that’s just a corny, done-that, cliché of a movie. The early drafts of the script were informed by movies, not by life. And so over the rest of those years, we tried to let life inform it. After 66 drafts of writing a script, the first day we sat down to shoot, I told Ryan and Michelle: “Surprise me.” I said, “Look, the script is good, but if you only do the script I’m going to be so bored. I’ve lived with this scene for 12 years. Come on, make it alive, please. Break it. Do something with it that’s fresh.” And they did. When you have great actors like that, you can do those things.
Tribeca: Your background is in documentary filmmaking, and you’ve talked about trying to make the documentary of a love story. How else do you think that background informed making this film?
Derek Cianfrance: Documentary filmmaking taught me how to listen as a filmmaker. There is the archetypal image of the director, which is like the Cecil B. DeMille guy who is holding the megaphone and pointing his finger telling you where to go, and documentary film isn’t like that. Documentary film is more about being sharp and intuitive in a moment, and being able to listen to people.
So I think that in documentary film, that image of the megaphone goes onto your ear and it becomes a funnel through which you soak in the world. I tried to humble myself in the making of this film, and I tried to make it not about me telling them what to do—I mean, come on, there are two great actors and a whole world around me.
It bothers me when I walk down the street and I see 40 trucks shutting down a whole street, and they’re shooting a close-up of two people, keeping the world out of this. For me, I love the world. I love people. I want the energy of the city, and the sidewalks, and the streets. And I like accidents to happen and I like for things to be alive. I want movies to be alive.
I think we’re all part of this YouTube generation, and you can’t fool people anymore, because they see things like the guy with the double rainbow or the subway fight and they know what’s real and they know what’s fake. So I wanted to create moments that were real, not fake, or at least seemed real—that you couldn’t ever tell weren’t. Hey, I have an allergy to fakeness.
Derek Cianfrance: Yes, I really loved it. So good.
Tribeca: It’s a real taking-place-in-the-middle-of-New York story. So in the end, how crucial were the producers in the making of the film? Were they together from the beginning?
Derek Cianfrance: No, they came in about 6 years in—Jamie Patricof, Lynette Howell and Alex Orlovsky—and they caught the disease like I had. Eventually, they believed in this film as much as, if not more than, I did, and they made it happen. That’s the magic of making films: when you start out with an idea that’s just about you, and all of a sudden it catches on with people. It went from me to Jamie, to Lynette and Alex, to Ryan and Michelle, and eventually it’s going to audiences now. It’s so great when the thing you create starts picking up and people take it on as their own.
Because what you’re doing when you’re making a film is [a gift], you know what I mean? I think so many people in this world are thinking about what they are going to get out of things, and I’m concerned with—what’s the spirit of Christmas? It’s about giving, not getting. So the spirit of this movie was about giving, and people are taking it and running with it and it’s beautiful.