Interview: Derek Cianfrance, director of Blue Valentine

Derek Cianfrance pictureThe acclaimed romantic drama Blue Valentine (Blu-ray $39.99, DVD $29.98; Anchor Bay/The Weinstein Company; released on May 10, 2011), starring Michelle Williams (Shutter Island) and Ryan Gosling (The Notebook), was a decade-plus in its gestation process, according to writer/director Derek  Cianfrance, who recently spoke to Disc Dish about the film.

A deep-voiced, rather intense-sounding man who loves watching movies as much as he loves making them, Gianfrance discussed his cinematic influences, work in the documentary field, of course, Blue Valentine. (Read our DVD review.)

The movie, which was nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award for Williams’ performance, tells the story of the troubled relationship between a young married couple.

Disc Dish: First things first, I was reading that back in the 1980s, you studied under the great avant-garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage.

Blue Valentine DVD boxDerek Cianfrance: At the University of Colorado, yes, from 1992 to 1995. He taught my film appreciation class, and I learned so much from watching films with him. It was great.  He would show us films by Leni Riefenstahl and have us look at the images closely to find the subliminal swastika imagery in the grain structure. I don’t know if I ever saw swastikas, but I find myself zoning out on the images, understanding the power in the images. And Brakhage introduced me to the movies of John Cassavetes (Rosemary’s Baby). In fact, the last time I saw him was in front of the school bookstore and he bought me a copy of Ray Carney’s book Cassavetes on Cassavetes.

DD: Very, very cool! Okay, now let’s talk about Blue Valentine. It has been well-publicized that it took you a long, long time to get the film off the ground.

DC: There were a bunch of opportunities to make the film over the last 12 years with other actors or financial people involved. I met Michelle in 2003 and Ryan in 2005, and once I met them, I just knew they had to be in it. But for a bunch of reasons, it couldn’t happen — and I knew that waiting would be the right thing. Michelle and Ryan were right for each other. So I waited and pushed for the right time with the two of them.

DD: Ten years-plus is a helluva long time to wait.

DC: It is. It’s strange, for that 12 years, I felt that I was cursed. But when I finally shot the film, I realized I was blessed. The actors were at the right age, and I had had enough experiences in my life to tell the story. When I wrote the first draft of Blue Valentine, it was 1998, and I was 24 years old.

Blue Valentine movie scene

Love is found and love is lost for Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams in Blue Valentine.

DD: I really enjoyed the splintered chronology of the film — leaping back and forth between the couple’s meeting and then their breakup.

DC: Structurally, Blue Valentine was heavily influenced by The Godfather Part II. But 13 years ago, it was mostly influenced by Gone With the Wind — the harsh, brutal aspects of Gone With the Wind. And, of course, Cassavetes’ films played a big part. Also [the Russian film] The Cranes Are Flying by Mikhail Kalatozov was a big influence. It’s a great example of big, bombastic, bragadocious filmmaking.

DD: After watching your movie, I’m thinking that your experience making documentaries also added to the mix.

DC: Working on documentaries kept me busy and sharpened my tools. Like [documentary filmmakers] Frederick Wiseman, the Maysles brothers and the Dardennes brothers, I wanted to make films that were truthful and honest. In documentaries, I liked the idea of taking the ordinary and making it extraordinary, and vice-versa. And that’s how I approached Blue Valentine. I took two extraordinary people, Michelle and Ryan, and put them into an ordinary situation. And I took their ordinary characters, Cindy and Dean, and dropped them into an extraordinary situation.

DD: You put that very well.

DC: I think I did, yeah.

About Laurence

Founder and editor Laurence Lerman saw Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest when he was 13 years old and that’s all it took. He has been writing about film and video for more than a quarter of a century for magazines, anthologies, websites and most recently, Video Business magazine, where he served as the Reviews Editor for 15 years.