Interview: Blue Valentine Director Derek Cianfrance On The MPAA And Removing The Fantasy

By Eric Eisenberg 2010-12-13 12:06:26discussion comments
Interview: Blue Valentine Director Derek Cianfrance On The MPAA And Removing The Fantasy image
Last week proved huge for the Sundance hit Blue Valentine. After being slapped with an NC-17 rating by the MPAA, which would have killed any chances of the film being seen in mainstream theaters, Weinstein Company chairman Harvey Weinstein and a group of lawyers were able to convince the trade association to overturn the rating and, instead, give it a much more socially acceptable R. Whatís more, the decision to overturn the vote Ė for the first time ever Ė was unanimous. .Needless to say, this proved a huge sigh of relief for the filmís director, Derek Cianfrance.

This past Friday I was given the opportunity to speak with the Blue Valentine helmer one-on-one over the phone and in addition to speaking at length about the MPAAís ruling, discussed the atmosphere on the set, the physical change undergone by the filmís two principal actors, his next project, and how Ryan Gosling nearly jumped off a bridge just to get Michelle Williams to tell him a secret. Check it out below.

First off, I want to say congratulations on getting the rating on the film overturned.

Thank you, man. Iím so excited. Iím just relieved because we were always so shocked that we got that rating, we never intended, we never set out to make it NC-17. We tried to make a film that treated relationships and sexuality with a certain amount of respect and honesty and truthfulness. It seemed weird that we were getting slapped with that when we were actually trying to be responsible filmmakers.

Were you present at the petition, when Harvey Weinstein went in front of the MPAA board?

No, I was not there. I have spent the last few months with Harvey just basically prepping our case and just trying to build our case and he went out there with the lawyers and represented for us. Iíll tell you what, thereís no one like Harvey Ė he believes in something and wants to fight for something, and believe me, Iíve been on both sides of that a little bit, heís a very powerful presence and I just have so much respect for that guy because he went out there and protected my artistic integrity. For me, for the actors, it was great.

This was Harveyís first time going in front of the MPAA board personally. How does it feel as a filmmaker?

It feels great. And itís also the first time that the MPAA has unanimously voted to overturn it Ė a fourteen-to-nothing vote. I started writing this film alone, whenever you start making a movie itís just you Ė itís kind of an alone process. Slowly you start believing in it and pretty soon it starts attracting people, you know? The people just surround it and this process has been very slow and gradual, like 12 years, that people have started to come around this film, starting with some of my co-writers and then the actors, Ryan [Gosling] and Michelle [Williams], and then my producers, Jamie [Patricof] and Lynette [Howell], and eventually Harvey and the Weinstein Company. Fans and the media and the industry support, people have just come around this film, and I feel very fortunate, I feel very blessed. For so many years when I couldnít get the film made I felt like it was cursed, and I think I had to wait for the right time to get it made.

One thing that I will say about this movie is that I think it has brought out the best in a lot of people. I donít want to be egomaniacal about it because itís not about me, itís about the movie. This movie has been an experience where everyone is very intimately, with a lot of vulnerability, put themselves on the line. People really put themselves in taking great risks, and I really think that thatís the job of an artist. And not just an artist, but anyone Ė youíre building cars itís the same thing. I think in life you must risk failure and you must risk putting yourself out there and completely humiliating yourself, and I did that from the very get-go with this movie and the actors that put themselves up on the screen were just completely vulnerable and risked the same thing. I think Harvey went out there and did the same thing: he did exactly what Iíve been doing all these years, what Ryan and Michelle did, what my producers did, he put his neck out on the line because he believed in it. Itís just thrilling to be at the center of that. To have this film that just unifies people in that way, it tries to make them bring out the best of themselves. I think Ryan Gosling had a quote, he said he was so happy that Harvey was using his superpowers for good and not evil.

You mentioned that when you started working on this film you were alone. How did this story originally come together and how personal is it for you?

When I was a kid I had two nightmares, one was nuclear war and the other was that my parents would get a divorce and when I was twenty they split up and I just felt like I needed to confront all those things that scared me as a kid Ė entering young adulthood and trying to have relationships. I was trying to move forward from that. So I started writing this film and itís not about my parents Ė itís a narrative, itís fictional Ė but it was about confronting all of those things that scared me as a kid and putting them in there, putting them into a movie, and really try to make a movie that I could relate to, that my generation can relate to: a love story that wasnít pulling the wool over my eyes, or a love story that wasnít setting up a fantasy Ė these fantasy stories that have been fed to us, the knight in shining armor and the princess and the castle. The stories end with ďhappily ever afterĒ and this movie is the ďever after.Ē Itís trying to take an honest and intimate and raw look at relationships and put together this thing of like what happens when we fall in love and what happens when we start to fall out of love, about the mystery of both of those times.

There are scenes in the film, particularly the scenes that take place in the hotel, are incredibly raw and intense. What was the atmosphere like on set, particularly when you were filming in that location?

The future room stuff was some of the more difficult stuff. First off, that room, itís a real place, itís at the top floor of a Radisson Hotel in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. Thereís a huge room there if you want to have a very stressful night you should go there [laughs]. I had taken my high school sweetheart to the moon room for prom back in high school, and we had a terrible night, because thereís so much pressure in those rooms to perform and you have to live up to what those rooms having expecting whatís going to happen. Like a week later my girlfriend and I came home from that, from the room, and read an article in the newspaper that the clap had been spread in a hot tub. So theyíre dangerous places.

I remember when we first started shooting in there I didnít let Ryan and Michelle see the room. I put the cameras inside the room and let them walk in as we were rolling. That first take when they walk is the first take when they walked in the room. After we took that take I had to have a six hour meeting with Ryan and Michelle to try and talk them off the cliff in a way. The room has no windows, itís small, itís very hot Ė itís disorienting because you have no perspective in there. After about five minutes in there your equilibrium just starts to shift and it starts to make you a little nauseous. And we had a week to shoot in there. And as we were talking the shower room in the backgroundÖ the next scene we were shooting was Ryan and Michelle in the shower and theyíre going to be naked in that shower. I think they were just trying to do everything they could to stall getting into that shower. But once they got in it, of course theyíre brave actors and they never once didnít do anything in the movie Ė they always went for it. So they went into the shower and we shot that shower scene for two days, because the first couple hours they were kind of cute and kind awkward and a little self-conscious. By the ninth hour of the second day the soap had started to chafe their bodies Ė Ryanís nipples were literally bleeding and they just wanted to get out of the shower and it was that take that we used.

When you have actors like Ryan and Michelle, brave actors as you said, theyíre going to bring stuff to their own characters. What did they take from off the page and make their own?

I consider Ryan and Michelle to be co-writers of this script with me. I spent six years with Michelle talking with her about this and I spent four years with Ryan talking to him about it, and they just had so many ideas over the years, from dialogue in the scenes to emotions that I would rewrite the script based on my inspirations from them. When it came to finally shooting I had written sixty-six drafts of the script and I was just absolutely scared about shooting the movie because when you build something up in your head and you think about it so much it can be dangerous. I had storyboarded 1,224 shots, I had written a manifesto, I had watched the movie in my head for 12 years and I was worried that it was going to be stale. I asked Ryan and Michelle on the first day, ďGuys, please surprise me. We can always trust the script because itís strong, but if all you do is lines from the page Iím going to be so bored. Letís go out there and make this thing alive Ė I want to make living, breathing cinema. I want it to be about expectations, letís go out there and break it with new things.Ē

So we would do things, for instance thereís that scene on the bridge where she has that secret. Remember, when theyíre on the Manhattan Bridge? When we were going to shoot that scene I told Michelle, ďYou know, thereís two pages of dialogue in the script. Throw the script away, donít do the script. All you need to do right now is donít tell him. Donít tell him.Ē And then I went over to Ryan and I said, ďRyan, you gottaí do whatever you gottaí do to get her to tell you.Ē And then I called action. They started walking back and forth on this bridge and shooting for forty minutes and burning through film stock. My producers are freaking out because weíre wasting film. And Michelle is hard as nails, sheís not going to give it up to him, and Ryan gets so desperate and frustrated that he climbs up on the fence of the Manhattan Bridge. Thereís no stunt double, thereís no safety net, we have no insurance for that kind of thing, and, thankfully, Michelle tells him and he comes down. I could see my producer, Jamie Patricof, sprinting from the end of the bridge over to us, and the bridge is long and heís slow and we were able to get the whole scene out before he came over and shut us down. But that was the spirit of the movie: letís just try to find things, letís try to discover moments that we canít replicate.

The movie probably would have had a very different ending if she didnít tell him at that point.

We would have gone in and done it. We trust people. Thatís where I trusted Ryan and Michelle to make it alive. Theyíre two of the greatest actors of all time. I believe in them and I know theyíre capable of amazing things so I just gave them boundaries, I gave them certain points to hit and then figured out let them figure out how to get from point A to point B. Itís about trust.

You mentioned that youíve been working on this film for twelve years, so when you saw the final cut what was going through your head?

It was better than anything I had ever imagined. It was live. Whenever you dream youíre walking a fine line between delusion and reality. You can dream up anything you want to dream, and dreams are great, but they also donít exist Ė their tufts of smoke. I always think about comic books where itís the guy with the thought bubble. Itís smoke Ė if you donít do something with your dreams they just disappear. So this is better than my dreams, this is real, itís alive up there and itís entered peopleís worlds. Itís entered peopleís lives. And thatís been the biggest thrill for me is to take this thing that I had inside of me forever and share it with people and have people now share back with me their stories. Itís been really reaching people, touching people. Itís been great, and I think moving forward with my life, what do you do when youíre dream comes true? I think the answer is you just have to keep dreaming and executing those dreams.

You already have your next project lined up, again with Ryan Gosling, called The Place Beyond The Pines. At what stage is the project?

Iíve spent four years working on the script, itís an idea that came to me a couple weeks before my son, Cody, was born. The story just came to me one night, it was just like that Ė it came in one instance, the story was there. It deals with some of the similar themes Blue Valentine deals with and this idea of ancestry Ė an idea of sins of the father and trying to get away from the destiny that youíre parents have paved for out you. Itís a very Darwinian movie, and it deals with family relationships. My first film, Brother Tied, was about brothers; Blue Valentine is about husbands and wives; and Pines is going to be about fathers and sons. Itís all about these things you have inside you that you canít get rid of and you have no idea why theyíre there. Thereís also a crime story.

Can you talk about the story a bit and Goslingís character?

Ryanís character, at the beginning of the film, finds out that heís a father. From my own experience becoming a father twice, with two beautiful boys, it absolutely sends reverberations through your life and everything that was once true is now false. And I wanted to make a movie that spoke to the power of being a parent and the power of living your life and having a new focus in your life Ė your attention in life not being paid to yourself, but the new generation and what kind of pressure that puts on the next generation. It also has motorcycles and guns in it.

In what capacity?

I hate guns so much, I think that theyíre just so cowardly, and thatís why I didnít put any guns in Blue Valentine. Pretty much every movie has a gun in it, and I wanted to make a very violent movie that didnít have guns. Blue Valentine is a very emotionally violent movie and so difficult, so I want to put guns in this one and show just the cowardly nature of guns and how chicken-shit they are, basically, and to show the reverberations of guns. Itís just like the sexuality of Blue Valentine, I wanted to look at it straight, I wanted to look at it without a filter, without a sensationalized filter, without trying to make it erotic or titillating. I just wanted to look at it as part of the character. Thereís sexuality in Pines too, and violence. The violence is going to hurt. Itís not easy violence; itís not violence thatís taken lightly. Itís violence thatís violent.

When I was a kid I went to a Bronco game, a football game. I only watched them on TV, but I went to one game and saw a guy get his face bashed into a metal pole and everything that was supposed to be white on his face was red. His eyes were red, his teeth were red. That image so affected me as a kid. I canít stand violence, and for that reason I think it needs to be represented honestly.

Getting back to Blue Valentine, whatís also amazing about Ryan Goslingís performance is the physical transformation that he underwent. How did you develop the look for his character?

It was up to him. I think when you let actors take ownership and they have a say in their wardrobe and their ageÖ it was his decision that he would be receding, that his hairline would be receding. I have a receding hairline and I think he was trying to look like me a little. He had actually tried to have his hair receding for an earlier film that he had been doing and they told him on the film that they said they didnít want him to compromise his attractiveness. So when he had the opportunity to work with me I said, ďRyan, it would be an honor for me if you would compromise your attractivenessĒ [laughs]. Him and Michelle are beautiful and here we go, these two beautiful people up on the screen that arenít afraid to make themselves ugly in Blue Valentine. They both decided they wanted to gain weight for the film, so they started having ice cream-eating competitions to see who could put on the most weight.

I think how Ryan expressed it to me, how he saw the character in the present, he said that he imagined a flag. In the past the flag was kind of a new flag, but, after a while, the wind starts to go through it, it gets a little frayed. The colors get a little muted. That was the image he put in his mind of Dean between the past and the present. Just a little bit of a tattered flag.

Had the ratings decision gone the other way, did you and the Weinstein Company have a plan? Were you going to edit the film?

We were going to release it as it was. It was going to really be tough on the business of the film and it was going to be tough for people to see the film, but there was never a conversation. We never talked about doing anything else, you know? Never once did Harvey ever tell me, ďIf we donít win this weíre going to have to cut the film.Ē That was never Ė and between anyone Ė that was never a conversation we had. I think leading up to the last minutes we were like, ďHoly shit. If we canít win this thing than itís going to really seriously affect the people that will be able to see this film.Ē Theyíre not going to play this film at malls. Theyíre not going to play this film in middle America. Thereís not going to be any video-on-demand of this film. We just started to realize, ďMan, we have to win this thing.Ē And I think Harvey, thatís why he fought for it. He believed in this voice that we were trying to put out there. A voice thatís real, that spoke to relationships, honesty and realism and didnít try to manipulate or sensationalize sex. I think everyone just believed in it so much that we were going to fight for it no matter what we had to do. Again, a lot has been said about Harvey over the years, and my experience with him is one where heís a champion of things that he believes in.

Do you have confidence that this film being able to get its rating overturned could possibly lead to a shake up in MPAA standards and affect the way the organization operates in the future?

Well, I hope that it has set up such a dialogue in that they will look and reevaluate how they look at things. Hereís the thing: I have a lot of respect right now for the MPAA because they reversed the decision. The film didnít change, they changed. That shows me that itís a system that actually does work. And it doesnít oftenÖ it very rarely happens, but it does happen and it proves that it is possible for them to realize that they made a mistake. The fact that they were humble enough to admit to that is great. Thatís a major thing for someone to say, ďI made a mistakeĒ and go back and change it. I respect them and I hope itís going to work. I think they received a lot of heat from the industry, Iím very appreciative, also, to fans of the industry for having our back like they did, for the film. But I think everyone was also looking out forÖ come on, this is art. This is artistic rights and freedom. Everyone brought up the fact that thereís the double-standard that torture porn can get an R, but a serious exploration of a relationship gets and NC-17.

I think itís caused a lot of people and the MPAA to reevaluate, maybe, how they do go about rating their films. Letís see what happens moving forward and letís see what happens when I bring The Place Beyond The Pines to them and Iím going to have some violence in that movie. Thatís going to be not fun Ė as it should be, I think. Letís see when other filmmakers go up there. Iíll tell you what would be great, if sometime that NC-17 rating could be a legitimate rating that wouldnít scare theater owners away and it wouldnít affect business. If it could be come a legitimate rating, then all of this would be fine.

Whatís kind of amazing about it is that they brought in the NC-17 rating to replace the stigma of the X rating, but it ended up being the exact same thing.

Yeah. Another thing about the rating is that there doesnít seem to be any kind of clearÖ there seems to be a lot of double-standards, we think. It seems to come down to opinion. Everything in our country right now is run on opinion. You turn on the news, theyíre no facts anymore. ďHereís whatís happening todayĒ and then you cut to thirty minutes of people in little boxes, little windows, telling you their opinions on it. It seems like all the news is going on in the ticker-tape on the bottom of the news. Itís all opinion, itís all editorial. So we need to stop editorializing movies and just get some facts out there, make some real boundaries.

The reason the MPAA exists is to inform movie-goers about and protect them from the content that various films contain, but considering the incredible wealth of information thatís available on the internet about every single movie ever made, do you think that the organization should still have the level of influence that it does?

As a parent myself I can appreciate the MPAA and what theyíre supposed to do, but what happens with NC-17 is that the MPAA is basically taking away the rights of parents. Theyíre basically telling me that I canít show my kids this movie if I decide they can see it. As a parent, my kids are six and three, I am not showing them Blue Valentine. And thatís my responsibility as a parent. I think, as a culture, we have to take responsibility for our own lives and the people in our lives. But I have to say, when my kids, and I canít say this because each kid is different, but I can imagine if my kids are 15 or 16 years old and I see them and I think that maybe theyíre ready to see a movie about sexuality, I will show them Blue Valentine over Basic Instinct. Because at least it shows sex with consequence, with reverberation and that every action in their life does have a reaction. Every moment is, in some ways, eternal. Once you put something into the world it stays there. If you look at the characters in Blue Valentine, thereís unprotected sex, thereís pregnancy, and their lives are completely changed by this beautiful child, but itís also a reverberation that changes everything in their lives due to sex.
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