What does it feel like to go from one under-seen Sundance competitor to a Harvey Weinstein-distributed indie smash starring two of the hottest actors in the business, the first disappearing in the middle of a booming independent climate and the second peaking during one of the biggest buying lulls in recent memory?
TFS talked to Derek Cianfrance about this feeling, learning film from stuff like Creepshow and Airplane 2, stealing tape recorders and man-handling HBO via VHS tapes. There’s also his next Gosling project, The Place Beyond The Pines, his long-gestating Metalhead and the difference between film and video.
TFS: How’d it all start for you? Where are you coming from? How did you break into the business? And how’d you find yourself making your dream project and getting an Oscar nomination [for Michelle Williams] out of it?
Derek Cianfrance: When I was a kid I always wanted to make movies. I don’t really remember a time in my life when I didn’t have the desire to be a filmmaker. Probably the first things I made as a kid were on tape recorders. My brother had gotten a tape recorder for his eighth and ninth birthday and I was like 5 or 6 years old and I took his tape recorder from him on his birthday. I have all these audio cassettes still from my childhood where I would go around try to get my grandma to speak in Chinese or I’d try to do little skit on the tape recorder or I’d interview people from my family. Or I’d use the tape recorder as a surveillance device. I’d tuck it into my jacket and get someone to say something mean to me or something and I’d use it as blackmail against them. Everything I do now as a filmmaker – instigation of capturing of storytelling – was all in those first tapes that I did. And then at the same time I’m a member of the VHS generation, around the same time I remember watching VCRs and watching on my brother’s birthday Creepshow and Airplane 2 and then for my birthday having a slumber party and watching Creepshow and Airplane 2 and then a few months later buying our own VCR and then Creepshow and Airplane 2 coming on HBO and us recording it off of there and watching those movies after school everyday and just using VHS as a library. I’d like record movies off of HBO like three at a time and just watch movies all of the time and study the grammar of filmmaking. And by the time I was 13 I started making my own videos and I would rent a camera – my librarian had a video camera that he let me borrow – and every three months I’d make a film with my family as the stars. And so by the time I went to film school I had taught myself the grammar of filmmaking and then I went to a really avant-garde school – the University of Colorado – where I studied under Stan Brakhage, Phil Solomon and really learned about that sensitivity of being an artist and telling personal stories and about the plasticity of the film, about aesthetics and film that put me in the place to make movies like Blue Valentine.
Speaking of Blue Valentine, how did this project finally come together?
Well, it was just timing you know? It’s a miracle I think for any film to get made because there are just so many elements in play. It’s not like being a painter. It’s a different kind of expression. I mean, some people can, Brakhage can, my wife Shannon [Plumb], because she makes personal films up in her studio. But to make a film like Blue Valentine you need a lot of people. It’s a collaboration. It’s not like being a painter where you can just set up a canvas and do whatever you want; you need a lot of people, you need money. I always say I reject the term independent filmmaker because I don’t feel like I’m an independent filmmaker. I feel very dependent. It takes a lot of people to come on board and make it go. I met Michelle [Williams] in 2003, she had read like draft 42 of the script and she came to the meeting bearing gifts for me and we had an instant dialogue about the movie but I just couldn’t get it made because, back in 2003, she wasn’t a marketable name. I just kept…tried to get it made with her and it never happened – the same thing happened with Ryan [Gosling] in 2005 – and eventually it just happened and we were there. I think ultimately what happened to make it ready was I was ready to make it. I think 12 years ago – 11, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2 – years ago I wasn’t ready to make it, until I made it. Twelve years ago I wasn’t married, I didn’t have kids, I wasn’t in a place now as a filmmaker to be able to capture the sort of moments, experience I wanted to capture on the screen in Blue Valentine.
Like Crazy was just at Sundance and it got a lot of hyped-up Blue Valentine comparisons. The big difference, structurally, between the two films is that Like Crazy charts a long-distance relationship through beginning to end whereas Blue Valentine is two specific moments in time paralleled. Was there ever a desire to have a through line in the story telling?
No. It was always this. I always felt Blue Valentine was a duet between the past and the present. A duet between marriage and young adulthood; between love and hate; between man and woman; between physicality and wisdom and more of a cerebral space between film and video. Blue Valentine was always a duet; it was about contrast, about lack and whites. To me that middle part of the film was always that mystery. And I think movies can be very arrogant sometimes and try to give answers to everything and I don’t think life is full of answers. For me and my life I’m full of questions. I’m inspired by that question ‘Baby, Baby Where Did Are Love Go?” by The Supremes. It ends with a question mark. That’s what I was trying to hit with Blue Valentine.
I know Drake [Doremus] a little bit. He saw me…a couple of weeks before [the 2011] Sundance [Film Festival] and he told ‘hey I saw Blue Valentine at Sundance  and I couldn’t stop crying afterwards. I kind of made a movie a little like Blue Valentine.” So, you know, I’m looking forward to seeing that and it’s nice to have a film actually that’s out there that inspires people to do their own work and their own stories. It seems to me with that movie the central cause of the relationship is the long distance. You know Blue Valentine is about the mystery of time…a film that’s yearning for an answer that can’t be answered. Why does a mountain turn into a pebble over time? Why does a seed grow into a redwood tree Why can love sour? To me, as a filmmaker, I paint from the belly of the beast. I’m caught up in the emotion of feeling and painting in those spaces. I wanted Blue Valentine to be very present in that way.
But that’s a funny thing about the middle, because that comes up sometimes as people’s criticisms about the film. There’s no middle of the film. In 1999 I showed it to someone over at October Films and they were like ‘well, what about the middle? I think we need to rework this through the middle.’ And I was like ‘that’s not what it’s about.’ Although I did write many, many hundreds of pages about what happens and did a lot of work with Ryan and Michelle where we basically talked out everything that happened in that time.
The whole NC-17 rating thing came and went, and it was great that the film got its R rating. Was there ever any pressure from Weinstein or anybody to cut it to get the R?
Not once did Harvey [Weinstein] even consider or every talk to me about the possibility of trimming a hair, a frame, from the film. And I love him for that. I’ll do anything for Harvey because of that, because he supported me as a filmmaker. From the moment we found out we got that NC-17, he was on a warpath. He told me ‘this is what’s going to happen: we’re going to appeal it and we have to win. There’s no other option.’ And I was like ‘yea, let’s win. How are we going to win?’ And we just worked together and figured out a way to win and we had the support of the industry, which was great, and from fans and from the media which was great. The best thing that happened with that NC-17 thing was one: The movie got changed to an R and we didn’t change a thing, and two: it started a dialogue in America about why is violence okay and sex taboo. It was cool to be in the middle of that and to win a battle for artistic integrity and freedom of speech.
You were at Sundance over a decade ago with Brother Tied. How has the independent film landscape changed over that time?
Well, it changed for me personally when Brother Tied showed at Sundance and no one cared about it. Blue Valentine showed 12 years later and it got bought by Harvey Weinstein. I was doing 3 a.m. deals with Harvey Weinstein. It was like a legendary experience. You know, Brother Tied went out in the middle of the heyday of the independent film movement where movies were selling for a lot of money, and Blue Valentine went to Sundance when nothing was selling. People were rich in the late 90s/early 2000s and no one would pay attention to my movies. Then when the financial meltdown happened, all of a sudden I got Blue Valentine financed. I seem to be working against this larger thing. This past Sundance I hear was great, people were selling things for a lot of money. I think it’s because 2010 was such a successful Sundance between Exit Through The Gift Shop, The Kids Are All Right and The Tillman Story and Blue [Valentine]. And this year it kind of lit a fire in the independent film world. We’ll see what happens with this year’s films. If it keeps getting ignited or keeps going in cycles. It’ll probably keep going in cycles.
I think the advent of digital video has been very interesting for filmmaking. I think a lot of times; personally, I think people use video for all of the wrong reasons. I think video cannot be used to replace film. I don’t believe what George Lucas is saying when he says video will replace film. I think there will always be a place for film. Stories that need to be told on film. For instance, if I look at 2000, I saw two of my favorite films of all time: David Lynch’s The Straight Story and Julien Donkey-Boy by Harmony Korine – or maybe it was 1999. The Straight Story is a film that could never be shot on video – wouldn’t work. And Julien Donkey-Boy, every moment in that film is made possible by the advent of video.
And I tried to do the same thing in Blue, I shot half in film and half in video. Those pieces in film, those moments were inspired, they were instigated, they were made possible by film. Made possible by that urgency that film creates. A 11-minute load of 16mm film will do something to an actor: it ‘s like a quarter of football, it’ll make them have to make something happen. And there’s a warmth to it and a nostalgia to it and a texture to it. And with video you can erode time. You can shoot over a long period of time. I try to use film as film and video as video.
What’s next? Is Metalhead coming out or-
Metalhead is going to be a little bit of a longer cook. That’s going to be a few more years before it gets done. I’m really putting most of my focus right now into The Place Beyond The Pines, which is a film that I’m going to shoot with Ryan [Gosling] this summer. It’s a very personal movie about a motorcycle stunt rider who finds out he’s a father. It’s a story that takes place over a few generations that takes place in Schenectady, New York. It’s kind of a crime movie that’s very much inspired by Jack London books. And I also have a series I just sold to HBO called Muscle, which is based on Sam Fussell’s bodybuilding memoir [Muscle: Confessions of an Unlikely Bodybuilder]. And the reason I’m doing it is because I can actually have an actor who can put on the muscle over 5 years. So this is a casting call to any actor out there.
Have you seen Blue Valentine? Do you hope to?