“Blue Valentine” is a film so vivid, so raw and close to the edge it begs the question of what we become in watching it. The fourth wall is retained, yet the membrane separating viewer and the images on screen has been stripped away. You leave the theater both shaken and elated. Nurtured by director Derek Cianfrance over a twelve year period, “Valentine” is the history of a marriage, from the early days of giddy love and ecstatic sex (shot in 16 mm), to the couple’s doomed effort in a cheesy motel to restore a connection that has turned toxic (shot in digital). The story is told in shuffled time, currently fashionable in indie romance, but which Cianfrance uses to devastating effect.
“Valentine” plays like a whodunit, inviting the viewer to detect clues to what put this marriage in free fall. Cindy (Michelle Williams), the more ambitious of the pair, had wanted to be a doctor, but now works as a nurse; while Dean (Ryan Gosling) is a moving man, with few aspirations beyond loving his wife and daughter. In effect, the traditional model has been reversed. As Cianfrance kept telling his actors, “Michelle is playing the man and Ryan the woman.” The film’s subtext suggests that a guy just content to be a good husband and father won’t cut it, at least in this society. When Dean, desperate and drunk, finally goes on a rampage in Cindy’s work place, you see a guy who’s losing not only his wife but his whole sense of being a man.
“Valentine” was originally slapped with an NC-17, presumably for an oral sex scene between husband and wife (though the MPAA was untroubled by a similar scene between two women in “Black Swan”). An appeal by film’s distributor TWC, spearheaded by super lawyer David Boies, got the rating reversed. Happily, the film will remain uncut. “We’re over the moon to have the opportunity to finally be able to share [this film] with those for whom it was intended,” Gosling has recently stated.
Oddly, considering the ruckus, “Valentine” exposes little skin. The morality police were likely responding to something more shocking: the film’s startling capture of intimacy. Feelings, not bodies, are naked. Gosling comes off with such immediacy you can practically smell him. When Williams gazes at Gosling at the motel, regretful that whatever love she still feels, it’s not of a strength to keep them going as a couple – all this communicated with her eyes — she creates the year’s most memorable moment in a film. “Ryan and Michelle defy gravity – they are acting without a net and taking incredible chances,” TWC’s Harvey Weinstein has rightly said.
At a recent press day in New York I interviewed the director and principal actors on subjects ranging from the use of sex to tell the story, improvisation, and casting as rewriting. Williams is exquisite, ghost-pale; platinum-haired after channeling Marilyn Monroe in a forthcoming film. Shy to the point of self-effacing, she seems almost as exposed in person as on screen. Gosling is tawny and ripped and amused. Kind of like, here I am, you lucky bastards. Not about to give anything up, saving it for the screen. He wore a tee shirt and a saint medal for travelers. And those black leather gloves? “I’m goin’ for, like, a Diane Keaton thing.” Cianfrance launches on a talking jag almost before you’re in the door, delighted that after twelve years he’s getting to tell the world about his film.
Erica Abeel: What was the inspiration for “Blue Valentine?”
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 twenty they split up and I decided that I should confront all that stuff that scared me as a kid.
EA: How does the blue collar setting impact the story?
DC: I always thought that movies were the poor man’s art form. Back in the day it was a nickel to go to a movie and theater was expensive and I come from a blue-collar family. I grew up loving movies, but I also started to feel so lonely at the end because the characters up on the screen would be so perfect and beautiful and knew exactly what they wanted. And I stopped relating to this fantasy of movies which the Hollywood machine is built around. I wanted to make a movie that represented the messiness of my life and the people around me. And I wanted this movie to not be filled with answers, not be arrogant. Because a lot of movies can be know-it-alls. But I think human beings are flawed and that’s what makes us interesting.
EA: Did your documentary background influence this movie?
DC: Absolutely. Twelve years felt like a curse but turned out to be a blessing because not only did I fall in love, get married, have life experience, but also I became a documentary filmmaker. I became a better listener. The archetypal image of the director is the guy shouting into the megaphone. But in documentaries it’s not like that. I took that megaphone and turned it to my ear and tried to funnel the world in. But after writing 66 drafts of a script and spending twelve years on it, story boarding 1224 shots, watching the movie every day in my head, I was nervous when I started “Blue Valentine” that it was going to be stale. So I asked Ryan and Michelle to just surprise me. I said you can always fall back on the script – but let’s just make something that’s alive. So I’d give Ryan and Michelle certain dots, you gotta get from this place to this place, and how you get there is up to you.
EA: Why did Cindy marry Dean in the first place? She was far more ambitious and upwardly mobile, what was she thinking?
DC: You’d have to ask Michelle.
EA: You don’t know about your own character?
DC: The character’s alive, you know, and the choice of the actors has a lot to do with it. I would say about Cindy, here’s this incredibly charming guy who has so much love in his heart. And she’s in trouble, with her messed up family and bad guys in her past – and he offers her an out. And she goes with it. And now in the present she’s not doing what she needs to do. She’s not just content with being a mom and a wife.
EA: Your film suggests that masculinity is defined by ambition; by a man fulfilling his potential, as Cindy says to Dean. Except in places like Park Slope, perhaps, a guy isn’t allowed just to be a house husband.
DC: We were playing a lot with sexual roles in this movie. Ryan’s character was kind of what the female character is in a film, which is all about making a home. If the roles were reversed in this film there would be nothing to talk about.
EA: In “Blue Valentine” you’ve done something innovative, similar to what Pascale Ferran did in “Lady Chatterley” –
DC: Oh, I loved that movie.
EA: – which is to use sex to tell the story and develop character. Like in the toxic scene between Dean and Cindy in the motel.
DC: Yeah, they’re so far apart. He wants sex and another baby. And that’s the last thing she wants right now. She just wants him to understand her at the moment, but no, he keeps going, it’s his wife, they should have sex. And he gets so angry and hurt and humiliated that she gives in, gives her body to him, but not her heart or mind. She starts to be physical with him but he knows the difference, he doesn’t want to be just with her body, he’s not going to rape her. It has gotten so messy and pathetic and desperate. The relationship is written into the sex scenes. We treated those scenes with respect and responsibility. It’s not erotic.
EA: It is, in a way, because they’re both such beautiful people.
DC: But it’s not pornographic or titillating.
EA: I don’t see what’s wrong with that.
DC: Me neither. But when you’re fighting an NC-17 it’s important that not be the intention!
EA: As a director, how do you direct those scenes in the motel. Where do you put yourself?
DC: Every scene was a connect the dots for the actor. I’d tell Ryan and Michelle, however you want to get there, that’s up to you. In the sex scenes there were just more dots. For those scenes on the floor there was Ryan, Michelle, two cameras, two camera operators, two focus pullers, two boom mikes, myself, and an A.D. We’d all been together for three months. I’d been with Michelle for seven years, with Ryan for five. We all trusted each other. They knew I wasn’t going to exploit them. No one on the set could look at them except through the monitors. We just respected their intimacy and their space.
EA: How has the movie changed you?
DC: I always felt like this is the film I was born to make. I have other projects in the pipeline and hopefully they won’t take twelve years. I’m just trying to be a good husband and a good dad and a good filmmaker. Those three things, that’s all I’ve got time for.
EA: Can you talk about being in a film where you’re so naked emotionally?
Michelle Williams: Well, that’s a quality that I’m always looking for in my work. I’m always working on the edge of my own ability. I’m trying to expand my own personal edge. The physical nudity is something kind of separate. I’m never jumping at the chance to take off my clothes, but that’s a small portion of the story and my overriding desire and passion to tell the story as a whole tells that part of myself to be quiet. Like, after I made “Blue Valentine” I said, ‘Well, okay, that’s it for nudity on film for me. I’m putting that to bed.’ Then I read this script by Sarah Polley. Nudity all over the place, and I had to recant. I was on fire to play that part and I wasn’t going to let something that has to do with fear, insecurity, or vanity get in the way of my kind of bigger qualities.
EA: Were you prepared for the amount of improvisation required of you in “Blue Valentine”?
MW: Well the improvisation was a surprise to me. I’ve been attached to this movie for six years and it was the script, words, story, and character that kept me hooked after all that time. And when I showed up the first day to make the movie, Derek said to me, ‘That script is dead. I wrote it twelve years ago in a dark room and if you say any of those words you’re going to bore me.’ I had no idea that I was signing up to improvise a film. I’ve never done it before. I’ve been secretly terrified of it and done everything that I could to avoid it and then found myself in a situation where there was no way out. The only way out, when you find yourself in hell, is to put one foot in front of the other. I thought about my daughter and her attitude when she’s learning how to read or write her name. I thought, ‘I have to approach it with the same openness and willingness to learn and expose myself.’
EA: Obviously there was a lot of Method preparation for this film. You lived on location in a house in Scranton, Pennsylvania, inhabiting the lives of your characters, keeping to the family budget. Instructed by Derek to fight all day. That’s an extreme commitment. What did Derek do to engender that trust so you’d go along with all this preparation?
MW: I gave Derek my trust from the moment I met him. I think you can kind of tell immediately who you can give that to and who you should reserve it from. That’s how I kind of operate. So he didn’t have to do anything. He was himself.
EA: Cindy’s near-abortion was pretty excruciating. How did shooting in a real clinic add to the scene?
MW: A lot of this movie cuts really close to the bone because of the way we were encouraged and allowed to work. That doctor was a real abortion provider. The nurse a real nurse. When we shot that scene, Derek, out of respect for the position that I was in, operated the camera, because Derek and I have the longest relationship. Mariela [Comitini], one of the only women on our set and our First AD, held the boom, so that the room was as contained and safe for me as possible. When you have that kind of support it makes all the difference to your performance.
EA: In your opinion what aspect of the film brought out the censors?
MW: Maybe the ratings board couldn’t process an oral sex scene between a man and a woman that’s about a woman’s pleasure.
EA: How would you describe your new film for Sarah Polley, “Take This Waltz”?
MW: It’s about a woman who leaves her marriage. It’s about the phrase, Wherever you go, there you are.
EA: Sounds like a bookend to this movie –
MW: Yeah. I wonder sometimes, Am I always going to be derivative of myself? Are we destined to repeat ourselves?
EA: How do you choose your roles?
MW: My decision making process is very simple: Does my heart yearn for this?
Go to page 2 for Ryan Gosling’s interview…
EA: You seem to have an affinity for playing messed up characters. Likable, but troubled. Dean is certainly on the losing end of things.
RG: I’m just thinking about it. What other characters are there? Is anyone any different?
EA: The character who triumphs.
RG: But then if you take a close look at them you realize they’re failing in some other aspect of their lives.
EA: How as an actor do you inhabit characters in such distinct ways, from Dean to the Durst figure in “All Good Things?”
RG: “All Good Things” was an interesting opportunity to analyze this idea that a lot of homicides start as domestic abuse cases. Guys aren’t just physically abusive right off the bat. It starts with a man dismantling a woman’s identity, then her self esteem, then controlling her till she can’t make a decision on her own and then it escalates. It was a fascinating character study.
And Dean? Well, the film is like a murder mystery. This beautiful couple’s love is shot down in cold blood. And the whole film you’re retracing the steps of their love, trying to figure out who killed it. Was it him? Her? Money? Time? Their jobs?
EA: Watching you and Michelle on screen made me wonder, ‘What is chemistry between two actors?’
RG: It’s like gas in a car. You have it or you don’t. I mean, if you don’t have it you can get out and push the car. But if you really want to go you have to have it. Casting is everything. Warren Beatty once told me, ‘Casting is rewriting.’
EA: How did you shoot “Blue Valentine”‘s most intimate scenes?
RG: You mean, practically? That’s kind of like a magician telling you how he does his tricks. You want people to believe that something’s real. I hate telling you where all the trap doors are. Y’know, for the most part the role of the guy in a love scene is to try and cover the girl. You know going into it what she’s comfortable with.
EA: Cover her?
RG: Yeah, hide parts of her that she’s uncomfortable with. You get to know an actress really well, she tells you what parts of her she doesn’t like and what she doesn’t want the camera to see and you hold onto those places. There were lots of scenes that didn’t make the film. Our characters always had their hands all over each other. They were young and in love. We wanted there never to be a scene where they weren’t touching each other.
EA: What’s it like to work with Derek Cianfrance?
RG: It’s like being an athlete and he’s your coach. He gives you the play but it’s up to you whether you can bring the ball to the end zone. He really uses a lot of sports terminology.
EA: Would you work that way again in terms of that kind of immersion?
RG: I’d rather not work any other way. But there aren’t many filmmakers who work that way. Most films you’re constantly aware you’re making a film, There’s marks and booms and trailers and monitors – and you’re just trying to forget you’re making a film all the time. With Derek you’re trying to remember it’s a movie.
EA: Do you leave your role at end of the day?
RG: I didn’t have to. So I didn’t. Michelle had to. She was just as committed as I was but she’d go home at night and be a mom, and go back to being Michelle.
EA: Did the need to improvise throw you the way it did Michelle?
RG: I can’t remember my lines anyway. For me it was a relief to improvise.
EA: In that scene where you climb up the railing on the Manhattan Bridge to make Michelle reveal her secret, how aware were you of the physical danger?
RG: At that point I thought I was in a movie and if I fell off the bridge nothing would happen.
EA: It was a pretty impressive stunt. What do you do to stay in shape?
RG: I take dance lessons, ballet and tap. I do gymnastics and I box. I like the dancing element of boxing. I feel it helps my work.
EA: You actually take ballet classes?
RG: It’s especially hard if you have six-year-old girls making fun of you because you can’t get your leg up on the barre!
EA: Can you tell me about your upcoming project with George Clooney?
RG: The “Ides of March” and it’s got a great cast, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Jeffrey Wright. George’s character is a Democratic candidate running for office and I’m his press secretary. I’m pretty uninformed about American politics. I’m watching “The War Room.” The behind-the-scenes campaign is pretty cut throat.
EA: A different type of role for you. For once you’re playing a pretty together guy.
RG: Yeah. [Laughs] But he unravels.