When we journos came into the roundtable room at the Regency Hotel this December to interview the principals behind Blue Valentine, I wasn't sure how I felt about it. Directed by Derek Cianfrance, it is the story of a two ordinary people -- Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) -- whose relationship is seen from its beginning to dissolution six years later. Their daughter Frankie (Faith Wladyka) is born in between and changes the dynamic of the burgeoning relationship. It was a situation I related to having been through in my own life -- of course, with other permutations unique to my own situation.
Years in the making, the movie took lots of risks, enough that it had been afflicted with a NC-17 rating, but the film company, Weinstein, appealed and got it reduced to an R rating. Debuting at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, the movie does provoke, not so much with controversial scenes but in its naked emotion -- raw feelings evident in the many screenings and Q&As that have been held to connect it with audiences (the photo posted below is from an Altoids-sponsored screening and is used with permission).
Williams and co-star Gosling are even doing a live interview this afternoon as part of the 10th Annual New York Times Arts and Leisure Weekend, where legends of film, theater, music, television, dance, and media -- from James Levine to Billy Joe Armstrong -- will be appearing at the Times Center (242 West 41st St.)
Tickets for some of the talks are still available. For more information and tickets go here. Or view them online since they are being broadcast as live streams. Go to: LivesStream.com/NYTimes
So when we were asked to introduce ourselves (it was a very small group and some of us have spoken with her before which lent an intimacy to the occasion), Michelle volunteered: I always get nervous, like if I'm in a yoga class or something and they say, "Okay, tell us your name and a little bit about your body." I just hope that they'll skip my name -- I don't know why -- because it's embarrassing. So, if anybody felt uncomfortable with that I sympathize.
So I added: "As long as you didn't ask us about our bodies... [laughs]"
Then she said, "Yes, tell me about your body -- I asked for it [laughs]." But neither nor the rest of us did and we dove in...
MW: Yeah. Lets see. I just set that up and you hit on it. "Tell us your name and a little bit about your body." Boy, lets see. Do you mean, the nudity?
Q: It wasn't so much that, but you were emotional nude in many ways in this story...
MW: Well, that's a quality that I'm always looking for in work, in my work. So, then the physical nudity is something kind of separate which I've never jumping at the chance to take off my clothes, but it is to me it's a fragment, it'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.
After I made Blue Valentine I said, "Well, okay, that's it for nudity on film for me. I'm done. Done and dusted. I'm putting that to bed."
Then I read this script that [actor/director] Sarah Polley wrote. Nudity all over the place, and I had to recant. I wanted to tell the story so badly. I was on fire to play that part and I wasn't going to let something that has to do with fear, something that has to do with insecurity or something that has to do with vanity get in the way of my kind of bigger qualities.
Q: What was it like being emotionally naked and having to improvise?
MW: Well, the improvisation was a surprise to me. I've been attached to this movie for six years and it was because of the script. It was because of the words and that was what kept me hooked after all that time, that when I would revisit the script I found a story that I still wanted to tell and a character that I still wanted to play and words that I still wanted to say.
When I showed up to make the movie, the first day Derek [Cianfrance] 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. Now go out there and surprise me.' So I didn't know, I had no idea that I was signing up to improvise a film. I'd never done it before. I'd been secretly terrified of it. I've 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 you just have to put one foot in front of the other and that was a bit of my dilemma. I thought about my daughter and what her attitude is when she's beginning at something, what it's like when she's learning how to read or when she's learning how to write her name.
I thought, "I have to approach it with the same openness, willingness to learn and belief that I will and to be willing to expose myself in front of my director and in front of my actor for the child, for the beginner, for the fool that I was," with the hope that through that attitude something good would come out the other end. Yeah.
Q: What does this film says about relationships?
MW: I don't think there's a message. I don't think there's like a slogan or something that you're supposed to walk away from the movie with. That's one of the things that I like about it because it reminded me of life. Ryan [Gosling] was talking about the movie in this way, and I should probably let him talk about it, but I just thought that it was so ingenious, about it being like a whodunit.
Like, if your friend is telling you about a breakup and you're constantly with her trying to understand what happened and you're looking for all the clues and you're pointing fingers, like, "Well, that's because your mom treated you like such and such," or, "That's because you're always looking, trying to solve the mystery." I think the same thing is true in life that's true in this movie, that you're left unfortunately with a question instead of an answer.
Q: Obviously there was a lot of method preparation for this film; living with Ryan, with Faith [Wladyka], and living on the budget that they were on. That took an extreme commitment. What did Derek do to engender that trust in him that you'd go along with all this preparation?
MW: I gave Derek my trust from the moment that I met him. I think you can kind of tell immediately, personally, upon first glance who you can give that to and who you should reserve it from. That's how I kind of operate anyway. So he didn't have to do anything. He was himself.
Q: Then there's the abortion scene. It's quite visceral. It was actually shot in a location with people from the clinic itself -- did that help the process of shooting that?
MW: It's true, yeah. It was helpful, but a lot of this movie cuts really close to the bone because of the way that we were encouraged and allowed to work. That doctor was a real abortion provider. The nurse was a real nurse. When we shot that scene Derek, out of respect for the position that I was in, he held the camera, because Derek and I have the longest relationship. He operated the camera and Mariela [Comitini], who was one of the only women on our set, our First AD, she held the boom so that the room was as contained and as safe for me as possible.
I mean, look, that stuff always helps. It's like when you're having a phone conversation in a movie and there's actually nobody on the other end. It's hard to not feel like an idiot. So when you have that, when you have that kind of support and you have somebody to really respond to it makes all the difference to your performance. Then it becomes reacting. You're not having to manufacture anything. You're responding to real stimulus outside of yourself. So, it frightened me...yeah.
Q: What do you think about the NC 17 rating the film initially got? It didn't seem explicit at all -- not compared to a lot of other movies.
MW: Really? I'm always curious of people do... Well, I was realizing that when I first heard about the NC 17 rating my initial reaction wasn't one of, it didn't inflame me because - after sitting with it for a while - I realized because I'm a girl and because I wasn't socialized that way. I was socialized to not get angry, to not put up a fight because it's not going to get you anywhere and you to accept the world that you're being given and work as best as you can inside of it, for better or for worse.
As I spent more time and thought more about the issue and listened to Ryan, Derek and Harvey [Weinstein], it incited my passion and my fighter spirit because what it's essentially doing is limiting where the movie can be see. I thought that it was just an issue of kids under 17 being allowed to see this, and I'm not advocating that a child under 17 should see this. It should be the parent's decision, but that's not really what's at issue here.
What's at issue is that it means you can basically only see this movie if you live in a major city and there's art house theater nearby you. You can't play adds for it on television. So what it comes down to essentially is censorship and that's the part of the issue that I'm just beginning to grasp.
Q: What aspect of the movie brought out the censors?
MW: From what I understand, it's still a mystery. One of the things that's frustrating about it is that we don't know. They don't comment on it publicly. They don't tell you what it is.
Q: There were no cuts suggested by them?
MW: Like I said, they don't tell you what it is. They don't tell you what they take issue with. They don't show themselves. They don't say who they are. They're a random grouping and I feel like we're all out here.
We're all answering your questions. We're all trying as best as we can to be accountable and to give explanation and to give understanding behind actions and they aren't showing themselves and being clear about it. From what I understand it's the oral sex scene.
Q: Yes, but that is no more explicit than what's in Black Swan -- which got an R.
MW: Black Swan. That's what I heard. I haven't seen that, but I know. I wondered if it was something about firsts. I wondered, like, the first time that you experience something often your initial response is to reject it because it's strange and it's new and your brain doesn't know how to process it. So I wonder if this is a first, if it was the ratings board trying to process a first oral sex scene that's about a woman's pleasure, between a man and a woman? Is that it?
Q: And the Sarah Polley film, is that being shot or is it finished?
MW: We finished it. It's called Take This Waltz and is about a woman who leaves her marriage. To me one of the things that it's about is the phrase wherever you go there you are.
Q: It sounds like a bookend to this movie...
MW: I wonder sometimes, "Am I always going to be derivative of myself?" I don't know. Are we forced, are we destined, to repeat ourselves?
Q: How do you choose your roles?
MW: I've found for me that my decision making process is very simple. Instead of weighing things, making lists, pulling my hair out, asking the advice of friends and colleagues -- does my heart yearn for this?
Q: That's the next thing that you have coming out?
MW: Before that I made another movie with Kelly Reichardt called Meeks Cutoff [which debuted at The New York Film Festival 2010]. That'll come out first.
Q: It was a tough movie, but I liked it. Did you feel the same?
MW: Thanks. You're a glutton for punishment. I liked it. I'm like her mother -- I'm her biggest fan. I just think the world of her.
For other stories by Brad Balfour go to: FilmFestivalTraveler.com