Blue Valentine, Derek Cianfrance's emotional gunslinger of a film, tears into the topic of moribund marriages with an honesty that's hard to come by in Hollywood these days.
Through the prism of shifting time frames, the film tells the story of Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams), whom we first meet in year six of their disintegrating marriage. In flashbacks, we learn they were once--weren't we all?--happily in love. Once reality intervenes, Dean and Cindy begin their downward spiral and the audience bears witness to the couple's heartbreaking endgame, which takes place over two days, most of it spent in the aptly named Future Room of a theme motel.
It took Cianfrance 12 years to bring Blue Valentine to the screen after he first conceived it. He found Gosling and Williams early on, and they hung in there with him. The film finally premiered at Sundance 2010, then screened at Cannes and the Toronto Film Festival, before landing in theaters in December.
It was well worth the wait. Gosling and Williams, who took a month off shooting to live, eat, shop and fight together to prepare for their roles as the embittered Dean and Cindy, both deliver brave and shining performances. Williams has been nominated for an Academy Award.
Below, Cianfrance shares his views on love, marriage and divorce--and the scenes from his own life that inspired him to make Blue Valentine.
KH: The film documents a crumbling marriage. What drew you to this subject?
DC: 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 20 they split up, and it was such a confusing and bewildering time to me that I felt like I needed to confront all those things that scared me, because as I was entering my young adulthood, I felt like I needed to move forward as my own adult, and try to have a relationship that didn't necessarily repeat certain things that I had witnessed. So I wanted to use this film as a cautionary tale to myself, as a way I could deal with all the things that scared me as a kid.
KH: Do you think the nightmares were caused because you saw signs in your parents' marriage that scared you?
DC: Oh yes. I mean, I definitely don't want to paint the wrong portrait of my mom and dad, either. They're such wonderful parents, the best supportive, nurturing, loving parents. But yeah, I don't think they always got along. Together. They were really great parents, but maybe not so great together. I don't know. And it's strange. The whole process of making this film now is strange because my reaction to their divorce created this film. They're very proud of me for this film, but that the same time they have to keep reading in these interviews where I bring up this traumatic experience in their life. I'm just trying to be honest. But it's okay for me because as an artist, it's my job to be vulnerable, and to open up. That's what I ask my actors to do, is become open wounds for people. But my parents didn't ask for that, so it gets tricky. And I want to be clear that Dean and Cindy aren't my parents up on the screen. It's more of my fear of myself, being either Dean or Cindy.
I think I wrote into their characters, into Dean and Cindy's characters, that they are both trying to deal with their own parents, and their own generations, and Cindy doesn't really have a good role model in terms of relationships with her mom or her grandmother or her father and now she finds herself a mother with a daughter and I think it's her greatest nightmare to her that daughter will end up repeating the cycle she saw. And I think the same thing with Dean. His mom left his father when he was ten years old, and the last thing he wants to do in his life is have his daughter have a life like that.
So near the end of the film you realize that both of their fears contradict the other one's fear, and one of them is going to lose, and that's where it becomes a tragedy. Someone is repeating the cycle.
KH: So much of life is about repeating the cycle. The triumph comes when you break the cycle, and it sounds like that's what you've done with your own life.
DC: Well, I'm trying. I've been married for seven years now, with a beautiful wife who's my main inspiration in life. We have two beautiful kids, and it's hard work every day.
And as I said, I wrote Blue Valentine as a cautionary tale for myself, and I think other people have been able to relate to it in that same way.
For Christmas, I bought my wife this little moss terrarium, with a miniature elderly couple sitting on a park bench, and I gave that to her, because I want to be with her, that's my commitment to her. I want to get there with her. And it takes constant hard work.
KH: From a storytelling point of view, what was your reason for starting the film off with the disintegrating marriage rather than chronologically?
DC: Because to me the movie is kind of how I experience time. I'm constantly in a present day world, and in my present day world there are little ellipses of time. Today I got up at 7 and now it's 4, and I've been up for 9 or 10 hours, but if I was going to go back and piece it together, I'd probably piece an hour of it back together. Things just disappear from your day, and as I'm going through my day, I'm always remembering back to my life, and telling these stories about my parents and the filming of the movie, and those things become a little bit amplified, they're not necessarily the way they happened, they're an amplification of the truth, in the way I remember things, not the way they necessarily happened. I wanted Blue Valentine to take place in that world, which is to me present day life. I'm dealing with the present and my whole history at the same time. Every decision I make is informed by something that happened in my past, and I just thought that's the story of Blue Valentine. As I've been in breakups before, I've always remembered when I was first falling in love, I'd look back and look for clues, and think, 'How did we get here?' and I just wanted to make a movie that was emotional in that way, about an emotional truth. Not an intellectual truth, but emotional memories.
KH: Yes, and one of the ingenious elements of the film is that during the flashbacks, the audience gets tipped off to aspects of Cindy and Dean's relationship that could portend trouble down the road. But if we didn't know that eventually the marriage would sour, we might not have picked up on these things. So do we take away from this film that the seeds of a marriage that will eventually implode are planted early? That is, that the signs are there, if only we choose to see them?'
I think they are, that to every choice there's also a consequence. When you're younger you can become anything they want to be. Dean and Cindy, when we meet them in the past their stories are not yet written. And they make certain choices that define their lives forever, and those choice have reverberations down the line. Yes, so it's a cautionary tale of choice.
But do I think they make poor choices? No. Do I judge their choices? No. Do I think they shouldn't have fallen in love, that they should they have paid heed to the warning signs and not gone through with it? No, because I believe in it too. I've had that experience in my life, while falling in love with someone, I hear the voice inside of me telling me certain things that are happening right now, that we're building our house on sand, I know those things are there, and I choose sometimes to ignore those things and go forward and see if I can fight those, to see if I can overcome those things. It's never going to be perfect.
So yes, Dean and Cindy do build their house on sand, and there are warning signs, maybe they just don't pay enough attention to dealing with those things. They could overcome all those things, but they bury things for too long, and it comes too late. It becomes violent by the time they come out.
KH: Divorce, and broken marriages, are all around us, but they're not frequently depicted on screen, or if they are, they're often depicted in ways that have very little to do with reality. Did that have anything to do with your desire to make this film?
DC: Yeah. I mean there came a time in my life after my parents divorced when I started to feel very abandoned, very betrayed, by movies. Not all movies, of course. But a lot of the movies I'd grown up with, I'd see these people up on the screen who were nothing like me, you know? They were perfect, they spoke in perfect sentences, their teeth were perfect, they could express themselves too cleanly and clearly, they had exciting incidents in their lives and cathartic redemption at the end. I'd leave these movies and be so lonely afterward. I'd think, 'why isn't my life like that?' And I understand that people need fantasy, and I need it too, but I think people also deserve not to be lied to. And I think sometimes fantasy can be more dangerous to people than a reality check.
Here's an example and it's a simple example, but it's Maid in Manhattan starring Jennifer Lopez. I can only imagine that if I'm a teenage Hispanic girl who looks at that movie and thinks to myself, 'hey I'm gonna go out there and become a maid in a hotel, and some delightfully charming handsome British man is gonna come sweep me off my feet and take me home with him,' and I believe in that, and then I turn 35 years old, and that hasn't happened to me, I'd feel like I got bait and switched, like my life didn't turn out that way, and I think it leads to disappointment. Fantasy in people's lives leads to great disappointment, and I just feel as a filmmaker that my responsibility is not to perpetuate fantasies. What I'm interested in is, after the knight in shining armor rescues the damsel in distress, what happens when they have to share the bathroom? What happens when they have to do the dishes three times a day? I'm interested in what happens after that story we've been told.