It's not often that a Denver native has a movie in theaters. At the moment there are two: The Company Men by John Wells, and Blue Valentine by Derek Cianfrance. Derek's film has received great critical acclaim (as well as my own) since its premiere at Sundance last year. He grew up in Lakewood, attended Green Mountain High School, and later the University of Colorado at Boulder. I was too young to cross paths with him, but later discovered we attended the same schools and even shared the same teachers.
So I was eager to talk with him about his new film, and the incredible journey he's taken. We spoke the evening before the Academy announced its Best Actress nomination for Michelle Williams, who co-stars in the film with Ryan Gosling. He discussed the making of the film, getting a deal made with the Weinstein Company at Sundance, and where he is going with his in-development HBO series based on Sam Fussell's book, Muscle: Confessions of an Unlikely Bodybuilder.
Richard: It's really nice to talk to you. One of the Green Mountain kids went out and they made a movie that's in theaters. It's crazy.
Derek: Yeah, I know! It's still a bit surreal to me too. I've spent so long privately dreaming about this film and trying to get it made. Now that it's out there, it's nice. It's nice to know I wasn't crazy when I was dreaming all those years, you know? I think when you dream you walk a fine line between delusion and reality.
RK: When you left CU, did you have an immediate idea for making this film?
DC: I went to CU for two years. I dropped out in '95 when I was 20 years old to make my first film Brother Tied which I spent like four years on. Finished it when I was 24, went to Sundance in 1998 with it. It went to like thirty other festivals. I actually started writing Blue Valentine in January of 1998 at Sundance. I actually wrote it on the same Sunday the Broncos won their Super Bowl.
It was something that I felt like I needed to do. I think all of us grew up with this fantasy notion of relationships, the happily ever after, but I just felt like from all the relationships that I had seen, from my parents to my own relationships, those relationships didn't work out the way they did in movies. So I wanted to make a movie about what I considered to be, or what my experience was, in a relationship, what the experiences of friends or family was in a relationship, and just try to make an honest story of a relationship.
Then I started writing it and just became obsessed with it, and felt like it was the film I was born to make, you know?
RK: So if you never made a movie again, you'd be proud it went out there and you did it the way you wanted to, right?
DC: I did do it the way I wanted to, but would I be happy? No, because I think the hole you're always trying to fill as an artist, that hole, that gaping hole in me for 12 years was Blue Valentine. And finally I got it made, but now I'm on the other side of it and that hole is still there. I have other things that I have to do too.
So I don't think being an artist you can ever satisfy--the moment you do get satisfied is the moment you're done, really. I'm actually starting to bug out now, because it's not enough, you know what I mean? I get joy and pleasure in the movies out there in the world that people are seeing, but for me, it's about making it. That's why I do it, is to make it, to deal with my life, you know what I mean?
For the last four years I've been working on a film called The Place Beyond The Pines and I'm just totally obsessing over that one, and now that's the film I have to make before I die. And maybe that's just gonna be the cycle of life for me. Because I know it was like that with Brother Tied too. I had to make Brother Tied. There was something itching in me to get it done. I got it done, and it was successful on a lot of levels and not successful on some other levels but you just keep going. I'm hoping I don't have to wait 12 years to do The Pines, hopefully I'll get that going this summer, but I'll do whatever it takes to get it done. I just think that this is my life, trying to make these personal intimate movies.
RK: With the attitude of committing yourself to something totally, did that rub off on your cast? Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling were committed to this project for many years before you guys filmed something. How did that happen?
DC: Yeah as the director I consider myself to be the coach, and my actors are my players. So I have to show them how committed I am, but I also want to lead by example. I think whenever you make a film, you start out alone, and then slowly start--you have to be a magnet. You have to attract people to you, to the project. And slowly but surely--it took me 12 years, very slowly--eventually I had an army of people around me, that included great producers, great crew members, two of the greatest actors of our generation in Ryan and Michelle, and all these people that believed in the film. Everyone believed in the film as much as me.
I look at Phil Jackson as a real idol for me as a coach, he has the ability to take all these huge egos and consistently get those egos working for a greater good. And I really look at him for inspiration for me. I don't look at someone like Josh McDaniels as a good example of that.
RK: I would absolutely agree.
DC: Yeah, he's like the megalomaniac director and that's cool, some people can do that, James Cameron can do that, Bill Belichick can do that, he's like the James Cameron guy. But you know, you need to get your players to go out there and do the best.
RK: If everything would have gone perfectly and there wasn't that time gap of 12 years, do you think you would have directed a different film?
DC: Oh absolutely. Back in 1998 the film I would have made would have been a lot different. Structurally it would have been very similar, but I think aesthetically it would have been much more showy, in terms of--the content and the moments, they would have been more archetypal moments, you know more clichéd moments. Less real. I don't think it would have worked. I felt cursed for all those years, but 12 years later I feel blessed, because 12 years ago I didn't have a family. I wasn't married and I didn't have kids. I think I needed to have that life experience in order to tell the story about being a parent, or being a husband, or being married.
RK: Your film premiered at Sundance last year. Describe the feeling you had talking to the Weinsteins for the first time about your movie.
DC: It's surreal, you grow up in the 90's in the independent film world, I had my first film Brother Tied at Sundance, and I went to Sundance, and Harvey Weinstein didn't want to have anything to do with me, but you always hear these stories, these classic stories of deals made at 3 in the morning, at Sundance with Harvey Weinstein or something.
And here I am last year at Sundance, showing in front of this huge audience at Eccles, and they're into it. Reviews start coming in, the next thing I know Harvey saw the film at a private 1am screening, and he's calling my producers at 3 in the morning wanting the film, and 24 hours of negotiations goes by, and 3am the next day they bought the film. I had conversations with him on the phone and I felt like I was talking to Darryl Zanuck, or David O Selznick.
It was just epic, legendary. And I felt like I had an experience with a legendary figure of American filmmaking. I think he's going to go down in history--one of those guys you remember, like David Selznick. It's surreal, once the surrealness goes away and you're actually working with the guy, it's great. You realize how he built his legend. He has such a big personality. And he champions and fights for your films, and sometimes fights with you. And it's all in the name of making a better film.
RK: And Harvey fought for the rating too, and got the NC-17 overturned.
DC: It was in the middle of October when we got the NC-17 rating. He was as shocked as I was, you know? But I tell you what, he never once asked me to cut the film, he never once even talked to me about considering I cut it. He just said, "we're gonna go out there, we're gonna fight this, we have to win it." He just built this arsenal around him of tools that he could go in and fight the ruling with. And he did, he fought and won. For the first time in history he got an unanimous ruling. Unanimously overturned MPAA ruling. It's just legendary. The guy's powerful. There's nothing like having him be on your side to fight a battle. I can only imagine what it's like to be on the other side of him. I wouldn't want to be there.
RK: Now that you have a deal with HBO, you're doing a body building comedy right?
DS: Yeah they call it a comedy, of course it's gonna be funny but I can tell you this, it's gonna be very serious too. People just see the idea of a half hour show and they think it's just a comedy. I can guarantee you it's not a parody, it's not a satire of the weight lifting world. It's not 'Hans and Franz'. It's a true journey into the subculture of weight lifters and weight lifting and body building and everything that goes into that. And I have a great deal of respect for those people that are body builders.
The reason why I'm doing it as a TV show is I tried to get this made as a movie, and I just couldn't figure out how to get a guy to start out like me, a normal looking guy, and put on 80 pounds of muscle. Because you can't do that in a movie. The only way to do it is fake it through special effects. But to do a TV series, I can actually have a guy, over 5 years--grow.
RK: It sounds much different than anything HBO has done up to this point.
DC: TV is really a writer's medium, because you can have these characters live and grow for so long. And it's just a great opportunity. And between myself and Sam Fussell, the writer of the book, he had so many stories. The thing I want to do differently is I want to make it cinematic. My favorite TV is Lars Von Trier's The Kingdom. So I want it to be a cross between The Kingdom and The Wire.
RK: Seeing your trajectory is going to be an inspiration for local filmmakers.
DC: That's great. I can't wait to see what kind of films come out of Denver now.
Blue Valentine is now in theaters.