This piece originally appeared in print in
So It Goes, Issue 4, Autumn 2014.
It took Derek Cianfrance twelve years in the directorial wilderness making documentaries before he made Blue Valentine (2011), the high watermark of recent domestic drama. It unflinchingly examines the place where love and life’s daily grind meet, through the mesmeric pairing of Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. Cianfrance’s subtle hand coaxes depth and integrity from his leads, allows space and time to brood without boring. The Place Beyond the Pines (2013) again keeps character at the forefront of an experimental and complex narrative with epic themes. Now filming his latest feature, The Light Between Oceans with Michael Fassbender, Cianfrance has become the rising director today’s best acting talent wants to work with. In an interview with So It Goes’ Joshua Bullock, he lifts the lid on his methods and the growing pains of a slow rise.
JOSHUA BULLOCK : Where have you just come from?
DEREK CIANFRANCE: I’ve just been casting my next film, The Light Between Oceans. Wow, actors have it hard. Directors are imagining things, just dreaming things, whereas actors actually have to go put themselves out there. Some people can see it as vanity, but they’re the ones putting themselves in vulnerable places. To be actually judged for who they are. These castings are so painful for me because there are these human beings on display. I don’t have to do that. I admire that in them, that thing I don’t have.
JB : But they arrive on the day, you’ve been paying the price for months and months beforehand.
DC : Yeah, but a good actor is always on a bit of a vision quest. All of their life experiences feed into their movies and their performances. The first film I made was a movie called Brother Tied...
JB : ...I hear the 35mm print is sitting in your basement.
DC : It is, in my dad’s basement. But it’s the worst because it’s all about me. When I was a kid I loved Taxi Driver. I loved the way it was made, the way it made me feel. But what I remember is standing in front of the mirror and saying, “You talkin’ to me?” I used to emulate Travis Bickle because of the human being, because of the performance, because of the actor. That movie’s great but not without that performance, without Harvey Keitel and Jodie Foster and Albert Brooks and Cybil Shepherd. They all add up to creating this world you believe in. Otherwise, you’re just making Ansel Adams pictures. You need the people. That’s the only thing that matters to me, the people.
JB: You were a student under the legendary experimental filmmakers Phil Solomon and Stan Brakhage. A real alternative to most mainstream film schools.
DC: Absolutely. I’m very thankful. I was so disappointed to have to go to school in Colorado, but in hindsight it was the best experience I could have had – I got to observe these real artists, and they challenged my view of cinema, my view of the world, opening up the possibilities of what it could be. They also just showed me how to work, as an artist. I had a student film I was going to do about a vampire and I wanted to call it 'Suck'. I went to Phil Solomon’s office and told him. He basically just emasculated me. I realised it was incredibly immature.
JB: You were being ironic before you even started. Solomon also told you that content should illuminate form rather than form illuminating content. What did he mean by that?
DC: I grew up with this idea of the director as such a big deal; the guy who sits in a chair with his name on it, telling everyone what to do. Usually you see images of him pointing – that’s iconic. I embodied that in my early films. I heard The Wild Ones had 1,600 edits and so I decided I wanted to make a film with more edits. So I raised 40,000 dollars – from my dentist, selling T-shirts, selling chocolate Easter bunnies, whatever I had to do to save money to have 40,000 dollars basically so I could do 1,601 edits of Brothers Tied. It was about me, I was making a movie that was about what I could do. When I watch that movie it’s a bit embarrassing to me. I appreciate its naïveté and its ambition, but I don’t think anyone cared. I went to Sundance with it when I was twenty-four years old and there were sixty people in the audience. No one cared about how many edits I made or how many cool shots I had. All they wanted to do was experience a story, to feel something.
JB : Which is how a first film usually ends up.
DC : Yeah, maybe. But if you put that first film out into the world and the world doesn’t embrace it then they can put you on the bench. And that’s what happened, I got put on the bench. I had to sit there and watch other people play for twelve years. In time, I started directing documentaries and it was only then that I really started to learn. Being a documentary filmmaker was penance. I would do an interview with someone and they wouldn’t necessarily answer the question the way I thought they should. Things would happen, we’d be at a table and the coffee would spill and I would be shooting and I’d only have one take for the scene, so I learned to humble myself and embrace the real-life lack of choices.
JB : Who were you twelve years on from your failed first film? You’d written Blue Valentine at pretty much the same time you released Brother Tied.
DC : I had become a father, gotten married, fallen in love. When I finally made Blue Valentine I had pushed that script around for twelve years, I’d written sixty-six drafts and finally I had Ryan [Gosling] and Michelle [Williams] and 1,224 story boards. I had that movie in my head. My fear about it was that when I started shooting I was going to make something that was all about me again.
JB : How did you raise the funding? How did it actually happen? After sixty-six drafts...
DC: I just kept sending it out, and eventually when you believe in something enough, more people around you start to believe in it. That’s just inevitable. I was too stubborn to let it go and I tried everything. I competed in this Chrysler short film competition – I won a million dollars, so had this giant cheque in my house, one of those big cardboard cut-outs. At the end of the day they only actually gave us 250,000 dollars.
JB : Why?
DC : Because I didn’t make it in the timeframe. At the point when I won the million-dollar cheque I didn’t have Ryan and Michelle, I had another cast. I had had the plug pulled on me so many times by other people and then I had this other cast involved in Blue Valentine who were people I liked. I realised I’d rather not make my film than make the wrong version of it, so I pulled the plug myself. Two years later when I finally made it with Ryan and Michelle, the money wasn’t all there.
JB : How did you set up those two halves of Blue Valentine and the six years that pass between them? Did you give them a month off and say ‘go get fat’, ‘Ryan, go accelerate that receding hairline and come back in April?’
DC: Ha ha, not quite. Basically we got a house and lived in it together. I wanted to wait six years to do it. Shoot the past, and then wait six years. But the financier only gave me a weekend. So in order to get a whole month I had to sell all my lighting equipment, sell all the camera tools, and again that was all perfect with my mindset right then. I wanted to kill the machine of making films. I’m in the process of that right now with The Light Between Oceans. There’s only so much money that I have and I want to invest all of it in time and space for the actors. I’d rather have that than a great helicopter shot. There are certain filmmakers who are so good they can just push the artifice button and you feel something there and then. Why are you crying? You look around and everyone in the theatre’s crying at that exact moment. I don’t want to do that. I want to make movies that are more mysterious and more human. My favourite films are ones that change over time.
JB : So what did you do with the month?
DC : I asked production designer Inbal Weinberg to deck out this whole house we were renting – Ryan, Michelle and the daughter Faith – and make sure that it was fully functional so that there would be soap under the sink and sheets on the bed. The costume designer put all of their wardrobe in their closets and underwear in their underwear drawer, so we could live there. Then we came up with a budget, figuring out how much money they made a year. Ryan was a house painter, he made this much a week. Michelle was a nurse, she made this much a week. They had this much to spend on rent, this much to spend on car payment, babysitter, insurance minus whatever else. They had 300 dollars a month for groceries, so I gave them 300 dollars. They had to go grocery shopping, stuff that was never on the screen but would help them have memories to draw from. Slowly over time, things started to eat away at them. The first week was weird, everyone was psyched to be in the house and we were just watching movies and listening to Leonard Cohen songs, but then after a week, the honeymoon started crumbling a little bit. Michelle was lying on the couch and Ryan was doing the dishes again. Little bits of tension came through.
JB : Did you engineer any other interplay between Williams and Gosling?
DC : Once, we broke apart the sink and kept Ryan out of the house. The sink was dripping, leaking all over the house and Michelle was in the house alone. Ryan was outside wondering why he couldn’t go inside the house and I said, “Well you’re at work right now.” At five o’clock he goes in the door and there’s water everywhere. Michelle is frantic because it’s someone’s real house and she wants him to fix it and of course, he’s not a plumber. How she could think every man would just know how to do plumbing – there’s this battle of the sexes that’s starting to happen and I’m just outside listening to the chaos. It kind of reminds me of how I grew up, listening to arguments. This is how I live with my family now. We argue all the time, which is why I know how to communicate honestly. When the month was over, they had real experiences, the muscle memory of fights. Michelle needed that with Ryan because the guy is so smart, he’s impossible to argue with. You need to get brave to fight with him.
JB : So with all that meticulous preparation and bringing so much out of your actors, how faithful to your original plans for a scene are you once you review your final footage?
DC: I always say editing is murder. The only thing that helps in the editing room is working with my friends Jim and Ron. Together at least we make it enjoyable. I don’t really use a script supervisor on set, telling me which shooting days I liked. In Blue Valentine there’s a scene with Ryan and Michelle where she’s sitting on his lap on the bus and I remember telling them it looked weird. I didn’t want her to be his baby. I tell my actors, let’s not judge anything. If you want to do it, do it. But then conversely whatever I want to do, do it. We’ll just let the cream rise to the top in the edit. And in the editing room I was sure we were going to use my version, but it wasn’t as good as the idea Ryan came up with so we used his. I find editing torturous because so much has to leave. You just have to murder all these gifts actors give you on the set. Not only murder moments, you have to murder entire people, entire characters. I’ve cut my mum out of a movie. But it’s nice to have friends with you when you’re committing these atrocities.
JB: It is striking how naturalistic the dialogue is in your films. Was that sort of experimental, less-constructed cinematic experience one you sought out growing up?
DC: The first time I saw Faces, by John Cassavetes, I felt completely bewildered by it. All of my favourite movies make me feel like that. He says his stuff isn’t improvised. I don’t know, we’ll have to take his word on it. He certainly has a way to make his movies feel alive. If my first film, Brother Tied, had been successful, I think I would have been a completely different filmmaker. Maybe I’d be doing much bigger- budget, megalomaniacal movies. But then I admire all kinds of movies. Even with Avatar, though it’s all technically very proficient, James Cameron still cares deeply about stories – he’s the best storyteller. I’d like to have a balance between the way I work with actors and the technical – I definitely want my films to be beautiful. But I’m born for the cinema because you only have to get it once. Like in casting, I can see eighty people and they all lead to one. When I cast Ben Mendelsohn in The Place Beyond the Pines, it was after five seconds. He came in and said, “You’re not going to have me read for you are you? If you do, it’ll be the last thing I get to do for you.” I said, “What else should we do?” And he said, “Just give me the role and I’ll carry the script.” So I hired him.