Q&A with Derek Cianfrance: Blue Valentine director says Williams and Gosling’s Oscar potential was clear from the get-go
Derek Cianfrance doesn’t need to hear Mo’Nique announce the Oscar nominations on January 25. He knew his lead actors, 30-year-old Ontarian Ryan Gosling and 30-year-old Michelle Williams, were giving Oscar-worthy performances from their first day on the set of the romantic drama Blue Valentine. For the 36-year-old, relaxed in a snap-button plaid shirt and scuffed-up white leather dress shoes at Toronto’s InterContinental hotel, the awards buzz began “the first time that Ryan and Michelle were together [on-set].”
“A lot of the time when I was shooting the film, it felt like I was making a documentary of these two people falling in love,” he said. “I was just so relieved when I saw it. I realized I wasn’t going to have to resort to any cinematic tricks to create this chemistry between them. It was real. It was happening.”
That chemistry—strengthened during a one-month break when Gosling and Williams lived together as their characters (minus the sleepovers) in a small house—has paid off. Both leads are nominated for Golden Globes. The film was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and for a Gotham award (unexpectedly, Williams was the only one from the film nominated for an Independent Spirit Award).
The film follows Dean and Cindy, a couple whose six-year marriage has been worn down by bad habits, money trouble and clashes over how to raise their six-year-old daughter, Frankie. Blending scenes of the couple taking one last weary crack at saving their marriage with the story of how they first fell in love contrasts the giddy hopes of the fresh start with their miserable present.
The complex relationship between the characters—he’s painting houses, a job he notes offers the perk of being able to drink at 8 a.m.; she’s an overworked nurse who can barely make her daughter’s school assembly—has left audiences arguing long after Williams and Gosling’s final fight. “I’ve had many screenings where it kind of turns into the Jerry Springer Show,” Cianfrance said.
Love scenes become battles, and the unglamorous realism of the sex scenes led the Motion Picture Association of America to give the film an NC-17 rating, which would limit its marketability. It was downgraded to an R on appeal. In Ontario, the film carries an 18A rating, which is the equivalent of the American R.
“It just says something about the commitment and bravery of Ryan and Michelle that they would go to those places,” Cianfrance says. “When you are in your most embarrassing, ugly moments, you don’t want people to see that. So to have two very famous actors go to these dark and vulnerable places for the world to see, I’m so happy they’re getting the accolades that they’re getting, because they deserve it.”
Blue Valentine opens in Toronto on January 7.