Aspen Filmfest: Reality, not fantasy, fuels ‘Blue Valentine’
ASPEN – As a kid in Lakewood, Derek Cianfrance had two nightmare scenarios: nuclear war, and his parents divorcing. The latter eventually came true, and though Cianfrance was 20 when his parents split up, he still felt like a child set adrift.”I looked around, trying to be comforted, trying to relate to it through music, film and art,” Cianfrance said. “I was so confused and bewildered.”Cianfrance was a drummer, and had played in bands for much of his life. But he was also a filmmaker, who had made a few dozen short films as a child, went on to attend film school at CU Boulder, and made the student feature “Brother Tied,” which earned numerous awards on the festival circuit. It was film that he turned to in his moment of need, and he began a script about romance, using his perspective on his parents’ relationship as a starting point.”The only love tragedy I could find, or the one most common in movies, was the ‘Romeo & Juliet’ type, the young lovers dying at the peak of their love, clutching each other,” Cianfrance said from Brooklyn, where he has lived since 1999. “But that didn’t happen to my parents, or me, or anyone I knew. I thought that left me with the job of telling a different kind of story.”Cianfrance, though, was single at the time, and 24 years of age when he began the script, and thus found himself not quite qualified to tell that story. “I felt I was cursed. I could never get it going,” he said.Cianfrance is now 36, married for seven years, the father of two young boys – and grateful for the time that has passed since he conceived the project. “I’m thankful, because I don’t think I could have made this film without being married, without having children,” he said, adding that much of the interim was spent making documentaries.The film he did complete, “Blue Valentine,” premiered at Sundance, where it earned a nomination for the Grand Jury Prize, and has been screened at top-tier festivals in Cannes, Telluride and Toronto. The film, starring Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling, shows Saturday, Oct. 2, at 6:15 p.m., at the Wheeler Opera House, as part of Aspen Filmfest; Cianfrance will be in attendance for a post-screening Q&A.The real-life experiences Cianfrance accumulated over the 12-year period of making “Blue Valentine” did not go to waste. The film is rooted in situations and emotions viewers will recognize from their own lives, not from the standard movie-theater version of reality.”I spent 12 years trying to strip off the artifice of this film, and trying to find what was raw and what was honest about it,” Cianfrance said during a break from scouting a location for a commercial he was hired to shoot. “It’s not putting two fantasy characters up on the screen. In Hollywood, there’s this preoccupation with the fantasy. I love those movies, but those fantasies set people up for great disappointment.””Blue Valentine,” set for release in late December, won’t be mistaken for a product of the fantasy factory. The structure – set on the one day that the unambitious Dean and the disappointed Cindy designate to save their failing marriage, but jumping back in time to explore moments in the relationship – is complex, and brings the tricky subject of memory into the picture. The emotions spiral downward – the precise opposite of fantasy. And audiences are left with no simple answers at film’s end; in fact, Cianfrance hopes not to deliver any answers at all.”I keep thinking of the Supremes song, ‘Where Did Our Love Go?’ Because there were no answers; it was just a question,” he said. “To me, it’s the central mystery of ‘Blue Valentine’: Where does love go, and where does it come from? ‘Blue Valentine’ is in between those two moments – falling in and out of love.”Cianfrance went to cinematic extremes to delve into those questions. In a scene that takes place on a bridge, he abandoned scripted filmmaking and instructed Gosling to do whatever he needed to get Williams to reveal a secret, while directing Williams to resist telling the secret, no matter what. Gosling finally climbed over the fence of the Manhattan Bridge – causing Williams to tell her secret and a freaked-out producer to shut down the shoot. And giving Cianfrance the kind of rawness he sought.”It was stupid. But we had our real, living moment. We didn’t need another take,” Cianfrance said. “I wanted ‘Blue Valentine’ to be actually alive. I wanted the moments to be real moments. I have an allergy to films where, after five minutes, I know how the scene will end, how the film will end – where there’s no danger or risk up there. I wantd to use my documentary background to create moments that are not easily defined.”Cianfrance mentions two films that were enormously influential in fostering his love of movies, and neither of them mirror real life the way “Blue Valentine” is meant to. “Creepshow” and “Airplane II: The Sequel” were in heavy rotation during what he calls “the VHS generation.””I think that’s how I learned the grammar, studying the VCR, and watching ‘Creepshow’ a hundred times, memorizing not only the dialogue but the lighting, the shots. Film language became second nature to me.”His own filmmaking, though, borrows from other traditions. “Brother Tied,” his student film, focused on two brothers and was based on a real-life friendship of the lead actor. “Blue Valentine,” Cianfrance said, was influenced by Pier Pasolini’s “The Gospel According to St. Matthew,” the films of John Cassavetes, and more recent work like “Ballast” and the Romanian movie “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” – all noted for their gritty realism. “These films aren’t pulling the wool over our eyes,” he said. Cianfrance has two films in the works: “The Place Beyond the Pines” is a film about relationships, inspired by Jack London’s books – “the idea of ancestry, that there are things inside us we can’t escape,” Cianfrance said. “Metalhead” is a quasi-documentary about a heavy metal drummer who blows out his eardrums. It stars the members of Juicifer, a real-life husband-and-wife band known for hauling their tons of equipment in a RV, and the extreme volume they produce once the equipment is set up.Cianfrance believes the VHS generation he grew up in is over, and that the You Tube generation is upon us. In this age, audiences see through cheap tricks, and filmmakers must respond with more convincing doses of reality.”They don’t care how polished a film is,” he said. “They want to see moments. They get 30-second clips of these real moments. Audiences are very sharp; you can’t fool them as easily. When emotion is being forced on me, it repels me.”email@example.com
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If there’s one silver lining of the 2020 hellscape for cinephiles, it’s the democratization of film festivals for the masses. So if you missed an anticipated movie at Aspen Filmfest this year, check out these film festivals out of Denver.