The Motion Picture Association of America may have slapped “Blue Valentine” with an NC-17, but director Derek Cianfrance is damned if he’s going to cut his sexually frank drama to appease the ratings board.
“The assumption when you get an NC-17 rating is that you’ll change the movie to get an R,” Cianfrance told TheWrap's Editor-in-Chief Sharon Waxman following a Thursday night showing of “Blue Valentine.”
(Above, Cianfrance and Waxman; photograph by Jonathan Alcorn)
The showing and Q&A were part of TheWrap's ongoing Awards Screening Series.
“To me, that’s censorship," Cianfrance said. "And I respect what the actors are doing in this movie too much to change that." Referring to actors Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, he added, "It’s as if to say, ‘Ryan, Michelle, you’re good in this movie, but you’re a little too good."
“It was never our intention to make a movie that would offend people," he said. "It was a movie that would try to respect people. What you’re left with at end of this movie is emotions. Ultimately, I take it as a compliment that the feeling gave this movie an NC-17.”
Cianfrance, who spent 12 years getting the $4 million film — about a disintegrating marriage — made, said that Weinstein Company chief Harvey Weinstein, who bought the film after it was a breakout hit at Sundance, is prepared to release it with the current rating. The board's decision is currently being appealed.
“By changing the film, you cut into the heart and soul of what the film is. Every once in a while in your life you have an opportunity to stand for something. We feel proud to be on the forefront and standing for our rights as artists,” Cianfrance said.
It’s a stand that could be costly. As Cianfrance admitted to the capacity crowd at the Arclight Sherman Oaks, refusing to make the edits to a scene depicting oral sex on actress Williams will limit the number of theaters that will carry “Blue Valentine,” and the number of people who can see it.
Though the amount of skin shown is minimal, Cianfrance admits that the sex scenes between Williams and Ryan Gosling forms the spine of the film.
“Sex is a dialogue between people. It becomes a bone of contention in ‘Blue Valentine.’Their relationship is described through sex,” Cianfrance said.
Making such an uncompromising film, filled with many wrenching scenes of a relationship on the brink of collapse, meant a decade-long journey for the director. Cianfrance said he went through 66 drafts of the screenplay before losing track, and originally intended to cast Benicio Del Toro and Ashley Judd in the parts played by Williams and Gosling.
“When I started, Ryan was on ‘The Mickey Mouse Club’ and Michelle was auditioning for ‘Dawson’s Creek,” Cianfrance said.
But what seemed like a curse at the time turned out to be a blessing.
“I don’t think that I was ready to make this film 12 years ago. Lots of things happened to me — I got married and had children — and that gave me a richer understanding of the material ,” he said.
In the interim, he made a name for himself as a documentary filmmaker and worked obsessively on the script.
“I kept taking more and more off and letting it be the essence of the script and not the artifice,” Cianfrance said.
Waiting had an additional benefit. In the ensuing years, Gosling and Williams were able to become more bankable names thanks to their Oscar nominated turns in “Half Nelson” and “Brokeback Mountain.”
When it came to raising the money, Cianfrance said that unlike other independent filmmakers, the economic meltdown didn’t dry up funding for his passion project.
“It took the collapse of the financial markets to make this film. Maybe it was just the zeitgeist and people were ready for something depressing,” Cianfrance said.
When the cameras were finally ready to roll, Cianfrance employed distinctly unorthodox methods to get his actors ready for the emotional rigors of the film. He had his cast improvise freely, shot emotionally grueling scenes in single takes, and even made Gosling and Williams live together on a blue collar budget for a month.
The reason behind the forced cohabitation was to allow the actors to prepare for the scenes that document the collapse of their marriage. “Blue Valentine,” exists as two halves — one depicting the couple falling in love and the other showing the deterioration of their relationship.
“We had so much fun filming the first part that we wanted to forget about the second part and just call it ‘Valentine,’” Cianfrance said.
To get his stars to the right emotional place, the director had them buy groceries, do dishes, and re-enact family moments such as Christmas and birthday parties. Above all, he mandated that they fight.
“I gave them their wedding picture and we lit it on fire. We took the picture, lit a match, and watched it burn. We had them pitch fights all day,” Cianfrance said.
Despite the grueling shoot, both actors have remained enthusiastic supporters of the film throughout awards season. Gosling has even signed up to work on Cianfrance’s next project, “The Place Beyond the Pines.”
“It’s about the sins of the past,” Cianfrance said. “Also there’s motorcycles and guns in it.”