Knock knock...Who's there? Boo... Boo who? Oh, don't cry, it's just a joke?
The stage direction in Derek Cianfrance's script for his debut feature Blue Valentine simply read “Cindy tells Dean a joke.” Come the day of shooting, the director put it to actor Michelle Williams to improvise; to follow the mantra the production had adhered to all along and come up with a gag, in the moment, that she felt her character would have used to introduce her off-centre sense-of-humour to her new boyfriend (Ryan Gosling). The 'knock, knock' classic was her first attempt.
“It just wasn't funny,” understates Cianfrance, speaking with SBS Film from his home in Brooklyn, New York City. “I said 'Michelle, you've got to tell a dirty joke'. So for the next four takes she told dirtier and dirtier, more off-colour jokes and that was the last joke that she told and it was so offensive.... and hilarious.”
The joke (brilliantly sick and utterly unprintable) should have been the most controversial moment of the film, a bittersweet tragedy chronicling the birth and slow death of a couple's love. But it was the raw honesty of the couple's sexuality that riled the American censorship body, the MPAA, which initially slapped the socially- and commercially-restrictive NC-17 rating on the film. The ruling was later downgraded to R status, thanks in no small part to a high-profile campaign waged by Hollywood powerbroker Harvey Weinstein.
“I have an allergy to Hollywood's tendency to sensationalise sex and violence,” says Cianfrance of the controversy. “I can't stand to see a movie where sex is used for eroticism and titillation. I wanted to make a movie that took sex and violence and looked at them with responsibility.”
“Sex is a dialogue in any relationship and in the 'present' of Blue Valentine, sex becomes a bone of contention. To do a movie about a relationship and to not put sex in it is to not tell a true story.”
The filmmaker fought tirelessly in the MPAA appeals process to ensure his film gets as wide an audience as possible (many theatres will not screen NC-17 films; most media outlets will not run advertising for restricted-viewing titles). The passion in his argument for the film's artistic integrity has not dimmed at all. “There's consequence to sex in my movie; sex has reverberations. I am so thankful that the MPAA has humbled themselves and seen the light of day on this and realised that this movie is not there to harm people. It is there to give people a real look at it.”
He barely takes a breath before continuing. “You know, this goes to a larger point of the movie. Hollywood makes fantasy movies and I am now at a point in my life where I have stopped being able to relate to those movies – the 'knight in shining armour' movie or the 'frog turns into a prince' movie. The 'happily ever after' wasn't what my life was like. Blue Valentine was about fighting for and being responsible for real people in real life.”
The frankness of Cianfrance's film is never more confronting than in the abortion clinic sequence. “We were shooting a scene that was a very serious and complicated subject and I (didn't) want to take sides; I make very non-judgemental movies. With the abortion scene I wanted to try and make it as real as possible because I think all of the girls that have ever been in that situation, I owed it to them to not show it in a sensationalised way.” A minimal crew shot the sequence in a real planned-parenting clinic and utilised trained staff in on-screen roles to ensure authenticity.
“The doctor and the nurse were like my on-set collaborators. They helped (my understanding) of this complicated issue, of the moment where a girl has a choice whether to have an abortion or not. It was better to do it that way, to embrace and welcome the real world, rather than cutting it out or making it up as we went along.”
Cianfrance does not claim to be any type of great modern philosopher on the nature of love, though over the course of the interview he gives it a pretty good shot (“Love is just a mystery”; “Nothing as dramatic as death eroded Dean and Cindy's love, it was just time”; “This movie was not just about where love goes but where love comes from.”) What was most important to the filmmaker, who spent 12 years refining the intimacy and immediacy of Blue Valentine, was that the truth of the dual perspectives within a long-term relationship be portrayed.
“The film is a duet between a man and woman, between their past and their present, their youth and their adulthood, between love and hate. I wanted to create two subjective landscapes for these people to live in. In their past, they were like fish in the ocean; in their present, they are like fish in a bucket.”