August 9, 2014

Real Dying Love: Here's What 'Blue Valentine' Can Teach Us About Making Authentic Films

One thing to keep in mind as a filmmaker is that everything tells a story -- it's not just the actual script either, but very prop, every location, the colors of your character's shirts, the blocking, and editing. This concept is demonstrated masterfully in Derek Cianfrance's 2010 romantic drama Blue Valentine, which utilizes, both narratively and cinematically, the theme of "duality" to tell a tale of a dying relationship. In yet another excellent video essay from Darren Foley of Must See Films, we not only get to analyze the dual world's inside the film, but Cianfrance's compelling approach to capturing authentic emotionally charged moments on film.

[Warning: Spoilers ahead!]

"Duality" is a very common theme in all art forms -- paintings, music, literature, etc. -- but given the fact that films are a mixture of different media, the potential to really explore it is incredibly high. And we do in Blue Valentine; we see this theme used in the score, the cinematography, the editing, and many other places as well.

Cianfrance examines two worlds: one in which the two lovers, Dean and Cindy, meet and fall deeply in love (which takes place in the past within the story), and one in which they grow apart and, eventually, fall out of love. (which takes place in the present). So, already there is a duality established within the narrative: man vs. woman, past vs. present, marriage vs. divorce, etc., but the way Cianfrance decided to shoot the film adds yet another dimension. The scenes that take place in the past were shot very differently than the ones shot in the present. The "past" scenes that show Dean and Cindy falling in love were shot on film mainly on a 50mm lens to give it an immediate, nostalgic feel, while the "present" scenes that show the end of their relationship were shot from afar on a zoom lens on digital to give it a detached, artificial feel. Foley explains many other aspects of the film's expression of duality in the video essay below, like the contrasting lighting, blocking, shot size, editing, and music.

But how did Cianfrance manage to make an authentic, complex, dimensional film about something that has been mishandled over and over again in cinema: love? Did Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams just put on a great performance? Yes, but part of the reason for that was because Cianfrance not only allowed them to improvise scenes, but even went as far as having them live in a house with their on-screen daughter and filming Williams actually waking up in the morning to make it look more real. Encouraging his actors to improvise, as well as moving with the ebbs and flows of the story, allowed certain moments to be spontaneous and naturally emotional.

Find out what other things Cianfrance did to make Blue Valentine more authentic in the video essay below:

There is much to learn from this film when it comes to how form can tell a deeper story than content. Many times, I think, we get caught up in the writing process, trying to make sure every plot point is there, that our characters are arching along with the story. Though that's obviously important, the story isn't solely contained within the binding of a script. The cinematography, the editing, and so much more play an integral role in drawing your audience into the world you've made for them. In other words, writing expositional dialog where your character blatantly says, "Cindy, I feel so disconnected from you," isn't needed when you shoot your characters separately so they never appear on-screen together. "I feel as though the magic is gone from our marriage," isn't a line that needs to be written if the whimsical music that played when your character's fell in love is absent during their marriage. One of the greatest tenets of filmmaking: Show it. Don't say it.

If you want to know more about the production of Blue Valentinewhich endured over 60 drafts of the script, check out this interview with Cianfrance below. (A big thanks to A-BitterSweet-Life for sharing these videos!)

[via Must See FilmsA-BitterSweet-Life]

Your Comment


"There is much to learn from this film when it comes to how form can tell a deeper story than content."
How do you define form and content? To me this statement just doesn't make sense. Are you saying that character dialogue is content but lens choices and lighting are form? Or that acting and or plot is content but editing is form?
The thing that held this film together for me was Michelle Williams's astonishing performance. The film was so massively hyped by a certain kind of critic that my expectations may have been to high when I saw it. I found it rather dour and predictable like much of American independent cinema nowadays.

August 9, 2014 at 10:34AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM


In film criticism, content is defined as what's depicted on-screen (action, dialog, etc.), and form is defined as the style/techniques a filmmaker uses to create the content. Essentially, content = what, form = how.

The definitions of these terms, as well as the role they play, aren't always straightforward…they're mostly rhetorical. They're just a way in which film theorists/critics study film.

Here's an excellent reference:

August 9, 2014 at 2:24PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

V Renée
Nights & Weekends Editor

There was a lot of hype given Cianfrance's rehearsal method and directing: living together, improvisation, scenes with minimal direction. But, why do people just assume that this made the acting more natural? Perhaps Cianfrance just managed to book to actors with some talent and chemistry that could work around his unconventional directing to get decent performances. I feel that the current infatuation with improvisation and spontaneity is misguided. Some truly magnificent and natural performances have been captured on film and stage in which the actors actually rehearsed and spoke written lines and were given very specific direction.

August 9, 2014 at 11:48AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM


And your three feature films can be seen where?!

August 10, 2014 at 7:04AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM


Is that your defense of Cianfrance's unconventional directing and rehearsal technique?

August 10, 2014 at 7:36PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM


Don't deflect the question: If you are going to be a hater at least be a man and show us your work! But I bet you have nothing but opinions, which is fine btw..but they are only opinions!

So, you sir, are not the arbiter of cinematic wisdom nor the method from which to achieve them. Nor is anyone for that matter.

Moreover, this free-style filmmaking is simply a style and nothing more. It gives a certain aesthetic to the performances that many people like.

I am quite fond of this style obviously but, I am equally fond of the directing style of someone like a Nuri Bilge Ceylan whereby EVERY move, look, and word is scripted and carefully blocked out.

But it is nothing more than a style and EVERY bit as legitimate as a more directed approach.

August 10, 2014 at 8:35PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM


Thank you. You gave an argument rather than a question. Now, in your response to your question- I do not have three feature films and much of the work I do have is not very good. Do you feel like you've won this discussion?
If you read my comment, I'm not hating on "Blue Valentine". I like some parts of it. I was questioning a statement in the blog post: "part of the reason for that was because Cianfrance not only allowed them to improvise scenes, but even went as far as having them live in a house with their on-screen daughter and filming Williams actually waking up in the morning to make it look more real. Encouraging his actors to improvise, as well as moving with the ebbs and flows of the story, allowed certain moments to be spontaneous and naturally emotional." More and more, when I read blogs or listen to discussions, I hear this idea of spontaneity and improvisation being presented as an ideal for directing naturalistic action rather than it just being a stylistic choice. It has gotten to the point where some inexperienced directors are taking it as a given that they need to do this extended improv and mind games in order to get natural performances out of actors. Therefore, I felt it was worthwhile to call into question the opinion given in the blog post so that not everyone would take what is essentially a stylistic choice as the idealized directing style. For one, almost nobody reading this site has the resources to have their actors live together with their pretend daughter for a week. Also, many actors would find this type of directing to be inane and counterproductive.
But, as you said, this is a stylistic choice and can help to produce a certain style of movie. You tend to like this style. I tend to find that it creates some terrible movies and I would personally find it very annoying as an actor. Just opinions. And, just to make it clear, I enjoyed Blue Valentine so I'm not hating on the movie.

August 11, 2014 at 12:00AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM


Lots of words an argument do not make! But continuing to cite opinion as fact is highly annoying.

"many actors would find this type of directing to be inane and counterproductive."

How can you possibly know this?! An opinion, is not fact. Learn to think properly!

But thank you for the honest critique of your own work.

Moving on...

August 11, 2014 at 6:31AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM


I felt he was putting forth his opinion, not a fact.

I personally feel improving should be mostly during rehearsals. Even some spontaneous moments in film, were from rehearsals or after many takes (which are rehearsal in a way). One for instance, is in Empire Strikes Back when Han Solo replies, "I know."

Many people state online that this was unrehearsed or improv, but it was discussed between Harrison and the director after being dissatisfied with the scene as written.

I feel rehearsals with opportunity to explore allow actors (myself included) to feel comfortable, find rhythms in the scene, block, etc. to where it's much easier to perform on set with a camera and camera crews. These are just my two cents.

August 11, 2014 at 6:00PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

Morgan Simpson

Yes. Opinions. Regarding this statement though, "many actors would find this type of directing to be inane and counterproductive", I am giving this as a fact. Many of the actors that I have talked to have stated this opinion about this rehearsing and directing style. I am sure there are many actors that would also like this style. Many actors wouldn't care on of the other. The only other suggestion I want to make is that if you are directing a movie, it would be helpful to ask your actors what type of rehearsal or directing method they tend to appreciate rather than just automatically assuming that Cianfrance's style is the ideal style for getting a naturalistic performance out of your actors.

August 11, 2014 at 9:17PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM


It all comes down to what is spoken and unspoken. Too many filmmakers put their camera work ahead of "the story" and then wonder why their film wasn't more successful. Improvisation can sometimes work wonders but it's dependent on the director and actors and how skilled they are at it.

August 9, 2014 at 12:57PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM


Great post as always:)

August 9, 2014 at 5:27PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM


A lot of red, white and blue in this. When he walks out of the dark after the breakup he walks past a drooping American flag, and he wears the eagle on his shirt (death of traditional America?) Their wedding clothes are red, white and blue, the colours of the US flag. Past/Present = old America/ new America?

August 14, 2014 at 4:48PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM