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 Valentine, which 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!)