It took 12 years to bring Blue Valentine to the big screen. It was more than worth the wait says Film Critic Tony Earnshaw.
There is a painful, aching, sobbing truth at the heart of Blue Valentine.
Adoring co-stars Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling felt it, as did director Derek Cianfrance. Now audiences are waking up to the realism and life lessons of a modest little flick that has already picked up a billowing head of steam and is poised to smash through the buffers to hit the Oscars like a runaway train.
The marketing blurb tags it as "the story of love found and love lost" in which the tedium and reality of marriage begins to destroy a husband and wife who met and married in a cloud of romantic whimsy.
Cianfrance, making his breakthrough feature, reveals the film was based on one of his childhood nightmares: his parents' divorce. The other was nuclear war. If the latter was a grim, faraway horizon, the former was not. He recalls printing off the first draft of the script in the summer of 1998 and convinced himself that the film would be underway by the autumn.
Five long years later he met Michelle Williams and offered her the lead role of Cindy. In 2005 he enlisted the support of Ryan Gosling to play Dean.
Still the project limped forward hampered, says Cianfrance, by "bankruptcy, firings, death. We just kept running into red lights. I kept watching the movie in my head over and over and over again. Kept focusing on it. Kept preparing. Kept planning. Stayed inspired. Practised. Kept working with the actors to make it better."
The film survived the shock death, three years ago, of Williams' ex-partner Heath Ledger. Once again it was delayed – as a courtesy to
the grieving young mother.
When it finally went before the cameras it was a rapid journey to conclusion: 30 days on location in Pennsylvania and Brooklyn.
"We made the film we wanted to make," adds Cianfrance.
Leading man Gosling shrugs off reports that Canadian viewers have labelled the film "an anti-love story". To him, "it's very romantic. The characters in this film couldn't embrace each other's faults because they were trying to live up to some idea of perfection. I think acknowledging that is romantic."
Gosling might be forgiven for having a skewed take on such a grim tale. Cindy and Dean's shared life begins with music, laughter and love. It ends with jealousy, violence and contempt. Yet throughout it runs a universal truth that Cianfrance sums up as "Honesty. Beautiful ugliness. Terrible beauty. Love."
It's an irresistible, cloying, deeply punishing combination. For Gosling it fits his choice of roles in the indie sector and films like The Believer, Lars and the Real Girl and Half Nelson. There have been lighter, more mainstream, projects like The Notebook and the forthcoming The Ides of March, with George Clooney, but Gosling remains happier in unusual, edgy fare.
"Every time I make a movie, I don't think, 'I want to make small movies no one ever sees'. I really think they're going to be bigger than Avatar; it just never happens. Films like Blair Witch Project instigated that because it makes it seem possible for a small movie to resonate and become a success story."
Bucking the trend, Blue Valentine has created a stir among the cognoscenti. Gosling and Williams have been nominated for Golden Globes, taking place this Sunday. There is growing talk that both will achieve glory with a nomination – and maybe even a win – at the Academy Awards. Some have hinted that acting became real life and that romance spilled over from location to dressing room. Gosling goes so far as to reveal that he and Williams lived together for a month but that she went home at night.
"We had a budget, did groceries, fought, cleaned and cooked, and tried to build as many memories as we could in our house. So when we were losing our love, we knew what we were losing. Both Michelle and I had a hard time taking off our wedding rings at the end."
Derek Cianfrance has a similar problem. "I was thankful for the time that I was forced to wait. The film is better for it," he comments.
"I built the process around the need to be surprised and the need to make a living, breathing, adult film.
"I distinctly remember the first scene we shot with them together on camera – when Dean comes over with flowers to dinner at Cindy's parents' house. I was super nervous, because in making a portrait of an intimate relationship, everything depends on chemistry. Needless to say, I exhaled deeply when I saw them together for the first time. There was a magic spell between them. I embraced it, and we all were witnesses."
Blue Valentine (15) is on general release.