BLUE VALENTINE and A PLACE BEYOND THE PINES established Derek Cianfrance as a Writer/Director with a distinct ability to draw out the most human aspects of intimate relationships.
His latest project is THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS, which stars Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander and Rachel Weisz. The film follows a World War I veteran and his wife whose lives are forever altered when they decide to raise an infant they rescued from a rowboat that washed up to shore, only for fate to lead the couple to meet the child’s biological mother.
OnWriting spoke with Cianfrance about his approach to developing characters, his thoughts on adapting a best-selling novel and his views on rewriting a script in search of its sweet spot.
How did you get into the film industry? How did you get your start?
When I was six years-old, my brother got an audio cassette recorder for his ninth birthday, which I promptly stole from him. I used it to do skits, interview people and instigate my family. I’d get my grandma to tell me dirty jokes and get my uncle to do strange voices. I’d hide it in my jacket and get my brother to say something disparaging to me, then use the tape as blackmail against him.
My family rented this VCR player to celebrate my brother’s birthday and I became obsessed. I used to record movies off of HBO, like CREEPSHOW, and watch them every day after school when I was in the fourth grade. My VHS collection became my library as a kid. I had three movies per tape. Every day I would watch movies, study them and memorize them. When I was 13, my school library had a video camera that I would check out and use to make home movies. I did that every three months, from age 13 to 18. I’m in my 40’s now and it’s been 35 years of pretty much doing the same thing.
When you were making these films in your youth, were you actually writing out stories or did you work off of an idea and go shoot?
I worked off ideas. I came to writing later. I didn’t actually start writing my scripts until I got into college. The first script I wrote was my first feature, BROTHER TIED. I wrote it with a good buddy of mine, Mike Tillman. We’d work on it at his office after school. I wasn’t doing my homework at school; I was only writing this script. We taught ourselves to write. I wasn’t very good at it. I didn’t understand screenplay structure. We finished the script and then we raised money and made a movie.
I cut my teeth on BLUE VALENTINE. I started writing it in 1998 and I didn’t shoot it until 2009. That’s 11 years of writing BLUE VALENTINE. I wrote 66 drafts. It was over the course of my failure with BROTHER TIED that I realized the failure came from the script. The script didn’t work, so we couldn’t make a good movie out of it. With BLUE VALENTINE, I stayed stubborn and engaged and hammered away at it every three months. Finally, I had a script that was good enough to attract high caliber actors.
When you wrote those 66 drafts, how did you go about shaping and editing your own work?
The process of rewriting is crucial to me. It’s what I do on set when I’m shooting. You have to adapt to evolve as a filmmaker and as an artist.
I remember when I was a kid, I would watch Bob Ross on TV. Ten minutes in, I always had this feeling that he needed to stop painting. I’d think, “It looks good; don’t do anymore.” Then he’d keep going for another 15 minutes on that painting. With every move, he would make you realize that he was taking it further and further towards its ultimate destiny. That’s how I approach writing.
I don’t think I could ever write something the first time and have it be done. There’s a process of evolution. You write the first time, try to get to the end and then you show it to people you trust. You read it for your own reaction. You live your life a little bit, get some distance from the script and then come back to it fresh. You can then find where it’s true and where it’s lacking in truth. I never have a problem going back and wiping the whole slate clean and starting over.
Not to sound like a hippie, but the universe was not ready for BLUE VALENTINE in 1998. I wasn’t ready. The universe was telling me it wasn’t done, so I kept working on it. That’s what ends up happening with my scripts; I work on them until it is undeniable that they have to be made. They don’t get made if they’re not ready.
THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS is the first thing you’ve adapted for the screen. Was adaptation a different process for you?
I loved it. After I had made THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES, I was so sick of myself. I had spent five years working on that with my co-writer Ben Coccio. I was two weeks out from shooting the film when I gave it to my good friend Darius Marder. He is one of my great collaborators, and he tore the script to shreds. I asked him to rewrite the script with me. All of a sudden, I’m scouting locations for a film that I’m completely rewriting at the same time. By the time I shot that film, on day one, I was literally finishing the script. It still had the base of everything that I had worked on with Ben, but its evolution continued right down to the last possible moment. That was a crazy example.
Honestly, after that process, I wanted to do an adaptation. I had the hardest time finding something that made any sense to me. I read a number of scripts, and they didn’t speak my language. I was at a meeting at DreamWorks with Steven Spielberg, who had been a huge fan of BLUE VALENTINE, and his folks gave me all these books for which they owned the rights. I picked up THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS thinking it was about a lighthouse keeper. What’s more cinematic than a light shining through a lens, projecting into darkness? I thought that I could work with that idea.
Then I started reading more of the book. It’s about a lighthouse keeper who’s isolated. The book was one of the few things that I read that I felt like I related to, so I fought to convince everyone at DreamWorks, and David Hayman, to give me a shot. By the time they did, I had memorized the book. I found the book to be so emotional. It was in line with so many ideas I’d had about paternity and there was an epic quality of intimate details. I loved that the characters weren’t good or bad; they were human.
When I sat down to write, I didn’t have to deal with my usual angst, because I had a structure that I knew worked. All I had to do in the writing of the script was to try and make the book truer to me. I wasn’t going to go out and film a book, because I think the literary medium and the cinematic medium are completely different.
The project was like a gift. It was the first thing I ever wrote on my own. I never talked to the author of the book while I was writing, though I felt like I had a relationship with her. I trusted her words and trusted the feeling I had when I read them the first time.
How did you go about adapting the material?
I still have the book; I’ve read every page dozens of times. I have notes in the margins, it’s highlighted and filled with cocktail napkins and bookmarks. There’s tickets from trips to different lighthouses.
I began by creating note cards of every scene that happened in the book or the things that I thought were important. I had two full bulletin boards filled with note cards, which showcased story beats and character beats. It took about six weeks to notate it longhand. Then I’d take each one of those notecards and start on a blank page working with the ideas. Eventually, I had a script that clocked in at 135 to 140 pages on the first draft. It was a little long but when people read it, they had the same emotion they had with the book. I was able to distill the book down to its essence through this process of writing.
One of the greatest compliments I’ve had about the movie was from the author. She told me after she saw the first rough cut of the movie, she spent the day weeping because she felt that she was understood. She said that to her that was the greatest gift in life.
That’s an intense compliment.
Yeah. It was great.
How much direction do you have in your screenplays? Do you include your director notes since you’re going to be director?
I’m seeing everything as I’m writing. I don’t put in camera movements. I’ll put in things like weather or colors sometimes. I’ll put in emotions because I want it to read well. I don’t want to be so self-conscious that I’m talking about what music is playing or what the shot is doing, because I also don’t want to kill inspiration on set. I want to make a script full of feelings, ideas and instigations so that when you get on set with that script you’re inspired.
I write so that I can make movies. I’ve taught myself and gotten better at it because I’ve done it so much. Writing is always a means to an end. To me, a script that doesn’t get shot is like a thought bubble in a comic strip, it’s an idea and there’s nothing more frustrating to me than having an idea. I speak from experience because BLUE VALENTINE was this 12-year idea bubble. I know a lot of writers can relate to that too. A screenplay is not done. I can never be satisfied with just a screenplay. I have to see it through.
Give me an example of a scene that you felt really translated from the page to the screen; how you envisioned it or better than you envisioned it and why.
When I watch movies, so often I see pages turning. On set, I’m always trying to let everyone know that the script has to be an inspiration and instigation point.
The best example of that is the moment after Isabelle and Tom make love for the first time, when Isabelle explores the island. What you see on screen is this moment where you have this human being having an experience for the first time. We took Alicia Vikander, who’s playing Isabelle, to the island blindfolded. She had never been to the island before. We got her into a tent and into costume. We waited to let her out of the tent until the sun was rising on this incredible epic landscape and then, what we filmed, was Alicia/Isabelle experiencing it for real. The crew followed her for two hours as she wandered the island. That made, to me, one of the most beautiful moments in the movie.
It happened because the script was open enough to allow her to have new experiences that I couldn’t necessarily write. That’s the magic and beauty of cinema. That’s why I’m not only a writer. I love the full chemistry of movies. I love what happens when you put a bunch of collaborative artists together and see what you can discover together.
My first film, BROTHER TIED, didn’t embrace that idea. The script wasn’t inspirational enough. It was too locked into what it needed to be. What I realize now, is that the script has to be strong enough to attract everyone to it—to make actors want to do it; to make financiers want to give money to it; and attract great DPs and get the crew involved.
The last thing I’ll say is that film is not theater. Theater can change every night. When I’m making a movie that’s scripted, it’s there simply to get the actor on set and to get them to show me something they’ve never done before. I’m trying to capture a moment that can’t be replicated. The script is an instigation point for that.
What does it mean for you to really bring out human qualities of a character in a script?
One of the reasons I love THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS is that there were no good guys and no bad guys; there were people. I had an experience a few years back, when serving jury duty, that was so confounding to me. When the prosecution was speaking, I was absolutely certain that the defendant was guilty, until the defense started speaking. Then I was certain the guy was innocent. I had the same feeling while I was reading the book. I discovered the author is also a lawyer. It’s something I’ve been trying to do in my movies, which is present people that are full of flaws, but you empathize with them.
There’s a dangerous thing that’s happening in Hollywood. I hear about it all the time. It’s this likability clause that everyone has in their movies. Everyone has to be likable, The villains have to be despicable. In my life, the people that I’m closest to, myself included, are jerks sometimes. People are flawed. People are inherently flawed.
One of the issues I’ve always had with the culture of Hollywood is that everything is black and white. I don’t trust it when I go to the movies. I don’t feel like it represents me. I don’t trust game show host teeth. I don’t like makeup. I like to see people’s skin. I’m trying to show the imperfection of human beings. There’s a great line from this song Lou Reed and John Cale wrote in memory of Andy Warhol, “Can you see beauty in ugliness, or is it playing in the dirt?” That’s always been a north star of mine.