Writer-director Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine was one of the few bona fide hits of this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Now it’s headed to Cannes for a worldwide premiere that may help solidify the critical buzz surrounding its perfectly matched stars, Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, and possibly position the film for an Oscar run this fall. The film is told through two time periods of a couple: The glory days of early romance and the devolving, bickering morass of late marriage. We spoke with Gosling about how he and Michelle Williams improvised for a full month while Cianfrance’s cameras rolled — and why he thinks The Giving Tree is “so fucked up.”
The film is essentially about a marriage that unravels and nobody knows why.
I think the film is a duet: It’s about a man and a woman, and it takes place over two time periods. I think Derek [Cianfrance] is really interested in that duality and I am, too. I grew up with a family that was so interesting, but also completely crazy, with very dark secrets. I thought it was specific to my family and then I realized that everybody maybe doesn’t have secrets that are so dark, but everyone has a shadow side and that two things can be true.
The man you play is great to his daughter and wife, but he has a temper and seems to drive his wife crazy.
He’s just a happy person and I love my role — but I think the more interesting role is Michelle’s, because there’s this idea that if a woman has a husband who loves her and isn’t cheating on her, she should be happy. But what if you’re not happy? And you don’t have any reasons for it? I think it’s a really courageous role, because she’s a mystery even to herself. The film doesn’t attempt to explain her because you can’t.
I never figured her out.
Yeah, it’s like that Supremes song “Where Did Our Love Go?” I think you in the audience are the detective because the characters in the movie are too close to it. It’s like a documentary: People are infinitely more interesting in documentaries than they are in films, because there’s so much about them that you’ll never know, and because they don’t know, either.
To film this, you improvised a huge amount before filming technically began, right?
We shot from sundown to sunup and Derek said, “Anything you do, I’m going to follow.” It was so low-budget, so there were no cranes and lights, but Derek spent all the money on giving us time, a month in the house.
You played house together while he filmed?
It was just Derek being a voyeur. [We improvised] and he filmed everything.
He filmed me throwing up. He filmed Michelle peeing three times. He filmed me picking up dog poop. We lived in that house, basically, as though we were married in the country. We bought presents; we wrapped them. We baked the birthday cake. We had Christmas.
We’d have $200 and we had to buy groceries for two weeks, and all we could eat when we were in the house were those groceries. So we ended up fighting over what we got to spend. He forced us to fight. All day, you have to fight. And then we would have to have family fun day.
With the actress who plays your daughter?
Yeah, after we fought for six hours we’d have to go to some theme park and have a good time and put on a good face for [our onscreen daughter].
You don’t have kids yourself, right?
Yeah, I was at a disadvantage during the movie because Michelle’s really living this. But my character also was a kid himself and was pretty oblivious to the idea of responsibility, so I think that it worked!
Some things are so unexpected — you on the ukulele, Michelle doing a little soft-shoe …
Who knew Michelle could name all the presidents?
Did that feel different, working this way?
There was nothing we weren’t prepared for. Actors spend so much time on what’s in their wallet and every little detail, but most of the time you feel like you’re just getting started. When you work this way you get to flesh everything out, and you really feel like you really explored this person.
And your character has a tattoo of Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree on his arm?
That book is so fucked up; that story’s the worst. I mean, at the end the tree is a stump and the old guy just sitting on him #8212; he’s just used him to death, and you’re supposed to want to be the tree? Fuck you. You be the tree. I don’t want to be the tree.
And you’ve been busy with your music project, Dead Man’s Bones …
The music is spooky doo-wop. We wanted to put on a show that was like an elementary-school version of a Robert Wilson play, like a real lo-fi super-abstract kids’ play. In our imaginations it was possible, but in reality it was the most expensive show ever, so we just stuck with the record. Making music is cheaper and can be just as effective.
And that seems like such a non-commercial thing to do —
Well, I’m totally addicted to YouTube movies, stuff that some kids made in an hour in the bathroom, but it’s so great. All that stuff, you just can’t make money on it, that’s the only downside. Sometimes it’s hard to make money off of things you like to do. The more I do it, the more I think it’s a bad idea.
So you won’t be playing a superhero anytime soon?
Those things are really hard, man. I don’t do them out of fear, because I really think the people that do those CGI movies are great actors. To make believe that some giant is chasing you when a giant is not chasing you … That’s acting. It’s easier to do things that are more true to life. If I had to act right now like some monster just crashed through the building, you wouldn’t hire me.