Derek Cianfrance

Derek Cianfrance

Born, Cianfrance grew up in the Denver suburb of Lakewood, CO, the middle of three children. He showed inclinations toward creativity as early as age six when he would attempt to elicit performances from family members on his brother's tape recorder. He also showed the curious predilection for documenting moments in time, as per his tendency to snap photos of moments of conflict in his household - moments that instilled in him a fear of the dissolution of his parents' marriage. At age 13 he began making movies using a video camera borrowed from the local library, again using his family as his cast. In 1993, Cianfrance graduated Green Mountain High School, and, in spite of aspirations to attend New York University's prestigious film school, he took his skills to the University of Colorado in Boulder. Studying under venerated experimental filmmakers Stan Brakhage and Phil Solomon at the UC film school, he was introduced to the painfully self-expressive films of patron saint of the indie world, John Cassavetes, and made two pictures that would win the school faculty's laurel for best film by a student filmmaker, the Goldfarb Award. But in 1995, his parents divorced; a development that shook him profoundly. He left school to make his first feature, "Brother Tied." It would be three years in the making, with UC schoolmate Joey Curtis collaborating on the script, eventually yielding a noir-ish, black-and-white tale of how a relationship between two brothers snowballs into a violent estrangement over a woman and over one sibling's friendship with a young African-American man. He shot the film in and around Denver and, upon its completion, won a slot at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival. A major achievement for a 23-year-old first-time filmmaker, the film went on to a raft of festivals and six awards, with critics nearly universally lauding it wherever it screened.It was not enough, however, to garner investor funds to put the finishing touches on "Brother Tied," and distributors balked at picking up the film, questioning its commercial viability. But the factor of his parents' split set him to working on his next script, by which he hoped to look past Hollywood romantic conventions and examine not the fairy tale aspects of coupling, but the viscera of how things go wrong. Nearly broke, he took documentary work to pay the rent, beginning a relationship with New York-based production company Radical Media, for whom he did "Shots in the Dark" (2001), an examination of the art and science crime photography for CourtTV and U.K.'s Channel 4; "Run-D.M.C. And Jam Master Jay: The Last Interview" (2002) for VH1; for MTV, two flights of its "Battleground" documentary series about real kids putting together competitive blacktop basketball teams; and for BET, a half-hour interview with music magnate Sean "P. Diddy" Combs in "Black and White: A Portrait of Sean Combs" (2006). In 2003, he undertook cinematography duties on compatriot Curtis' indie feature, "Quattro Nova" ("Streets of Legend") - no small feat, given that the film followed a romance that blossomed in context of an illegal street-racing scene among Latino-American youth culture. The film brought Cianfrance back to Sundance, where he won the Cinematography Award at the 2003 festival, going on to earn a nomination for his work with the Independent Spirit Awards the next year. With the help of Curtis, he continued to nuance his script, and in 2003, met actor Michelle Williams, whom he gave a copy and with whom he remained in touch as the project continued to gestate. He established a similar relationship with Ryan Gosling in 2005. The two potential leads' attachment became more and more of an asset in ensuing years as their stars rose.In the meantime, Cianfrance married fellow filmmaker Shannon Plumb and he bolstered his résumé with commercial work. In 2006, he entered a short film and his screenplay in the Chrysler Film Project, a public philanthropy program in partnership with the Independent Filmmaker Project that drew 550-plus entrants, vying for a $1 million prize as judged by the IFP. Cianfrance won, and the money went toward putting the wheels in motion on "Blue Valentine." He had conceived it as a time-shifting narrative, juxtaposing the brighter days of a blue-collar Pennsylvania couple's meeting with their teetering marriage six years later. Cianfrance used the flashbacks to effect a kind of romantic whodunit, raising questions as to who or what was responsible for how the "before" romance became the "after" malaise, wowing Sundance audiences when it premiered in early 2010, earning Cianfrance the Grand Jury Prize, and securing distribution via indie major The Weinstein Company. The company ushered the film through a controversial NC-17 rating which built buzz around Williams and Gosling's intense, even desperate sex scenes. The film was restamped with an R rating and it opened in select markets to critical praise in December 2010. Film critic Roger Ebert wrote that Cianfrance "observes with great exactitude the birth and decay of a relationship. This film is alive in its details." In January 2011, Williams' performance in "Blue Valentine" earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress.