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‘Blue Valentine’: Relationships, Realism, RED

After more than ten years of rewriting and shopping Blue Valentine, director Derek Cianfrance had landed funding, and leads Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams were set to start shooting his gritty, realistic drama about the demise of a relationship. He contacted cinematographer Andrij Parekh, with whom he’d collaborated on a number of commercials, and asked if he was interested in cinematography duties. “He called me up and said, ‘How do you feel about shooting this movie without any lights?'” Parekh recalls. “I said, ‘How about if I use one light?’ That was our compromise.”

Cianfrance had initially sought to collaborate with Parekh on commercials because of the cinematographer’s work on features, particularly Half Nelson, a rough-edged, naturalistic film about a drug-addled schoolteacher that also stars Gosling. In their discussions about filmmaking, it became clear they both like to avoid rigidly staged and lit production in favor of an approach of lighting a space minimally and allowing actors the freedom to go wherever their instincts take them. “I like the look of his films,” the director says, “but I also like the performances in them. He understands that when you make a film, what’s most important is what goes in front of the camera rather than behind the camera.”

During the decade Cianfrance spent developing Blue Valentine, he also directed commercials and documentaries. He developed a sense that his documentary experiences had more influence on his approach to feature directing than did his work on commercials. “You have to be quick on your feet and capture moments that just happen once,” he says of documentary work. “I wanted the same thing from the actors in Blue Valentine. I wanted them to surprise me every time. I think it gives you a powerful result, but it also means you don’t get a second take.”

For a scene on the Manhattan Bridge, Gosling decided spontaneously to climb over a fence there. For a scene in which Williams’ character wakes up, she spent the night on the location and the camera filmed her actually waking up.

The filmmakers decided early on that the story, which jumps back and forth between the couple’s early courtship and the dissolution of their marriage, would use completely different tools and production techniques in the two threads. It was about duality, Cianfrance explains. “Between past and present, youth and young adulthood, long-term memory and short-term memory, love and hate. The younger parts would be made as a handheld, physical, visceral film. Younger people experience life in their bodies. Fast-forward six years to the present and they’re older, more stuck in their heads and observing life with a sense of detachment.”

Parekh shot the early portions single-camera style with an ARRI 416 in Super 16 format in single long takes covered by a relatively wide 25mm lens that allowed the two characters to frequently share the frame. He covered the later portions of the relationship’s arc with two RED ONE cameras, shooting the characters isolated within their own shots using very long lenses (Angenieux Optimo zooms at 250mm and longer) from as far away as the location permitted.

Despite his years of labor prepping the project—66 drafts and 1,200 pages of storyboards—Cianfrance turned his actors loose on set to surprise him. Takes on the RED camera would run for the full 45 minutes permitted by the technology of the RED Drives. “It really killed the digital imaging technician, Ian Bloom,” Parekh sympathizes. “He did a fantastic job with an overwhelming amount of footage.” For the film portions, the cinematographer burned through 400-foot rolls of 16mm stock at an incredible rate, exposing 9,000 feet (approximately three hours, 45 minutes) in a single day.

Parekh generally stuck to his promise of a single movie light, often using practicals (with daylight bulbs, where possible, for the RED footage—”It is definitely a daylight-balanced sensor,” the cinematographer asserts) and available sunlight to do much of the illumination.

“I would sometimes have a 6K HMI through a window for a day interior,” he elaborates. For the film sequences, he was comfortable with tungsten-balanced light. For a scene at night (shown in the trailers, in which Williams’ character performs a somewhat awkward tap dance on a downtown street), the illumination came exclusively from store window lights. “I had one tungsten-balanced LED light pack in a backpack, but I hardly used it because it got in the way of what the actors wanted to do.”

Asked how he rated the RED camera’s ASA, Parekh laughs. “I rated it at 320, but if you’re not lighting anything, it doesn’t really matter. You’re always just fighting to get an exposure.”

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