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Holiday Movie Preview: 'Blue Valentine'

Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams are getting rave reviews about their gritty indie

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There’s a scene in Blue Valentine (out Dec. 31) in which a young couple, played by Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling, teeter into love, aided by an impromptu ukulele serenade and soft-shoe. It’s one of those magic movie moments — wisely featured in the trailer for the film — capturing the heady rush of early infatuation. And it’s what makes sequences of the same couple’s marriage falling apart all the more painful to watch. ”I feel like the audience is divided between people who’ve had their heart smashed into smithereens and people who haven’t,” says Williams. When she hears that it took this reporter three days to recover emotionally from the film, she exclaims, ”Oh, good!”

Since its premiere at January’s Sundance Film Festival and subsequent acquisition by The Weinstein Company, Blue Valentine has generated a groundswell of buzz for its unblinkingly honest (if not always pretty) portrait of a marriage, not to mention its two stars’ performances. But last month, in a move that could jeopardize its box office and awards prospects, the MPAA slapped the film with a dreaded NC-17 rating, apparently for a graphic scene of Gosling’s character performing oral sex on Williams’. (A rep for the MPAA declined to comment.) ”We’re going to have to overturn this,” says TWC co-chair Harvey Weinstein, who adds he has no intention of cutting the scene and has already assembled a team of lawyers to prep a formal appeal. ”How did Piranha 3D get an R and Blue Valentine get an NC-17?” asks Weinstein, citing the August horror film released by TWC’s own Dimension label. ”If [Piranha 3D] got an NC-17, I’d be the first going, ‘All right, we gotta cut some of that stuff.’ It’s ridiculous — a penis is coughed up by a piranha! They show more in four scenes than we show in [all of Blue Valentine], and ours is a serious love story,” he says. ”I don’t understand it.” The actors are similarly flummoxed. ”It’s devastating news,” says Williams, ”because it makes the film sound tawdry or seedy when it hopes to be the exact opposite.”

Fighting the MPAA is just the latest bump in the road for a film that’s taken writer-director Derek Cianfrance (Brother Tied) 12 years to make. Williams came aboard in 2003, just as she was ending her six-season run on Dawson’s Creek (see below). ”[The script] attached itself to me and became a part of me. It filled up the room that I lived in, filled the head that I walked in,” says the 30-year-old actress, who earned an Oscar nomination for 2005’s Brokeback Mountain. Gosling, also 30, signed on a couple of years later when Blue Valentine producer Jamie Patricof — who also produced Half Nelson, the 2006 indie for which Gosling picked up his own Oscar nod — handed him the script and declared it would be the actor’s next movie. ”I read it and I agreed,” says Gosling. ”Though it wasn’t my next movie because it took another four years.” He pauses. ”Derek has a fascination with time — it’s in everything that he does. He makes a six-hour chicken — it has to take six hours to make. If it’s five hours, it’s not even worth eating. He believes that time makes things better.”

When Blue Valentine was finally ready to begin production, the project almost lost its female lead. ”Derek called me and was like, ‘Okay, pack your bags. We’re going to California,”’ says Williams. But that call came at the end of 2008, less than a year after the sudden death of Heath Ledger, her former partner and the father of her daughter, Matilda, now 5. A film shoot far from her New York home, she realized, ”wasn’t in my plan. I had planned to stay in one place, one school, stay in one home. I was in tears and said, ‘You’ll have to go ahead without me because I’ve made a commitment to myself and to my daughter and I have to stay put.”’ She remembers that Cianfrance asked her to suggest other actresses who could do the part (”I started crying harder thinking of someone else doing it”), but then he called her back the following day. ”He said, ‘Your reasons for saying no are the reasons why you are so right for the part.”’ Cianfrance promised to find a location within driving distance of Williams’ home. The film wound up shooting in Brooklyn and Scranton, Pa. ”He’s a rarity,” the actress says of her director. ”I always felt like I knew who to look to at the end of every take. I’d trust him with my life.”

Once on set, the stars discovered Cianfrance wanted to do things a little bit differently: On one of the first nights of shooting, he instructed them to ignore the script. Instead, he said he planned to shoot them till the sun came up, and gave only one direction: Surprise me. ”I’d never taken an improv class before and, to be completely honest, I was secretly terrified,” says Williams. ”My stomach, my heart — everything just sank.” Gosling’s reaction was different. ”Seventy-five drafts of the script — and then he threw it out,” the actor laughs. ”I can never remember my lines anyway. ”

During the 30-day shoot, Gosling and Williams spent their days between takes trying to stay faithful to their characters’ lives: assigning chores, living on an appropriate budget, and spending quality ”family” time with Faith Wladyka, 6, who plays their daughter. There are untold hours of footage that didn’t make the final cut. ”It’s hard to watch the film because it can never quite capture the experience of making it,” says Gosling. ”But I do think all the things we did — whether it made it in or not — found their way into the fabric of the film. You can feel that we lived the life in that house. We weren’t pretending.”

The dynamic changed significantly when the production shifted from the characters’ early-in-love days to the darker present-day scenes of a fractious couple on the edge of break-up. ”It wasn’t so fun anymore,” says Williams, who confesses it took her two weeks to remove her character’s wedding ring after filming wrapped. ”We had built up this really beautiful thing and none of us wanted to burn it down. We kept saying, ‘Let’s just make a movie called Valentine.”’ Cianfrance extended the scheduled break between filming the two sections to one month, allowing the actors time to transition both emotionally and physically. (The stars even had a weight-gaining contest, complete with daily weigh-ins — Williams’ constant ice cream intake helped her triumph with a 15-pound increase.)

It wasn’t easy to shoot nonstop fighting for days on end, particularly in a claustrophobic hotel room where the characters go in a last-ditch effort to save their relationship. Thankfully, Williams had that commute home to help her recover: ”The drive in the car became like a decompression chamber at the end of the day. I’d turn up the music as loud as I could, roll down the windows, and hang my head out like a dog. I had to shake it off of me. When you have a child, you have a responsibility to snap out of it.”

Dealing with real life usually isn’t a factor when it comes to Hollywood love stories, which trade on the fantasies of life-altering kisses in the rain and right-at-the-last-possible-second airport declarations of love. Blue Valentine, though, serves up a different truth. ”As much as it’s about a love story that goes south, it also goes north, east, and west, too,” says Gosling. ”It’s like that Supremes song ‘Baby, baby, where did our love go?’ It’s a question, and I don’t think [the movie] provides any answers — it just tries to present all the evidence and ask the question. I don’t think there is an answer. Or if there is, I didn’t find it.”

Teen Idols No More!
The stars of Blue Valentine reflect on their early television careers with unexpected fondness

Michelle Williams On her time on Dawson’s Creek (1998 — 2003)
”I used to be embarrassed and think that nobody would take me seriously or that I wouldn’t get opportunities to do the kind of work that I dreamed about. Now I can look back with so much love and appreciation.”
What she learned from the experience ”You get to develop quietly when you do a show for a long time — you get to hone your skills without so much pressure.”

Ryan Gosling On his time on The All New Mickey Mouse Club (1993 — 94)
”It’s a great learning experience to start on television. A lot of what interferes with a performance is that film sets can be intimidating. When you work so much as a kid, they stop having that effect on you. You’re not intimidated anymore.”
On his own experience with Dawson’s Creek
”I tried to get on that show so many times. I couldn’t even get a day-player part.” — SV