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Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Looking Back: A 1998 Interview with "Blue Valentine's" Derek Cianfrance

(In 1998, 23-year-old Derek Cianfrance's movie "Brother Tied" was accepted into Sundance Film Festival's American Spectrum series -- his first breakthrough, even if the film subsequently was little seen. At the time, Steven Rosen interviewed him for the Denver Post. Cianfrance's critically heralded "Blue Valentine," featuring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, has just been released.)

Taking Their Chances at Sundance: Coloradan's "Brother Tied' given Park City exposure

By Steven Rosen
The Denver Post

Beginning Thursday and continuing for the next 10 days, the
center of the motion-picture world will be Park City, Utah.
That's where the Sundance Film Festival - which determines
the independent- and small-film hits for the rest of the year -
will be held. It began in 1978 and has been operated by the
nonprofit Sundance Institute since 1985. And a separate festival
called Slamdance, now in its fourth year and specializing in the
work of first-time filmmakers, takes place at the same time.

So all eyes will be on Park City. And this year, Park City's
eyes will be on Colorado - certainly not exclusively, but
definitely to a noticeable extent.

That's because a 23-year-old local filmmaker, Derek M.
Cianfrance, has a movie called "Brother Tied'' in Sundance's
American Spectrum program. It combines a traditional narrative
with a daringly advanced approach to sound use, editing,
shadow-and-light interplay, and photomontage techniques.

The feature, mostly in black-and-white, is a sobering look at
two troubled brothers and the young man - a barber - who comes
between them. As a character study, it pays as close attention
to the men's faces and their very skin as to their words. Yet
there also is high drama. When one of the brothers sets fire to
the barbershop, the victim seeks violent revenge. Since the
events occur during Christmas, the overall effect is very

Keith Zimmerman and Jason Hauser play brothers Cal and Aaron;
Carey Westbrook is the outsider, Cassius, who becomes Cal's
close friend. Since Cassius is African-American and the two
brothers white, the story has an uncommented-upon racial
element. There also are erotic undercurrents in the relationship
between Cal and Cassius.

It was filmed in Longmont and Denver, especially at
Longmont's Elite Barber Shop, during portions of the past three
years. Cianfrance made the film on a small, privately raised
budget, collaborating with friends from his film classes at the
University of Colorado-Boulder. He hopes to sell distribution
rights during the Sundance festival.

While American Spectrum films are not in competition for
major Sundance awards, there is fierce competition for the
program's 18 slots. This year, Sundance received 869
feature-film submissions and chose 16 dramatic films and 16
documentaries for its juried-competition programs. They all are
having U.S. premieres at Sundance. Another 18 were selected for
the relatively new American Spectrum series. They need not be
having U.S. premieres at Sundance, although "Brother Tied'' is.

Overall, Sundance is presenting 103 features and 68 shorts in
a variety of programs. Of those, 16 are high-profile but
out-of-competition "premieres'' of invited films that bypassed
the submission process.

"... Cianfrance has a feel for his medium that extends well
beyond his years,'' wrote Geoffrey Gilmore, director of
programming for the Sundance Film Festival, in the festival's
1998 guide. "Elliptical, sometimes a bit ambivalent, and
beautifully filmed with great montages, music and editing,
"Brother Tied' is a filmic realization made by a director who
understands the power of his craft.''

This year's Sundance certainly is extremely important to Cianfrance and the
young men who went without salaries - and often sleep - to help
him make "Brother Tied.'' Those include screenwriters Mike
Tillman and Joey Curtis and sound designer Jimmy Helton, as well
as the cast.

They all are very excited about its screening, at 11:30 p.m.
Friday. The film also has been invited to next month's Berlin
Film Festival and will be screened in March at New York's
Lincoln Center.

"Once we got into Sundance, my phone started ringing off the
hook,'' Cianfrance said. "I started getting calls from people
who had the tape on their desk but never watched it. Sundance is
the validation in the eyes of people.''

Cianfrance had submitted the movie to Sundance last year. It
was praised but turned down because of its 140-minute length.
The Berlin Film Festival also passed. After refashioning a
109-minute version, the director tried the Edinburgh Film
Festival in Scotland. It was accepted and had its world premiere
there in August.

All this has tended to support Cianfrance's decision to drop
out of CU to work full time on the film. Raised in Lakewood, he
first starting making videos while at Green Mountain High
School. "What I was doing was learning the craft of filmmaking
by doing it,'' Cianfrance explained.

Zimmerman, 23, who plays Cal in "Brother Tied,'' first
started acting in Cianfrance's high-school video projects.
"When you see Derek's work, right off the bat you know he has a
gift for the visual storytelling medium,'' he said.

"I started realizing the films I wanted to make were going
to take advantage of all the different aspects of the cinematic
medium,'' Cianfrance explained. "I don't necessarily like a
film like "The Brothers McMullen.' That could as easily be a
stage play. What I always wanted to do was make things that
could only exist as a film.''

At CU, he learned about the work of American and European
avant-gardists, especially early Russian filmmakers. His
16-millimeter silent film won awards and was shown on
television's Independent Film Channel.

When he realized he wanted to make a feature-length 16mm
sound film, he drew inspiration from an unusual source - a moody
Elvis Presley Christmas album. That made him want to devise a
downbeat, ruminative story set during the Christmas season.

For a theme, he drew upon the advice of his late grandfather
- "never take anyone's side against the family.'' "That's the
way I grew up,'' he said. "If your family kills somebody,
you're on their side - not that my family are killers or
anything.'' (His mother taught school; his father was a district
manager for a shoe retailer.)

"So I wanted to address that in a film - someone brought up
in a family like that who has to struggle with that. Someone who
has a family member who is no good. Do you still stand by their

"Brother Tied'' could be a breakthrough for its actors as
well as director. After the Edinburgh screening, The Guardian
newspaper praised "a strong cast, especially the charismatic
Carey Westbrook as Cassius.''

Westbrook, 27, moved to Colorado from Chicago to study
writing and poetics at Boulder's Naropa Institute. He has acted
in training videos and commercials, and has had small parts in
several movies. He replied to a newspaper notice seeking actors
for "Brother Tied.''

"I didn't expect it would be that big a deal,'' he said. "I
didn't know it had the potential to be as great as it turned out
to be. I knew it was for free, and I'm not used to doing free
gigs. But I just said "to hell with it' and tried it out. "What struck me was the integrity of the character - a man
struggling with his own soul. It was a universal human character.

"I try to keep a clear head and stay practical about this,''
he said. "The fact of the matter is I'm a room-service waiter
right now, and I will be one until we go to Sundance. I'm hoping
I don't have to be one when I come back.''

(photo at top of Derek Cianfrance)

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