DENVER, Colo. — Sitting in a Park City, Utah, gallery one snowy afternoon during the Sundance Film Festival last year, Derek Cianfrance didn't sound like a guy from Lakewood.
Something in his delivery carried hints of Brooklyn, where he lives with his wife, filmmaker Shannon Plumb, and their two young children.
But his roots were showing. The director and co-writer of the romantic drama "Blue Valentine" wore a vintage brown and gold Broncos knit cap.
"The first time I came to Sundance was for 'Brother Tied,' in 1998. That was the year the Broncos won the Super Bowl," he said with the sort of wistfulness that distinguishes true fans.
Forget the former CU film student's Holy Grail achievement: having a first feature accepted into the renowned indie fest. "My greatest experience of Sundance was them winning," he said. And he began writing 'Blue Valentine' at his Super Bowl party. "I thought I was going to make it three months later."
It took 12 years. "Every film has its own crazy, stubborn journey to be made. I'm thankful that it took so long. I've had life experience. I've been able to sit with the ideas and meditate on them," Cianfrance said.
"Blue Valentine" premiered at Sundance to a fine measure of acclaim. The Weinstein Co. bought it there for distribution. It opened Friday at the Mayan Theatre. And it was represented at Sunday's Golden Globe Awards: Leads Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams were each nominated for their stripped-bare performances as young marrieds Dean and Cindy.
The film moves back and forth, shifting from scenes of their unraveling present to bittersweet moments in their promising courtship six years earlier.
It's "kind of heavy," he said with a huff of a laugh. It is also personal.
"When I was a kid, my two nightmares were nuclear war and my parents getting a divorce. When they split up, when I was 20, I was very confused and bewildered, and that's what led me to want to write this film, just to deal with these feelings, to try to move forward in my own life, in my own relationships."
He began to talk more about his parents, who, along with Cianfrance's older brother, Jason and younger sister, Megan, still live in Colorado. Then he thought better of it. After all, this is their hometown newspaper. "I'm so scared about talking about my parents. They are the best. They love me and supported me."
As a kid growing up in Lakewood, Cianfrance had an early passion for storytelling.
"Before I had a camera, I stole my brother's tape recorder on his eighth birthday." The future director was 6. "I made audio recordings of people in my family. I'd try to get my grandma to speak Chinese. I would do little skits. I'd also use it as a surveillance device, hide it in my jacket. Those to me were my first films."
A calling grew from there. He borrowed a video camera from a librarian. "Every four months, I'd make a new film, with my family in it."
He graduated from Green Mountain High School, hoping to go to New York University. But "I wound up going to the University of Colorado," he said, adding, "which I'm so thankful for."
No kidding. A film program couldn't have a more grateful booster. Although Cianfrance didn't graduate, leaving at 20 to make "Brother Tied," he credits experimental-film luminaries Phil Solomon and the late Stan Brakhage for his development.
"They taught me how to be a sensitive artist, not just this narrative storyteller," he said. "The first movie I saw at Boulder was 'Mothlight,' " Brakhage's mesmerizing 1963 short made of insect wings, plant matter and film strips.
"I realized there was a plasticity in film, the idea of treating it as sculpture," Cianfrance said.
"Blue Valentine" has standout performances, but it is also a beautiful object of textured sounds and delicately observed images.
Last November, Cianfrance stood behind a podium at the King Center on Auraria's campus before a Starz Denver Film Festival special screening of "Blue Valentine." He gave a shout-out to his parents, siblings and loved ones sitting in the audience.
"I came for about 10 hours," he said on the phone recently. "It was a trip showing at home because it's very personal filmmaking. You put a lot on the line when you bring it home. You feel a little naked. It's like coming home with your clothes off."
"Blue Valentine" is made rich by its characters' naked vulnerability. Though the ratings body of the Motion Picture Association of America seemed to miss that point when it slapped the film with an NC-17 in October.Comment on this story
"We tried to treat sex with responsibility in this film," said Cianfrance, who co-wrote the script with longtime collaborator and another CU alum, Joey Curtis. We were not trying to put sex in our movie as something titillating. The sex was essential to the development of our characters. It is a dialogue for them. It's how they get to know each other. And in the later scenes — in the present — it becomes a bone of contention."
The rating caused an uproar and was overturned on appeal without Cianfrance having to alter anything.
"Blue Valentine" isn't a happy tale, Cianfrance admits, but a subtly hopeful one about love's mystery.
"This movie is struggling to make sense of it," he said. "There are no right or wrong answers, just the questions, 'Baby, baby, where did our love go?' and 'Where did it come from?' "