PARK CITY — Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling are breaking hearts at the Sundance Film Festival.
The two star in the Sundance premiere "Blue Valentine," a romance told in two time periods: at the giddy, breathless first flush of love, and at the bitter end as a marriage crumbles.
The film has a tortuous personal history even longer than the relationship the story presents. "Blue Valentine" director Derek Cianfrance started writing the script while at Sundance with his first film, "Brother Tied," in 1998.
Cianfrance made documentaries in the interim, but it took more than a decade to get the cameras rolling for "Blue Valentine."
"Derek is kind of obsessed with time. He has this time-theme obsession in his life. Even if he cooks, he says, like, 'Come over to the house. I'll make you a six-hour chicken,' or he makes like an all-day soup. He wakes up in the morning and by the end of the day, it's ready to eat," Gosling said in an interview alongside Williams.
"He really kind of believes that time makes things better, and part of the focus of the film is time, between these two time periods. The most powerful force is erosion. It can turn a mountain into a rock over time. So the film deals with that, and I think the fact that it took so long to make added to what it became."
"Blue Valentine" casts Williams as a college student who wants to go on to medical school and Gosling as a working-class guy who falls for her. The film shifts between sweet, quiet, authentic moments of the two falling in love and a time years later, as they quarrel and struggle to reconnect for the sake of their marriage and their young daughter.
The actors, both 29, had been working with Cianfrance for years on the film, Williams since 2003, Gosling since 2005.
Williams, who earned an Academy Award nomination for "Brokeback Mountain," and Gosling, an Oscar nominee for the Sundance premiere "Half Nelson," said the story was shifting and gestating all that time.
"It was always allowed to change. It was never a fixed thing. Derek was never married to the page or married to anything he had written at all," Williams said. "He said, 'If it doesn't work for you, throw it all away.' So it was constantly evolving, and the movie we would have made seven years ago or whatever was a really different movie than what we made now."
One change was made to accommodate Williams, who had decided to forgo any work that would take her away from her East Coast home where she tends to her own young daughter by the late Heath Ledger.
Cianfrance transplanted the story from its original summer setting along the California beach to the East Coast in winter so they could shoot near Williams' home.
They shot the young love segments first, then took a month off so Williams and Gosling could build up personal recollections for the family during the intervening years. Williams and Gosling staged holidays, birthdays and everyday exchanges with Faith Wladyka, who plays their daughter, in the same house where they eventually shot the film's marriage portions.
"We really got to live in this space, and we got to decorate it ourselves and fill it up with memories and little touchstones all over the house that felt personal," Williams said.
Then came the hard part: Dismantling the love story they had built up in the first part of the film.Comment on this story
"Derek would make us fight and get into these brutal fights and then immediately get into the car with Faith, and then pretend like we weren't fighting. And then go on a family fun day," Gosling said.
All the years of preparation and reworking the story with Williams and Gosling paid off as soon as Cianfrance started shooting.
"The first day, the first scene that we shot with them together, I just breathed a sigh of relief, because I realized that it was there between them," Cianfrance said. "I've been making documentaries. That's been my bread and butter for the last 12 years. I felt like I was making a documentary of these two people falling in love.
"Just watching Ryan and Michelle together was amazing, and I didn't have to resort to any cinematic tricks to bring that out. I didn't have to do anything but just put them in the right place and just let them go."