Cianfrance was born in Colorado and attended film school at the University of Colorado. Upon graduating, he filmed his first feature length film in 1998 called Brother Tied. That film went on the festival circuit and was praised by critics. After 1998, Cianfrance worked in TV where he directed several movie documentaries and series. In 2010, he returned to cinema, releasing Blue Valentine. This film was his breakthrough and was well liked by critics and caught the eye of many big-name filmmakers and studios. After Blue Valentine, he directed 2012’s The Place Beyond the Pines, which received moderate appraisal from critics and was sucessful at the box office. His latest film, releasing this week, is The Light Between Oceans.
So the question posed is, if you are watching a Derek Cianfrance film and you don’t know it, what are the things to look for that would identify it as such? Here are five of Cianfrance’s trademarks as director, in no particular order:
Growing up, Cianfrance loved horror films. Watching them as a child, the vulnerability he felt when watching them was something that stuck with him. His early experiences in movie theaters also caused him to associate film with cold, dark places. Later, as his film tastes became more sophisticated, he saw how film could become an excellent conveyor of emotion. He saw how a film could really speak to an audience and wanted that type of connection once he started making films himself. To accomplish this, Cianfrance based his movies around his deepest fears. As a child, one of his biggest fears was that his parents would get divorced. That fear is what Blue Valentine is influenced by. As an adult, his fear is passing along his failures to his children. That fear is what The Place Between the Pines is influenced by.
Horror-Film Influenced Lighting
Another aspect of Cianfrance’s childhood fascination with horror films that has translated to his feature films is his use of lighting. Horror films are typically very dark with few colors and a muted palette, something that all of his feature films thus far have incorporated. This makes for a very harsh visual tone. His debut, Brother Tied, may be in black and white, but the high contrast picture and dark scenery certainly makes it seem like an old-school horror movie. Blue Valentine is an excellent showcase of Cianfrance’s technical proficiency in using darkness and shadows to create a gritty, dense picture quality.
Even when things are well lit, the muted colors make the scenery feel faded, which matches the tough emotional material which the film discusses. In both Blue Valentine and Place Beyond the Pines we have bright colored lights used as a filter to paint characters’ faces in color during the night. He also uses out-of-focus background lighting as a stylistic element, sometimes by itself, other times behind a character that is being focused on. In the trailer of The Light Between the Oceans, we already see how important the lighting is to the film. Here, instead of darkness, Cianfrance appears to be blanketing his characters in light, smothering them in the elements. We also see evidence of the soft filter and more lense flares to highlight bright lights against stormy and windswept backdrops.
Isolated Character Shots
Cianfrance’s most iconic trademark so far has to be the way that he captures people with his camera, and not just in the physical sense. His films are self-proclaimed “relationship stories”, so it is no surprise that his films generally revolve around two people at any given time. To highlight this exploration of inter-personal connections, Cianfrance selects shots which emphasize the behaviors of his characters. He uses a lot of close up shots to put the focus squarely on a person’s’ face or upper torso, despite activity going on around them. Sometimes these shots can be at dutch, or obscure angles, at other times he cuts directly to a person in motion against a blurred background. Rarely are Conference’s characters not in some sort of director-created isolation.
In The Place Beyond The Pines, Ryan Gosling’s character stops on the corner of a busy street on his motorcycle to look at a bank, and the whole shot never feels like there is anyone else there, despite cars whizzing by. Brother Tied is full of close up quick-cut sequences, most often only focusing on one character at a time despite two or more people being in most of the scenes. Cianfrance films tend to deal with love and family. Small children are a frequent focus, to the point of the camera only focusing on them while in their parents’ arms. In Blue Valentine, when Gosling and Williams are together, Cianfrance uses the same technique, treating his onscreen couple as a single entity and largely ignoring everything else that is happening around them. In the trailer for The Light Between the Oceans, we already see a lot of these type of powerful shots.
To enhance the gritty, realistic feel of his films, Cianfrance often uses a steadicam. As a result, his films can be “jittery”, especially when the pace quickens. The opening scene in The Place Beyond the Pines is a lengthy tracking shot all filled with steadicam. It follows behind Ryan Gosling’s character, a type of shot that Cianfrance uses often. By filming the backs of his characters in their environment, Cianfrance transports his audience into the setting. The unsteady camera feels more natural than a smooth dolly, and by obscuring the focus of the shot (only showing the periphery), a tone is created. It also helps to create anticipation towards what the character is actually going to do. The steadicam approach is also fitting to Cianfrance’s tendency to zoom in on characters’ faces or actions. Despite the wobbly picture, this technique helps to draw the audience’s focus. The shaky camera is never so severe that it disrupts the focus and makes it difficult to tell what is happening. Instead, it makes the shot seem organic. The audience actually feels like they are watching a person shown through a home video, rather than a professionally scripted shot.
A Woman Under the Influence is one of Cianfrance’s most loved films. In that film, there is a scene where a wife’s eccentricities upsets her husband during a dinner with his work colleagues. This scene is influential to Cianfrance for two reasons. First, he was enamored by the performances of the actors. They inject an energy into the film that makes it truly engaging, where the audience feels like they can’t turn away. It is this type of tug on emotional strings that Cianfrance tries to include in all his films. The second reason that this sequence is so important to Cianfrance is that it plays out not unlike a horror film. The audience feels what the husband feels. The embarrassment and anger, but more importantly, the fear of not being able to do anything about it.
This type of fear, a problem in a relationship, is something that Cianfrance focuses on significantly in all his films. As such, to play homage to this important moment in a film he loves, Cianfrance has claimed that he will have a spaghetti dinner scene in all of his films. In Blue Valentine, the main characters are eating spaghetti in their hotel room when they have a serious conversation where previously undisclosed feelings come to light. This scene is interesting because the dialogue and pauses are very similar to the scene in A Woman Under the Influence. In The Place Beyond the Pines, there is also a spaghetti dinner scene where the police officers have an intense moment where they pressure Bradley Cooper’s character into illegally seizing money from a suspects’ family to keep as their own. Here, the relationship is a professional one, yet the issues creep to the surface and create an uncomfortable situation.
Want more Directors’ Trademarks? Check out the last installment: