Illuminating content

How CU turned Derek Cianfrance from a film student into a filmmaker

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Director Derek Cianfrance credits the University of Colorado film program as his best piece of good fortune.
Davi Russo

Dear incoming film students, take a moment to learn from those who came before you, and please heed Derek Cianfrance’s advice: “Be where you are. If you’re at school, if you’re in a film class, pay attention. Pay attention, be present.”

Being present might be one of Cianfrance’s greatest assets. The writer/director behind Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines and the upcoming The Light Between Oceans has made a career out of being present and attentive. His movies are perfect examples of what can be accomplished and what can be captured when one is in the moment.

But it didn’t happen overnight. Like most directors, Cianfrance’s career began at an early age. His formative years were influenced by a Fischer Price projector. “You would load these Super 8 cartridges in it and hand crank to watch a Mickey Mouse or a Pink Panther cartoon on a screen,” he says.

Later, he obsessively watched George Romero’s Creepshow in the fourth grade and volunteered to run the projector anytime a teacher showed a filmstrip in class, even convincing them to run the strip backwards, just to see what it looked like.

“I always had a real connection to the plasticity of the medium,” he says with a chuckle.

As he grew older, Cianfrance started making his own shorts: a possessed rubber bat, a spoiled milk public service announcement, “silly things,” he admits.

But silly things added up and when Cianfrance enrolled in the University of Colorado Boulder’s film studies department, those silly things provided a foundation that his professors were able to build on.

“In hindsight, [going to CU] was the best piece of fate or good fortune that I’ve had in my life,” Cianfrance says. “I think it had all to do with the professors, and the people I met there.”

And it didn’t take long for Cianfrance to find his place.

“The very first night there, Jim Palmer (then the director of the Farrand Residential Academic Program) was showing a double feature of Rear Window and Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight,” Cianfrance recalls. “First off, I had only seen narrative films before, so all of a sudden to be seeing Brakhage’s Mothlight on the screen and seeing this flutter of shadow and light, it completely confused me, bewildered me, it just blew my mind and made me realize the possibilities of cinema.”

Made in 1963, Mothlight is one of the highlights of avant-garde cinema and many students’ first taste of what cinema can accomplish beyond narrative and beyond camera. For Cianfrance, it was manna.

“I just soaked it up,” Cianfrance says. “Between Jim Palmer and Phil Solomon, and Brakhage of course.”

A titan of experimental films, Stan Brakhage taught Cianfrance’s film history class, but not in a usual manner.

“I remember him showing us Ivan the Terrible Part II … telling Pablo [Kjølseth, then Brakhage’s projectionist, now the brains behind the International Film Series] to rack the projector out of focus. So we watched Ivan the Terrible out of focus because Brakhage wanted us to study the collision of shadow and light. … I learned so much about editing from that, about the collision of edits.”

CU challenged Cianfrance to look and think in different ways. Although he comes from the tradition of American narrative films like most American filmmakers, his appreciation for the craft deepened thanks to his study under Brakhage and his production professor, Phil Solomon — still one of Cianfrance’s close friends.

“To this day, Phil is my Jiminy Cricket. … He’s my cinematic conscience,” Cianfrance says. “When I make a movie, when I’m in the editing room — I still work with Jim Helton, whom I met at CU — we still have discussions of what Phil would think about the edit we’re making or what he would think about the idea or the story we’re telling.”

Of all the advice Cianfrance’s Jiminy Cricket provided, Solomon’s dictum: “Form must illuminate content, not the other way around,” has served Cianfrance best. That’s what Solomon told Cianfrance after he saw his first feature, and it still resonates almost two decades later.

Now Cianfrance is at Venice Film Festival with The Light Between Oceans in competition for the Golden Lion. Thankfully, current students won’t have to wait long; IFS will hold a free sneak preview of The Light Between Oceans on August 30, 7:30 p.m.