Derek Cianfrance is known by many for his collaborations with Ryan Gosling, such as Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines. The director/ writer has been nominated for many awards across major film festivals, including Venice’s Golden Lion. The fruits of Cianfrance’s career so far are only pushing him forward with I Know This Much Is True. The HBO mini-series lead by Mark Ruffalo(s) marks his fiction television debut.
HBO’s I Know This Much Is True follows identical twins Dominic (Ruffalo) and Thomas Birdsey (Ruffalo) as the former revisits his relationship with his schizophrenic brother. Unforeseen complications put Thomas confined within an asylum, setting the path from shocking and ever so captivating drama.
We were fortunate enough to sit down at HBO’s virtual press junket to interview Derek Cianfrance. He takes us deep into the psyche of his new HBO mini-series. We talk about the process of making this six and a half hour film (which he calls it) and his relation to Mark Ruffalo. The mini-series also boasts a distinctive style and we break down creative choices such as shooting with 35mm film stock.
DF: First off, we wanted to say congratulations on the show. It’s really good. I’m sure it’s going to have a great run on HBO.
DC: I appreciate that.
DF: At the core of the show is the two characters that Mark Ruffalo plays. So how did you go about collaborating with Mark to ensure these two characters were distinctively different from each other?
DC: That was one of the very first things that Mark and I talked about six years ago when Mark tapped me to write and direct this. We talked about, okay, these guys are identical twins. When they came into the world, they looked exactly the same – but they had 40 years of life choices, of life experience that would turn them into different people. So they couldn’t look the same. When I started to think about twins and movies, there are some great examples from some films such as Dead Ringers. There are a lot of twins in movies. But I always feel like I’m trying to find the seam and there’s always a sense of… like lunch happened on set and the actor went and put a wig on and came back and did the other side.
When I made Blue Valentine, we had this process set up where Ryan and Michelle played two sides of these characters. You know, when they were younger and falling in love. And then six years later when they were getting a divorce and to shoot that, we took a month off between production so that they could embody these other characters. So they could have a process that would allow them to kind of behave in a different way and not just do the script. I’m in a fortunate position to work with great actors like Ryan, Michelle, or Mark. Now these actors could actually do it. They could like break for lunch and come back and do the other side.
But I think as a filmmaker, what I’m really looking for – I’m trying to find these moments that are natural, that are like behavior. My favorite movies right now or favorite things that are made are the Attenborough animal documentaries. To me, those are moments that have never been seen before. They’re so rare, they’re so fleeting, they can’t happen twice, you know? So I’m always trying to find how I can set it up in a way where you can be witnessing something that’s really happening. That became the challenge here with Mark playing two characters. Dominic would be one guy because he had 40 years of experience. We thought he was going to be very masculine, he was going to be very aggressive, very alpha.
So we had Mark lose 20 pounds. You know what happens when you don’t eat much? You get very angry and kind of all angsty. That’s how Mark was Dominic and in real life. I was having them do push ups before every scene so that his muscles, his vanes would be in gorge. He would be short of breath. He would always be emotionally exhausted. Then we took these six weeks off and HBO was awesome about letting us do that. I mean, Mark took six weeks off. I went and shot all these other elements. I shot the kids in the college age, the kids, the grandpa, and then Mark came back as Thomas. We just wanted to shoot it in a way where the technical side of it wasn’t going to overwhelm the performances.
I said early on to the producers and crew that this is a movie that’s going to be told through the actors, not through the tricks of the cinema. Not through the megalomania of what we can do behind the camera or some kind of technician’s dream. It was going to be about the actors. So we just made our process suited for them.
DF: The cinematography is very distinct. There is a very unique look to the show. What was your collaboration like with your cinematographer?
DC: Jody Lee Lipes was the cinematographer on this. I’ve always been a fan of his work from After School to Two Gates Of Sleep, Tiny Furniture, Manchester By The Sea. He’s always been kind of a hero of mine from afar. I shot a commercial with him and I really loved his energy. I thought he would bring the right energy to set and he would have that ability to control but allow chaos. That’s what I’m always trying to find in my movies – this balance between chaos and control. I want life to creep in. I want mistakes to happen and I thought Jody could embrace that. In terms of our visual style, we shot on 35 mm film stock.
We shot mostly with very long lenses because I have like a sickness inside of me. I can’t get close enough to people. When I’m on set, I just want to be closer. I just want to be in people’s faces. That’s where everything is happening in the body, skin, and the flesh. So I just want to get close. We spent most of this movie in close-ups, as these people were undergoing these heightened emotional experiences. We ended up shooting almost 2 million feet of film. Our motto on-set was to keep Kodak in business. I thought film was the only choice for us because we were telling a story that took place in the 90’s, 80’s, 70’s, 60’s, 50’s, 40’s, 30’s, 20’s, 10’s. Film will unify it in a way. It would just feel odd. I mean, digital formats that are available today weren’t available during any of those times. And whenever I see that, I always feel like there’s an electricity in the air when it shouldn’t be electric.
DF: So with this, you’ve talked about some of the challenges. Was there a challenge in making it into a mini series? Was there ever any point where you were like, “Oh, I want to make this into one whole film?”
DC: I mean, I always thought of it as a film. I thought of it as a six and a half hour film. The thing is like, there is no way for me to make this in the marketplace as a six hour movie. You would have to make a two-part movie and no one is going to give you the same kind of budget and let you do the same things that you could do in a series. I had a lot of creative freedom to be able to do it as a series. To me with my last couple of films, I always felt like I had to make sacrifices for the story to fit inside the screen, the big screen.
I love movies. I love the movie theater more than any place on earth. Sometimes I go to the movies just to go to sleep because I’m so comfortable there and I hope movies survive whatever this is that we’re going through right now. But there was a time in my movies that I was making that I was having to rush through third acts just to fit it for the screen. For this, I felt like I really wanted to make something where I could expand and where I wouldn’t have to just simply service plot or story in the third act. Where I could continue to explore characters and moments. This format, six and a half hours, gave me that luxury and opportunity – that blessing to do that.
DF: You mentioned how we go back in time quite a lot. How was it capturing those earlier dynamics, say with the young versions of Thomas and Dominic?
DC: I had two great little actors, Donny and Rocco. Also two great actors, Melissa Leo and John Procaccino to help me with those stories. I’d say one of the hardest days I ever had on set, the hardest two days was the day that Thomas locks himself in the bathroom. That’s a very cramped set to be stuck on a highway for eight hours a day with 30 kids on a bus – traveling, trying not to get car sick. It was great. I mean look, Mark is amazing to work with. He’s like such a dream and he was able to set the tone for all the other acting in the piece.
When he left, we still had this tone set by Mark’s performance that we were able to just continue to tap into. It was a blessing to tell all these different stories. Normally, you don’t have an opportunity to go as deep into all this, into the past. When I was doing the college-age version, I had Phil Ettinger and Aisling Franciosi. They were able to portray Dominic and Tessa. It’s not only that they looked exactly like them, but they were great actors and great performers. They could embody the spirit of those characters. It’s all learning. We never knew when we were making this though, if it was going to work. I didn’t know if the twinning was going to work. I didn’t know if jumping around the different characters playing him were going to work. I didn’t know if the grandpa’s story was going to work. I don’t know if it works now. It’s all an experiment, you know? Then it’s up for the audience to decide what the result of the experiment is.
DF: You mentioned how Mark gave you the project, right? He brought it up to you.
DC: Yeah, he did!
DF: What was it that called out to you in this specific story, what made you want to adapt it? Was there anything that touched you?
DC: I’ve always made movies about family. I’m drawn to stories about family because that’s where all of our greatest intimacies happen. When you live with someone for 20 years, you really get to know who they are. You get to know the good, the bad, and the ugly of a person. What I’m trying to do in my movies is show full well-rounded humanity – good, bad, and ugly of every person. The joy, the sorrow, the ecstasy, the failures, the humor, the pain. I’m trying to find all the things that make up all of the elements of a person. The betrayals, the sacrifices. When I grew up, there was this idea of what goes on in the house, stays in the house. So what I’ve always tried to do with my movies is tell the secrets, the things that aren’t supposed to leave the house.
Because we all have that in our own lives. We all have our own secrets. We all have our own griefs. We all have our own private joys. Sometimes in this modern age of social media, a lot of what’s presented to the world is what’s so great about my life. Look at what I’m eating for dinner. Look how great this is, how happy my family is. Look how tan and buff I am in the sun right now. Look how perfect I look. If I put the camera right here, my cheekbones and my lips look great. That’s why I’m not on any social media or anything. Because I’m not perfect, you know? I love to explore the flaws in people because I think the flaws are the things that are beautiful. So this was an opportunity for me to tell another story about flawed human beings that I love.
DF: With the whole show, it’s six episodes long, six and a half hours or so. How did it change? Was there a certain idea at first, did things change or was it all exactly as you envisioned?
DC: Well, it always changes of course. That’s our constant in life as we always have change. So as I’m making films, I always want things to change too. Like I said, there are experiments I set up as a filmmaker where I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t know what the outcome is. I don’t know if things are going to work, but I set them up. That’s part of the reason to make something – to find out if they do, right? So of course there are scenes that hit the cutting room floor. There are scenes that were found on set that we never thought we would shoot. There’s a moment in episode one where Dominic’s mother, where Melissa Leo tells Dominic to take care of his brother because she’s dying on her deathbed.
Now that was a scene that was written at night time, right? That was a scene that we were going to prepare to do at night time. But I was shooting this moment with Mark and Melissa and Mark had this emotion where he was so present in this moment. He was trying to be happy for, and I whispered to Melissa, “tell him secret now”. So she dropped it on him when he wasn’t ready for it. That’s why there are no cuts to Melissa in that moment, because it was a one moment that happens for real on screen. That’s why I like Attenborough, because you find these moments that could never be replicated. Did you see Haley’s comet?
DF: No, I didn’t!
DC: I saw it, but I’ll never see it again. You’ll probably see it. You’re younger than me. You’ll probably see it when you’re like 70 or something maybe. Because it’s every 70 years. But that’s how I try to approach my filmmaking. It’s like Haley’s comet, let’s try to find Haley’s comet. Then once it’s gone, it’s gone. There are so many surprises, so many discoveries and so many things. It takes on a life of its own really.