From writer/director Derek Cianfrance and based on the award-winning novel of the same name by Wally Lamb, the six-part HBO limited series I Know This Much Is True follows identical twin brothers Dominick and Thomas Birdsey (played in two stand-out performances by Mark Ruffalo) on their very different life paths. It’s a family saga of sacrifice and forgiveness that begins in their present in the early 1990s and digs into different stages in their lives, as it highlights how mental illness affects everyone, including the one directly suffering with it.
During the virtual press day for the limited series, filmmaker Derek Cianfrance spoke to Collider for this 1-on-1 interview about having Mark Ruffalo reach out to him about doing this project together, what he enjoyed about the long-form storytelling experience, why he wanted the story to rely on the actors and not on the technical aspect of things, his collaborative relationship with Ruffalo, the decision to shoot on 35mm film, the post-production process, and why he likes to juggle multiple projects at one time.
Collider: When Mark Ruffalo came to you about doing this, what was it that interested you in the project, and did you have a full understanding of just what you’d be getting yourself into, by saying yes?
DEREK CIANFRANCE: There were many aspects of it that made it easy to say yes to, one being Mark, who’s always been one of my favorite actors and who’s one of the great human beings that I’ve met. The idea of spending six years with him sounded like a good idea to me. The exploration of family and familial secrets seemed like something I was born to make. I was drawn to the idea of telling a larger form story because as I had some frustrations in my last couple movies, of feeling like I didn’t have the expansiveness to tell the story as fully as I wanted to. With The Place Beyond the Pines, for instance, there was an intermission built into the script, and it was just my naivete to think that I could actually make a movie with an intermission. But with the television show, I could actually expand characters. I was really excited to live in it for longer. I’d always heard about incredibly long shoots and thought that it would be great. Blue Valentine, I shot in 25 days. This, I ended up shooting in 116 days. It was amazing to commit myself to something for a longer period of time and really live in it, for a longer period, and just have a larger canvas to work with. It just felt like a blessing, the whole time. Early on, people were like, “Are you ready for this? Are you ready for how big this is gonna be?” I don’t make that many films. When I shot this, it had been five years since I’d made a film. I definitely try to take my time, in between making films, to steel myself up for the experience and try to bring to it the new things I wanna explore. I’m not trying to make a quantity. I’m just trying to have a full exploration. It was a joy. I have to say, making this film felt like a vacation. It didn’t feel like work, at all.
At the same time, it seems like the technical challenges would be endless. Do you feel like you were fully prepared for how that was to deal with?
CIANFRANCE: Early on, I gave the crew and the producers the north star that would lead us, and that was that this story would be told through actors. This is a story about people, about human beings, and I refused to let it be run by technical things or technicians, or megalomaniac filmmaking. This story, if it was gonna work, would have to be told through the people on the screen. Look who we had. We had Mark Ruffalo, we had Juliette Lewis, and some of the great actors of all time, on screen. I said, “We just have to tell this story from the performers. Let them be the ones to shine. Everything we do is gonna be about them.” One movie that really inspired the technical challenge was Heat. When I was a kid, I watched Michael Mann’s Heat, and there’s that great scene where [Robert] De Niro and [Al] Pacino go to the diner together, in the middle of the night. I remember, as a kid, watching that and being like, “Wow, De Niro and Pacino, their faces are never on screen, at the same time. It’s always just shot and counter shot because these characters represent flip sides of the same coin.” That’s such a confident choice by a filmmaker, and I felt like that should be the idea was this, too. We don’t need to resort to tricks here to tell this story. Every time I ever see twin stuff, I’m always looking for the seams. It always seems that they broke for lunch, and the guy came back with like a wig on and a fake mustache. My process is all about exploration and discovery, so we tried to set it up in a way where Mark could be both characters. We shot 16 weeks with him as Dominick, and then he took six weeks off while I continued to shoot ‘cause I had to shoot the nine year old version of him, the college age version of him, and the grandfather’s story. In that time, Mark was able to gain some weight and come back like a different person. That’s what I’m really always looking for, as a filmmaker, behavioral changes, not technical changes. Jody Lee Lipes, my DP, and myself, decided, early on, that we were gonna shoot this the way we want to shoot it, and then let the technical side itself out, as it goes. There’s a lot of vfx work in this, for sure, but it was always in service to what we were doing with the performers. It was never there to do a cool trick.
What did you really appreciate about the collaboration and the working relationship you had with Mark Ruffalo, throughout this whole process?
CIANFRANCE: Mark is just an absolute brother of mine. As an actor, he’s so talented and so open. As a human being, he’s so vulnerable, he’s so present, and he’s so brave. He’s just an absolute dream to work with, and the fact that he’s such a good human being is really interesting for me, as a filmmaker who’s exploring the dark sides of people sometimes. The fact that Mark has this natural buoyancy allowed me to write his character deeper into the gutter because he has this natural grace that lifts him out of it.
What made you want to shoot this on 35mm film, and how did that affect things with the production?
CIANFRANCE: It’s two-perf 35mm film because the story takes place in the ‘90s, ‘80s, ‘70s, ‘60s, ‘50s, ‘40s, ‘30s, ‘20s and ‘10s, I needed a format that was gonna unify it, and digital HD format didn’t exist, during any of those times. If I was gonna shoot video, the only thing I could have shot, that would have been authentic, would have been SD video from the ‘90s. But then, you have that whole challenge of, what do you shoot the grandpa’s story in then? I just thought that film would immediately unify our story and unify our world. Film has been around throughout the whole 20th century, so I felt like this was a choice for film. That’s it, on an aesthetic level. It’s feels warmer, there’s more grain, and it’s just more alive. Also, in terms of process on set, with actors, I feel like film changes your process right. You have to be more decisive in your choices on film. On digital, you shoot forever. You have to make more of a choice on film. What ends up happening is that it affects actors, in a really interesting way. I tend to think of myself, as the director, like a coach, and I think of my actors as my players. If I’m shooting two-perf 35mm, and a 400-foot mag of that on set, that means I have nine minutes and 20 seconds to get a scene. And so, what that does is set up a shot clock for my actors and they come into a scene with urgency because there’s film running, and they’ve gotta get it before the film runs out. So, it creates this real tangible urgency, amongst the crew. I’m very thankful to HBO for allowing us to shoot this massive project on film. We shot almost 2 million feet of film. Our motto was, “Let’s keep Kodak in business.” It felt right to make a blue collar story about these people, by shooting on film. That definitely felt like a Rochester vibe to me.
Did you approach the post-production side of this, as a film? Did you edit this, in the same way that you would, if you were making a movie, and then figure out where to cut it for each episode later?
CIANFRANCE: All of these scripts were written and they were designed like a six and a half hour movie. That was the ultimate goal of it. I looked to [Ingmar] Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander as like real inspiration to tell a larger story. And then, the trick with writing it was about how to break it up and how to add all of these various arts. One of the great glorious challenges was how, in a film, you have one beginning and one ending, but for this, every episode had a beginning and an ending. I had six openings and closings, it was just thrilling to think about that. And then, in terms of editing, I worked with two of my same editors that I work with all the time, Jim Helton and Ron Patane, and we brought on a couple of other editors, Malcolm Jamieson, Nico Leunen and Dean Palisch. We were living in a house in Brooklyn and we were just editing, around the clock, trying to get it done. Honestly, the process of this and of making a film was no different. It was just more expansive, because of the story and the characters, and the time and the moments we were allowed to live with. There’s a scene at the end of Episode 2, where Dominick goes to Thomas’ therapist, and it’s about a 16-minute scene. That’s a lot of real estate in a two-hour movie, so I don’t know if I would be able to devote that much time in a movie. But in a TV show, because I had six and a half hours, I was able to sit in some moments for much longer, and that was just such a breath of fresh air. When I edited The Light Between Oceans, I felt like, when I got to the third act, I had to only service plot. I couldn’t service character or moment anymore because I just had to get to the end. There was something so freeing about being able to live in moments for longer and to live with characters for longer, to a place where characters felt like family.
Is this something that you’d like to do again, as far as working in a longer format?
CIANFRANCE: Oh, absolutely, yeah. I wanna make movies and I’d love to do other series, for sure. There’s some stories that are meant to be movies and there are some stories that are meant to be television, just like there are some things that are destined to be shot digitally and some things are supposed to be shot on film. But, I have both. I have films and shows.
Are you someone who has multiple projects in a drawer that you could pull out and try to get into production, or are you not someone who works that way?
CIANFRANCE: Everything for me is a bit of the long game. I spent 12 years working on Blue Valentine, and in the time I was working on that, I was building The Place Beyond the Pines, and I was working on Metalhead, which turned into Sound of Metal, and I was working on adapting this book Muscle, which is something that I still haven’t made that might come. I always have multiple irons in the fire. I go as far down a road until something either gets made, or if it doesn’t get made, I do something else, but I always come back around. I always look at Blue Valentine. It took 12 years to make that movie, and if I hadn’t stuck with it for those 12 years, it wouldn’t have been the movie that was destined to get made. If I would have made it earlier, it would not have been the same movie. I really do believe in the universe making choices for you. I just keep working, and I feel like, when the universe is ready for the things I’m gonna make, it’ll allow me to do it. Not to sound like some kind of hippie, or anything. I really believe that.
I Know This Much Is True airs on Sunday nights on HBO.