When you watch a movie by Derek Cianfrance you know you are witnessing something deeply personal. No mistaking that. There is nothing light or frivolous in his work. Best known for his features Blue Valentine, A Place Beyond the Pines, and The Light Between Oceans, Cianfrance is drawn to the intimate tragedies and complications of family life. His latest, a six-part adaptation of Wally Lamb’s 1998 novel, I Know This Much is True (now playing on HBO), is no exception. The show, which stars Mark Ruffalo as twin brothers, along with a fine support cast that includes Melissa Leo, Rosie O’Donnell, John Procaccino, and Kathryn Hahn, is harrowing but rewarding in a bruising, beautiful way.
I recently sat down with Cianfrance to talk about the show. There are a few spoiler alerts below, and full disclosure, I am longtime friends with his wife, the filmmaker, Shannon Plumb.
Think you’ll enjoy. Cianfrance is a thoughtful, soulful man.—AB.
Alex Belth: When I think about Mark Ruffalo’s performance as Dominick all I see is a foggy vision of his face in close-up as he drives around in his truck, the cab filled with cigarette smoke. Dominick is smoking a butt in just about every scene.
Derek Cianfrance: He’s in Hell, this guy. He’s in his own personal Hell, so the cigarette became useful to illustrate that. He’s made himself a world where there is less air, less room to breathe. Mark thought that Dominick was trying to kill himself by smoking so much as his way to get back at God—by killing his/her creation.
A lot of the inspiration for this story came from my Italian American heritage. I’m only a quarter Italian but that quarter side of me was so influential, it really left a mark. My Italian grandfather was a baker and I never saw him without a cigarette. There was always smoke all around him. He looked like he was boiling all the time. The veins in his neck were engorged, he had such high blood pressure. He had a temper. By the time I was in the world I think he’d lost a lot of that temper, but I knew he had when he was raising my father.
AB: Did your dad have that temper too?
DC: Oh, yeah, and I did too as a kid. I thought I was lucky. I got it. I’m powerful like the two most powerful men in my life. I’m like them. When I was growing up The Incredible Hulk was my favorite show. I lived for that show and I would daydream and identify myself as The Hulk and David Bruce Banner. That show really tapped into the melancholic feelings that seemed to always accompany the aftermath of anger—the world that was left destroyed by it. I was acutely aware that the powerful feeling anger gave me also left behind wreckage.
Anger comes out of fear. You don’t want to feel weak and vulnerable. You don’t want to feel sad, you don’t want to feel hurt. You don’t want to be hurt. So how do you protect yourself? You get angry. I did. My dad did. My grandpa did. And that anger becomes a shield, an armor. As a kid, that was my idea of masculinity.
Mark grew up in an Italian household too—so with Dominick he had the same kinds of reference points. And Wally, who wrote the book, he’s Italian too. We tried to tap into these images and feelings and experiences that we had in our lives as it related to Dominick’s rage—which was hiding his pain, his fear, his insecurities, his weakness.
If you look at the twins in this movie, Thomas relates more to the mother, whereas Dominick relates to the abusive stepfather. There are these teams that form within families. And Dominick, being the more masculine twin identifies with his stepfather, even though he hates him, and Thomas identifies with his mother—the more feminine side. And this is a real sign of shame in that home … especially in the eyes of Ray, the stepfather.
We were dealing with a character’s mental illness and schizophrenia, but we tried to always keep in mind that schizophrenia is not a personality type. Thomas is Thomas. And the illness is something that he’s dealing with. He was a sensitive kid, a target, who didn’t wish anything bad on anyone and didn’t have any rage in his heart and was therefore seen as weak. Now, how much that contributed to his mental health issues is one of the unanswerable questions in the film.
AB: It’s apparent the anger and embarrassment Dom feels as a kid, saddled with his brother.
DC: It’s the burden and the bond of being in a family. Being responsible for people that you have no choice but to be with. With these relationships that you are born into. Dominick feels a deep resentment. What would his life be like if only his brother wasn’t there? At the same time, he loves his brother. And he sacrifices his own happiness and his own life to try and protect his brother. His story shows what it’s like to be a survivor. The guilt that comes with that. What does it say about someone who escapes it? What do they leave behind?
AB: Dom doesn’t seem to allow himself the fantasy of leaving, even though it’s eating him up inside.
DC: Yes. I mean, in college he’s trying to get away from his what he calls “his whole fucked up family” and try to start a life on his own. That’s something I felt when I was coming of age. That’s one of the reasons I moved to New York. Not to get away from my family necessarily but to start my own thing.
AB: Do you have siblings?
DC: I have an older brother and a younger sister. She actually passed away three days after I finished shooting this thing. In many ways, she was one of my inspirations for Dominick. She used to run an assisted living facility where she took care of the elderly. She had two step kids. A husband. And she was the most dedicated family member. She would drop everything to help you if she could. She was such a good caretaker of other people but not necessarily herself. Megan needed a Megan for her, to be there for her. But there was a switch in her that wouldn’t allow for that and this was something I was always thinking about with Dominick. Here’s a guy who needs to take care of himself. There’s a moment in Episode Two where a therapist says to him, “There are two brothers lost in the woods.” What she realizes is that there is probably not a good shot at helping Thomas but there’s still a chance to save Dominick. But he’s reluctant because he doesn’t think he’s worth it.
Especially growing up in a Catholic, Italian household, the idea as to be so bold to be selfish, to look out for yourself, that’s an absolute sin. That’s why I put the 23 Psalm in there. I grew up going to church every Sunday and catechism a couple of times a week my whole life. I remember one time in college thinking I’m going to go back to church. And the priest recited the 23 Psalm which says, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” And I started to think that this kind of input can really skew your vision of life and what it means to be alive.
You shall not want. You’re a sheep. So, what I’m hearing is—You have no choice. You have no free will. And then I go back to original sin, what is it? It’s eating an apple? That’s food, it’s sustenance, it’s life. There was an entire onslaught of programming in my Catholic upbringing that messaged to me: All of life is a sin and anything that you do for yourself—pleasure or your own self-worth—is a betrayal.
AB: Particularly with Dom who has an identical twin brother. Dom doesn’t even seem preoccupied with self-pity. Thinking about himself isn’t even an option.
DC: Absolutely. The story is a heightened tragedy. It’s like the Book of Job. My imagination always goes to tragic places, it’s my instinct, whereas my wife Shannon goes to comedy. Which is one of the reasons why we are married.
AB: Dominick really believes in curses. In the family curse. At one point his shrink says, “Don’t you believe in free will?” He is a smart guy, but you can see that his belief system is not about intellect.
DC: Look, this whole story is about emotional truths not intellectual truths. It’s about people dealing with their emotions. Part of what I’m trying to do with the movies I make is talk about the secrets that aren’t supposed to leave the house. This stays in the house. Nobody is going to know what’s really going on in this house. That was my childhood. Outside my house looked like Disneyland. We had a small house, but our lawn looked like a golf course—I used to have to mow it three times—horizontally, vertically, and diagonally. We used to sweep the street outside my house. Not the driveway, not the garage, but the street. From the outside it looked perfect. Ideal. And inside there was a lot of beautiful love and everything but there was a lot of other shit too.
In this story there is the idea of the curse. I told you about my grandfather. His father was an immigrant from northern Italy. There’s not much I know about him. He was a gravedigger. I learned only a few things about him, and one had to do with an act of complete rage. I didn’t discover this until I was in my late twenties but when I heard it it became so clear to me why my grandfather was on fire all the time, why he was so angry. Because he experienced trauma that he never dealt with. And he became a father and he raised my father with this thing. And my father took that iron from him. It was like passing the baton, this legacy. The curse it’s a way to explain away familial pain and trauma. We can throw switches in our DNA, events can throw off DNA structures that can completely change the lives of the people that come after they are dead.
I learned this about my great-grandfather right before I started having kids and I started to confront this stuff in my work because as a father I’m trying to—I’m trying—because my kids have that fire too. And I’m trying to help them deal with it. To help them navigate it.
AB: Have you been confronted with your own anger just by being a dad?
DC: Oh, for sure. It’s the most shameful part of me when that past comes out. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to tell this story about Dominick. Here’s a guy who is dealing with this trauma that comes from his grandfather and it even goes back further than that. Nowadays, I think a lot about my anger, my worry, my paranoia, those things don’t work so well in a modern society. But they worked really well thousands of years ago when life meant survival of the fittest.
AB: Do those qualities help you professionally? Being tough when you need to be tough?
DC: Sure. That’s the double-edged part of it. The Hulk can be effective. That’s the terrible dilemma for someone who carries this legacy with them. You can wield it, it can work, but there is a price to pay.
AB: Do you catch yourself when you get in that state and maybe not change the behavior but go beyond the anger to the fear?
DC: I’ve been getting there. That’s why I made this movie in the first place. All my films are trying to confront personal things. They are the working out memories, dreams, fears from my psyche. Even though this is an adaptation I felt so close to it. It gets weird because it’s so personal while I’m making it and then, boom, one day it becomes public. That’s a tricky balance. Because I’m an artist. That’s my choice. And it’s my responsibility to look at things that are hard to look at. To expose the naked truth about myself and people as I see them. But my parents, my kids, my sister, for instance, they didn’t make that same choice as me. They haven’t raised their hand and offered up all their naked truths.
That’s always the cost. I can make a choice as an artist. I get a little nervous talking about it because I don’t want to hurt the people that didn’t make those choices. Me, as an artist, I am willing to take the responsibility. But only for myself.
AB: This story is a lot about wounded men and masculinity and yet the women characters, not all of them, but several key women characters are the stronger than the men.
DC: I wanted to look at masculinity in all its faults and misconceptions. And the confusing idea of what it means to be strong when strength doesn’t necessarily come from the ways that men are traditionally taught to be strong. When I think about the women in my life—Shannon, my mom, Shannon’s mother, my sister—they’re all much stronger than me, they could all handle much more than I could. When I think about the women in this story, they are all helping Dominick realize that he’s got to wake up and learn how to be a better person—to be more whole. If his brother Thomas has more feminine qualities, Dom has to humble himself before he can accept those—the well-roundedness of both male and female qualities, to be a better person. The women in the movie tell Dom that he has to let go and take care of himself but he struggles with that because it’s not in his code. It’s not until he can become humble that he sees a slight glimmer of hope for himself.
AB: Why did you decide to shoot on film?
DC: It’s a period piece that takes place over the course of many decades in the 20th Century. The digital formats we have today weren’t around back then so I wanted to find a way to shoot that would unify all the threads. I always find it odd when the 1950s— or the turn of the century—are shot with a digital camera. It just feels off to me. The electricity is different. It’s too clean. And there is something about film that is so warm, analog and tactile. You can touch it.
When you are shooting film there are different loads you use in the camera—400-foot loads, 1,000-foot loads—and that gives you a limited time to shoot. The first scene we filmed in the therapist’s office was a 20-page scene. That was the biggest single scene I’ve ever shot. Mark was about two thirds of the way through the scene when the film ran out. Now, I didn’t tell him it ran out, I let him keep going. And there was some good stuff that never made it into the camera. Afterwards I told him, “That was great, but we ran out. You have to be more urgent with it.” When you have this kind of limitation, it’s actually helpful. I learned this from Shannon who made these amazing three-minute films on Super 8. She taught me about time from the rhythm of a three-minute cartridge. I always set every film up with a different set of limitations because without them you don’t have boundaries and if you don’t have boundaries you don’t know how far to get to the edge.
To use a sports analogy, I’m the coach, the actors are the players, and the film is the shot-clock. You gotta get some points on the board before the clock runs out. After a couple of takes actors understand the timing and then we’re all dealing with the same language of time.
AB: Did you operate the camera at all?
DC: No, no. On this, Jody Lee Lipes shot it. He is so good at composition and framing, much better than I could ever be. That allowed me to watch the frame from a monitor right next to him. I’m always within touching distance of the actors. I can always reach over and whisper something to them. I’m never in a video village. But I’m always watching it in a monitor right there and can see the movie happen.
AB: I was taken with the use of source music. Often in period movies, songs do a lot of the legwork to establish the scene and sometimes they are leaned on to do a lot of emotional work for the audience too. But I didn’t find that here. There is a scene where a guitarist in a nursing home is playing Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” and I was waiting for it to hijack the scene, but it didn’t—it evoked the setting and then was gone. You didn’t gild the lily.
DC: As I mentioned, my sister was the activities director in an assisted living facility, so I’ve always had a great affinity for the community in an assisted living facility. When I was scouting locations there was a birthday party in the room of the facility we visited and there was that guy who is in the movie playing “Bridge Over Troubled Waters.” I walked into it in my own life and knew right there that that was going to be the scene. The first shot of the movie is of a bridge and there is a lot of imagery of water. I thought this feels like the right moment for Dom and Ray to walk into this world. But it’s not necessarily their theme music.
My music supervisor on this is a guy named Matt Kallman. I met Matt back when I used to shoot commercials. He was my P.A. He used to drive me around. Come to find out that Matt is a rock star. He’s a member of the band Real Estate. He’s such a good guy. I loved when he would drive me around—which he did because that’s how he got his health insurance. And he was a really good driver, too. Whenever he’d pick me up, he’d have the best music. Usually when I got in the car, I’d play my music but with Matt, I’d always let him DJ. I’d be riding in the passenger seat and I’d be Shazamming every song he played. Matt introduced me to Harold Budd, who did the original score to the show. And I listened to Budd a lot while I was writing.
One night Matt said, “What I’d really like to do, if you ever have a position for it, I’d love to get into music supervising I think I’d be good at it.” So, when this came up, I said, “Half of the songs in this thing I got from you, let’s get you on, let’s get you in the business.” He found the greatest songs.
AB: Adapting a novel in a limited series like this, does this feel like a once in a life situation?
DC: I always considered this a movie. A six-and-a-half-hour movie. In early meetings with HBO they asked if I was ready for the change to TV and I said, “It’s all just storytelling.” What frustrated me in the last couple of movies I made was the limitations of scale. In movies you have this enormous screen but unless you have a franciseable universe it’s hard to tell an expansive story. The Godfather I and II aren’t being made these days. Sometimes you have an exception, like Carlos, but that was shot for TV, I think. I’ve been longing to try my hand at something more expansive but also take into consideration the natural breaks that television offers. There is one beginning and one ending but there are multiple openings and closings to every episode. And its like every episode is a child in a family—each share many traits, but each are unique in their own right.
AB: Was Wally Lamb pleased with how it turned out?
DC: Absoultely, yes. Throughout the whole thing he was so generous and open and allowed me to be inspired by his book but not be beholden to it. After he saw it, he wrote me the most beautiful email, about all the things he loved about it, a long email and at the end of it he said, “And one final request for you and Mark. Would you both please tell your wives and your families how grateful I am to them for lending you both to this amazing project. Whatever its cost you all, whatever sacrifices have been made I appreciate it more than I can adequately express.”
It’s so insightful and sensitive and it’s the reason why he can write people so well. He can watch the movie based on the book he wrote that was on Oprah’s Book Club 22 years ago and can think about Shannon, who he’s never met.
AB: Have you watched a lot of TV recently?
DC: I don’t mean to sound like a jerk, but no. I usually just don’t have the time. I did watch The Wire like 12 years ago and it inspired me to make A Place Beyond the Pines. Mostly what I watch is David Attenborough’s animal documentaries. That to me is the best shit being made right now. Because those are moments that have truly never been seen before and they are fleeting moments that can never be replicated. When the snow leopard comes out of his cage, how long did they have to wait for that snow leopard to come? That’s my inspiration.
AB: Like a lot of your movies, you film a lot of close-ups in this show. It makes sense with the claustrophobia of the story. What about the close-up attracts you?
DC: It’s just something that happens. I don’t really block scenes out. The very first day of shooting this show I put the camera inside the therapist’s office. Archie Panjabi, who plays the therapist, had been in the office, she knew it, had spent a long time in there. Mark had never been in the office. I put the camera in there, it was eight in the morning. I told the crew thanks for coming. We basically kicked everyone out. There were maybe five people in the room, a single camera. We were rolling facing the door and the door opened, Mark came in. Archie tells him to sit down and we start shooting and I’m just drawn to the close-up.
What did Chaplin say? Tragedy is in close-ups, comedy is in wide shots. I can’t get close enough to people when I’m shooting. I just want to be on their skin. John Ford said the most interesting landscape is that of the human face. That’s where I always want to be. I almost can’t help myself. I’m proud when I see wide shots because that means I’m restraining myself somehow but otherwise close-ups is where I find the intensity and the intimacy. I’m there with the person.
AB: I see you more as a descendent of Cassavetes than Hitchcock or the Coen brothers.
DC: I love Hitchcock and the Coen brothers, but those filmmakers seem to be all about their control. For me, I’m trying to manage control with chaos. And life and discoveries. To me, every film is an experiment. I have no idea what it’s going to be.
AB: What do you do? Find a way to embrace the terror and thrill of not knowing?
DC: Yes. That’s the joy. My film teacher Phil Solomon used to tell me, “You have to risk failure.” In every moment, I’m trying to see if I can find the snow leopard coming out of the cave. And I don’t know if I’m going to find him.
When I moved to New York it was tough at first. One of my early projects came about when I bought myself a praying mantis nest and put it in my friend’s backyard. I bought a bunch of surveillance cameras and I went up to her roof with the cameras and pitched a tent on her roof. For 24 hours a day I had three monitors that I would stare at because I’d heard that when a praying mantis’ nest hatches there are a million babies that come out. Eventually, I called the place where I bought the nest and they said, “Yeah, if it hasn’t hatched yet it probably means it’s already hatched, and it is hard to tell.” That’s the risk you take. Sometimes you wait 12 days and nights for the babies that aren’t going to be born.
AB: How do you deal with that when you’ve got HBO and a big money at stake? How do you not let that pressure spoil your instincts?
DC: It’s believing in something enough that you can will it to life, belief in the people around you, belief in the universe. Now if you have a dead praying mantis’ nest there’s nothing you can do about it. And it’s always about collaboration. If I had all the answers, I’d be a painter. Or a writer. I don’t have all the best answers and I don’t have the best ideas but I can help inspire and instigate everyone to be the best—and worst—of themselves.
I reminded Mark multiple times during the shoot, “Don’t ever forget, you’ve asked me to do this.” If he would get prickly with me when I was asking too much out of him, like when I asked him to gain 30 pounds to play Thomas and he thought maybe a fat suit could just do, I reminded him that he asked me to do it and my job was to get him to experience this thing and let go. That’s really my job with actors: to get them to be open and allow me to capture their behavior not their performance.
AB: Was Ruffalo exhausted by the end of this?
DC: I think so but in a good way. Shooting this was like a vacation. It was really hard but if you’re an actor this is what you want to do. You want to play real people. I wanted to write about ordinary people and have the actors bring the most extraordinary feelings to them. I want to shine a light on ignored lives.
[This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.]
[Photo Credit: The first three images are by Atsushi Nishijima/HBO; the final one is by Sarah Shatz/HBO.]