❉ Talking with the director of Blue Valentine and HBO’s I Know This Much Is True.
In only a handful of projects, filmmaker Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines, The Light Between Oceans) has carved out a distinctive and evocative body of work, thematically and aesthetically tethered to the auteurist, cinematic ghosts of the 1970s, while focusing on characters charting extreme emotional turmoil, before arriving at unpredictable and powerful catharsis. His works are challenging on a formal and narrative level, and the end results are always uncompromising and unforgettable. Cianfrance recently spoke with We Are Cult’s Nick Clement about his storytelling process, and most specifically, his newest endeavor, the masterful HBO limited mini-series I Know This Much Is True, which is based on Wally Lamb’s acclaimed novel, and stars Mark Ruffalo as very different twin brothers, with both headed on a familial collision course that will change their lives forever.
Derek, before we jump in, I just wanted to say how honored I am to have this opportunity to speak with you. I’ve been enamoured with your work for the last decade, so this is a huge treat. I was blown away by I Know This Much Is True, and I think it’s a massive accomplishment. And from what I’ve seen, it’s the best piece of filmed entertainment of the year, in any format.
Thank you so much, Nick. I recently read the wonderful piece you wrote about the series, and I was really struck by some of your comments, especially how you singled out the editing decisions we made while putting together the program. So I appreciate you really delving into the work we did.
Thank you for saying that, Derek. Everything on an aesthetic level with I Know This Much Is True really grabbed me, less in a show-offy manner, but more in a complete vision perspective, and the editing was a major reason for this, to say nothing about your use of the close-up and medium close-up to convey feeling. It was remarkable to observe as a viewer.
Editing is an invisible process, or at least we try to make it feel that way, and I had an incredible team of editors who did brilliant work all throughout the creative process. Generally, I enjoy shooting on a longer lens, which allows for the separation of the camera from the actor. The actors don’t feel as trapped, and you’re able to observe their performance on a microscopic level, but not in a petri dish. I want the actors to have freedom of movement within the spaces I create for them. I don’t ever want to be distracted or too conscious by camera movement. Some people say there’s a “fly on the wall” quality when you’re observing people in an intimate manner, but I’ve always felt that the phrase “fly on the wall” was derogatory. Flies are a pest, we swat them away, and we don’t want to have anything to do with them. I want to feel attached to my characters, at one with them and empathetic with their experiences, while at the same time, I want to give the performers the physical space they need to create.
I haven’t seen anything on-screen in a long time that relied so heavily on the use of close-ups or medium close-ups, and one of the things that really brought me into the world of these broken-down characters was the way you communicated so much with just facial expressions and visual behavior.
I’m addicted to the close-up. It’s always where my instinct goes. I live in the details of my characters’ lives and the complexities of their relationships. I’m attracted to the inner psychology and the subjectivity of someone’s thought process and the experience of their emotional states.
Starting with Blue Valentine, I noticed this clear connection from your work to the films of John Cassavetes, who I think is one of the most important and trendsetting filmmakers of all time.
Cassavetes’ films were so special because they felt so alive and intimate and claustrophobic, and that’s really what I’ve been drawn to as a storyteller. I make stories about families and the secrets kept within the confines of a home. I’m an active participant with each film that I make. As a kid, I took as many pictures as possible, and I was really interested in photography, and observing people – mostly my family – and how they interacted with each other within our communal environment. And yes, absolutely, Cassavetes left a big impact on me in terms of the ways he told his stories.
How do you approach working with your actors? Is there something specific you’ve done that you feel has helped you in your process?
I’m adverse to rehearsals, because sometimes, that’s where the best and freshest performances come from. There’s a certain level of magic in those early, messy takes. I always say: “Let’s make a pancake.” Because, you know, that first pancake, it never comes out right, it’s either too watery or too thick or you’re not using enough heat. Often times the second and third pancakes are the best ones. But sometimes… sometimes it’s perfect and the first pancake is the best one. So, I try not to rehearse too much, and I always look for those raw moments early on while shooting. My job is being like an alchemist – I’m always trying to figure out what ingredients I can add or take away to allow the magic to happen.
How did you get involved with I Know This Much Is True?
Wally Lamb had been trying to get his book turned into a movie for close to 20 years, and it was always a big challenge, and it finally became clear that it was just never going to happen as a feature. He ended up getting the book to Mark, who read it over the course of a weekend, and then he told Wally that he wanted to do it. He didn’t know how he was going to do it, but Mark really felt like he had to get this project made. So, Wally gave him a free option on the material, and Mark got in touch with me. We’d developed a close bond when we both attended the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, as we were both in the same director’s class. We started working on the project in 2015, so it took five years to get the project to the screen. And we couldn’t have done it at any other place than HBO.
Did the technical demands of shooting a series with CGI and the blending of twin footage scare you at all in terms of saying yes to the project?
I went into the process very skeptical at the start, and my first answer was to say no when Ruffalo called and asked if I wanted to do it. I wasn’t interested in a purely technical exercise, and while I’m always interested in exploring new sides to filmmaking, I just didn’t think it would be a good fit for me, at first, with having to tackle the technological demands of filming the footage for the twins. But, when I’m not making movies, I shoot a lot of commercials, and I’d done one not long ago for Hennessey, where there was a twin component, so I had a little bit of experience with the technical process of making it believable to have two of the same person in the same shot. I tried to keep it simple. To never let the technical side overshadow the emotional side or the telling of the story. And I only wanted to do it if I could make something where the qualities of the performances, even in the twinning, were fresh and alive and surprising and messy and real.
There are some absolutely incredible shots in I Know This Much Is True where you know that you’d done the filming on two separate days, but because of how the characters of Dominick and Thomas were sometimes positioned in the frame, you’d have to do some serious matching for the lighting, in order to make it look seamless. It looked amazing all throughout.
I wanted to shoot the twinning stuff the same way I would shoot any scene in the series. It all had to have the same language. So we had to be really careful with how we positioned the two characters in the shot, and we did a lot of over the shoulder shots and then would reverse them, but yes, there was some specific instances where everything had to be perfectly controlled to make sure the illusion of them being in the same moment was never broken. So we utilized some motion control shots, and occasional head replacement. Mark’s double, Gabe Fazio, was terrific and really helped to physically shape the scenes. We had an absolutely amazing technical team, led by visual effects supervisor Eric Pascarelli, who really took charge in making sure that everything looked organic. I mean, there are over 1000 VFX shots in the final cut – but we didn’t want the viewer to notice any of them. Again, as filmmakers we tried to become invisible so as not to interfere with the audience’s relationship and empathy with the characters.
How did it work with shooting the “Two Ruffalos”? Which character did you film first?
In the midst of being miserable and gaining 30 pounds, Mark suggested it might be better to use prosthetics or some sort of a fat suit for Thomas, but I really implored him to gain the weight, because it was really going to change everything about him as a person if he put on the weight for real. Mark’s not big into doing gimmicky-type stuff with his performances, and even though he put on some weight recently for Dark Waters, he’s not big on the whole weight-gain process when it comes to acting. But I told him I thought it was important because the weight gain would affect his behavior in ways that he or I couldn’t predict… and that those revelations would be the basis for the messiness and beauty of the performance and so ultimately, he agreed. We shot the stuff with Dominick over the first 16 weeks of production, and then Mark went on hiatus for six weeks to gain 30 pounds, and we shot the younger kids, and the college-aged Dominick and Thomas, and lots of other stuff. And then Mark came back all bulked up and looking completely different, and we shot the Thomas footage over three weeks.
How did Mark handle the weight gain?
He was miserable. He really hated that part of the process, but I wanted him to go all the way with it. Remember, I’m interested mainly in behavior, and less the performance of it all, so with Mark, I wanted the weight gain to really affect him as person, so that he’d be a totally different character when he came back to shoot. I’ve always been mostly interested with the experiment of waiting to see what happens in the moment.
There was a massive difference when simply viewing the two Ruffalos on-screen. He changed so much of himself in between the two characters.
Mark was really dedicated. When he went to put on the weight for the Thomas footage, he got to load up on the donuts and pasta with Bolognese, but that got old pretty quick for him. Putting on all that weight affected his psychology. He’s the aggressive, alpha-male as Dominick, and then as Thomas, he had to display zero confidence, and his physical condition played a big part of that. And then, part of why the Dominick character always seemed so agitated is because Mark was starving while we were filming the Dominic segments. He was on a strict, very low calorie diet, and he was always hanging around the set, not getting enough to eat, and that element really helped to keep him on edge.
Wow, yeah, he really seemed irritated all throughout, and not just because of all the screwed-up scenarios he was finding himself in, but he just seemed generally uncomfortable.
I’ve always believed the more you can get an actor out of their head and into their bodies, the more interesting the results are going to be. We were doing a smaller scene, and we were on take eight or nine, and it just wasn’t coming together. So I told Mark to do 50 pushups, and he did them nice and fast, and when he was done, he was out of breath, a big vein popping out of his head, he had a big, puffy chest, and his performance was fantastic. It was so much more desperate and alive, and by doing those pushups, he really got into Dominick on a physical level. And when it came to Thomas, Mark also did a lot of research into schizophrenic people, so that he could better understand that world.
I’d like to shift gears and ask one of the ultimate questions I’ve always wanted to ask any filmmaker. Was there ever a longer cut – a “director’s cut” – of The Place Beyond the Pines? I think it’s a tremendous film, but I’ve always had this feeling that there were more portions to that film that were shot.
There was a longer cut of Pines that lasted about three and a half hours, but the cut that was released is definitely what I’d consider to be the “director’s cut.” It was in my contract that if I delivered a film that came in under two hours and 20 minutes, I’d have final cut, so the final version literally was about two frames shy of going over the time limit. The experience of making Pines really got me ready for long-form storytelling, and originally, I’d written Pines with an intermission, and it would have been longer, and would have explored more of the police corruption, and a deeper story with Avery, and there was some more stuff with the kids.
Wow, I wish I could see that cut! I just love the movie and think that it’s a magnificent piece of work, and I always find myself coming back to it over the years.
You know, I have this funny story. We took six months to get our first edit of the movie done, and it came time to show it to the financiers, and they really wanted to see it at a certain point in the process, and we kept them waiting. So on the day of the first screening, I was 30 minutes late, as we’d been up all night the night before getting it ready, and I had one of the assistant editors put up a slate for the audience to see, and it said that they were about to sit down to a three and a half hour movie! They were sitting there, staring at the slate, seething in anger that I was about to show them a three hour movie, because they thought it was the two hour and 20 minute cut. And the rumor floating around the screening room was “they’re going to fire Derek.” But when the screening was finished, nobody was going to fire me.
How hard is it getting made the types of stories you’re attracted to in this current movie landscape?
I live in the world of dramas, and I tell stories about families, and that’s tough right now. The Place Beyond the Pines was a $10 million drama, and The Light Between Oceans was a $20 million drama, and right now, it’s getting harder and harder to convince studios to make those films. I’d never be able to make Pines today, and I really think that movies are a true product of their time. HBO let me do exactly what I wanted to do with I Know This Much Is True, and not to suggest that they were push-overs, because they did question lots of the creative elements in a smart and thoughtful manner, but they really gave me the freedom to tell the full story that I wanted to tell. And they fully supported the vision. I shot on two-perf, 35 mm film, and we licensed songs from Madonna and Wham!, and we had that element of sexuality, and scenes that lasted 20 minutes, so it was really a great experience. As an artist, I wasn’t censored. I was supported.
I’ve noticed you’ve recently signed an overall deal with HBO to develop new projects, which is very exciting. Fans of your work wish you made more movies, but you have a specific way of doing things. It’s interesting to note that you haven’t “sold out,” and done a “for-hire” gig on an action film or a piece of Marvel product. Are you able to discuss anything that you’re working on coming up, once COVID-19 gets under control?
I do a lot of commercials in between big projects, because it’s hard to get the stories I’m attracted to turned into a reality. And doing commercials keeps me sharp and I get to learn new things and work with really talented people. Jody Lee Lipes, who shot I Know This Much Is True, we met on an Apple commercial, and there are so many crew members who I’ve worked with multiple times because you build a relationship. But overall, I’m not in a race. It takes so much to get a movie made, and I really want to be present and active with my family. I’m just depleted right now after the experience of making I Know This Much Is True, so I’m taking time to reconnect with my family.
Thank you so much for your time, Derek. This has been fantastic to finally have this chance to speak with you about your work. I really can’t say thanks enough, and it goes without saying, I’m waiting with extreme anticipation for your next project to take hold.
❉ I Know This Much is True premiered on HBO in the United States on Sunday, May 10; and was screened in the UK from Monday, May 11 on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV.
❉ A regular contributor to We Are Cult, Nick Clement is a journalist for Variety Magazine and motion picture screenplay consultant, as well as a critic for Back to the Movies. He wrote the introduction to the book Double Features: Big Ideas in Film, which was published by The Great Books Foundation, and is currently working on a book about the life and work of filmmaker Tony Scott.