Derek Cianfrance is the filmmaker behind such intimate, psychologically gruelling and soulful dramas as BLUE VALENTINE (2010), THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES (2012), and THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS (2016). His works have a naturalistic, lived-in quality, and are concerned with families, relationships and legacies. They have a fearless, stare-into-the abyss approach, and his latest project, the six-part HBO miniseries I KNOW THIS MUCH IS TRUE (2020), is no exception and might be the summation of his ouevre so far. It centers on identical twin brothers (both played by Mark Ruffalo), and the aftermath of one of the brothers (Thomas), who is a paranoid schizophrenic, cutting off one of his hands to try and stop the Gulf War. The other brother (Dominick) has to wrestle with Thomas's decision to not have the hand reattached and come to terms with his own demons whilst trying to keep Thomas somewhat balanced. I KNOW THIS MUCH IS TRUE is hugely affecting, beautifully made, epic storytelling, and in the first of a four-part interview with Cianfrance about the series and his career, I spoke with him about his approach towards the series, what attracted him to the project, his response after first reading the 1998 Wally Lamb novel, the 'message' of the story, the literary qualities of his films, whether or not he feels the series ends the first chapter of his career, and how he felt about being able to tell a story in six parts.
I have been a huge fan of your work ever since I saw BLUE VALENTINE. It's one of the most emotionally honest and powerful films I've ever seen.
That's sweet. That's awesome, man. It was truly a labor of love to make that movie, so that's so nice to hear.
The film also inspired me to start this website, Money Into Light, because I felt so compelled to write about the film that I needed a place for it to appear.
Oh, wow, that's amazing. I have to say that there are so many young filmmakers that I meet who have been inspired by that film and others that I have made, and it brings me so much joy. I was also inspired by so many films and filmmakers in my life that helped me feed the dream or the illusion, or whatever you want to say. They're the best compliments when your films inspire people to make stuff.
I just finished I KNOW THIS MUCH IS TRUE, and I found it devastatingly powerful. What was your first reaction to the book when Mark Ruffalo introduced you to it?
It took me a long time to read the book because I really struggle with reading, and I have my whole life. In high school, I only read one book the entire time I was there because of this struggle, even though I aced my English classes and became the most valuable student at my school. My difficulty with reading counts for one of the reasons why I became a filmmaker. It came out of my need to communicate with other people through a medium that I could comprehend.
When Mark gave me the book, he told me all about it and I asked him lots of questions about what it was about and what was in it. One of the tools that I developed throughout my young life with reading was my ability to listen and to intuit details about stories and characters through talking to people and just through listening to their translation of it. When I brought the book home, I realized that it was just so massive and so intimidating to read, so I got the audiobook, but even that was hard for me to listen to. I listened to it, and there was enough in it for my initial emotional response to be that I related to it and understood it.
It was about family and the bonds we are born into, and not the ones we choose. It was about burden of responsibility, and secrets and families where traumas influence legacies, and it was about an Italian-American family, and I had also grown up in an Italian-American family. I was really refreshed to read about this family that wasn't gangsters. It was more true to the specificity of my Italian-American upbringing. It felt right up my alley. There's a lot of heightened drama throughout the story, and my imagination always goes towards catastrophe. It's just where my mind goes. This kind of thinking leads to a lot of catharsis in my life, which I think is why I'm always drawn to telling stories about tragedies. I'm always looking towards that relief and that catharsis, that epiphany.
It took me really three years to read the book and to really understand it. I had actually written the first episode before I had really finished the book. I guess it was just a power of intuition about what the shape of the whole thing was going to be. By the time I got to the end of the book I had a bit of a different feeling about how I was going to tell the story, and Wally Lamb was very generous and told me to take over in the transposing of it and to not feel beholden to him at all. I loved the book but he gave me the freedom to create with it.
I've always found a very literary quality to your films. The structure in BLUE VALENTINE, for example, would not be considered unique if the film was a book.
That's true. Structure is everything to me. I'm kind of obsessed with it. That kind of parallel duet in BLUE VALENTINE that I was trying to tell, between man and woman, between past and present, and between love and hate was my first idea for that movie. I thought of juxtaposition. For THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES I was interested in making something that was relentlessly linear, that refused to jump around in time. In fact, when I was in the edit there were a lot of notes coming from the financiers that after Gosling is gone from the movie they wanted to see flashbacks of him in the third act. I would say ''He's dead! He's dead!'' Flashbacks only happen in movies. I made a rule with that movie that we were completely counter to what BLUE VALENTINE was. With I KNOW THIS MUCH IS TRUE, I called the structure that Wally Lamb had created, 'Big Bang Structure'. The story begins on an event that would rip everything apart and incite everything. It all starts with Thomas cutting off his hand in the library, and from that 'Big Bang' moment, the story moves forward into the present and the future but it also expands back into the past. It's this idea of expansive storytelling. You go into the past to try and understand how we got here in the first place. The movie I looked at for inspiration with the structure was Errol Morris's THE THIN BLUE LINE.
When I finished watching the series I came to the conclusion that it marked the end of your first chapter as a filmmaker. Dominic seems to have completed the journey that the characters in your previous films had also embarked upon. Do you feel a similar way?
It's funny. I was having a conversation with my good friend the producer Jeff Clifford the other day and he said the same thing to me – ''I think you've just reached the end of a chapter''. I do feel this way too. Every time I make a film I'm trying to confront and deal with things that are inside of me - a truth, a fear, a trauma, a memory – and there's always this hope that by attacking these things, they'll be exorcised from my life, and as Thomas in the series says, they'll be 'purified'. But this has never really happened, although the act of making each film, in the moment, of searching and exploring, and making discoveries, with actors, crew, on set and with editors is cathartic. On the last day of shooting, though, I'm always looking for this sense of relief and it has never ever happened. When the journey is over, I am back where I started. There's never any destination. So I have to get back to the journey, because that's where the joy is. I often think about Indiana Jones and Professor Jones. I feel like in my regular life I'm Professor Jones – I'm at school, I'm teaching these kids. But then I leave this life and I go out and I have these adventures, and these adventures are where life is. Then you go back to your normal life and you wait for another opportunity to have an adventure.
I will say that my inspiration for my next project is to move beyond this chapter. I feel like I've expressed it and I've come to the realization that there are no real answers, it's just all about acceptance and letting go, about love and growth. I'm a very anxiety-filled person, and hard to be around at times. The other day I went on a tube in this river with Mark Ruffalo. For about three hours, Mark just lay back on this tube, and it takes you wherever it wants to take you. I spent the whole time steering it, trying to take it where I wanted it to go. For the last fifteen minutes I decided I would just let it go and release now, but it was really hard. I feel like I now want to look onward and see what else is there with whatever I do next.
That's beautiful, man, that's why I made BLUE VALENTINE.
I also came to similar conclusions that Dominic came to at the end of I KNOW THIS MUCH IS TRUE – that you have to go easy on yourself, that there is a limit to how much we are responsible for others, and that there is evidence of God, through all the ways we are connected to each other, if you have the eyes to look.
Especially now, with the pandemic. There has never been such a time where we have been forced to see how connected we all are.
How much of a challenge was having the canvas of six one-hour episodes to work from, and how much of it was a pure joy?
It was pure joy, a pure blessing. You have this paradox with the size of the movie screen. You have this expansive scale of a canvas from which you can project on, but often times I felt the scale of the stories I wanted to tell were too big for the screen, and too long than the exhibitors wanted. If your movie is over 2 hours and 20 minutes, that's one less showing a day, which I do get. I had always dreamed of having all my dreams projected onto a giant screen, but I found that I ran into a place in the editing of both THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES and THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS where I struggled to squeeze all the ideas, the story, the characters, and the little moments so that they would fit.
I have been working on this other project called Empire of the Summer Moon, for nine years, and from the very start I have been told that the story is too big, that there are too many pages in the script and that the budget is too high. It's too big for the movie screen and yet there was nothing more epic than the story I want to tell with this movie. It needs to be on the big screen, but that's the paradox. In today's world, it's hard to tell expansive stories unless you have a franchiseable universe, and I just haven't gotten to that place where I have been inspired to tell stories about superheroes or spacemen yet. I'm not saying I couldn't or wouldn't. I don't have any judgment against people who do, I just personally don't have that kind of story that I'm trying to tell.
For I Know This Much is True, the idea of squishing it into a two-hour movie was really challenging. You would end up losing so much of the story and the moments and characters. It was such a relief all of a sudden to have six hours to tell this expansive story. It's actually six hours and twenty minutes because HBO gave me the extra twenty minutes for the last episode. I actually overcompensated in some instances because I was so excited by the opportunity to be expansive. I wrote the first scene as a 21-page scene, which I would never be able to do in a two hour movie because 21 pages equates to 21 minutes of a two hour movie, which is 1/6 of your whole running time. But now I had all this time to be able to fit in the dynamics and the scale and structure and rhythms. It was a total joy. In terms of artistic and creative freedom, I've had a lot of experiences where I was free to make choices and mistakes and this was no different. Just because I went to TV, it did not change that process one bit. It just allowed me to go deeper.
Part two of the interview.
I Know This Much is True can be seen on HBO in the US and Sky Atlantic in the UK, and is also available on Amazon Prime.
Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2021. All rights reserved.