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 second part of a four-part interview with Cianfrance about the series and his career, I spoke with him about his interest in male loner characters with urges to start families, what his goal is with his extensive pre-production periods on his films, how far in advance he begins considering the editing and sound design of his movies, and whether he would consider releasing extended cuts of his films.
Part one of the interview.
In your works, you present these loners who are almost drifters, who nonetheless have this romantic and paternal urge to start families. Where does this interest in such characters come from?
I'm interested in re-exploring paternity and masculinity and the idea of being a father. All of my films have come from a time in my life where I've been a father. I have two boys at home. One of the things that I have always loved about Cassavetes is that he was always telling stories about where he was in life. His movies reflected his life. Older filmmakers sometimes still have this fascination with youth, but there's something amazing about a filmmaker who always goes with where he's at. You watch SHADOWS (1959) and it's all improvisational jazz, and a freewheeling, kind of youthful life, then you go to the later films like A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE (1974) where young people are trying to navigate this world and deal with the domestic world and the domestic - kids enter the equation and you're drinking beer in the back of a truck. You eventually get to OPENING NIGHT (1977) and LOVE STREAMS (1984) and you get older people dealing with different problems.
I'm interested in the journey of being a husband and a father because it has been one of the most profound experiences of my life, and continues to be. It felt right to tell stories about this, as it is something that I am trying to navigate at every moment. My kids really brought to me the consciousness of this idea of legacy because I started to think about the things that were passed on through generations. I started to think a lot about my father and my grandfather. I have two boys and I started to think about this legacy of masculinity and how it's run through my family and changed my family. That's where some of that comes from. About seven years ago I met Ryan Coogler and was talking to him, and he said ''Hey D, how come all the men in your movies are raising children that aren't theirs?'' I wasn't even aware of this, but if you go through my movies, every one of them is the story of a man who is raising a kid that is not his.
In the book of I KNOW THIS MUCH IS TRUE, Dominic also raises a child that isn't his.
It's also kind of there in the in the final image of the last episode, in the scene in the nursery, where he is holding and nurturing a child that's not his. I don't know quite how to explain why I keep having my male characters raising kids that aren't theirs, but its some deep, internal meditation of trying to strip the nature from the nurture of children. It's this idea of raising children that aren't yours, that don't have anything to do with you or your history. It's just what my imagination always goes to. It's pure love. So much of what I'm trying to do is, and what I KNOW THIS MUCH IS TRUE allowed me to confront, is to deal with familial trauma and generational trauma, not only in families but on a societal level, with the traumatic experience of what it means to be an American. We're seeing that in our country right now.
I know that BLUE VALENTINE had a pre-production period where the lead actors lived together to help them appear as an intimate couple onscreen. In all of the work that you do with the actors before filming, what would you say your goal is?
I look at Rick Rubin, the music producer, as a huge inspiration on this. I think of the some of the classic albums he made, whether it be with Slayer, Johnny Cash, the Red Hot Chili Peppers or Run DMC. Every story that I have heard about his process is that he spends a lot of time with the artists to try and understand who they are as people. In my time with the actors when I'm shooting, I never rehearse. We never talk, necessarily, about scenes. I try to know about them as people. I'm always trying to find a place where the actor and the character begin. I'm trying to make a marriage between the actor and the character. I want them to get lost inside of it. Ultimately, I'm more interested in behavior than I am interested in performance. I try to develop a kind of trust with them and an understanding of what makes them tick so that when we're on set and we are working, we can make something that's outside of the context of making a movie.
When I was a kid, the idea of being an actor almost seemed like a derogatory statement. For example, a kid would get hit in the head with a ball and fall to the ground and start crying, and you'd say ''Oh, stop acting. You're faking it, you're lying. Get up. Stop acting. '' Derogatory. People associate acting oftentimes with lying. When I started making documentaries, I started to realize that the people crying and screaming in the docs I was making weren't lying at all. They were telling their truths, and I was experiencing their truths and their lives, and it made me start to see acting as not lying and faking it or derogatory but as telling the truth, being honest, being vulnerable and open and exposing yourself. That's what I try to communicate to actors what I want and then we go on and find it.
Sometimes people describe my style as 'fly on the wall', but that term rubs me the wrong way, because what is a fly but a nuisance? A fly is a pest. I never want to be considered a nuisance with actors. I don't want to be sitting in the corner watching them. I'm so deeply engaged and loving and nurturing and supportive and instigating to them. I'm right with them and so empathetic with them. A fly could never be empathetic, right?
The editing and sound design is very important to your films. How far in advance are you already considering or fixing in your ideas about editing and sound design?
The editing is very much thought out beforehand, at least structurally. In BLUE VALENTINE, the non-linear structure was there. In PINES, the linear structure was there. In I KNOW THIS MUCH IS TRUE, the Big Bang structure and these bifurcated fragments of memory playing concurrently was all there. The many cross-cut moments. from Dominic wrecking his truck to him climbing the ladder of the house. to Thomas dropping out of school to the funeral, and so on, were all written into the script. When we get into the edit, we aren't saying ''Okay, cut after this line here. '' You have to throw away all of your preconceived notions into the edit and try to make it work. If it's planned well enough, and it's written well enough, then usually the editorial concepts work. But it's not paint by numbers.
There's so much in my movies because I spend so much time writing them and visualizing them. I learned how to visualize during the twelve years it took to make BLUE VALENTINE. Because I wasn't making it I would watch the movie in my head every day. By the time I was on the set making the movie, it was absolutely internalized inside of me. I knew it backwards and forwards, inside and out. That allowed me to let go of my preconceived notions and let it be alive. With every one of my films I try to let it get to that place where I'm on set and I just want the actors to explode it and surprise me, and show me something that I haven't written or I haven't seen because I've watched it in my head so many times.
I have watched I KNOW THIS MUCH IS TRUE in my head for five years. So by the time I got to set I didn't want to watch what I had already seen in my head. I was kind of bored with it. I wanted the actors to bring new stuff to the table. Then we get into the editing room, and sometimes you find out that your original concepts as written really work, or you get these moments that can never be replicated. Ultimately, one of the things that I am trying to do with my editors is to find all the moments that cannot be repeated, and make a mix-tape of a movie with all these sounds and moments that will happen one time. On BLUE VALENTINE we talked about Halley's Comet – ''You get to see it once every seventy years. Well, we could grab some moments with actors that could happen only once every seventy years! ''
Tarantino did an extended TV version of THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015) and is apparently planning extended versions of DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012) and ONCE UPON A TIME IN … HOLLYWOOD (2019). Is this something that would interest you?
I can't see myself going back and re-cutting anything I've ever done. Part of making a film to me is the scar or tattoo you get after it's finished. You live with it. And the film is a choice that represents the time. I don't like the idea of covering up tattoos either because they represent a moment, and for all the mistakes or successes and failures and joys, they represent a time and a choice. You can't take those things away. They existed. I kind of believe that I can't go back to my art once it's finished. I did toy with the idea, back in the day, of cutting a movie called VALENTINE with all the moments of them falling in love, and cutting a movie called BLUE with all the moments of them falling out of love, but this was just because I was so in love with all the great footage that we had to lose which wouldn't fit within the shape of the movie. But even the three and a half hour cut of THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES ultimately wasn't my movie. The movie I put my name on was the two hours twenty cut that went to the theaters. I think if I had an experience where I was forced to make changes, or I had had a movie taken away from me, I could understand the need to go back and show people what I really had in mind, but I haven't had that experience yet. Every movie that I have put out, for better or worse, has been the version I decided upon.
What was the last great film that you saw?
Without a doubt, it was Charles Burnett's TO SLEEP WITH ANGER, from 1991, with Danny Glover. It's just a complete masterpiece. Beyond that there's his movie from 1983 called MY BROTHER'S WEDDING. I'd always loved his film KILLER OF SHEEP (1978), and I've just been exploring his filmography for the last few months. To me Burnett is one of the greatest American filmmakers that has ever lived. Right now he's like the new Cassavetes to me.
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.