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“I Know This Much is True:” Shooting Derek Cianfrance’s Series Like a Documentary

Cianfrance brought his naturalistic approach to the series, eschewing rehearsals and much of the planning that often goes into narrative filmmaking in favor of experimenting on set.

For those who insist that viewers only want escapist programming during the pandemic, HBO’s miniseries I Know this Much is True demonstrates that compelling filmmaking and powerful storytelling will always have a place.

The six-part dramatization of Wally Lamb’s bestselling novel presents Mark Ruffalo in the dual role of twin brothers Dominick and Thomas Birdsey. Thomas, diagnosed as “paranoid schizophrenic” has always been a burden to Dominick throughout their lives and, as the first episode kicks off, a shocking act by Thomas intensifies the brothers’ troubles.

Director Derek Cianfrance brought his naturalistic approach to the series, eschewing rehearsals and much of the planning that often goes into narrative filmmaking in favor of experimenting on set, which meant VFX supervisor Eric Pascarelli had his work cut out for him for the shots where both Birdsey brothers share the shot, and cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes had to work without the blocking and marks that generally guide lighting and camerawork.

The results are visceral and affecting: Cianfrance tells Robert Goldrich that he’d submitted Ruffalo the script for Blue Valentine for the role Ryan Gosling ultimately played. Ruffalo had passed on that but later reached out about directing this project. “Cianfrance immediately accepted,” the article reports, “and found himself on the same page with Ruffalo in terms of doing justice to the Bridsey twins who are 40 years old when we meet them. ‘They have 40 years of completely different life experiences and they look different.”

Cianfrance says, noting it was obvious to the two that the shoot could not be “pulled off with Ruffalo on camera in the morning and then coming back with a fake wig after lunch to portray his brother.” Instead, Ruffalo would portray Dominick and then go on hiatus to gain [30 pounds] to later go on camera as Thomas, a chubby, deeply sensitive man who’s been institutionalized due to mental illness.

The result is two distinctly different characters physically and emotionally, as construction worker Dominick is a man’s man. Yet he too is damaged, consumed by guilt, a highly combustible caretaker for his brother.”

The series also flashes back to the two as children—portrayed by real twins Donnie and Rocco Masihi—and later episodes even further to reveal the truth about Dominick and Thomas’s mysterious, absent grandfather. Melissa Leo, Rob Huebel, Rosie O’Donnell and Juliette Lewis also play key characters.

“I spent 12 years trying to make Blue Valentine and had 23 days to shoot it, Cianfrance tells Goldrich. “You realize how precious the moments are when you’re able to make something, to be on set and work with actors. I really took this [I Know This Much is True] every day as such a blessing. While the grind can be brutal and relentless, I feel so fortunate to be on set with the actors and people I work with.” To read the full interview, click here.

Cianfrance and Lipes both have a predilection for the feel and texture of celluloid and they opted to shoot the series primarily in 35mm 2-perf format (with a 2:1 aspect ratio pulled from the 2.66:1 shape of the full 2-perf frame). This approach allowed for shooting continuous takes of up to nearly 22 minutes (twice what’s possible shooting traditional 4-perf format) and the additional grain resulting from the smaller image area on the neg was actually a plus for the filmmakers as it merely enhanced the unique filmic texture they strove for.

Lipes recalls in an interview with Matt Mulcahey, his experience getting used to Cianfrance’s freewheeling work methods: “What I didn’t understand yet was that there aren’t really any solutions with Derek,” he says. “For him, it’s all about responding to what’s happening in the moment and learning from what you’re seeing in front of you as it’s unfolding. It’s about throwing everything away to make it better when you find that unexpected thing in the moment. When you work that way, planning can be the enemy.”

Mark Ruffalo in HBO’s “I Know This Much is True”

The cinematographer adds that the director is “open until the very last second, until you’re rolling. He’ll even be open while you’re rolling to change things. I think that’s where a lot of the humanity and the magic of his work comes from. As a more technical person on the crew, it’s very much a tension of wanting to be ready and having the tools you need to be able to execute everything in the amount of time you have, but at the same time you’re saying “I don’t want to make a decision yet because in a lot of ways that inhibits finding the best thing.” To read the full interview, click here.

Watch: Cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes and Writer-Director Derek Cianfrance: I Know This Much Is True from American Cinematographer on Vimeo.

Read more: “We Only Zoom In on This Show! We Don’t Zoom Out!” DP Jody Lee Lipes on I Know This Much is True and Shooting 600 Hours of 35mm

Lipes also shares in an interview with Moviemaker the surprising inspiration he and Cianfrance shared for this deliberately-paced personal drama: Michael Mann’s action thriller Heat. “Robert De Niro and Al Pacino,” he says of that film, “are treated as two sides of a coin, and their faces are never on screen at the same time. I love Heat, and the idea was comforting because it was a way of fooling ourselves into thinking we could largely avoid the difficult process of twinning.”

Mark Ruffalo in HBO’s “I Know This Much is True”

Later in the Moviemaker piece, the cinematographer focusses in on a specific scene that brings the first episode to a close. After Thomas is arrested for the bizarre incident that opens the series, he is relocated from the comfortable facility he’s grown used to into a high-security institution for dangerous criminals and Dominic gets into a serious altercation with the guards as his twin brother is carried off.  “Derek is very against rehearsals of any kind—he feels the magic is lost when people practice ahead of time,” Lipes notes. “‘He wants it all on film (which is why we shot 600 hours of 35mm), and for that reason there are no marks, no blocking, and the actors do whatever they choose from take to take. But for this scene, we all agreed that we had to rehearse the A side [Ruffalo’s performance as Dominick] so we could understand the shot more precisely and then breakdown how visual effects would approach the B side [Ruffalo as Thomas].”

After the actor gained the weight to shoot all the Thomas parts, Lipes recalls, “we were able to shoot the B side very simply. All we needed on the Thomas side were some locked-off frames and a couple pre-programmed motion control moves that mimicked Sam’s handheld camera at key moments.

Read more: Derek Cianfrance in Quarantine Finishing I Know This Much Is True 

“Our only real limitation from VFX was that this scene, like many of our VFX heavy scenes, was shot on 3-perf 35mm and framed [like the scenes shot in 2-perf],” he continues. “This extra negative space allowed for more flexibility in adjusting the framing during the VFX/editorial process when the two twinning elements were merged together to become one frame.” To read the full article, click here.