Derek Cianfrance on Adapting Wally Lamb’s Sprawling Opus for HBO’s ‘I Know This Much Is True’ 

Derek Cianfrance is a director uninterested in the polished, picture-perfect visions of life movies sometimes want to feed audiences. He is eloquent, even poetic in his work, but it always feels as if we are watching real lives in motion. This was first truly evident in Cianfrance’s 2010 breakthrough feature film “Blue Valentine,” a blunt meditation on a marriage breaking apart. Now he has made “I Know This Much is True,” a six-part limited series for HBO based on an acclaimed novel by Wally Lamb, who also serves as producer. Haunted and baroque it never feels like “television,” but more like a multi-part work of cinema. The  potent core of the series is a stunning performance by Mark Ruffalo as twin brothers in early 1990s Three Rivers, Connecticut. Dominick is a divorcee and house painter who feels a great weight around his neck from having to be responsible for his schizophrenic brother Thomas. When Thomas carries out a shocking act of self-mutilation Dominick has to endure the process of seeing his perturbed sibling institutionalized. The event also sets him on a journey to track their family’s tortured history back to that early wave of Italian immigrants who arrived in the U.S. in the early 20th century.

Cianfrance shared with Entertainment Voice the experience of adapting such a rich work into a project that reaches great depths.

“I Know This Much Is True” is your first limited series for HBO as a director and executive producer. You also adapted the Wally Lamb novel yourself. What drew you to this hefty, wide-ranging novel, as most of Lamb’s novels tend to be?

First off Mark [Ruffalo] had the rights. I guess Wally had been trying to make this, the rights had been optioned in Hollywood for like 20 years, they were trying to make it into a movie. But it’s 900 pages, it doesn’t necessarily fit into cinematic storytelling unless you’re going to have some kind of multi-part film. But that doesn’t really happen unless you have some kind of franchisable universe. So Wally found himself after 20 years trying to get it made in the position where the rights reverted back to him. Apparently he told his agent that the most perfect actor on this planet for it would be Mark Ruffalo. I couldn’t agree more. So Mark got it from Wally, read it, told Wally he wanted to do it and then Mark reached out to me to see if I would be interested. So the first thing that made me want to do it is Mark. He’s long been one of my favorite actors. I met him at Sundance in 2010, we both had our films in the festival that year. We were both in the same director’s class. He had “Sympathy for Delicious,” I had “Blue Valentine.” We just bonded there. I felt like he was my brother. I felt very special about that. I soon began to realize during the course of that year that everyone who came into contact with Mark had that same kind of bond with him. He has this incredible familiarity and incredible humanity about him that makes you feel like you’ve known him forever… that’s one of his elements of him as an actor. I make movies about families, so I want people seeing him onscreen to feel like they’ve known him forever. I was also drawn to the family aspect of the story. More personally, I’m Italian, I come from Italian-American descent and I’ve always been interested in the relations in families, the bonds and burdens that entails, but the kind of burden of legacy and the consequence of legacy. The consequences our ancestors made that have put us in the situations we are in now. I explored it a little in “Blue Valentine” and “A Place Beyond the Pines” but now I could really dive into that. 

Wally Lamb is also a producer on the limited series. What was the working relationship like with such a renowned author?

Mark told Wally I was the person he wanted to direct this and so I had lunch with Wally and Mark. Wally was just so kind and generous and he told me, first time ever meeting me, that he loved my movies and that I could take his book and do anything I wanted to it. He gave me full reign. And I loved his book, I told him look, I’m not looking to change the book but I’m looking to adapt it. On the page it’s words, on the screen it’s pictures, two different things. You can’t just film a novel, it has to be translated. I told him this is something I feel so close to I’m gonna have to put a lot of myself into it as well. I said “the dialogue is great here Wally, but I may have to use improvisation a bit” and he said, “go for it, it’s yours.” He came in pre-production a few times to find what kind of typewriter was given to Dominick and Thomas in their college-age time. He was there helping us pick out locations. I went out to Connecticut where he lives to check out the landscape and see why he created what he created. He was super, super open. I screened the six episodes for him two months ago. He wrote Mark and I an email where he said basically all the things that he loved about the series…it was a long email…but at the end of the email he said, “do me a favor Mark and Derek, would you please thank your wives and children for me? Whatever cost it took for you guys to make this, and I know the sacrifices must have been great, please let them know how much I appreciate them and am indebted to them more than they know.” And I realized that kind of sensitivity and compassion, and insightfulness, is what made him such a great writer of human stories.

Much of your work, like “Blue Valentine” and “The Place Beyond the Pines,” is diverse in its themes but has a raw style that tends to focus on working class lives stripped of any romanticism. These characters truly struggle and face obstacles anyone could be confronted by, like Dominick grappling with his brother’s condition and his own demons. Share a little on why you like telling stories in this kind of world?

That’s me. Those people are me. That’s the world I came from. There was a point in my life as I was going through adolescence, and movies were always the way in which I experienced the world and understood the world, I was never a great reader as a kid but I needed a connection and movies were my connection, but there was a time in my adolescence where I started feeling a little left out of many of the stories that were being told. I felt I was being inundated by these fantasy lives, these fantasy worlds. You know, people that had perfect teeth, people that could speak so damn clearly and knew what they wanted and got what they wanted at the end of the story. I would feel left out at the end and even feel more alone at the end of these fantasies. So when I began to try to make my own movies it became a big thing when trying to pitch it. Like, I want to tell a story about a couple, and they would ask, “Well what’s so special about them?” Well, nothing, they’re ordinary, they’re like the movie-going people that will see this film. I kept running up against this idea of fantasy and embellishment. I just wanted to tell the story of the people in the audience, the people sitting in the theater. I felt like it would not talk down to them but talk to them, and make them feel like they had a friend. My movies are almost always trying to be a friend to people.

When it comes to the texture of the series it very much has the look of cinema. Some shots, like the sequences of Mark Ruffalo being contemplative by a gorging waterfall look taken from ‘70s arthouse film.

Yes! Cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes and me were only watching ‘70s movies while we were shooting this, you know movies like “Straight Time” with Dustin Hoffman. We shot on 35mm film stock. We shot under 2 million feet of film. Our motto on set was to keep Kodak in business. The choice to shoot on film was first an aesthetic choice, in terms of the texture, this movie takes place in the ‘90s, ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘40s, ‘20s, ‘10s, so a digital medium is hard in my mind to connect all those times. If we’re honest about it there wasn’t even much of a “digital medium” in the ‘90s. This HD, 4K stuff, just doesn’t look right in my mind in that time. There’s this softness and warmth in film that truly connects all these times.

The entire cast of “I Know This Much is True” is so notable. What was it like working on set together with Mark Ruffalo and Juliette Lewis?

The vibe on set felt like a vacation. I taught myself to write to be on set. And with Juliette, we shot that one big scene with her and Mark and it was like I was in heaven working with two great actors. Juliette was so unhinged and alive and messy and beautiful in all the ways I am trying to capture. Right now I’m big on nature docs, that’s all I’m watching, those Richard Attenborough documentaries about the world. To me, they’re amazing because they’re about stuff you just can’t replicate. The night with Juliette and Mark it felt like I had two wild animals together who were interacting and I was there with my camera and it was never going to happen again. It was like Halley’s Comet, they went by and are gone now.

I Know This Much is True” premieres May 10 and airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.