Wed. Oct 21st, 2020

Interview: Derek Cianfrance on generational trauma and the enormous task of finishing ‘I Know This Much Is True’ under quarantine

Derek Cianfrance and is one of the most talented directors working in Hollywood today. He’s gained critical acclaim for such films as Blue Valentine and A Place Among The Pines. His latest work, HBO’s I Know This Much Is True is generating Emmy buzz and we were lucky to discuss with him all that went into making this fantastic limited series.

DS: It is indeed an honor. I’m a huge fan of your work, especially your latest HBO’s limited series I Know This Much Is True. I thought it was fantastic. I think you have a lot to be proud of.

DC: Thanks, man, I appreciate it. It was a pure joy to make. You know, I don’t make that many. I just have to say the last 2.5 years working on that show was just like a vacation honestly for two and a half years. 

I don’t know many people who would take 900 pages of source material and proceed to adapt it and call it a vacation. 

You know what it is … it’s like Indiana Jones. Professor Jones lives a very modest lifestyle. He stays at home and wears a sweater, but there’s that adventurer inside of him that needs to go out and explore. So when I go make anything, I feel that I can become Indiana Jones. I can’t believe I just said that. That’s what happens when you’re making a movie. You never know what you are going to find. You never know what’s going to happen. It feels like life. It’s the only time in my life where I can be completely myself. 

There’s a commonality between all your projects. For example – Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond The Pines, and I Know This Much Is True are all about intimate connections. Does telling these types of stories excite you as an artist? 

I think it’s because when I was a kid making movies my way … my means of understanding the world, to be a part of the world, and to explore the world. I mean, being kids sitting at home with a VCR watching movies repeatedly was like my companionship as a child. There became a time in my adolescents and the coming of age, where I started to feel a little bit left out by the Hollywood version of the world. I enjoyed the movies, but I also felt a bit lonely at the end of them. When I started making movies in high school, I made movies about family and tried to make movies about people I knew. I tried to make movies about the kind of messiness of life. As a little boy, I used to take pictures of arguments in my family. I used to try to take pictures of people when they weren’t getting along, not just the smiling family portraits because I was trying to get around the superficialities. When I had this idea for Blue Valentine at 22 years old, it was based upon my observations of the kid dealing with my parent’s eventual breakup. 

Those escapist movies ultimately always made me feel more alone. I’d go to see a movie, and I’d come home feeling depressed almost by the escapism. I’d ask why my life doesn’t reflect that life. Why are my teeth not so white and straight and not look like a game show host? Why do I not look that way? Why do I not have experiences like this, so I started to try to make movies about my experience, uh try to represent my experience and all of its joys and sorrows. You know it’s beauty and ugliness. Whenever I’d see a movie that had taken a who it said had shown life in that way, it always made me feel better. I just tried to make movies about these intimate family relationships, and I tried to tell the truth about relationships. I think that’s that’s the story of humanity, where you know it’s flawed and beautiful at the same time. That’s been my main inspiration.

So it’s fair to say that you would equate presenting an unpolished version of these characters as a reflection of reality.

I think they just feel familiar to me. They feel in my life. I’ve never met a true hero or villain in my life. I know people in my life all existing in this gray area. I love the idea of trying to present these lives that are unbought our environment unpolished as if you were a family member. You saw all of the work and interrelationships between people. You know this came really as a reaction. When I was a kid, I remember seeing all the smiling family portraits we had of my family on our wall. We had like a whole shelf in our living room filled with like every year we would go to Olan Mills and get that Leave It To Beaver or The Cleavers picture. The perfect family American family picture on the wall. There came a time when I stopped smiling when we went to Olan Mills to get our photos taken because I started looking at all those pictures of us, and I used to think that’s not an accurate representation of what home is like. Why are we presenting this other truth to the world? Why can’t we just show what’s happening? It’s like trying to tell the truth they experienced versus just presenting this image. 

During this whole process of bringing I Know This Much Is True from page to screen, did you draw from any personal experiences? Many people might not know that a confluence of events occurred during this production, not the least of which is a Global Pandemic. that helped you uh with collecting what you want to uh wanted from the source material or even just how you managed to make that final putt

Yeah. One of the reasons I thought I could adapt the book in the first place is that I related to it so much. It felt so familiar to me. One of the reasons why it felt familiar to me was that Dominic and Thomas were Italian Americans. I’m an Italian American as well. I grew up inside that culture, navigating, and witnessing a lot of peculiarities in that culture. A lot of exciting ideas about how masculinity was represented: in that culture and you know being a fan of movies, I used to sleep under a picture of Martin Scorsese when I was a teenager. I related to the Italian American ness of his movies. However, I didn’t see any Italian-American movies that dealt with the idea of masculinity that didn’t involve gangsters. That allowed me to dive into a personal space. The other thing is Wally permitted me to make it my own, which I’m thankful for. I think literature and film are two different things. It’s a respectful adaptation, but it’s a fresh and imaginative one. I don’t think I could have done it any other way.  

I agree. 

I wrote all six episodes and the 371 pages felt like a diary. When I was writing, it felt like I was writing my diaries of things that I had witnessed and experienced in my own home and an exploration of some things that have been living in my psyche. For the last couple of episodes, I worked with co-writer Anya Epstein who helped steer my way into that psyche and into something that would resonate with people. I was thankful to have her involved. When it came to editing it .. after shooting 371 pages … after a 115-day shoot … HBO had a release date for April. It was October, and I thought there’s no way we’ll be able to make this deadline, but I had a great team of editors. Three days after I finished shooting, I got this news that my baby sister had passed away. She was 36 years old. She was one of the inspirations and one of the people that I had drawn from in terms of this story because my sister was a caretaker. She spent her whole life caring for everyone around her but not for herself. In I Know This Much Is True, Dominic spends his entire life trying to save his brother, but he also needs some help. So there’s this huge family tragedy, and here I was in the middle of making this series about this, you know family tragedy. I took a couple of weeks off grieving with my family, and when I came back to the editing room, you know we had three weeks to turn in the cuts for episodes one and two. I sat down with the crew and the editors and said I don’t know if we can make it, but let’s put a lot into it. These next three weeks, let’s work around the clock and see if we can’t cut episode one and two, and you know grief is a very powerful emotion. I think grief and love go hand in hand, and I just put all my grief and love into making this thing, and it came together. My sister was probably looking down on me, helping me find a way. Then March rolls around, and we start realizing that COVID-19 was going to impact all of our lives. So we quickly adapted and came up with this plan and came up with all these remote editing systems for all the editors. At that point, we had like 1000 visual effects shots that still needed to be accomplished in the film and hundreds of visual effects artist across the globe that all moved their systems into their own homes, and somehow miraculously we kept on schedule and and and didn’t compromise anything, and it was a beautiful testament to all the all of the the the collaborators that I’ve had on this project

There are things in the book that you did take from things you didn’t. For example, there’s the storyline with Joy and Dominic being romantic. I wanted to ask you what your process for taking from the source material, tweaking it, and making it your own?  

Well, when I first brought this to HBO… I pitched them a 13 episode series and that 13 episodes were going to encompass the entire book … It would be a translation of the book to the screen. In a lot of ways, that presentation to them was very lazy on my part. Um, it was taking a book that I loved so much, almost like cutting and pasting to a script format.

HBO, to their credit said, ‘We love this, but we’re not going to give you 13 episodes, but we will give you six.’ They gave me boundaries. They gave me walls to my sandbox. I think boundaries are super important for artists because what a boundary can allow you to do is know how far you have to go and give you an edge. Reading a book and watching a movie or show are two different experiences. I think one of the things is when you read a book, you can rest and reflect. In a movie or show, it can be relentless. I wanted to make sure of what in this adaptation was space. I wanted to give some room to breathe. It would genuinely be nonstop in terms of its calamities. So, I had to kind of curate those and tried to provide its a cinematic arch. I think the most the majority of changes that I made came with characters like Joy, came with the grandfather’s manuscript and came with the ending. The ending is right for the book but didn’t feel right for the series. At the end of the show, I felt like I just needed to leave it a little more open.

The most important theme in this whole series is generational trauma, and I thought it was a stroke of brilliance using the manuscript as a catalyst to get that across to audiences. How important was it you to that point came across in the series? 

That was huge. I spent some months reading the book then I that they discovered this grandpa story and it was like the whole grail to me. I’ve been kind of fascinated with curious about my own life where my familial trauma comes from. Trauma in my family has been that have been around. I had a great-grandfather who immigrated to Colorado from Italy, and I don’t know many stories about him. Still, the stories I do know about him are very traumatizing, and one of the things I’ve tried to do with the father is to deal with that family trauma, so my kids don’t have to deal with it. I made Blue ValentineA Place Beyond The Pines, and I Know This Much Is True because I’m trying to explore this idea of legacy and family legacy and the things that get passed on through generations. 

I notice in episode 5 and 6 that there’s seems to be a concerted effort to show some of the beauty that surrounded these characters during the most trying moments of the series. Were you attempting to show that even in the worst moments in our lives that you can still find beauty in the world? 

One of my all-time favorite quotes that I live by is Andy Warhol, “Can you see beauty and ugliness, or is it playing in the dirt?” There’s a lot of traumatic stuff that happens in five and six. What’s beautiful is like the love that Dominic and Ray find for one another. These two wounded men who find some sort of redemption with each other. 

I Know This Much Is True is currently available on all HBO platforms.

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