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‘I Know This Much Is True’ Is Heartbreaking, but Derek Cianfrance Knows Pain Can Help Us Heal

"I Know This Much Is True" is unyielding in its portrait of grief, but the writer-director explains why he — and audiences — are drawn to tragedies, even now.

I Know This Much Is True HBO

Mark Ruffalo in “I Know This Much Is True”

Atsushi Nishijima / HBO

Derek Cianfrance, the writer and director of HBO’s “I Know This Much Is True,” said he quickly sparked to two aspects of the project: It was a family story, and it was a tragic story.

“It just fell in line with so much of what I feel like my mission as a filmmaker has been, which is to explore stories of family,” Cianfrance said in an interview with IndieWire. “Stories of these intimate connections that we don’t necessarily choose in our lives, but that we’re bound to.”

“Bound to” is a choice of words as apt as it is revealing, given the trademark sorrow infused in so much of Cianfrance’s work. Watching films like “Blue Valentine” and “The Place Beyond the Pines,” can feel like you’re trapped — forcing you to confront your grief, ready or not.

“I always understood that to experience a tragedy — to witness, watch, or read a tragedy — it can be a harrowing experience to go through, but the point of tragedy is to purge your emotions,” Cianfrance said. “Through pity and fear, that leads to catharsis. So that’s also where my imagination has always taken me because, at the end of it, it’s a release.”

A personal project for both director and star, “I Know This Much Is True” ends with a dedication to Cianfrance and Ruffalo’s siblings; Scott Ruffalo was murdered in 2008 at the age of 39, and Megan, Cianfrance’s 36-year-old sister, died in October 2019 — just as production was wrapping, and Cianfrance was preparing for a grueling edit. In an essay on TalkHouse, his wife and fellow filmmaker Shannon Plumb, wrote that her husband “grieved for Megan through the edit of the show.” For the final two-and-a-half months, he did so in his Brooklyn basement, where Cianfrance finished editing the series during our ongoing global pandemic.

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It’s hard to imagine a more arduous time to work, or a more fitting project to seek relief — especially for an artist who values family so much. Cianfrance’s filmmaking mission started forming when, as a young man, he became frustrated with Hollywood’s glorified depiction of families.

“You get to see the truth about people in a family. You get to see the good, the bad and the ugly. I always felt a little left out, in my late adolescence, [when] I was inundated with this escapism, fantasy worlds, and perfection up on the screen,” Cianfrance said in an interview with IndieWire. “Perfect people, saying perfect sentences, with perfect gameshow-host teeth — I would leave those movies, and I would always feel worse. “Oh shit, my life isn’t like this. Why don’t my teeth look like that? Why can’t I speak that clearly? Why don’t I get what I want this way?'”

If feigned, superficial happiness read as a betrayal, then a draw toward raw honesty, no matter how bleak, only makes sense. Cianfrance said he has always appreciated tragedies, and cited the Ancient Grecian festivals, when thousands would gather to watch grim plays performed for days on end, as evidence of their wide, longstanding appeal.

“People would watch those things and, at the end, they would feel a release. They would feel more human,” he said. “Tragedy is as extreme as it is common. There’s a different sense of pushing, in tragedy, into the darkness — the thought that the dark will end the dark.”

The dark is ever-present in “I Know This Much Is True.” Adapted from Wally Lamb’s 1998 novel, the six-part limited series follows Dominick and Thomas Birdsey (both played by Mark Ruffalo), identical twin brothers struggling to get by in a small Connecticut town. Thomas suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, and it’s only getting worse; Dominick has his own painful past, including a rough childhood alongside his brother, the death of his firstborn child, and the ensuing divorce. The opening scene shows Thomas, convinced he’s doing the Lord’s work, cutting off his hand in a public library, and things don’t exactly get easier from there.

Derek Cianfrance director "I Know This Much Is True"

Derek Cianfrance on the set of “I Know This Much Is True”

Courtesy of HBO

Reactions have emphasized the permeating feeling of pain and despair. Writing a rave in Consequence of Sound, Clint Worthington called the limited series “a bummer in the most pronounced, profound sense”; Salon’s Melanie McFarland described it as a gift (twice), but one wrapped with “wrenching, dragging, gnawing sadness.” Meanwhile, Dan Feinberg’s less enthusiastic review for The Hollywood Reporter described “a torrent of grounded misery so unrelenting it passes from Strindberg to Shakespeare to something biblical,” and The New York Times’ Mike Hale put it simply: “the saddest story ever told.”

Though Cianfrance does excise a few of the books’ more troubling storylines (including an incestuous side plot related to Joy, played by Imogen Poots), he acknowledges that he didn’t try to smooth over the many heavy moments that remained. Only the latest example of the filmmaker marrying his two primary pursuits — “Blue Valentine” centers on a family’s crippling fall-out, while his grander epic “The Place Beyond the Pines” could be described similarly — “I Know This Much Is True” is the first to run more than a few hours, which is a critical shift for the filmmaker. On the one hand, TV offers more time to tell the story; on the other, six hours wallowing in tragedy is much longer than two.

“It’s just storytelling, at the end of the day. I don’t see anything different in my process here, between film and television, except expansiveness, and this great added benefit of this idea of chapters,” Cianfrance said. “Not only do I have a beginning and an ending, I also have multiple openings and closings to all these six episodes. Starting a film and ending a film are two of the greatest gifts to storytellers out there, so working with those different arcs became fun.”

What kind of impact the story has may come down to how it’s viewed. While critics often have to inhale entire seasons and series without pausing between episodes — and audiences are becoming all the more amenable to binge-watching — Cianfrance hopes anyone feeling overwhelmed will make use of HBO’s weekly rollout to take a breather, rather than “gorging yourself” on the entire series at once. (“You can’t eat the whole pit in one sitting.”)

After all, the director knows too well what can happen when a story isn’t given enough time.

“In my last couple movies, I really struggled with scale — struggling with having to cut so much out, the whole “kill your darlings” thing,” he said. “Two of my combating dualities are ambition and naiveté, and both of those things were at play when I wrote ‘Place Beyond the Pines.’ My ambition was to make this giant, epic film — with an intermission. You’d go out, go to the bathroom, get your popcorn, come back, and watch the [rest of the] story. But no one was releasing that. Quentin Tarantino could get an intermission still, but I didn’t have that cachet to do it. So, I had to put a title card in there that said, ’15 years later.’ I was dying for more of an expansive thing.”

With his 2016 drama “The Light Between Oceans,” he felt the running time forced him to focus “only [on] plot, not characters or moments.” Cianfrance saw “I Know This Much Is True” as an opportunity; instead of cutting down scenes to their essence, he could give the most critical moments of Dominick and Thomas’ saga their proper due.

Derek Cianfrance Mark Ruffalo director "I Know This Much Is True"

Derek Cianfrance and Mark Ruffalo on the set of “I Know This Much Is True”

Courtesy of HBO

Cianfrance brought up a scene in the second episode when Dominick goes to his brother’s therapist, Dr. Patel (Archie Panjabi, to talk about helping Thomas.

“Over the course of this conversation, she starts to realize, ‘Wow, buddy, you need help, too. You could use me too’ — which is really what the overall arc of the story is about,” Cianfrance said. “It’s about a man who’s a caretaker, who fails to care for himself until the final moments.”

“So when I was adapting that scene, I just wrote a 21-page scene. I’ve never been able to do that in the movie, right? Because 21 pages is like one-sixth of your running time. I’ve never been able to allocate that much space to a scene.”

Such freedom inspired Cianfrace to try to live in pivotal moments as much as he could, many of which focus on difficult personal growth. “Maybe I confronted that with excessiveness,” he said, “My point of view, when I’m making a scene, or making a film, is to go to the truth of it. And if these feelings are what people are feeling, I’m going to go into them, no matter how heavy the cream is in the in the pie.”

Shifting to another food analogy, Cianfrance argued making a show that can alienate some viewers with its honesty is better than making a safe series that tries to please everyone.

“It’s like making a McDonald’s hamburger,” he said. “There, you’re trying to make everything so middle of the road, so everyone can enjoy it. But, at the end of the day, it’s going to fucking kill you. You know what I mean? It’s going to steal your soul.”

“I Know This Much Is True” premiered in a time of worldwide soul-searching, if not outright mourning. The global pandemic has sent at-home viewers seeking catharsis wherever they can find it. Some escape to frivolous comedies, others steer into the curve with all-too-apt apocalyptic dramas. Cianfrance believes his series has something to offer, as well.

“With ‘I Know This Much Is True,’ there’s a lot of grief in this story, but you can’t have grief without love. Just like you can’t have sorrow without joy,” Cianfrance said. “What I hope people can do is understand that it’s also open for them. That they can relate to it. I mean, when the film was done — and Mark and I have dedicated it to our siblings that have passed — I’ve heard from numerous people who’ve contacted me that said that that was also a tribute to their own loved ones that they lost. And we’ve all lost people — especially now, during this time, we’re all grieving. So I actually think this offers something — who knows? — to be determined.”

“I Know This Much Is True” airs its series finale Sunday, June 14 at 9 p.m ET on HBO.

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