Derek Cianfrance Interview: ‘I Know This Much Is True’
“Not only is this show about family history, it’s about American history,” reveals filmmaker Derek Cianfrance (“Blue Valentine,” “The Place Beyond the Pines”) about his first television project, HBO’s six-part limited series “I Know This Much Is True.”
By tying a intimate family story of loss and trauma to a wider exploration of American society, Cianfrance says that the series ultimately became a “reckoning of sins from the past and trying to become whole from them, trying to reconcile those sins and move forward. Not to ignore them, or erase them, but to acknowledge them and do better.” Watch our exclusive video interview with Cianfrance above.
“I Know This Much is True,” adapted from the novel by author Wally Lamb stars Oscar nominee Mark Ruffalo as Dominick and Thomas Birdsey, identical twin brothers with a deeply troubled past. Thomas is a paranoid schizophrenic that has been committed to an asylum while Dominick advocates for his brother’s release, while also grappling with the recent death of his child and the mysteries that are revealed about his ancestors. The series also stars Oscar winner Melissa Leo as the twins’ mother, multiple Emmy-winning comedian and activist Rosie O’Donnell as Thomas’ social worker, Emmy winner Archie Panjabi as Dominick’s therapist and Emmy nominee Kathryn Hahn as Dominick’s estranged, grieving wife.
One of the highlights of the series is in the penultimate episode, told primarily in flashbacks as Dominick reads a manuscript written by his mysterious Sicilian grandfather, who we learn was a feckless and abusive man that Dominick believes may have cursed his family in order to explain their recurring misfortune. That plot line intrigued Cianfrance, also a descendant of Italian immigrants, partly because it resonated with him personally. “There’s a few stories I know about my great-grandfather and those stories I know about him are just dastardly. His history hung over my family. I’ve always been interested in this idea of generational trauma and the idea of legacy that gets passed on to further generations,” he explains. “Once I became a father I started to realize the cycle of life, the things that get passed on that you have no control over. So I yearned to go back into my family’s past to find the secrets, to find the moments that defined me that I was just born into.
“On a larger scale, I think it’s universal in so many ways because, look what’s happening in our societies, all around the world right now. We are all dealing with the sins of the past. There’s a reckoning with our past. Here’s a lot of beauty in the past. Without my great-grandfather I wouldn’t be here today. But there’s the ruthless, violent choices that he made in his life shaped the world that my kids now live in.”
Cianfrance says bringing this story to life has been ultimately rewarding, also admitting that the project was emotionally challenging. Not only does it tackle rather heady subject matter, but he also had to complete production under extremely difficult circumstances, editing the series in isolation during a global pandemic and also suffering a very personal loss.
“At the end of shooting, three days after the end, I get this terrible news that my younger sister had passed away. She was 36,” Cianfrance reveals. “I spent some time grieving with my family and then went back to the editing room and started this nearly impossible task of editing and putting together this 600 hours of footage that we shot,” he says. “I wrote and directed every episode, it was 371 pages that I wrote, and I directed every page, so it was a massive, massive undertaking and one of the greatest joys of my life.”