“I Know This Much Is True,” an HBO limited series based on Wally Lamb’s 1998 brick of a book, begins when Thomas Birdsey enters a public library and amputates his right hand. This is only the first calamity.
Onscreen, Ruffalo alternately fights, comforts and runs after himself, a tricky double act Cianfrance captured via shrewd camera placement, occasional CGI and a six-week production shutdown. That was when Ruffalo, who had shot for 17 weeks as Dominick, went away to gain 30 pounds and walk back his skin care routine in order to return as Thomas, who has schizophrenia. The show is Cianfrance’s first series and the first for Ruffalo in 20 years.
Last month, the actor and the director logged onto a Zoom meeting, Ruffalo from his house in upstate New York, Cianfrance from his Brooklyn home. During a 90-minute discussion, with occasional breaks to repark cars and rejigger Wi-Fi, they talked about catastrophe, twinning and why a family tragedy might be just what people sheltering with their families need now. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Did you ever think, in reading the book, that there was maybe too much catastrophe?
MARK RUFFALO I didn’t think there was enough, actually. I was just so moved by it. It was personal in a lot of ways. I lost my brother, of course. [Scott Ruffalo, Mark Ruffalo’s younger brother, was killed in 2008.] That will always be something that I’ll draw from. We were basically Italian twins, barely a year apart from each other.
DEREK CIANFRANCE I like slow songs. I like the ballads. A tragedy about one man and his relationships, that seemed like an honest and deep and rich text to draw from. Maybe that’s just my messed-up taste.
Mark, why did you want to do a series?
RUFFALO My wife is an avid show watcher. She turned me on to it. I was jealous that actors were getting to really dig into characters. But there’s a continuity in having one director and one writer, which I insisted on from the very beginning. Me and Derek both, we’ve always talked about it as a six-hour movie. We shot it that way.
CIANFRANCE On 35-millmeter film. We shot like 1.78 million feet of film, 590 hours of 35-millimeter film stock. Our motto was, Let’s keep Kodak in business. It gave us some real interesting limitations on set. When you shoot digital, you can kind of shoot forever. If you put a load of film in, you have nine minutes and 20 seconds. Film sets this natural boundary. There’s a sacredness, a kind of preciousness to the time.
Tell me about the challenge of playing twins.
RUFFALO I’ve always been a little crazy, you know? I’ve always bit off more than I can chew, as a form of self-destruction. But some part of me also is willing to meet the challenge as best as I can.
Derek and I, we didn’t want it to feel like I would shoot Dominick and run and put on a wig and shoot Thomas. I had shot “Normal Heart” [the 2014 HBO film based on Larry Kramer’s play], and we’d shut down so Matt Bomer [an actor in the film] could lose all that weight. So I knew HBO would conceivably let us shut down production so I could gain weight. We really wanted to create two separate people that were so distinctly different from each other, even though they were identical.
Dominick, he’s the favorite son, brought up in this very masculine way. We couldn’t find Dominick’s character until Derek told me to do 50 push-ups between each take. That became how we grounded Dominick — very upper body, very tense, very aggressive. Thomas has a mental illness. He’s living with schizophrenia. But he has a kind of emotional facility that’s alien to Dominick.
How much research did you do about what it’s like to live with schizophrenia?
RUFFALO A lot. That was the most daunting thing for me. We tried some iterations of it along the way; none of it was working, and we knew so much was riding on it. But I got to know someone who was living with schizophrenia: Richard Wiedeman is doing it beautifully. One thing about YouTube and social media is that you can get to know people who are living with this, they speak so openly about it. I probably watched 1,000 hours of people living with schizophrenia.
We tried many different versions of Thomas, even on set. A lot of times I see people playing the illness as personality. That’s the trap of it, a trap that I have to admit that I had fallen into myself. Finding the personality of Thomas was the most difficult part of it.
You shot the Dominick sections first?
CIANFRANCE I didn’t want this to be a technical movie. I didn’t want it to be about all the tricks we could do with the camera or the tricks we could do with twinning. And I didn’t want to shoot it on a stage with green screen. We didn’t really know if it was going to work. But that was why we had to do it, to see if we could make these two guys work in the same scene together.
On the first day that Mark came back as Thomas he was basically locked in this trailer. Mark is the least prima donna actor you’ll ever find, right?
RUFFALO [Laughing] I was scared!
CIANFRANCE I went to his trailer and spent about an hour with him. Mark went out to set and there was an audible gasp from the crew as they saw Mark. People didn’t know what to do. They didn’t know if they could talk to him. Mark sat down and he was absolutely in the pocket immediately. There was nothing we had to force, he just found it. To play someone who has a mental illness is a big responsibility — we all breathed a sigh of relief because it felt honest, it felt true. It didn’t feel like an affectation.
What did you do during those six weeks away from the set, Mark?
RUFFALO Not push-ups. I started to sequester myself. I was trying to imagine a life of hearing these voices that are constantly judging you and attacking you. And eating and eating and eating. I mean, there was a point where I was like, I can’t make it.
CIANFRANCE I have those text messages.
RUFFALO I was a basket case. The last two weeks I was by myself in a rental house and I got really bad indigestion so I couldn’t even enjoy the food. I had to sleep sitting up at night because I had such bad acid reflux. In the end, it was only oatmeal with like half a stick of butter and heavy whipped cream and maple syrup that got me got me to where I needed to be.
You previously described the shoot as “brutally tough.” I’m starting to understand why.
RUFFALO Listen, in one sense it’s been the most amazing thing I’ve ever done. But it’s 600 pages of dialogue. I was on every page. I mean, I can retire now. My feeling of, Did I push myself? Did I leave it all there? I’ve never felt that. I’ve always held back something. With this thing, I made a decision: I’m 52 years old; I’m not going to leave anything behind.
How did you work the twinning?
CIANFRANCE For Dominick, Mark needed someone to be Thomas. He needed a real actor so that he could be alive. My good friend Gabe Fazio, who was in “The Place Beyond the Pines,” I asked him, “Would you be interested in acting in this movie opposite Mark Ruffalo, being his twin brother? But here’s the caveat. No one’s ever going to see a frame of your performance.” And Gabe, without hesitation, said yes. There’s a version of the movie out there that’s all Gabe. Like a bootleg.
RUFFALO I told Derek so many times: “He’s doing it so well. I don’t know that I can do any better than that! Maybe we can make him look like me?” There was even a point where we had a mask made of my face that we put on him. It didn’t work at all.
CIANFRANCE There are different ways to do the twinning: shot/countershot, with motion control, or through head or face replacement where there’s no way to do motion control. There’s a handful of those moments throughout the six hours. [Jody Lee Lipes, the cinematographer], early on, we’re like, “Let’s shoot this movie the way we want to shoot and let the technical side figure itself out.”
RUFFALO When the two characters are touching each other, when they’re in direct physical contact, that’s the only place where it really gets tricky. So we stayed away from that except for these precious moments, beautiful moments.
What do you think it means for the show to arrive at this strange time?
CIANFRANCE My family and I, we’re isolating at home, we try to watch something every night. The point of entertainment and art is to help people, comfort people, be people’s friends. That’s what art has always done for me. People can either take this or not, they want to see it or they don’t. We tried to make something as honest as we possibly could. My biggest hope is that it keeps people company, that it’s a friend to people. Sometimes a very dramatic friend.
You’re not afraid it’s going bring everybody down?
CIANFRANCE Sometimes when you go through the toughest things, drama makes you feel not alone. That’s why I started making movies. When I watched movies where everyone was perfect and the actors all had nice teeth, I always felt like left out, because my own life didn’t match. I have been trying for the beautiful ugliness of real life.
RUFFALO It’s all about family right now and our show is all about family, the responsibility we have to each other and how challenging it is, but also so essential. The show is right for this strange experience we are living through. It is raw and sincere and so comforting in its basic truth: We are bound to each other, whether we like it or not. We are better for it.