Movies might be sequestered inside and or delayed, due to COVID-19, but TV is really having a hell of a year in terms of content, regardless. One of those series, easily the best of the year so far is Derek Cianfrance’s emotionally bruising “I Know This Much is True” starring Mark Ruffalo as a pair of emotionally and psychically-damaged identical twins. ’IKTMIS’ follows Dominick Birdsey who struggles to care for his schizophrenic twin brother Thomas (Ruffalo x2) while discovering the truth about his family history. It is a multi-generational drama and to tell the tale, Cianfrance and cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes (“Martha Marcy May Marlene,” “Manchester By The Sea“) established a rigorous film language to tell the story.
The six-episode limited series which debuted last weekend on HBO (May 10), was shot on two perf 35mm film— widescreen that also approximates the look of 16 mm.
Lipes and Cianfrance decided on a Spartan set vibe, eschewing most film equipment like dolly tracks. Relying mostly on zooms and pans, quiet photography with no rehearsal, aside from one scene, Lipes captured organic emotional moments as they occurred, often with great spontaneity.
Lipes and Cianfrance have actually worked together before, first collaborating on a stylized black-and-white Apple commercial shot for Worldwide Developers Conference in 2019. Lipes is known for shooting Lena Dunham’s “Tiny Furniture,” and HBO’s “Girls” Judd Apatow’s “Trainwreck,” starring Amy Schumer, Marielle Heller’s “A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood,” and most recently, shot a commercial for the New York Times 1691 project. He is also a filmmaker and has directed episodes of “Girls,” “The Sinner” and the documentary “Ballet 422” to name a few. “I Know This Much Is True” is on HBO now and Lipes was kind enough to participate in our The Movies That Changed My Life feature series.
What’s the first movie that you remember seeing in the theater?
I went to see “An American Tail” with my family when I was about four years old, in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. The young mouse Fievel Mousekewitz is separated from his family during a storm as they travel to America on a ship. As I sat between my parents, watching this traumatic event through Fievel’s eyes, I considered the possibility of losing my family for the first time. Last year, Derek Cianfrance and I began discussing how to shoot a scene for his new series that takes place in the belly of a ship in 1913, when Italian immigrants see the Statue of Liberty for the first time. The perspective of someone striving to see this powerful symbol brought me right back to “An American Tail.” After losing his family, Fievel wakes up floating in a glass bottle alone, and when he looks up we see his POV through the distorted glass. The Statue of Liberty is blurry and distant. That image was my visual starting point for the 1913 Statue of Liberty sequence in “I Know This Much Is True.”
The best moviegoing film experience you ever had.
Michael Mann’s “Miami Vice” is a masterpiece. It’s unlike anything ever made. It is so vast that it’s like an opera, but the visual grittiness neutralizes the unreal scale of everything—including the dialogue. It looks like nothing made before or since. Gong Li has always been one of my heroes, and getting to see her play that kind of heightened character is so rare. Jamie Fox created one of the most interesting/hilarious sex scenes in all of cinema. Watching that movie in a massive theater with booming sound, with my nerdy college film friends, was the most fun I’ve ever had in a theater.
The first film you saw that made you realize you wanted to be a filmmaker.
I’ve never had any feeling for Shakespeare, except through Akira Kurosawa’s lens. “Ran,” based on King Lear, has always been a film that’s deep in my bones. It’s a movie I watched several times before I could even read the subtitles. The visual storytelling is remarkable. Its color-coded by family member/feudal lord, and there are massive battle sequences that are told with such astounding clarity that I don’t think they have ever been rivaled. It’s a perfect marriage of extreme theatricality and incredibly specific horrifying violence with life-affirming moral backbone. I have never had any interest in violence on screen, except when it is clearly telling a story, and this film is one of the prime examples of that for me.
The first film you saw that you realize you could be a filmmaker.
I was in my last year of film school, and feeling overwhelmed that I would officially be an adult soon. I didn’t know how to get started, and I had a lot of anxiety about that. I went to the Angelica theater alone to see Margaret Brown’s documentary, “Be Here To Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt.” I was so in awe of Townes’ relationship to music, his irrational process, his talent, and the way Margaret told the story. I distinctly remember walking down into the subway at West 4th Street on my way home from the theater and thinking, it’s time for me to make my own film about an artist in my life that inspires me as much as Townes does. I would never have directed my first feature-length documentary, “Brock Enright: Good Times Will Never Be The Same,” if I hadn’t watched Margaret’s movie. We ended up working together on her film “The Great Invisible,” after meeting at the film festival where my film that she inspired had its premiere.