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July 16, 2020

Double-Edged Shoot

For Jody Lee Lipes, shooting I Know This Much Is True  was a technical feat.

Melissa Byers
  • Jody Lee Lipes on the set of I Know This Much Is True

  • Mark Ruffalo in the dual roles of Dominick and Thomas in I Know This Much Is True

    HBO
  • HBO
  • Rosie O'Donnell and Mark Ruffalo in I Know This Much Is True

    HBO
  • Director Derek Cianfrance with Mark Ruffalo on the set of I Know This Much Is True

    HBO
  • HBO

Movies and television shows about twins are notoriously tricky to shoot.

Stories about two very different twins that take place over 80-odd years are doubly so. For cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes, that was only part of the challenge of shooting HBO's I Know This Much Is True.

The limited series starring Mark Ruffalo and directed by Derek Cianfrance follows the story of Dominick and Thomas Birdsey, played by Ruffalo.

It begins with Thomas cutting off his hand as a political protest, and Dominick's fight to get him placed in an appropriate facility. From there, it tells the story of the brothers through their many tortuous years in a series of flashbacks, memories, and present-day scenes.

Thomas seems to be the more troubled brother, overweight, socially inept, fanatically religious. Dominick has a job, had a family that he lost, and has always tried to take care of his brother, especially after making a death-bed promise to his mother.

In order to tell the story with Ruffalo in both parts, the shooting schedule was broken up into segments first shooting Ruffalo as Dominick, then taking a six-week break, and coming back to shoot Thomas's parts in those scenes after Ruffalo had gained 30 pounds.


Jody Lee Lipes: We were shooting what we call the A and the B side, or the Dominick and the Thomas side sometimes three, four months apart.


Lipes explains, "We were shooting what we call the A and the B side, or the Dominick and the Thomas side sometimes three, four months apart.

"The whole schedule of the film, which was quite long, was about six months long, even sometimes filming one scene over that period of time. But literally the opposite seasons, where we're trying to match the light and exact setup. So that was very challenging technically."

Despite the challenges. Cianfrance was adamant about the scenes between the brothers and the entire series looking like one long film.

Lipes says, "When I was shooting the Mr. Rogers [Lipes was the cinematographer for the Tim Hanks film, Won't You Be My Neighbor] movie almost two years ago, Derek contacted me about that. And the two first things he wanted to discuss were how we're shooting on film.

"And we also are going to strive to tell one story, even though the story takes place over the course of about 80 years.

"And we wouldn't be treating the various time periods of multiple generations as a multiple visual so it would all feel like one.

"And I think the reasoning behind that - that we never specifically discussed it, but behind it - is that a lot of the film is about the sort of repetition that occurs through generations. Like, echoes of events, personality traits that you carry over from generation to generation, how families pass behavior down even if they don't want to.

"So there's this feeling that there's a lot of intercutting in the show, intercutting between the past and present, between the brothers being younger. And now, between the grandfather and Dominick and sort of a comparison of what's happening in their lives in these various time periods. So the idea was it all feels like one piece.

"So when Thomas dies, there's a funeral and then there's a memorial service, sort of, gathering at Ma's house afterward. And Dominick is remembering a particular event that happened with his mother and his stepfather and Thomas, of a traumatic event between Ray and Thomas.

"And he's remembering that as he's going through the preparations for this memorial service, for this party for his brother after his brother dies.

"It's literally intercutting when he was a child with when he's an adult in the same room. And he's sort of going through, piece by piece, this memory as the party is unfolding. And it almost gets to the point where you can't tell the difference between the two.

"And that yields an explosion between a final spoken fight, a sort of reckoning between Dominick and Ray for the first time in the show. And so to me, the first time I read it, it was, like, 'OK. Well, this is supposed to look the same. It's supposed to feel the same.'

"So we should just try very hard to have one language for the show. And shooting on film, which is the second visual choice we had made right off the bat, was a way of tying everything together in one format throughout this 80 year time period.


Lipes: This was a format that I think is honest to that time period. The history of filmmaking up until the '90s, which is when the story ends, was captured on celluloid. And so that format worked really well.


"This was a format that I think is honest to that time period. The history of filmmaking up until the '90s, which is when the story ends, was captured on celluloid. And so that format worked really well."

On top of just choosing to shoot on film, Lipes and Cianfrance chose a specific grade of film.

Lipes explains, "It's a film format that people use to save money, because you use less film, like, a, smaller piece of film that you're shooting onto. And for that reason, it looks less polished and more grainy and sort of more like 16-millimeter.

"And so not just shooting on film, but making it feel like film, you can see the texture of it. It has this feeling where it looks a little bit older. It looks a little bit like handmade. 

"I think that was what I brought to the project in terms of me taking a read of Derek and the kind of music he likes and the kind of movies he responds to. And saying, like this feeling, this texture of film is what is going to work well with these other decisions that he's making."

All these decisions resulted in a feeling of memory, of losing track of where the viewer is in time.

Lipes says, "Like Derek says, the whole show is a cross cut. The whole entire show is literally like cutting between now and then and now and then. And you almost lose track sometimes, and not in a bad way. But you don't even need to have your footing. Because it's like the recent past, and then it's far back, and then it's now, I think.

"And so there is that feeling like back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, cross cutting, that, I think, is a really effective tool.

"Because I think in one way, it's sort of a way of showing how two disparate scenes or characters are related. And it also, I think, leaves a lot of room for the viewer to make their own judgments about how those things are related.

"I just want to be clear that I didn't do that. The editor - and, Derek, obviously - the editors are incredible. Even now, I've spent the last year and a half of my life making it and breaking it down so thoroughly, and tearing it apart. And I still, when I'm watching it, I'm thinking about, so, wait, is this now?

"And so I don't think it hurts the story. It's kind of a nice feeling. It's sort of, like, all one thrust, regardless of exactly where in their timeline you are."

Like many artists, Lipes brings his background into play when choosing projects.

Growing up in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, he went to Quaker schools and, while he is not technically a member of that faith, he does identify with the tenets of the religion.

He explains, "I've always been brought up, primarily in school, to look at things through a moral lens. And I think that's really important. So I think naturally that is part of the way that I think.

"However, I think, for me, sometimes the most powerful moral statements or pieces of art aren't hitting you over the head with that morality. So I try not to only work on quote, unquote, "issued-based things."

"Because I feel like important morality and ideas can come in many different packages. There's a lot in this film that you could say is socially conscious by exploring mental health and other kind of socially relevant issues.

"But I really try to think of it just as a story, that I really want to tell stories, and this is a really good story.

"And inherent to a really good story is going to be things that are really important in life, and not just one person, but many people. And that the way that various issues are presented is honest enough that it will mean enough to enough people that it will say something important about something."

 

 

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