Jody Lee Lipes’ first answer was drowned out by a cacophonous eruption outside his window. We’d scheduled our interview about HBO’s new show I Know This Much Is True for 7 pm—the time when New Yorkers take to their windows and balconies each night to shower frontline workers with cheers of appreciation.
Wally Lamb’s source novel was released in 1998 and the show’s 10-month shooting schedule began in early 2019. Yet it’s not hard to draw parallels between the show’s weary humanism and our new pandemic reality, with lines like “We’re connected, whether I like you or not” and “You can’t worship both God and money.”
I Know This Much Is True is a decades-spanning, tragedy-laden emotional ravaging and then catharsis about coming to terms with the shortcomings of ourselves, our families and country, and the healing power of acceptance and forgiveness. The story centers around a pair of twins—Thomas, a frequently institutionalized paranoid schizophrenic, and Dominick, a house painter struggling with the burden of being his brother’s keeper. Both are played by Mark Ruffalo, who took a six-week break in the middle of production to put on 30 pounds to transform into Thomas.
With the show premiering this Sunday at 9 pm on HBO, cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Manchester by the Sea) spoke to Filmmaker about pulling off Ruffalo’s “twinning,” planning as the enemy of inspiration, and winning over director Derek Cianfrance to the ways of the zoom lens.
Filmmaker: You’re the first person I’ve interviewed since all the stay-at-home orders began. I know there’s some production going on—every corporation has a very sincere new commercial telling us how much they care—but have you been working at all?
Lipes: I’m still grading [I Know This Much Is True], but that’s it. I flew to LA on the red eye on March 13th for an Apple commercial I was working on and when I got off the plane the rest of the job was cancelled. That was the last time I worked.
Filmmaker: Let’s start at the very beginning of I Know This Much Is True, the first shot of episode one. The series opens with a long pan that starts on a river and then scans around a library before landing on Mark Ruffalo’s Thomas as he cuts off his own hand in an act of religious sacrifice. Where did that shot come from?
Lipes: Like a lot of things on this show, it was a long, long genesis. That library was the very first location we scouted. I came on the project the first week of January 2019 and on my first or second day we went to that library. I’d never worked with Derek on anything longform before—we’d done one commercial together. So, I was still trying to feel him out and figure out what he was after and understand what the show was. We went to that location together and I took a bunch of pictures with a still camera. I pitched him some ideas, but we didn’t settle on anything at the end of that trip. I felt a little bit uneasy about that at the time, because I felt like I hadn’t come up with a solution. What I didn’t understand yet was that there aren’t really any solutions with Derek. For him, it’s all about responding to what’s happening in the moment and learning from what you’re seeing in front of you as it’s unfolding. It’s about throwing everything away to make it better when you find that unexpected thing in the moment. When you work that way, planning can be the enemy.
I distinctly remember Derek saying during that first scout, “It looks like you can see the Hudson River through the windows. What if we started on the water?” Water is very important in this story. We scouted that location a few more times, but didn’t end up shooting that scene until the last week or two of production, like ten months after that first scout. We learned a lot in that time, but still—showing up on that day —I didn’t have any real sense of what we were going to do. But that’s not a bad thing. It’s actually why I think Derek is so special a filmmaker, because he’s open until the very last second, until you’re rolling. He’ll even be open while you’re rolling to change things. I think that’s where a lot of the humanity and the magic of his work comes from. As a more technical person on the crew, it’s very much a tension of wanting to be ready and having the tools you need to be able to execute everything in the amount of time you have, but at the same time you’re saying “I don’t want to make a decision yet because in a lot of ways that inhibits finding the best thing.” So it’s a weird amalgamation of planning and not planning; of knowing the show really well, yet sort of forgetting everything you know all to arrive at this place that feels the way Derek’s films feel.
Jody Lee Lipes on set with Angeniuex 12-1 zoom lens
Filmmaker: Was your use of zooms a premeditated decision you discussed with Derek beforehand or did they creep into the language of the film organically during the shoot?
Lipes: Zooming is something that’s been a part of a lot of my work before. When I was getting to know Derek, I asked him if he wanted me to have a zoom on the show and he said “No, I don’t zoom.” A couple days went by and he said, “Actually, you should get a zoom.” Then the zoom became a big part of what we did on day one, which was the scene in episode two when Dominick visits Dr. Patel for the first time for this 19-page dialogue scene. The way we used them was not entirely thought out, which I think maybe is the throughline of this conversation. (laughs)
We only zoomed in for the first three or four months of shooting. Derek was like, “We only zoom in on this show! We don’t zoom out!” (laughs) But then there was one shot where we finally zoomed out and he really liked it, then we started doing those as well. It evolved. Derek has incredible taste and an incredible sense of people. He is able to wield these tools in a way that serves telling a story about people in a really human way. The zoom just became one of those tools.
Filmmaker: There’s a great zoom out at the beginning of episode two during a flashback of the brothers as kids. They’re on a school field trip to the Statue of Liberty, but Dominick has to stay behind on the dock because Thomas has an incident. The shot starts on the statue, then slowly zooms out between the brothers to create this triangular composition.
Lipes: Yeah, totally a great zoom out. We shot that scene maybe three different ways, each with them in different places and different coverage. But all along I think Derek knew he wanted that to be a oner. It’s a simple way to tell the story of that scene.
An example of the twinning effect in action
Filmmaker: You talked about being open to last minute inspiration, but you’ve got a significant technical challenge that requires planning with Ruffalo playing two characters simultaneously. Basically you shot for 17 weeks of Ruffalo as Dominick, then you took a 6-week break as he put on 30 pounds to become Thomas. How did you then incorporate Thomas into the scenes you’d already shot with Dominick?
Lipes: The majority of what we did was just using Mark’s acting partner Gabe Fazio [who played scenes as the appropriate twin opposite Ruffalo] and just shooting in a way where we weren’t really doing “twinning” shots. We would shoot the Dominick scenes loosely, then do editorial work and evaluate exactly how much we needed to do on the other side once Mark had come back as Thomas.
Filmmaker: So, for example, the second scene of the first episode takes place at this roadside restaurant. Most of the scene plays out in a wide two shot, where we’re over each brother’s shoulder, and then a dirty close-up of each. You never really see both brothers’ faces at the same time. For that type of scene, did you basically shoot the Dominick side of the coverage and then come back to that location, weeks and weeks later, to do the Thomas side?
Lipes: Yes. We fought hard against using greenscreen or taking the actors out of the actual location. Derek really tries to build a whole world for the actor. Like in [the house location where the brothers grew up], there’s stuff in every single drawer of every single room of that house, even rooms we’re not shooting in. That idea of maintaining the location and actually physically going back every time and putting the actor back in that place was important.
There was a lot of discussion about how to capture the scenes [where both brothers needed to share the screen] and at a certain point I was just like, “I think we should be shooting this the way we would be shooting it if there were real twins [playing the parts]. We don’t need to think about it in a way where we’re changing the style of the show just to accommodate the technology. Let’s talk about the best way, and right way to shoot this for the story, then let’s make it work. If there’s huge obstacles to that, we’ll deal with it.”
Filmmaker: The first episode ends with this long oner that seems like it would be one of the more complicated twin shots. It’s a three-minute handheld take that follows Dominick and Thomas as the latter is processed into prison. Most of the shot is on Dominick, but there are several pans over to Thomas. Are those Thomas moments face replacements?
Lipes: I don’t think there’s any face replacement in that scene. I’m not 100 percent sure—maybe one of those pans has a little bit of it—but mostly we did that by (blending takes in post). We shot the Dominick side with Mark’s acting partner Gabe as Thomas, then picked a take that Derek and the editors thought was best and planned out the moments where we would need Mark as Thomas. Then we went back to that location and found those exact camera positions and tried to put Mark exactly where Gabe had been to shoot the Thomas side.
Filmmaker: There’s an interview about the show in the New York Times where Mark talks about an ill-fated idea to put a Ruffalo mask on Gabe.
Lipes: Basically what you’re trying to do is find ways to minimize having to go back and shoot things [for Thomas] that are not really that important performance wise. One possibility was using this mask in super wide shots. There was also the issue of how much Gabe was clear in the frame when you’re looking over his shoulder. The idea was, if he was wearing this mask and looked a lot more like Mark, then we don’t need to be as worried about shooting his overs. (laughs) It was a good try.
Filmmaker: In that same Times story, Derek mentions you shot almost 600 hours of film. I guess maybe I could see that on a digital show if the director kept resetting while rolling over and over again, but that’s a lot of film.
Lipes: You won’t see that on a digital set either. You have to work really hard to shoot that much.
Filmmaker: But there isn’t a crazy amount of coverage. Were you doing a lot of takes? How’d you burn through that much film?
Lipes: When we started, it was a one camera show. Derek and I both felt like that was going to serve his style and the look of the show best. But we ended up adding a second camera and would shoot two cameras all the time. Using more than one camera can get sloppy and be a big compromise in a lot of ways, but I think the way that we ended up shooting the show made it less of a compromise than it’s ever been before for me. A lot of the reason is that Derek is allergic to wider lenses, so it was a very long lens show. For me a lot of the compromises you usually make when using two cameras come from wanting one of the cameras physically closer to an actor and you can’t have it there because it will be in the other camera’s shot. But that really was not an issue on this show [because of the longer lenses]. Using two cameras does compromise the lighting and makes that a little harder, but that was just something we had to deal with and make work.
We would always try to find a second shot to roll on. We didn’t do any type of real thorough planning on purpose, so it was sort of like, “Well, in this scene Dominick comes into the house, then goes and has a conversation somewhere in the house. We’ll put the camera in the kitchen, and that way maybe we pan and see the kitchen and another room.” That’s how we would set up the shot, but we didn’t know if the camera was in the right place or not until we started rolling and the actors came in, because we had no idea what was going to happen. So we’d roll the whole 22 1/2 minutes of film on each camera without stopping. Right there you have like 45 minutes of footage just on one take, and the camera might really be in the wrong place and you might have to adjust and do it again from another spot. There was a lot of that kind of thing, really letting actors figure stuff out, changing the blocking while we’re shooting, then having to go back and re-shoot set-ups because we’re adjusting to the way the scene was changing. It ends up adding up [to a lot of film being shot], but I think it worked for us. It’s very, very challenging for the camera department. Toni Sheppard, our loader, it was her first job loading film and she was incredible. It’s not an easy job and not a lot of people know how to do it anymore.
Filmmaker: You shot with 2-perf 35mm film, but you ended up at a 2:1 aspect ratio rather than a more conventional widescreen ratio. How did you land on that?
Lipes: My understanding was that’s the widest HBO was comfortable going for original content. I’m sure they have their reasons. Derek has usually shot widescreen and most of the things that I’ve shot have been widescreen, but we had that limitation and Derek said “Let’s embrace it.” Shooting 2-perf is usually done as a cheaper way to do widescreen, but then we used an even smaller amount of the negative, so we were chopping off the sides and then blowing it up even more to accommodate that aspect ratio. Shooting 2-perf emphasizes the texture of film more than 3-perf but not as much as 16mm. By shooting 2-perf and blowing it up a little bit, it sits somewhere between 2-perf and 16mm and really has this presence, grain and texture to it.
Filmmaker: So you’re still working on the grade and you’re doing it remotely?
Lipes: I was working on it all day today. I’ll be working on it for at least another two or three weeks.
Filmmaker: I hope you’ve got episode one done, because that premieres in like three days.
Lipes: Yeah, that’s done, but we’re still redoing visual effects and grading them on early episodes. I’m collaborating remotely with Sam Daley, the colorist I’ve been working with for ten years, and he had to set up at home away from Company 3 because of the virus. Everyone is working remotely and it slows the process down. It’s not as pleasant. It’s like looking through a filter— everything has this extra layer of computers. It’s been challenging, but I’m really proud of what we are doing. It’s just not the ideal way to do it.
Matt Mulcahey works as a DIT in the Midwest. He also writes about film on his blog Deep Fried Movies.