Shannon Plumb has shot over 200 short films, which have been exhibited in museums, galleries, and on international screens. She started by shooting herself as various characters, acting out three-minute situations using humor and silence as her vehicles for storytelling. In 2013, her first feature film, Towheads, premiered at MoMA as part of New Directors / New Films. You can see her short films at shannonplumb.com and Towheads is available on Netflix and iTunes. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, director Derek Cianfrance, and their two sons.
Over the festive break, Talkhouse Film is revisiting some of its most read (or listened to) pieces of the year, including this one. Happy holidays! – N.D.
Once, long ago, when everyone could celebrate together and pray together and work together, my husband Derek Cianfrance moved to Poughkeepsie, New York. He was in pre-production for a miniseries he’d written based on Wally Lamb’s book I Know This Much Is True. It was January 2019. He was about to embark on the most challenging act of endurance of his moviemaking career: shooting for TV. Derek was already in training, lifting weights, drinking green smoothies, and embracing complex questions of identity. The star of the show, Mark Ruffalo, would be playing twins: First they’d shoot him as Dominick, a volatile yet caring man. Then, after a six-week cheeseburger-eating hiatus for Mark to gain weight, he would return to set as Thomas, Dominick’s schizophrenic twin. They started filming in April and ended in October. After 116 days and a new set of muscles, Derek finally wrapped production.
When the coronavirus swept through China, Derek was almost finished editing the last of the show’s six episodes. He was commuting every day to a five-bedroom house in Brooklyn that had been transformed into an editing and special effects office.
As the virus slid its way through the United States, Derek was coming home with a new announcement and an extra bag of beans every night. He’d shut the front door behind him, take off his shoes and then pause with a silent stare toward me. As I waited a couple of seconds for him to say something, it was as if a trumpet sounded. Then, “You can’t take the subway anymore.” I immediately resounded with a defensive, “What! I’m finishing my edit too. I have to go!” Then the sounding of a trumpet on another evening when he came home to prophesy … “They’re going to close the schools!” And me, defensive, “They can’t close the schools! How will people go to work if they close schools?” Then, when I was home to stay, unable to take the subway to finish editing my own show, he said, “You better get toilet paper.” Derek had been gifted a bidet from Mark at the end of shooting. Derek would not need to wipe during the quarantine. This was a proud moment for him. Over the next couple weeks, everything Derek relayed to us from his podium at the front door was coming true.
A few days later, our two sons and I and some 13 single rolls of Scott toilet paper were sitting on the sofa when Derek came back from his edit and announced that editing had stopped. He was sending home his post-production crew, all 16 VFX artists, editors, and assistants. They had spent more than a year making decisions together. They ate lunch across from each other every day. Their dogs touched nose to nose, and nose to other things. The office manager had even baked a birthday cake for Derek. They were comrades on an entertainment mission. The airing of the show was only a month away. So close. But anxiety had been building in the house. They knew the communal work situation might soon put the post team at risk. Before sending them home, Derek bought everyone T-shirts as a gift of gratitude. Each shirt had a different animal face on the front. One editor got a bulldog, another a wolf, one a Sasquatch, one a Kraken. He asked everyone to gather for a picture that Friday, as he has a tradition of shooting group portraits of the crew where everyone does the “Cassavetes laugh.” When they met on the porch, the post-production team had all put their new shirts on. This was the last time they’d stand shoulder to shoulder. They said their goodbyes.
For a short time, Derek was lost. Maybe a little in shock. All that work and momentum had come to a halt. He was raw like meat on a cutting board. Every moment he was unable to edit was like a mallet pounding him into a cutlet. Emotions splattered everywhere.
A few days later, the HBO team agreed, by phone, that it would be possible to finish the show remotely. They just had to get the computers working in people’s homes. As our family moved forward into quarantine, I returned to the kitchen table to write. There was a temporary peace in the house while online schooling started. Then I heard a crash. A man was shouting. It kept getting louder. “Damn, our neighbors are never gonna make it through this,” I thought. They were arguing the same thing over and over, again, and again. … And then I realized, it wasn’t our neighbors I was hearing. … It was Derek … editing his scenes … in the basement.
I decide to interview Derek about I Know This Much Is True, which starts on HBO on May 10. We sit together on our back steps in Brooklyn. I press the Record button on my phone. I hesitate to look at my list of questions. Interviewing the man I married is strange, at first. I know things no journalist knows. I know that when he shaves, he has a baby face like his sister had. I know that he doesn’t flush when he pees. I know that when giving birth, it was better when he didn’t hover over me and tap my belly like a drum. We had two babies together, at home. One baby crowned on the toilet, the other entered the world “without any shoes” my son said as he set eyes on his new baby brother. What could I possibly ask this guy who I’ve shared so much with? We counted change together to buy diapers, we carried strollers up endless flights of city stairs, we became a mother and a father together, kicking and screaming but loving all the same. This was the man I yelled at to pick up his dirty socks, which he’d push off with his toe and roll into little packages that sat around the house for days. How could I ask him about writing and directing and editing at a time like this? Was entertainment still important now, more than a month into quarantine? After so many deaths, jobs lost, businesses closed down, so much loneliness, desperation approaching – what was so important here?
I try to begin with a simple question that’s on my mind because we just stocked up on more beans: What did he buy to get through the quarantine? He looks at me funny: “That’s what you’re going to ask me?” I see he’s going to try to direct this interview, so I try another question. “What is your routine during quarantine?” He goes along with it and answers. “Well … I cook breakfast every day.” I have to stop him. I realize he’s embellishing for the article and I tell him it’s not true. I cook too. He tries to prove he does more than me. He counts the days he’s made breakfast. He’s determined to win. “…And Wednesday I made oatmeal and Friday French toast.” His ability to retain details is better than mine. So … “every day” he makes breakfast, works out to Denver Broncos sports radio, and then edits.
Derek admits he’s a procrastinator. Editing at home suits him. He can have a nerf war with one boy, spend time on his bidet, count push-ups with another boy, cook dinner, and all between working on two cuts, one with Mark Ruffalo in it and the other with Mark Ruffalo in it. Derek is a hermit and happy to live in a cave.
He seems a little nervous of the virus infiltrating our home. I ask him about OCD. It has been surmised that he might have some obsessive impulses. Derek has a line of items at the front door waiting to be sprayed. The mail still balances itself in the mail slot, in need of a squirt and a wipe. Dog food and toilet paper have been removed from their boxes, waiting for a destination. He sprays them and leaves them. “It says you have to let it stand 10 minutes, then wipe it.” The chicken nuggets are sticky with antibacterial gunk as I put them in the freezer. “But eventually you have to wipe them!” I remind him. He orders more food, more wipes, more spray to spray down the spray. We have dried beans, canned beans, snacking beans. It is good that he has OCD. He’s protecting us. I could never be as thorough as him. His control and tenacity are what make him a great director. Derek describes his filmmaking as controlled chaos. He compares his process to building an aquarium. He arranges sunken ships and plastic green plants in his contained environment. When he plops the fish in the tank, that’s when the chaos begins. He asked one fish to gain 30 pounds; that fish would be Mark Ruffalo. Derek says he had no idea how the extra weight would transform Mark. Having a gut and feeling heavier affected Mark’s performance in ways Derek could never have predicted. Derek feels like his OCD, during this pandemic, is finally being validated. What previously seemed like paranoia is now acute perception, he tells me. And his fish are thriving.
Derek, his four editors and VFX team are almost done. 14 hours a day, he sits in the basement, his desk over the sewer line. He comes up for air, and occasionally grabs a can of sardines or a spoonful of beans. He returns to the basement to listen to the sound mix on his first episode, to look at color on another episode, to discuss cuts with the editors, to examine the special effects, to direct ADR. All the while, everyone is dialing in to finish the show remotely.
In our interview, I ask Derek why he likes to make people cry. He tells me, “Crying is cathartic.” He says a movie should be alive, it should change over time. “When I see someone crying during my movie, it means they’re communing with it.” Men cry in Derek’s movies, something I didn’t grow up seeing in cinema. He doesn’t ask his actors to cry. It’s not written in the script, “Here he cries.” Instead, he creates a space where they can explore their vulnerability. He builds the aquarium, so they can swim in pure water.
I’ve seen Derek cry. This past October, he moved back to Brooklyn having finished his 116th day of shooting. For three days, his suitcase sat unpacked near the door while he decompressed. Early in the morning on October 9, he stepped outside to make a call. He came back in suddenly. He diverted his eyes from mine. He sat down at the table, held his head in his hands, and sobbed. Through a downpour of tears and shallow breath, he said, “Megan’s dead.” Megan was Derek’s sister. She was 36 years old. She was a beautiful and empathetic woman. She was a mom, a wife, a daughter, an aunt, an advocate for the old people in the nursing home that she ran. And she was a sister.
Derek had a reality to confront, a funeral to fly to, a hole in his heart, and a job to finish. He wanted to be where Megan had been. Back in Colorado with his family, her people. He grieved for Megan through the edit of the show. The reason for making I Know This Much Is True became clear with Megan’s passing. It was about a caretaker. Megan was a caretaker too. She cared more for everyone else than she did for herself. She died with a heart that grew too big.
In the midst of learning lessons, we can’t really know what these lessons are yet. Derek isn’t sure what he’s learned from the making of these episodes and the quarantine that almost stopped him. He says he’s just thankful. His kids are here. He has me here. We have food. We have shelter. We have technology that keeps us moving forward. He’s thankful he and his crew still have a job right now.
I often feel guilty about our lives working in entertainment. I wonder how it can make a difference in times like this. I honor the doctors and nurses, the cashiers in grocery stores. I appreciate the postal workers, and delivery drivers who continue to bring us items from out of reach places. I am in gratitude to the sanitation workers. I admire the courage of meat packers who show up on the assembly line even though they are unprotected. What is an interview with a director compared to the endeavors of these community heroes?
By the last paragraph of this article, I start to realize why Derek finishing his TV show is significant. He couldn’t quit. He believed in the people around him. He searched for a way. He continued through all things. These are long days. We miss our loved ones, those who are not far, and those who are. Sometimes, you’re just going to cry and cry and cry. But then, in a certain moment, who knows when, the lesson you learn will become clear. Just like I realized what this article is about. It’s about perseverance. It’s about the long haul. It’s about eating beans in as many ways as possible. And it’s love, and tears, and survival. Derek put all this into six episodes for TV. It’s there, if you want to see. I know this much is true.