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22 years after being published, Wally Lamb’s novel ‘I Know This Much Is True’ becomes an HBO series starring Mark Ruffalo

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When Wally Lamb published his novel “I Know This Much Is True” in June of 1998, Oprah Winfrey chose it for her book club.

“True” became a #1 New York Times best-seller.

And Hollywood came calling.

Twentieth Century Fox purchased the rights to turn the tome about twin brothers Dominick and Thomas Birdsey, the latter of whom is a paranoid schizophrenic, into a feature film, but it never came to pass. Given the size and scope of the story — the book ran 897 pages in its initial hardcover printing — they tried but couldn’t reduce it to a two-hour-movie screenplay without losing huge chunks of the narrative.

Then, the movie project became dormant, until Lamb’s agent, Kassie Evashevski, called him up in 2014 to say that, after 15 years, the rights reverted back to Lamb.

“What had happened in those 15 years was that suddenly now there are all these premium series on HBO and that kind of thing, so its time had finally come,” says Lamb, a Norwich native who now lives in Mansfield.

Evashevski began shopping “I Know This Much Is True” around and asked Lamb who would be his ideal actor to play the twins.

“I said, ‘Oh, that’s easy, Mark Ruffalo,’” Lamb recalls.

His agent happened to know Ruffalo and sent him the book. At the time, the actor was filming one of the Avengers flicks in Europe.

“I got this unbelievable email from him about a week later,” Lamb remembers. “He was saying, ‘Oh, my God, I’ve only read half of it — I’m sorry, I’m a slow reader — but we’re going to make this happen. I definitely want to do this.’”

Lamb was thrilled. Not too many novelists see their books made into films or series, never mind get their first choice for lead actor.

The Ruffalo-fronted version of “I Know This Much Is True” bows on May 10 on HBO. The first of its six episodes will air at 9 that night, with the other episodes following each Sunday.

Reel life

Lamb says Ruffalo “told me that he could relate to the story because there’s mental illness in his family. He had a brother who has since died — he likened (his brother) to Thomas, and he likened his own role to Dominick. He brought that into the performance. They are very different roles, and yet he knocked it out of the park with both.”

The series has already earned admiring notices. Entertainment Weekly included it in its recent “Must List,” of “The top 10 things we love this month.”

Lamb had seen the almost-completed series in New York City before the pandemic hit the city. He and his wife, Chris, had watched three episodes on a Monday and then were invited back the following Monday for the remaining three.

“I’m really, really so pleased with the results,” Lamb says.

Seeing the six episodes over two days, he figures they went through an entire box of Kleenex.

“It’s very emotional. It’s a sad story and moving and funny in parts,” he says.

In addition to Ruffalo, the cast features Archie Panjabi as a psychologist, Kathryn Hahn as one of the brother’s exes, Melissa Leo as the boys’ mother, and Rosie O’Donnell as a social worker. Director Derek Cianfrance helmed the production, which was filmed last year in the Poughkeepsie, N.Y., area.

Working with Ruffalo

Elaborating on why he thought of Ruffalo to play Dominick and Thomas Birdsey, Lamb says that his performances have an authenticity to them, and they range widely, from “You Can Count On Me” to “The Kids Are All Right.” He thinks Ruffao has an empathetic face and really good instincts.

Lamb says that Ruffalo has been great to work with from the start; they began meeting on the project in 2015.

“We interviewed directors, and we thought it was going one way, then went it another way and so forth, but he stayed with the project. He was very faithful to it and me. He was the one who thought that we should probably talk to Derek Cianfrance,” Lamb says.

Lamb had loved Cianfrance’s movies “Blue Valentine” and “The Place Beyond the Pines” and was onboard with the idea.

In addition to directing, Cianfrance wanted to write the episodes. He kept telling Lamb he was going to be true to Lamb’s story. Lamb’s response was that Cianfrance should make it his own. The final product, Lamb says, “is more the novel than not. A lot of the dialogue comes right from the book. In some cases, he added a scene here and there, and because of the length of the book, he had to cut some stuff. But it’s pretty much the same story as in the book.”

Riding in the car with the cool kids

Lamb is credited as one of the executive producers of the series. “I was telling somebody a while ago that really that meant I would ride in the same car with the cool kids. I just couldn’t say anything,” he says with a laugh.

The title of executive producer can mean a range of different things. In Lamb’s case, he says, “It meant Mark and I had done a lot of the preliminary work as far as getting the talent together. Of course, Mark opened a lot more doors than I did. We met several times with directors and stuff. Once Derek got onboard, I said, ‘OK, I’m going to back off now. I’ll let you guys figure it out.’ I guess I would call myself a consultant. Every once in a while, I’d get a call about this thing and that thing. I worked a little bit with the casting director as far as making suggestions and that kind of thing.”

Seeing double

Lamb explained the process of filming a movie where Ruffalo plays twins. At first, Ruffalo filmed all the scenes he had as Dominick, while another actor, Gabe Fazio, portrayed Thomas.

Ruffalo then left set for four to five weeks, with the goal of gaining weight to play Thomas; mood stabilizers and antipsychotic drugs that someone who has schizophrenia like Thomas might take can make a person put on weight. Ruffalo also shaved his beard.

During that time, the production continued shooting scenes Ruffalo wasn’t in — a segment about the twins’ grandfather immigrating to America from Italy and his life here.

Ruffalo returned and filmed all his scenes as Thomas, again with Fazio portraying the other twin.

In the final product, Ruffalo’s face has been superimposed over Fazio’s in various scenes to create the twins in one frame.

Being on set

Lamb was on set for about five days and was struck by how detailed and really specific everything was.

Particularly striking was the episode that goes into the scenes at the woolen mill where the twins’ grandfather worked in the early 1900s; he was born in Italy in 1880 and moved to America at age 21. Lamb recalls arriving and seeing all the extras dressed in period costumes.

“It was, for me, like walking back into history. It looked so authentic,” he says.

The devotion to authenticity was such that Cianfrance went to Italy to hire Italian actors to play Italian characters, and he brought in bricklayers to teach the actors how to lay bricks for a couple of scenes.

A visit to eastern Connecticut

Lamb set “I Know This Much Is True” in Three Rivers, his fictional version of eastern Connecticut. He brought Ruffalo, Cianfrance and art director Inbal Weinberg to the area for a couple of days.

“I was actually trying to get them to film around here in eastern Connecticut,” Lamb says. “We went all around, we went to the casinos, and we went to breakfast places. I really gave them the tour of Norwich, New London and Willimantic. They took all that stuff they had seen and had taken pictures of, and translated it to Poughkeepsie, New York, and it works. It looks like eastern Connecticut.”

And, vitally, there is a section of Poughkeepsie called Little Italy that could provide a perfect set for a segment of the story, rather than do extensive filming in Italy, he says.

Lamb’s new book

While in quarantine, Lamb and wife Chris — both former school teachers — have been helping out doing some school lessons with their grandchildren who live in New Orleans.

Lamb has also been writing, working on a new novel in which, as the story opens, a man serving a three-year sentence is anxious about getting out of prison.

While most people are socially isolating these days because of COVID-19, Lamb notes that a novelist does a version of that anyway.

“Being a writer, I’m kind of always having to socially isolate to stay with my characters. I’m making some progress on a new novel that I’m writing. So it hasn’t been as hard for me as i know it’s been psychologically for a lot of people,” he says.

 

When to watch

“I Know This Much Is True” premieres at 9 p.m. May 10 on HBO, with the other five episodes airing on successive Sundays. 

Lamb also talked with HBO about possibly doing a screening at the Garde Arts Center in New London when the COVID-19 closures and restrictions are over.

 

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