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“I was sick of myself,” said director Derek Cianfrance of his decision to make The Light Between Oceans, which opens in theaters today.
The writer-director’s 2010 breakout feature Blue Valentine, starring Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling, took more than a decade to make, and he re-teamed with Gosling on the family drama The Place Beyond the Pines in 2012. Both were original screenplays.
But as he considered his next feature, Cianfrance knew he wanted to do an adaptation. He explained: “I was sick of my own ideas.” And so he found M.L. Stedman’s novel.
The Light Between Oceans follows the story of a lighthouse keeper, played by Michael Fassbender, and his wife, Alicia Vikander, who are unable to have children but who find a baby in a boat that washes ashore on their island. They decide to raise the child as their own, only to eventually find her actual mother on the mainland.
In a conversation that spans both relatable (crying on public transit) and not-so-relatable topics (living on an island with Vikander and Fassbender for five weeks), the director talked with THR about his latest film.
How were you introduced to The Light Between Oceans?
After my last film, Place Beyond the Pines, I was sick of myself and I was sick of my own ideas. I really want to do an adaptation, so I spent a year reading stuff that made no sense to me. I would get to page 10 and have to go back to page one because I would have no idea what I just read. I was getting hopeless about the whole thing but then I went to meeting at DreamWorks because Steven Spielberg loved Blue Valentine — it was his favorite film of 2010 or something — and they gave me a big pile of the stuff they owned the rights to and at the top of the pile was The Light Between Oceans.
Why did you commit to it?
When I was a kid I used to think I lived on an island. When people would come visit us, we would change and when people would leave we would go back to being real again, so I always thought families were full of secrets. When my parents split up I remember everyone was shocked on the outside of my house, but me, I was not shocked. I was a witness to it. Secrets and families is what I make movies about.
I was reading the end of the book on a subway in New York City — the C train — and I was crying. I was on a rush hour subway train and I was crying and it was so embarrassing to cry in public like that. No one likes crying in public. But I thought that if any of these people would be reading this, they would be crying too. And that was one of the things I tried to keep in mind while making the film, not to be scared of emotion.
After making only original films, did you find adapting someone else’s work difficult?
No. It was a pleasure. The hardest part about making a movie is making a movie. The hardest part for me was being gone from my family for three months and not seeing my wife and kids for 90 days. As a human being, I can’t be a good filmmaker without love in my own life. I make movies about exactly where I am as a man, that reflect the spot I am at there and then. So I felt a lot of heartbreak and melancholic distance about being so far away from my family so I put that into the movie.
What were you looking for when casting your leads?
I kind of thought about Michael as Tom all along. I always thought that Michael was like a mental giant in movies. Like when he becomes Magneto I totally believe he can actually crush metal. But I had never seen his heart, so when I met with him I wanted to understand what his heart was about, and when we met I could totally see how his brain and heart could have a battle — like duty vs. honor — which is what happens to Tom.
Then I had to find someone that would match with him. For Isabelle I told my casting director that I needed to find Gena Rowlands from A Woman Under the Influence or Vivien Leigh from Gone with the Wind — I needed to find someone who was exactly what they felt. She falls in love with you and she asks you to marry her. If she finds a baby she wants to keep it. She’s impulse. And my casting director said, “You need to meet Alicia.”
How was shooting on location?
It was me, Michael, Alicia and a 12-person crew and we all lived at this lighthouse location that was an hour-and-a-half away from any living person, and we lived there for five weeks. I remember when I first presented that idea to Michael and he asked if it was really necessary. And I told him, “Michael I fought so many battles to allow us to do this. This is a gift I am giving you. More than any type of direction, I can give you this experience. So, please give it a shot.” And he goes, “Okay, I’ll give it one night.” And then flash forward five weeks later and I had to literally pull him from the location.
Did you have any sort of rehearsal before getting to the island?
I don’t like to rehearse because my fear is that you’ll “get it.” I have had rehearsals or auditions with actors before where it’s never going to get any better than that. Then you spend the whole time shooting trying to get back to a pre-conceived notion.
How was your first experience shooting a period piece?
I loved going back in time to a primal human state, where we weren’t affected by anything but the weather and our own emotions. I wanted to make sure it wasn’t too precious. With a lot of period pieces, they are too polite. They are whispering the whole time.
I remember a great supporting actor Jane Menelaus was doing a dinner scene and I made sure that they didn’t eat lunch that day and that the food was actually good food. And she goes “I don’t want to scratch the China.” So I take a plate off the table and smash it to pieces — and come to find out it was like a part of a really rare China set and it was like $2,500 — but the point was let’s break stuff. Let’s not walk on egg shells.
How would you say your experiences as a father affected your filmmaking?
Right now my life is so simple: I am a filmmaker, a dad and a husband. All three of those are intertwined. I am trying to be good at all of them and I am failing at it every moment. I am interested in longevity — as a man, as a filmmaker. I don’t think I could have made any of the movies without being a father.
[The Light Between Oceans] is about legacy and questions of paternity and intimate relationship between mother and child, husband and wife. To me, I feel the significance of seemingly insignificant things. I feel when my son holds my hand — it is as important as all the eternity of time that has come before and the eternity of time that will come after.
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