Shawn Levy quickly fell in love with Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2014 novel, All the Light We Cannot See. But it was such a hot property that it took several years for Levy, the director and producer best known for Stranger Things and the Night at the Museum films, to snag the rights.
He soon realized that past efforts to develop the film had failed because of ambitions to stuff the story into a two-hour feature. Levy realized that it needed to be a limited series.
“I felt it could make room for all of the story with this format. With Anthony’s blessings, I got the rights. Then I got very lucky and caught the interest of a great screenwriter named Steven Knight who decided he was going to write all of the episodes himself,” Levy tells MovieMaker, referencing the creator of Peaky Blinders.
“As soon as I read episode one, I knew I didn’t want to share it with anyone and that I’d direct all the episodes myself.”
Levy’s previous experience with period pieces revolved mainly around Stranger Things, set in the 1980s, an era he lived through as an actor. But he’s had such a wide range of successes — including the 2021 Ryan Reynolds hit Free Guy — that he wasn’t daunted by a World War II story.
“1930s and ’40s France and Germany is a very different challenge. I wanted something beautiful to the eyes and rigorously accurate to the period but also highly emotional. Everyone was united on this shared goal,” he says.
He embraces film and television work equally, which made him the perfect choice for a streaming, cinematic epic.
“The job is the same. The budgets change. The amount of time you have to shoot changes. But it really comes down to betting on a story that captivates me,” he says.
Shawn Levy on Advice From Steven Spielberg
One of the most important pieces of filmmaking advice he has received came from Steven Spielberg, when Spielberg was producing Levy’s 2011 Hugh Jackman sci-fi film Real Steel. Levy wondered about where to place the camera to achieve the right shot.
He recalls Spielberg telling him, “the way you picture it makes it the right shot.” It took him about a decade before he truly appreciated and understood what this meant. It helps him decide what projects to choose.
Levy — who is also directing Deadpool 3, starring Reynolds and Jackman — can pick and choose what he wants to do. So if he can resist a story, he passes. If it’s irresistible, he takes it.
What drew him to All the Light We Cannot See was the relationship between Daniel LeBlanc (Mark Ruffalo), a master locksmith at Paris’ Museum of Natural History, and his daughter Marie-Laure, who is played as child by Nell Sutton and as a young woman by Aria Mia Loberti. Like Marie-Laure, both Sutton and Loberti are legally blind.
Marie-Laure’s story soon overlaps with that of Werner Pfennig (Louis Hofmann), a German soldier trying to defy the evils of Nazism.
“As a father of four daughters, what struck me about All the Light We Cannot See was the lengths the father went for his daughter. It wasn’t the World War II drama that captivated me, as much as the character drama — how these two young people’s lives seemed destined to intersect,” Levy says.
All the Light We Cannot See and Understanding the World
He also loves All the Light’s message of “hope during dark times — of having tenacious optimism when facing dire circumstances.” He finds this message as relevant today as it was during the 1940s.
Working with blind debut actors, he says, “I had to change the way I communicated and ran a set.” That reflected his desire to tell stories that show how different people navigate the same world.
“Anytime our world can be broadened by a deeper understanding of others,” he says, “our world is improved.”
All the Light We Cannot See is now on Netflix.
Main image: Aria Mia Loberti as Marie-Laure in All the Light We Cannot See. Photo credit: Katalin Vermes/Netflix © 2023.