“Every Movie I Make, I Commit My Entire World:” Derek Cianfrance Talks The Light Between Oceans

It’s just plain fun to watch Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander, whose real-life romance is the stuff of celebrity gossip fodder, fall in love against gorgeous landscapes in Derek Cianfrance’s new film The Light Between Oceans.

Especially since the blossoming love scenes between their characters are the few happy moments in this sad story, based on the 2012 best-selling M.L. Stedman novel Cianfrance adapted for the screen.

The Light Between Oceans is an old-fashioned love story set in the aftermath and devastation of World War I on a remote island off the edge of Western Australia. On the surface the film is very different from Cianfrance’s gritty dramas Blue Valentine (2010) and The Place Beyond the Pines (2013), except that all three films share weighty themes like parenthood, legacy and fate—his preoccupations.

Fassbender and Vikander play Tom and Isabel Sherbourne, who are both scarred from the devastation of the Great War; he was an officer with battle fatigue and she lost two brothers. Tom takes a job as a lighthouse keeper in a secluded island post, while the young, bold Isabel is eager to start a family but suffers two miscarriages. As though out of a fable, one night after a violent storm a rowboat washes onshore carrying a baby girl. (The other passenger is a dead man.) Tom and Isabel dote and become utterly attached to the toddler, but the Sherbournes don’t count on the existence of another mother (Rachel Weisz), grieving for her lost child.

Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander play a couple that longs for a child in The Light Between Oceans

Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander play a couple that longs for a child in The Light Between Oceans

At a press conference in Manhattan last month for the film, Fassbender told journalists that what attracted him to making the film was that it was a “human story about ordinary people trying to navigate life, that there wasn’t a clear villain or sort of good guy—just decent, ordinary people who make some decisions that are very damaging and costly.”

About working together, Vikander said only that she was always a “huge fan of Michael’s.” Fassbender was more effusive: “Alicia is so fierce and brave as a performer that it quite bowled me over. We had great chemistry from the beginning and relied on one another, pushed one another and supported one another. That’s really the ideal scenario when you’re working together. And we had fun as well. In between takes, we would have a laugh.”

Meanwhile, 42-year-old Cianfrance expounded at length and with passion about a variety of subjects, including why he chose The Light Between Oceans as his first book adaption and why it was important for his cast and crew to live together in the remote locale. Cianfrance has “a-m-i-g-o” tattooed across the knuckles of his right hand, which makes him look both tough but approachable. But his nice-guy side won out, even when I asked him nosy questions—like when he first noticed his stars were falling for each other.

Paula Schwartz, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): What attracted you to this story?

Derek Cianfrance (DC): I’ve been making movies about families. When I was a kid, I thought that people lived on islands, because anytime people came into my house I felt the behavior change in my house. And when people left we’d go back to being real again. I remember going to friends’ houses, and being in their basements playing pinball and hearing their parents beating each other up upstairs. I used to think, when I was a kid driving around, “There’s an island!… There’s an island!” Apartments had 50 islands in them, and people isolated themselves in these relationships, places where there were great secrets. Families were places of secrets. And only if you were in the family, or if you had stayed long enough, like a foster kid, could you actually witness what life was really like on those islands. I’ve carried that with me forever.

Derek Cianfrance (center) talks to Fassbender (right) on set

Derek Cianfrance (center) talks to Fassbender (right) on set

MM: You previous films have been original stories. Why did you decide to do a book adaptation?

DC: After Place Beyond the Pines, honestly, I was sick of my own ideas and I was looking for an adaptation. I read so many things and so many scripts and I could not understand any of them. I felt like they were written in other languages. Steven Spielberg had been a fan of Blue Valentine, which was a great compliment, so I went to DreamWorks and they gave me a pile of books: “Yeah, we want you to do something in there.” And the first book that I looked at was The Light Between Oceans. It sounded like a cinematic title, about a lighthouse keeper, and I started reading it. It was about a guy who was on an island and he falls in love and they have this great secret on this island, and I thought, “I’m born to do this.” And as I read it I just understood the human stories and the human conflict. And what I loved about it was that there were no bad guys and no good guys. In all my movies I’m dealing with people with choices and how all these choices have consequences and how most of those choices are made from good intentions. They’re usually choices made from the heart and then these choices made from the heart end up with devastating effects and devastating consequences. I felt like it was my movie, but the structure had already been done for me.

MM: Were you concerned about the film becoming too sentimental?

DC: I never once thought it. To me this was a movie that was a battle between love and truth. And to me that was a battle that was more compelling than the battle against the dark side in Star Wars.

The author of the book was a lawyer before she wrote this. I was on jury duty a few yeas ago, and when the prosecution was talking I was absolutely certain that the defendant was guilty. And then when the defense was talking, I was absolutely certain he was innocent. When I was reading this book I had that same experience and I realized what a lawyer can do: A lawyer can actually see all sides of a human argument and they can understand empathy. All I did with this movie was try to empathize with people, try to feel them. I just felt every character. I never thought about sentimentality. I never thought about anything else except just trying to tell this human story as honestly and truthfully as I could.

While I was reading the book on a subway, I was bawling my eyes out. And it’s the most embarrassing thing in the world to cry in public, you know? But I thought to myself, “If anyone else was on that train reading this and knew these characters like I knew them, they’d feel exactly the same way.” Years have gone by, and I’ve gone to cafés, and I’ve seen people alone with a cup of coffee reading the book, crying, and I feel validated. What I love most about this movie and this story is that it’s human.

THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS

Alicia Vikander as Isabel in The Light Between Oceans

MM: Alicia Vikander won an Oscar last year, but she was almost unknown outside Sweden when you shot the film. How did you come to cast her?

DC: Isabel is such a great character because she has no filter. She is what she feels. If she loves you she’s going to ask you to marry her. If she hates you she’s going to try to bloody your nose and she’s never going to talk to you again. She’s all impulse. And it’s hard to find an actor that’s that brave. I said to my casting director, Francine Maisler, “Let’s cast Gena Rowlands from A Woman Under the Influence or Vivian Leigh from Gone With the Wind. That’s what I want.” How do you find that nowadays? And she said, “Alicia Vikander.” I was like, “Who?”

I saw A Royal Affair. Then I met her. We talked for a long time. I try not to audition actors, because I feel like if someone’s really good in a room in an audition, you can’t really trust it; all it’s telling you is that they’re good at faking it. And then you bring some of those people that are great in an audition room out into the real world and they can’t do it in reality cause they’re just fakers. But with Alicia and her audition, what impressed me about her was how far she went and how she let it out for me. She was pure impulse and she wasn’t afraid to fail for me. And that’s what I ask all my actors to do.

MM: You had the cast and crew live together in this remote location by the lighthouse where you filmed. What was that like?

DC: It was a gorgeous place. We were literally living on the edge of the world for five weeks. When I first asked Michael and Alicia individually if they would stay on the island with me, Michael said, “Let’s give it a night, and see how it works out.” Five weeks later he said that he never wanted to leave. It was nice to be away from cell phones and away from the world. This is a movie about isolation and about people living on an island and the secrets they keep, and this incredible private world. We lived that for five weeks. It was an hour and 20 minutes on a dirt road [to the nearest town], so we just lived there. We had little motor homes on the side and we had the keeper’s cottage. Some nights we would watch movies in there and wake up at four in the morning and shoot the sunrise. It allowed us to shoot anytime we wanted to. Honestly, it just allowed us to live. I fought really hard for the actors to have that experience. I’m always trying to do that in my movies, to give actors experiences, true experiences, so they don’t have to act anymore. They can experience it. And when you’re in that isolated place and the wind is beating down on you all night and you can’t sleep because of it and you wake up and you have to do a scene, you are not acting anymore. You’re actually living it.

Rachel Weisz plays Hannah Roennfeldt in The Light Between Oceans

Rachel Weisz plays Hannah Roennfeldt in The Light Between Oceans

MM: Obviously this is where the off-screen chemistry of your stars heated up.

DC: It’s all one to me. I know them as human beings outside of playing these characters, but what I’m always trying to do when I make a film is find a place where acting stops and being begins. We captured life up on the screen and it was all wrapped in this package of a story. What I was seeing was what you see on the screen.

MM: This is your first time writing a screenplay alone. How did you like it?

DC: I loved it. This was great. I didn’t really feel alone because I had the words on the page that Margot Stedman had written, and although I never talked to her while I was writing the script, I felt like she was my constant collaborator. And I constantly had her voice in my head.

MM: How did you decide what to omit from the book?

DC: My “North Star” as I was adapting the screenplay was to try to stay true to that emotion I felt while I was reading it for the first time. But you cannot just film the book. If you just film the book you’ve got a mess on your hands, because the literary medium and the cinematic medium are not the same. I memorized the book and it just becomes a process.

It’s a process of sculpture—you take away. You have to take away to reveal the form underneath. It becomes intuitive. You just know where to cut. It doesn’t mean it’s not painful when you cut, but you just have to cut, and at the same time you have an ability, once you start cutting, to expand.

MM: Were there any scenes not in the book that you added?

DC: One of my favorite scenes in the movie comes when Alicia shaves Michael’s moustache, and that was not a scene in the book. We found old pictures of lighthouse keepers, and one of the guys had a moustache. Michael’s like, “Why don’t I have a moustache? And then she can shave it.” And that’s basically what inspired the scene. [Fassbender said he thought Isabel would prefer to kiss Tom without the moustache.]

It’s so hard to shoot that kind of stuff on a set. You only have one take. I can’t tell you the struggle we had to shoot that moustache because everyone was like, “Well, she might cut him. Why don’t we let the art department shave his moustache first and then she can come in… we can just put shaving cream on there and they can act like she’s done it.” I was like, “I think she can probably do it.”

It was months and months of having this conversation of whether or not Alicia could shave Michael’s moustache. Like, “Alicia, do you think you can do it?” “Ah, I think so.” Then asking Michael, “What do you think? Do you trust her?” “I trust her.”  And she shaved his moustache, but I can’t tell you how dramatic it was on set.

MM: What’s next for you?

DC: Empire of the Southern Moon, based on S. C. Gwynne’s history of the rise and the fall of the Comanche empire, which is a very difficult adaptation because it doesn’t have a story in place. It’s a 4,000-year history. The story is based on truth, based on things that happened, but it’s 150 years ago, and there’s a lot of oral and written history that we’re basing it on.

I don’t know how many movies I’ll make in my life. All I know is every movie I make, I commit my entire world to it. MM

The Light Between Oceans opens in theaters September 2, 2016, courtesy of DreamWorks Pictures. Photographs by Davi Russo, courtesy of DreamWorks.

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