Academy Award-winning actor Casey Affleck takes his time between directing projects: Affleck’s intimate post-apocalyptic drama Light of my Life comes nearly 10 years after his bonkers mockumentary I’m Still Here, which was preceded by a collection of shorts The Book of Charles in 1999.
Light of My Life recalls Affleck’s performances in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford to his Oscar winning portrayal of the grief-stricken Lee in Manchester by the Sea. His proper narrative feature directorial debut has Affleck working in understated mode, lending an “almost accidental” feeling to the staging and character movement. Affleck stars as a father (appropriately credited as “Dad”) who attempts to lead his daughter Rag (Anna Pniowsky in an extraordinary performance), through a world where an unexplained pandemic has wiped out a majority of the female population. The stakes of raising a young daughter in such a landscape are understandably high, and recognizing this, Affleck’s character does his best to protect her as she comes of age and grows more autonomous.
MovieMaker spoke with Affleck on the eve of his new film’s release about how he arrived at this multi-hyphenate approach, the joys and perils of weather, and how he crafted a world where the goodness of man is not completely eradicated in a time of worldwide crisis.
Caleb Hammond, Moviemaker Magazine (MM): Was it always your plan to write, direct, and star in this film? How did you end up here?
Casey Affleck (CA): I started to write it myself, a long time ago, and it became like collecting scenes. I was going to make a period war piece, but it was a bit too big and expensive. So I had this script that I had been working on that was basically done, and I thought, well, much smaller, much less expensive, I’d like to direct this. Then I realized that I started writing it in a way that I knew how to play. So first it was sort of accidentally writing it over the last 10 years, and then I decided to direct it, and then I decided to act in it.
MM: Did writing a film that in a lot of ways is about parenting, over the course of 10 years, while you have kids as well, change the way you were writing or influence what was went into the script?
CA: Totally. Some of the scenes were written when my kids were much younger and then some of them were written as they were approaching teenage years. It worked to the advantage of the script, because the movie is about somebody coming of age, and there’s a transition from the beginning of the movie of parenting a young child [Rag] to the end where the child is really taking care of him [Rag’s father].
MM: As an actor, you’ve worked with a lot of different directors over the years who have different styles and approaches. Were there any specific lessons you took away from working with these directors that you utilized as a director? What do you put the most focus on as a director for Light of My Life?
CA: I don’t know that I was able to compartmentalize in that way. I was sort of doing it all elliptically, thinking about all aspects of it. Sometimes the visuals are a little bit more important, then in other moments the acting becomes more important than the shot. But I if I had to pick one, I would say that the people are the most interesting part to me—believing that these are real people makes you care about their relationship, and caring about their relationship potentially moves you by the story.
That’s evident with the opening shot. Obviously, it’s a static shot where he tells us a simple story that evolves as he’s telling it, that clues you in very early on that this is a post-apocalyptic story, yes, but it also tells you that these characters are going to be the focus of what’s going on.
MM: How did you develop the look of Light of My Life with your DP Adam Arkapaw? It has a very naturalist feel.
CA: Adam was one of the only people I didn’t know and hadn’t worked with before. We would watch movies together, we’d talk about references, but mostly I knew how I wanted to do it. I knew that we didn’t have a lot of time or much money, so we weren’t going to be doing a lot of train or dolly shots. I didn’t want to move the camera much at all. I wanted the movie to have a very observational feel, and for the characters to move in and out of frame, almost accidentally like people had missed their marks. I didn’t want the camera to ever feel like it had been set up; it was catching things as people were moving as they should and the camera had been placed down and forgotten and people just happened to be in the frame as much as possible.
At the beginning of the movie when you see the father and daughter near the bottom of the frame, they’re almost cut off; it looks like the camera’s been framed to shoot 20 feet off into a different place. The idea was that subconsciously people will start to feel like what they’re watching is more unpredictable and real. That framing and the long takes together would start to make the audience feel like what their watching has not been staged, even though obviously it was. Then when the violence happens at the end of the movie, it’s more shocking. So there are a lot of times when I walk off frame or half off frame—like when it’s raining and we’re standing on the porch, I’m on the very edge of frame—I wanted there to be subtle framing choices that look accidental so that when the violence begins it is more upsetting.
MM: This is a film that slowly teases information for the audience. There’s never an exposition sequence which catches the audience up, but instead you learn how this world functions slowly over the course of seeing a newspaper headline or catching an offhand comment between you and Rag. How did you write that into the script where you’re not spelling everything out?
CA: Well, I love science fiction movies; I love post-apocalyptic, outbreak movies. They usually explain to you exactly what’s happened. Most of the time you get to see it all unfold slowly with the first zombie. But sometimes a movie is set long after these things have happened, but you still learn about them all most of the time. I was trying to imagine a world where it was an outbreak like World War Z, and that these were just two people who weren’t saving the world, who weren’t at the center of this pandemic, who weren’t researching a cure, who were just trying to live through it, like two extras in one of those movies who are trying to create some normalcy.
So I didn’t feel like I had to explain it all. I didn’t want the science fiction to be at the center of it, in the same way that a movie set in modern-day Los Angeles doesn’t explain the whole genesis of the world or the history of Los Angeles—how it became so smoggy and full of traffic?—you just set the movie there and people see all of those things happen. I was interested to see if I could pull that off.
It’s a coming of age story and a father-daughter story of a young girl who learns to fend for herself, take care of herself, protect herself. It’s about someone who comes to claim the role of the storyteller and defines her own identity for herself, and that’s what was important to me about the story.
One of the last things I wrote into the story was this disease as a way of raising the stakes, making the world as awful as possible. I tried to imagine the worst circumstances to raise a daughter, and that came to mind. The relationship and the characters are what I love and care most about in the telling of this story which were already there in place, and that has nothing to do with explaining the reason for the apocalypse.
MM: While every interaction between the two characters and outsiders is fraught with tension, there’s this idea of the goodness of man, and not everybody they encounter has bad intentions. Compared to something like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which, has a much more nihilistic bent in terms of any outsiders’ intentions.
CA: I definitely didn’t want it to feel like the whole world had gone completely mad. The people are just dealing with this horrible tragedy in the way that they could, where some people were still trying to do good; the house at the end is a good example of that. You have one person who is a compassionate, loving, safe person for them. And then someone else lives in that house tries to take advantage of them and tells some people they’re staying there. I felt like there’d be good and bad people there the way there are now, people who are violent and then people who aren’t violent. I wanted it to feel like “Oh, this is what it might really be like.” as much as possible. If the fabric and structure of society crumbled and collapsed, how would people behave? I don’t think that everyone immediately would just start being barbaric. Some people would, but not everyone.
MM: This was a short shoot for a feature. Were there any difficulties on set?
CA: It was quick, and at the time I was trying to promote Manchester by the Sea and had no idea that promoting that movie would go on for so long. So pre-production had already started, and we kept delaying it for a many reasons, but mostly because I wasn’t feeling totally ready.
The biggest challenges were really just the weather. Luckily Sara White, the production designer, found this fabulous house out in the mountains. And it was high enough up that it had a lot of snow so that we could shoot, but that meant that we had to shoot that particular sequence first which was the end of the movie. This sequence had a lot of action, which was the trickiest part of the whole shoot, and we shot it in the first three days of production. This made us work everything backwards. We had to decide how the girl was going to look at the end of the movie prior to the beginning of shooting, and we did all that just to get the snow. But then we went back to Vancouver as spring was done, and they got a very unseasonal dump of snow in the spring in the woods. So we had to find a new woods location because the one we’re using was covered in snow, which we didn’t want for the beginning. So there were a lot of weather challenges. But Adam Arkapaw was amazing and willing to make adjustments quickly.
It was also pouring rain, so the woods were completely muddy, and we were walking deep into the woods with camera equipment and everything. I love shooting in weather and when you see weather on camera. I love wind, rain, snow, all that stuff, it just makes me happy.
MM: I saw, I’m Still Here, when it came out in theaters, almost 10 years ago now, and I was really struck even now with the opening and closing segments of Joaquin in Puerto Rico. There’s that home video of him as a kid and then the closing sequence where he goes back to Puerto Rico and wades through the water. In Light of My Life the opening and closing shots are very striking as well. As a writer-director, how did you conceive these segments?
CA: As any filmmaker does, it’s instinctual: What’s the first thing we’re going to see, and then how do you lead people? With I’m Still Here, the shot that was supposed to be Joaquin as a kid in Puerto Rico was actually just a kid that we found in Hawaii, where we put some tape into a VHS camera so it has that look from that period. That half-day shoot of getting this kid to jump off a ledge of a waterfall was done after everything else was shot because I wanted to create some sort of structure since that movie was so meandering. So the end is Joaquin returning to Puerto Rico in this changed way, that was probably way too heavy-handed, trying to find himself in that water.
With Light of My Life, I wish I could say the opening sequence was by design but it wasn’t. I had a twenty-minute scene of me telling Rag that bedtime story about the animals who weren’t chosen to go on Noah’s Arc, and it just didn’t fit where it was in the movie. It was somewhere in the beginning of the second act and was far too long to put there. But I couldn’t lose it, so I thought maybe to place it at the beginning of the movie when the audience will have the patience for it. So I cut it down to 10 minutes and put it at the beginning. But I was never planning on starting the movie like that, it just seemed like the only place anyone would tolerate that long of a scene.
The last shot of the movie was something I was very set on. I wanted her to be standing taller than him; he’s sort of broken sitting on the bench, he can’t even finish a sentence. He’s a character we’ve seen throughout the whole movie, just constantly lecturing and having to be the authority, teaching and talking and telling and explaining. And then at the end of the movie he starts to make some plan about what they’re going to do next. And he just stops and starts crying and she comes down and stands over him. She’s already bandaged his wounds, she’s making food for them to eat, and now she’s consoling him, and as she does so she looks out the window.
MM: I heard you screenedLight of My Life in DC recently for veterans. Is it specific to this film or is this a group you engage with regularly?
CA: I had done some stuff with veterans in the past, and I found I like to work with the community. In this case, I didn’t necessarily think this movie would resonate with them for any special reason; it’s just a nice thing to do.
It’s always fun to get perspectives and field different questions at Q&As from people outside of the film business. You spend so much time creating a movie in your head by yourself, shooting it, and then cutting it in a dark room by yourself or with your editor, and you spend so little time actually sharing it and interacting with people when they’re seeing it—especially a tiny movie like this which doesn’t have a huge audience.
They [the veterans] responded to that feeling of wanting to protect someone, and also to how my character behaves, portraying someone who has suffered an extreme trauma of losing everyone that he knows and and having to carry on and attempt to create some sort of normalcy with his remaining family. MM
Light of My Life opened in theaters August 9th 2019, courtesy of Saban Films. All images courtesy of Saban Films.