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Derek Cianfrance on Making a John Cassavetes Movie in a David Lean Landscape with ‘The Light Between Oceans’

Written by on August 30, 2016 

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In his breakout drama Blue Valentine and narratively ambitious follow-up The Place Beyond the Pines, Derek Cianfrance has been fascinated with relationships fractured by sin and the ripples of regret. This makes him the ideal fit for an adaptation of M. L. Stedman’s hit novel, The Light Between Oceans, which, in film form, follows a lighthouse keeper (Michael Fassbender) and his wife (Alicia Vikander) faced with a moral quandary.

Ahead of a Venice Film Festival premiere and wide release this week, I spoke with Cianfrance about the adaptation process, technically making a kidnapping movie, working with cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, being fascinated with time, and much more. Check out the full conversation below.

The Film Stage: In your films, you really sense the weight and passage of time, and it kind of sneaks up on you here. What draws you to these stories?

Derek Cianfrance: Time? You know, it’s the eternity of every moment. I read Siddhartha when I was a kid, and he talked about how the river is the same at the top as it is at the bottom — that time is an illusion, that it’s all actually folded upon itself; that the water at the top and the bottom are the same thing, that there’s no real time. I don’t know. Maybe I’m a bit nostalgic, too, for old times, for other times, for memories. I feel like I’m always living in memory, and I kind of want my movies to exist in a place of memory, in long-term and short-term memory. Sometimes I’m not quite sure, in my real life, if I’m dreaming something, if I’m envisioning the future, or if I’m remembering a story. So I kind of like movies to take place in that same sort of memory; I want the movies to feel like home movies, and also memories.

The Light Between Oceans could technically be described as a kidnapping movie, but one from the kidnappers’ perspectives — which is kind of rare, especially considering the humanity you give them. Did you think of that angle at all? And how did you bring that humanity to them?

You know, yes. The author of the book was a lawyer, and I never thought much about lawyers until I was on jury duty a few years back. And when the prosecution was up, I was absolutely certain that the defense was guilty; and when the defense went up, I was absolutely certain he was innocent, and I understood them. So I realized that lawyers have to understand all sides of a story, and they really have to empathize with people. I thought the author of The Light Between Oceans, M.L. Stedman, really empathized with all characters here. I’ve been trying to do this with my own movies. In my own original stories, too. There’s never really good guys or bad guys; there’s just people.

Because my best friends and my wife and my kids and my parents, they are not always nice, you know? They are human beings. Everyone, myself included… I’m an asshole sometimes, and I’m a real nice guy, too. You know, you hear this in Hollywood all the time: likability. The likability of a character drives me crazy because people are not likable all the time, and I don’t need likable people. What I want to find is human beings that are making choices, and they have to make choices in my movies, and there has to be consequences to every choice. I grew up Catholic, you know? So I have a lot of guilt, and I feel like everything I do, maybe, is wrong. So the characters in my movies always make choices and there’s reverberations.

In The Place Beyond The Pines, I made that because choices my great-grandfather made, I feel like, my kids are living with now. I really believe in that; I really believe in that ripple effect of a choice. I feel like Tom and Isabel, in this movie, they make a choice which I totally understand, and they make it out of pure intentions — they make the choice from their heart, they make a choice out of love. There’s nothing evil about their choice. They’re trying to save this baby. Maybe they put away some rational thought to do it, but they’re right. Isabel’s right: she says, “If we turn her in, if we report her, they’re gonna put her in an orphanage ‘cause they’ll never give her to this couple that live on this island with no church and no school.” So she’s right. I take her side there. I understand: the baby gets to be a certain age before the truth comes out; I understand that it would be crushing to the kid. And it is, in fact, and I understand Tom, that if he takes the baby away from Isabel, he’s going to kill her. And he’s right — it almost does. But if he doesn’t… so there’s these impossible choices all based on good intentions and good people.

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I wanted to ask about Adam Arkapaw, the cinematographer. I don’t know if Michael Fassbender shot Macbeth with him before your movie.

Yeah, he did.

Did he make the introduction, or did you?

Well, I actually met with Adam the morning I was going to meet Michael for the first time. Yeah, my first meeting was Adam, second was Michael that day, when they were shooting Macbeth. First, it was like I had to find an Australian cinematographer for a tax credit, but then Australia decided to give their entire tax credit to Pirates of the Caribbean 5, which was what sent us to New Zealand. So I think that was, hopefully, a good choice for the country. I know they got dogs or something.

[Laughs]

Anyway, Adam — I loved his work — I met with him and he had this really calm, quiet, observant demeanor and I liked him quite a bit, and I asked him to come over to my house in Brooklyn. A couple months later… he played basketball with my kids for two hours in the backyard and I thought to myself, if this guy can be that open to the world, that he could come over to my house and play basketball with my kids, then he’s going to come into this environment and not have to control every aspect of it. He can actually live. Here’s a DP who can actually embrace life, so I hired him on the spot.

I did the same thing on Blue Valentine, because Ryan Gosling had worked with Andrij Parekh and they had a trust, and I felt like it would help me with Ryan to have someone next to me who he trusted. And I felt the same thing with Michael; I didn’t know Michael that well, we were just getting to know each other, and I thought that if he had someone next to him that he loved, too, that it would help him feel comfortable and safe. And Adam, he’s amazing. His eye… you know, I’m not tooting my own horn — I’m tooting his horn — but I think his digital photography in this movie is as good as I’ve ever seen it.

With the sound design, the ocean feels almost overwhelming. Sometimes it feels like it’s overtaking the dialogue when they’re walking by it. There’s also a tranquility mixed with the images of the ocean, as well as a ferocity. Can you talk about developing that and knowing what you wanted to get out of the location?

First off, I’ll say that what I really related to in the story — being a parent myself — was there was a line in it about how Tom’s relationship with his daughter was, to him, more important than the eternity of time that came before him. Again, we talked about memory and time — that it was more important than the entire universe, and I relate to that as a parent. I relate to this incredible love for my kids that overwhelms everything in my life. I related to this idea of something so intimate being so epic, and putting something so intimate against an epic backdrop is, to me, like how to make a Cassavetes movie in a David Lean landscape — where that landscape and the weather is a part of it.

So, secondly, is how do you do that? So we all moved there; we all lived where this lighthouse was on this peninsula that was completely isolated from people. So we got to experience the isolation, we got to experience the wind and the windstorms that would shake our trailers at 3 in the morning, and we would show up to set completely rattled from the lack of sleep the night before. We got to experience the madness of that place, and also the beauty and tranquility because the nature teases you like that — it keeps you on your toes: it makes you feel like everything’s calm and then it comes in a tornado and it whips you. We put ourselves at the whim of this experience, and that’s what I’m always trying to find with my movies, is a place where acting stops and behavior and being begins; I’m trying to find a place where story stops and life begins.

So that was all in the sound mix and the photography of the movie — the only visual effects we have in the whole movie is to remove things sometimes, like an antenna that’s on the mountain or something like that — but we didn’t have to create something that wasn’t there. So what the audience experiences is what our experience of that place was like, too. As much as I want to give the actors that experience, I want to give the audience that experience of actually being transported to that place and time and that world, to really make a movie that’s a world.

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The one shot that almost felt like a parallel to The Place Beyond the Pines, with the act breaks in that movie, when you had the overhead shot of driving down the road and you see the pines to the side. And in this movie, when the boat is approaching and they know their life is changing forever, it pulls back from the island.

I’m not necessarily referencing The Place Beyond the Pines, but it might just be musicality in filmmaking.

Like a repetition.

Yeah. It’s a repetition of a theme, basically. It’s the comings and goings. There’s a beautiful line in the book that I remember. I spent a year hunting down and trying to get the rights to do this book, because I read it and I thought to myself, “I was born to make this movie. This is exactly what I’ve been thinking about my whole life is that people lived on islands, that relationships were like islands, that families were places where secrets happen. That every home was full of secrets, and when you went into someone’s home they would greet you with smiles and purely white teeth and charisma, and a beef goulash dinner, and then, when you would leave, the truth would come out again.” So I just felt like I was born to make this. So there was this line in the book where the last time he leaves the island, when he’s going to go to jail, he measures the distance and turns of the light, and, again — time, distance.

I wanted to ask about one piece of music, “Funeral Canticle.” I remember it from The Tree of Life, but how did you choose that?  

Yeah, I chose that piece — I do remember Tree of Life, which is the best. Also, Alexandre Desplat was supposed to do the soundtrack to that movie, and I think Malick used a fraction of it. But you always put in temp music as you’re cutting a movie, and working with Desplat was a huge privilege and honor; it was like magic to be able to work that guy. I did something I’ve never done before in any movie: I showed him a cut of the movie and I stripped all of the music off and I was like, “How would you like to watch the movie?” and he was like, “I’d love to watch it with no music, but nobody but Polanski does that.” I said, “Okay, if Polanski is going to do it, I’m going to be brave enough to do it, too.” So I stripped all my music off except for that piece [Funeral Canticle], and he came out of the first screening and he said, “Your movie doesn’t need music.” I was like, “Is this your way of trying to tell me that you’re trying to get out of it, that you don’t like the movie?” And he was like, “No, it doesn’t need music.” But I said no, no, I don’t take it, you gotta do it.

You have to work a little.

Yeah, you have to a little harder than that, Alexandre. So he did it, and that’s the only piece he didn’t do. But I’m glad. You’re the first person to tell me that.

I just love that piece. It brings me to tears when I listen.

It’s the most rapturous piece of music I’ve ever heard.

One thing I really appreciated is there are a lot of extreme close-ups at the most emotional parts of the film — whether it’s when Alicia’s character is on the grass, or they’re fighting by the water. I’m curious: is that the kind of visual style you knew you wanted on the day?

The movie is about the intimate and the epic, and I tried to nash the film of any medium shots — it’s either extreme close-ups or extreme wide shots. Again, the Cassavetes movie in a David Lean landscape, that’s what I was going for. I always remember: a thing that sticks with me is that John Ford said, “The most interesting landscape is that of the human face,” and all of my movies… I’m always drawn into people. When I’m in a conversation with people, I’m looking at their skin, and I get close to them, I see the details. So when I’m with actors, I just want to be close. To me, it makes it more intimate to be in close-ups. I love close-ups.

It works.

I mean, look at the actors. Look at Alicia. Look at her face. She’s absolutely born to be a movie star; her eyes are so cinematic. You get so close to them, you realize — like they say — they’re a window into her soul. Her soul has so much going on. Same with Michael, too. Tom, in this movie, Tom is a guy who is like the lighthouse: he is stoic, but he has a storm raging inside him, he’s conflicted. And, I think, what a great performance Michael gave in this film is to see it, to get into him and see it.

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I love when they first meet, how the light is just blown-out behind him and it feels like you’re in heaven for a second —

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

When I talked to you for The Place Beyond the Pines, you talked about how how you and Ryan Gosling felt like brothers by the end of Blue Valentine, and certainly going into Pines. You said that when you first started shooting Light you had just met Michael Fassbender, so how did your relationship evolve?

I knew Michael for three months or something, but we’re kind of getting to know each other on this film. I thought he was the greatest mental actor, the greatest brainiac actor of his generation. Just a great technical actor, but what I was interested in with Michael was his heart. It’s something I hadn’t seen before in his movies; I’d seen him as Magneto, moving shit with his brain. When he took the role for Steve Jobs while we were shooting I was like, “Yeah, makes sense, man. Because you’re a fucking genius guy.” But I was always interested in where his heart was.

Michael is a great guy — not only is he smart, like you would expect; like, super-smart — but he’s got a great heart. I wanted him to trust me enough, be vulnerable enough to show that heart. And he did. He did every day. The biggest thing he agreed to do was come live there on the island with me. Him and Alicia agreed to live on this island with me to make this film in an extreme way. Almost the way we did Blue Valentine, where Ryan and Michelle lived in the house together — Michael and Alicia lived in this world with me. He was brave enough to let his guard down and trust me to be pure and open in the film.

I want to talk about the adaptation process for the book, because you said you wanted to get it made for a while. During that process — before you were officially signed on to do it — were you already working on the adaptation?

No. So, I had met Steven Spielberg at some critics choice awards — when Blue Valentine was going on — and he told me Blue Valentine was his favorite film of the year, which was like a huge… you know, that’s like a big thing, big deal for me. So I went to DreamWorks a couple years later. I had just finished Pines, sick of myself, sick of my own ideas, and I wanted to do an adaptation, but I couldn’t find anything that made any sense to me. Literally, I’d read a page of these scripts and I’d just have no idea what was going on. I went to DreamWorks, they gave me a pile of stuff, and they gave me Light Between Oceans. I thought it was a cinematic title, you know, light, and it was about a lightkeeper. You got the lens and the light going through it — it was very cinematic. And it’s the islands — I already told you the thing about the islands and my feeling about living on an island when I was a kid — so then I started reading this thing, it’s about family, it’s about a husband and wife, it’s about father again. Anyway, I felt like I was born to make it.

So I called the studio and I said, “Yes, I’m in. I want to do this.” And they said, “Oh, well, we’ve already given that to someone.” And I said, “Okay, who? Who is the producer?” David Heyman. So I just bought a plane ticket and I went out there to visit David, and he was like, “Look, I like your stuff but we’ve already given it to someone.” And I was like, “Well what’s this guy’s ideas?” And he started telling me, and I was like, “It’s never going to work, all right? Those are bad ideas. Why don’t you just hire me now, and I’ll oversee it.” And he said, “I’m sorry.” So I said, “I’ll tell you what: when’s it due?” Due in seven months. “Okay, I’m not going to bug you too much, but, in seven months, when that script comes in and it’s terrible, I’ll be here. I’m going to keep myself pure like a bride on her wedding night. I’ll be waiting for you.”

So the next seven months I turned down everything that came my way; wouldn’t even read anything. Every time I talked to my agent I just said, “Light Between Oceans.” Because I was taught one time that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, but the problem with being the squeaky wheel is that people can think you’re a headcase if you’re too much of a squeaky wheel; they can think you’re crazy. So every few months I’d write David and I’d say, “Hey, still here. Still right here, waiting.” I’m like a prepubescent kid trying to get the girl in high school, except I haven’t gone through puberty yet but I’ll get there, in time. Anyway, eventually, his script came in. David didn’t like it. I was still right there. I said, “I’m here. I know what to do.” By that time I had read the book so many times I had it memorized and they said, “Yeah, yours. Take a shot at it.” So it was just a pleasure.

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The Light Between Oceans premieres at the Venice International Film Festival and opens wide on September 2.


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