Interview: Derek Cianfrance on The Light Between Oceans

Alicia Vikander and Michael Fassbender in The Light Between Oceans

Alicia Vikander and Michael Fassbender in The Light Between Oceans

The new film The Light Between Oceans might seem like a change of pace for indie director Derek Cianfrance. He previously wrote and directed the Ryan Gosling starring indie films Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines, melodramas with a gritty quality to them based on original stories by Cianfrance. The Light Between Oceans, based on the novel by M.L. Stedman, which on the surface feels like it has classic Hollywood roots and is a gentle period romance. A young couple living in isolation on a beautiful island where he’s the lighthouse keeper, find a baby floating ashore and take her in as their own daughter. But the specifics of the circumstances; their own family tragedy and the tragedy that led to this lost girl, result in serious, lifelong repercussions for all, and test the family and romantic bonds of both the adopted parents (Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander) and the birth parents (Rachel Weisz and Leon Ford) of this lost child. While the sun-drenched, scenic look of the film may be new to Cianfrance, the sincere, non-judgmental approach he takes to the characters, and power (and limits) of love connects this film (his first big studio picture) to his previous films. We spoke about bringing this love story to the screen, appreciating the valuable challenges of adapting, and why dark and cynical’s never plays into his movies.

What appealed to you about the book that compelled you to want to make it into a film?

I was on the subway, finishing the book and just crying. And as has happened to all New Yorkers at some time. And it’s embarrassing because you know people are watching you. But I also thought if they were reading the same book I’d just finished, they’d be crying just like me. So that’s when I knew I had to make the movie.

Having written all your previous films. was it a challenge to adapt someone else’s source material?

I like structure because it allows me to know where the edge is. And I’m a director who always wants to go right up to the edge of that. But at the same time, novels and films are two very different mediums, and they exist on their own. And in adapting, it was key for me to learn how to subtract. But I also had the freedom to add to the story. And I did that by working with the actors and being open to the environment. For example, one of my favorite moments in the movie comes from that scene of Alicia shaving Michael’s beard. That wasn’t in the book, but it was Michael’s idea for him to have a mustache, to be a character hiding his face. But Alicia didn’t like his mustache, or didn’t like kissing him with the mustache, so we worked out that scene together. And I think it’s a beautiful scene. But I’m so proud. [When the author] saw the film, she said I understood why she wrote the book, that I got that when she saw the film, she didn’t talk about the changes. She was just so moved that making this movie made her feel that I understood why she wrote the book. That I got her.

The movie is so earnest and sentimental, I certainly cried, it feels almost risky to make a movie like this at a studio. You are asking the audience to go into your movie with a big open heart. Was it a challenge to get a studio behind it? 

I found people who understood my vision, and we were all on the same wave-length. I don’t make cynical movies, I’m happy to say all my films are completely sincere. I make films about good people forced to make choices based on love and difficult circumstances. And the idea that taking that approach in films, and in Hollywood films, is seen as odd is strange to me. I’ve been thinking a lot about this with what’s going on lately in our world and what we see on the news. There are so much sadness and anger in the world, I want to put good out there with the films I make. That’s what I can do, that’s the role I can play. I have no interest in making films about anyone but complicated, but decent people, struggling to make the right choices. Can I ask what part of the movie made you cry? People always do these surveys about when people laugh, but I’m curious about what made people cry.

The scene towards the end with Bryan Brown and the little girl riding the horse. I’m a sucker for movies when older, guys who seem set in their ways have a big change of heart.

So many people have mentioned that. It really taps into something special when the most demonstrative person makes a big change in their thinking. Because it proves anyone can. But it’s also bittersweet because had he reacted that way before she’d been born, none of this would have happened, and lives would have possibly been saved. Bryan’s was just great.

I’d assume one of the reasons the movie had to be a studio film would be the locations and cinematography in Australia. Why was it so important to go to Australia to tell this story there?

Every town I went to in Australia and New Zealand had a World War (I) memorial at the center of their town. This was their opportunity to take part in world events on the global stage, prove themselves, and they were decimated. And Michael’s character is guilt-ridden just because he survived the war. And returning home, he just needs to be useful. Nationality plays such an important part in the film with the introduction of Rachel’s character and her story, we had to understand the national impact of the other characters as well.

The three name actors aren’t Australian. What led to their casting?

Michael is an actor who can do and say so little with just a look. He can seem so serious or stoic, and be on the verge of exploding. Alicia is this woman who in real life will say anything she thinks of, just like her character. And that lack of filter brought something out in Michael that mirrored the impact her character had on him.

I loved the way the two couples parallel each other, but we don’t initially realize it’s happening. And the simple but profound lesson they all learn from Frank, the character we only get to know in flashbacks. That’s what really moved me. Did you look for ways to show their connection before starting it.?

I did, often by mirroring the four actors and the way they interacted as couples. We had these two great love stories, taking place at very different points, and they just don’t realize it’s happening simultaneously. And in the face of tragedy, each of them reacts completely differently. Both men suffered the devastating effects of the war. Tom isolates himself but people want to embrace him as the war hero. Frank wants to surround himself with people but finds himself constantly rejected. And each of these women is forced to face the same devastations in their own lives, the loss of their child.

I thought the score was just beautiful, very subtle and sweet. What did you want it to evoke with the music?

While writing it, I listed to a lot of Desplat’s previous scores. And unlike the other music I’d used in movies, I wanted this film to have a simple symphonic sound. So we talked about that. And we decided each of the characters needed to represent a different instrument. So Alicia’s represented the piano, and we brought that sound into the movie when she arrived. So as the characters came together and circled around each other, the instruments would do the same in the score and start to build.

The Light Between Oceans is now playing in theaters.

Lesley Coffin is editor and founder of Movies, Film, Cinema. A writer with a masters degree from NYU’s Gallatin School in biographical studies and star theory. She wrote the biography on Lew Ayres (Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector) and Hitchcock’s Casting (Hitchcock’s Stars). Lesley currently freelances for a number of sites, including regular contributions to The Interrobang, Pink Pen, The Young Folks, and previously wrote for The Mary Sue and Filmoria.