Derek Cianfrance Returns with The Light Between Oceans

Writer-director Derek Cianfrance made a big splash at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival with the debut of his sophomore feature, Blue Valentine, which served to announce the arrival of an exciting new talent in American cinema. The film’s themes of love and fatherhood have resonated throughout his career, which is why he fought for the chance to helm the feature film adaptation of The Light between Oceans as soon as he read the novel. Oceans tells the story of the love that binds Tom (Michael Fassbender), a lighthouse keeper, and his wife, Isabel (Alicia Vikander), as they attempt to start a family on the isolated island they inhabit. Fate, however, engulfs them in a dark secret that will test their values, loyalty, and love for one another. Cianfrance joined Boxoffice to talk about the recurring themes in his films and how he felt it was his destiny to bring Oceans to the big screen. 

This is your first time working from source material. How did you first come upon this novel, and what was the experience of adaptation like for you?

After I made The Place beyond the Pines I was, quite frankly, sick of myself and my own ideas. I read countless scripts, getting to a point of disillusion with the process because I couldn’t understand anything I was reading. You can chalk that up to a learning disability that I might have, but I felt that the scripts I was reading were written in a completely different language than one I can understand.

I had gone around taking meetings at various studios, and Spielberg had been a big fan of Blue Valentine—told me it was his favorite film of the year it came out—and that was a huge vote of confidence that meant a lot to me. When I met with Dreamworks and told them I was looking to adapt something, they gave me this huge pile of books that they owned the rights to. I opened up The Light between Oceans because the title struck me, and from the first page I felt it was my destiny to make this. I’ve been making movies about families, about what happens inside homes, and this is a story about a lighthouse keeper who lives on an island alone with his wife, and together they share this great love and great secret.

Ever since I was a kid, I always thought people lived on islands. Every house that I passed, including the one my family lived in, was an island. Inside those islands were certain secrets; every time you got to visit one of them you’d be shown a superficial example of happiness and contentment. In my own house we’d have pictures of us smiling on the walls, so from a very young age I was trying to get photographs of my family arguing. To me the pictures I took of my brother crying in his underwear were filled with just as much love as those where we were all smiling. That’s why I thought it was my destiny to make this movie, because I’ve always thought of islands as a great metaphor for relationships. As I read the book, page after page dealt with themes that I explored in my other movies.

I spent like six months trying to get a shot to write it since they had already hired another writer at that point. When they finally got the other script and were unhappy with it, I told them that I’d be there. I didn’t want to be that head-case guy that pushes too hard, but I had to walk that fine line between being annoying and being persistent. Eventually the timing worked out and they gave me the shot. It was a great experience and not too dissimilar from writing an original script, because I’ve always had collaborators. This one I wrote alone, but my “collaborator” was the author of this book, M.L. Stedman. That’s not to say we spoke as I wrote the script, but I communicated with her through the words on the page.

My North Star as I was adapting the novel were the feelings I had as I read it for the first time. I remember reading the last chapter on a subway train in New York City, and it was so emotional for me that I started crying in public. It’s so embarrassing to cry in public, but if everyone else in that train was reading that book they’d also be crying, so I had no shame with that emotion. In the years since, I’ve seen people reading the book and crying in cafés.

Your protagonists have a naked honesty and a palpable insecurity when it comes to shouldering the responsibility of being a father. Why do you think fatherhood has been such an important recurring theme in your work?

My favorite filmmaker is John Cassavetes, and what I’ve always liked about him is that his movies seem to reflect what he was going through at that time in his life. Shadows is this freewheeling, twenty-something, improvisational movie. Faces is about young couples and relationships. A Woman under the Influence is about families and kids. You can see him grow alongside his movies, and I don’t know any other way to make movies. I’m the father of two boys. I made Blue Valentine when they were 5 and 2 years old; now they’re 12 and 9. I’m kind of obsessed with the idea of nature versus nurture, about what we’re born with and what we pass on to the next generation. I wrote The Place beyond the Pines because I had a great-grandfather who probably wasn’t the best guy, and I feel that his anger is probably still in me all these generations later. It’s personal, and I don’t want to say that my films are my therapy, but they help me understand the world that I’m living in and how to deal with it.

There’s no greater responsibility than being a father. My kids and my wife are everything to me. There’s a line from the novel that really struck me, where the protagonist is talking about his child and how he’s amazed that this one small creature now means more to him than the sun, moon, stars, and the eternity of life that came before and all the eternity that will follow. His child is the only thing that matters to him, and I can understand that as a father. It’s an incredible love. When my first son was born, my mother-in-law told me, “Now you’re going to be miserable for the rest of your life because you’re going to love this person so much that it doesn’t matter how old or how far they are, you’ll always feel that love.”

That’s one of the reasons I wanted to make this movie; I wanted to tell a story about the strength of love. You have to be incredibly selfless to be a parent, and there are many couples that end up separating after their kids grow up and leave the house. They spend so much time focusing on their children that they forget about each other. This movie tackles that, seeing if this couple’s love can survive big challenges and pass the test of time.

It’s a bit different than Blue Valentine, and this might sound cynical, but I felt there was this great hope that they divorced and became individuals at the end of that movie. To me, Oceans is about the couple staying together—and maybe that’s a reflection of where I am in my life right now. I want to make things work, but I don’t want to hide from the truth either; I don’t want to make anything saccharine or fake, become the guy who smiles in all the family pictures. I want to embrace the truth but still be strong enough to survive it, family intact.

A couple of years ago, Ryan Coogler, the filmmaker (Creed), asked me why I keep on making films about people raising other people’s kids. I don’t know why, but it’s what keeps coming out.

In Oceans the setting remains exactly the same as years in the narrative go by. You tackle that passage of time with brief, elliptical montages of the weather and landscape. It has a lyrical effect that pushes the story forward. Did you have that in mind when you set out to shoot the film, or was it something you discovered when you arrived on location and saw the power of those images firsthand?

I always saw the film as a memory. The structure of how it plays out on the screen is intended to mimic short-term and long-term memories put together. The pastoral images of landscape, water, and weather are there as fragments of memory.

The environment plays a big role in who we are and how we feel and experience time. Those shots of weather are also part of the emotion of the film. They are part of the tactile sense of living in those places. The actors and I, we all lived in that lighthouse location for four and a half weeks, in trailers and completely isolated from the rest of the world. It was a small 12-person crew living there, and we found that the elements really affect you in that situation. We wanted the viewers to experience that intensity as well.

You went through the film program at the University of Colorado at Boulder, which has a legacy of emphasizing experimental cinema. While your films are unquestionably focused on narrative, that formalism from your CU days still informs your aesthetics, especially in this film. 

Phil Solomon and Stan Brakhage are two people who completely changed my life—and that applies to the whole film school at the University of Colorado. I grew up wanting to make movies, watching VHS tapes of Scorsese, De Palma, Romero. I would tape movies from HBO and watch them over and over again. When I showed up to film school at Colorado, the first film I saw was Mothlight by Stan Brakhage—and it completely blew me away. I began to understand movies in a different way, a more formal and aesthetic way. I had the opportunity to watch all this great art during my years there, and part of that influence is present in this film. The first film I made, Brother Tied, was a failure because it was all about the form. Pure formalism does not translate to narrative. I still remember what Phil [Solomon] told me after making that movie, “Form must illuminate content, not the other way around.”

After that experience I spent 12 years not making anything and writing Blue Valentine. Concurrently, while learning about form, the other big thing I got from film school was when Stan [Brakhage] showed me Faces. It was like watching a home movie, and it also blew me away. The last time I saw Stan was outside the Boulder Book Store; he went in and bought me a copy of Ray Carney’s Cassavetes on Cassavetes because he knew how much I loved his movies. Brakhage taught me this great formalism while also steering me in the way of life, so when Blue Valentine came around it ended up being a very formalist movie that was still able to capture chaos.

With each movie, I’ve been trying to find the balance between control and chaos, between real life and narrative. I always tell my actors that the two greatest gifts they can give me is to fail and to surprise me. At the beginning, Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander didn’t understand why they had to live with me on the island to make this movie. I did it because I wanted to give them an experience that could be witnessed and documented by the camera—and there is no way you can fake that experience. There’s always going to be some chaos to that experience, things that are out of your control. Michael Fassbender, who I think is the Laurence Olivier of his generation, is an actor who is totally in control of his craft. I’m asking him to let go of all that and to be extremely vulnerable, which he did, and that’s why I love his performance in the movie.

What’s up next for you?

The next movie I’m making is called Empire of the Summer Moon about Comanche Indians. Hopefully that will be able to take this a step further in balancing those two pillars of life and cinema.

 

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