From writer/director/producer Casey Affleck, the indie feature Light of My Life, which is part survivalist drama and part coming-of-age story, follows a father (Affleck) and his 11-year-old daughter (Anna Pniowsky), as they navigate a desperate dystopian world where a plague has killed nearly all of the world’s females. As they live on rations and forage in the woods, far from the danger that men can present when it comes to survival, Rag’s dad tries to give his daughter an understanding of the world and its ethics, history and morality, at a time when cruelty is much more likely for her to experience than kindness.
At the film’s Los Angeles press day, Collider got the opportunity to sit down for a 30-minute interview with Casey Affleck and his young co-star Anna Pniowsky, who’s remarkable in her performance, to talk about how the story evolved, whether there was ever the temptation to show more about what led to this dystopian world, what he learned from his previous directing projects (this is his first full-length narrative feature), the benefit of having your co-star also be the writer/director of the project, the directors that he’s watched and worked with that helped his on his path to trying his own hand at it, the casting process for Rag, the editing process and what it took to cut the film down from its three-hour first cut, and who he screened the film for. Affleck also talked about figuring out what he’s going to direct next and how he’d like to take on a big fantasy film, and Pniowsky talked about her desire to turn acting into a future career.
Finally, before getting to the interview, here’s an exclusive clip from Light of My Life:
Collider: You wrote and directed this, and you’ve been working on it for a long time. What was the seed that started this whole idea? Was it a character, was it specific themes, was it the story itself?
CASEY AFFLECK: I didn’t really have a story, and I’m still not exactly sure what all the themes running through it are. It was just the scenes and the characters. That was the beginning of it, just writing down some scenes between a parent and a kid.
You started this quite a while ago, and had the script done quite awhile ago, which shows how long it takes to get something like this to the screen. Was it always a passion project? Were you always focused on getting this done, however long it took?
AFFLECK: No. In fact, I had other things that I was going to direct, that someone else had written, that were put together in a more traditional way. This was, all the time, just slowly evolving and I thought, “I can’t get some of these other projects done.” We needed a lot of money, or we needed some actor that we were waiting on, so I thought, “I have this very small thing that I can raise the money for, and I can cast it ‘cause I’m in it. All I have to do is find one other person. Why don’t I just go make that?” That’s how that came to be. The path of least resistance, there’s a lot to be said for it.
When you tell a story like this, was there ever a temptation to show more about what happened before, or getting into any of what led up to where the story picks up in the film?
AFFLECK: Definitely, and there were more scenes like that. There were two reasons that I didn’t show more of that. One was that the story was just about the two of them, really. All of the other stuff was just dressing. And the other was practical because, to show all of that other apocalyptic stuff, would cost a fortune. The idea was, can you make a story like this, whether it’s World War Z or Mad Max, or something, but just not show all of those huge, expensive set pieces, and all of that stuff, and instead do a small character story, within the bigger world.
This isn’t the first time that you’ve directed. Had you learned things, from your previous experiences, that made this any easier, or is every project just so different that it doesn’t actually get easier?
AFFLECK: I can’t speak for anyone else because I don’t know. Some directors, it seems like, with every project, the process is similar. For me, the first thing I directed was 10 commercials for the Sundance Channel, and those were comedies. They were like these little short films, each of them. That was the first thing I did, so in some ways, it was all new, but it was different than this, and it was different than the other movie I made. So, each time that I’ve tried to direct something, the process has been different, the material has been totally different, and everything about it has been different, and I’m happy with that because I don’t want to fall into too much of a groove.
Do you feel like you’re finding what your strengths and weaknesses are, and what you feel you need to focus on, as you do each one?
AFFLECK: I find that I’m learning a little bit more about every aspect of it. I haven’t discovered what my strengths are yet. My crowning achievement is getting from beginning to end. I can’t speak for everything in between.
Anna, as somebody working with Casey, do you feel like you saw strengths in him, as a director, that maybe he didn’t even notice in himself?
ANNA PNIOWSKY: Oh, yeah, for sure. Casey is a very humble person. He’s very self-deprecating. He’s going to give me the death stare during this, but I think something he doesn’t realize about himself, and I’m talking about him like he’s not right beside me, is that he can do so much. He does so much, and he doesn’t give himself any self-recognition. I think he should be more proud of himself because he has done a lot. It’s crazy how much he’s done.
AFFLECK: That’s very sweet. Thank you, Anna.
PNIOWSKY: You’re welcome.
You didn’t know this would also be therapy.
AFFLECK: Yeah, I love it. More. Tell me more.
Anna, is it a different kind of experience for you, to act in scenes with your director?
PNIOWSKY: Yeah. It’s different in the way that, when he would give me direction, he wouldn’t really have to say it. Sometimes he would just change the way he acts, and that would change the way that I would respond to his cue line, or something like that. But I think it was really helpful for me – I don’t know about him – that he was also the director and the writer.
Yeah, because if you have any questions, at least you have the source of all things there with you.
AFFLECK: That’s true. It’s a good point. Sometimes there are too many cooks in the kitchen. Making a movie is inevitably a very collaborative process, no matter what. It’s just the nature of it. It takes that many people. Everyone’s doing a different job, and they all have to work together. But sometimes, it is really helpful to have that moment being created, by just two people. It’s two actors, and the director and writer, all in that little exchange.
Casey, is there a specific director that you’ve worked with, that you’ve watched, or that has directly given advice to you, that you feel has most helped you on the path of being a director?
AFFLECK: They’ve all given me so much. I’ve been able to learn a lot from the people that I’ve been lucky enough to work with. Just to give an answer, I would say Gus Van Sant. I worked with him four times, but also, I worked with him when I was really young – when I was 20, or 18. Those are more formative years, and I was more impressionable and a quicker learner, so I absorbed a lot more from him. He’s just done so much, and he’s so talented and so smart that it was easy to study him. There’s a lot there, and he’s very inclusive. He was happy to patiently teach me things, whenever I wanted to learn, so I’ve taken a lot from him. Especially when I was directing, I was thinking a lot about like things that he would do to get what he wanted.