With The Light Between Oceans now in theaters, I recently landed an exclusive interview with the film’s writer/director Derek Cianfrance’s (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines). During our conversation he talked about why he wanted to tell this story, adapting the novel, working with actors, his first cut, his editing process, test screenings, the release date, his next movie Empire of the Summer Moon, and more.
If you’re not familiar with The Light Between Oceans, it’s a fantastic adaptation of M.L. Stedman’s novel of the same name. The film stars Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander as Tom and Isabel Sherbourne, a devoted husband and wife who are faced with the unfortunate reality that they can’t bear a child. When a boat washes up on their local shore with a dead man and a living baby inside, they’re placed in the moral quandary between finally having their wish and doing the right thing (ie turning the baby over to the authorities). Against Tom’s better judgement, they keep and raise the baby, and their decision threatens to tear the couple apart. The film also stars Rachel Weisz.
Unlike a lot of Hollywood movies where they make it easy to say who is good or evil and most decisions are black and white, what I loved about The Light Between Oceans is no person is evil. No one is “bad.” They’re all real people making honest decisions in the moment and the film doesn’t have a typical antagonist. When you combine this kind of intelligent storytelling, fantastic acting, beautiful cinematography, and Cianfrance’s great direction, you’re left with a special film that I hope people turn out to see.
What do you collect?
DEREK CIANFRANCE: What do I collect? I don’t really collect anything. I grew up in a family that collected things and then they’d get sick and people die and then they have their basements full of stuff that goes from one box to the next, so I try not to get sentimental with stuff. I just try to collect memories, I guess that would be it.
Sure, well you know the line from Fight Club “the things you own end up owning you.”
CIANFRANCE: Yeah, yeah, totally. My grandpa was a car collector. He never had any life savings, he just collected cars and then he died and we got, you know, like 12 cars sitting around that everyone’s fighting over, so nah, I’m not into it.
Making talking dramas is really hard nowadays. Was it the popularity of the book or the cast that helped get this film made?
CIANFRANCE: I think it’s the undeniability of the story that got it made. When I read the book, I just felt like it needed to be told, it needed to be translated into a movie, and then I fought for it for a long time and when I wrote the screenplay. It was honestly never a question whether this movie was gonna get made in my mind, and I don’t think my producer’s mind either, and so we went out and tried to write the best possible screenplay of it and then just tried to cast the best possible actors and everything just started falling into place. And honestly, it was – you know I have experience on Blue Valentine. It was 12 years to get that movie made. This was remarkably efficient, but within a year after I had written the first screenplay, we were shooting. To me, there was a sense of destiny while we were making it, just following this undeniable path.
Well you also – to be honest – after Blue Valentine and Place Beyond the Pines, I think that everyone was looking at you in a different light, and you know, what movies you can make.
CIANFRANCE: Yeah, I’m not quite sure how people look at me or whatever. All I really know is how I look at myself. I know that after Place Beyond the Pines, I was sick of myself and sick of my own ideas and I just wanted to do an adaptation and it took a long time to finally read something that finally made sense to me, and when I read this book, it felt like – it just felt like I understood every bit of it, you know?
CIANFRANCE: I remember I was on the New York City subway, reading the conclusion part of the book and I was crying my eyes out on the subway and it’s the most embarrassing thing in the world to cry in public. But I thought to myself if anyone on that subway was reading what I was reading, they would be crying too, and in years past, I’ve seen people reading the book in cafes and whatnot and I’ve seen them have the same emotional reaction I did to it and I just felt like it validated it to me. And for me, I just wanted to make a film that was – that just kind of related and touched humanity in that way.
Well talk a little bit about writing the script. I have not read the book; did you make any changes or was there anything in the book that you felt that you wanted to portray a different way because it’s a movie?
CIANFRANCE: Yeah, I mean the translation from literature to cinema is, you know. They don’t – you can’t just go film the book. First off, the book is 350 pages. If you were to film the whole thing, you would – you’d have a mini-series in your hands. An adaptation to me is about subtraction and expansion, you have to – it’s sculpture. You have to take away things in order to see the shape that you’re trying to create, and at the same time, once you’ve kind of owned the story and start expanding things, and letting things have their own life and that’s how I like to shoot my movies anyways. I like to go in with a strong script and then ask my actors to surprise me and try to come up with surprising moments and fresh moments, and moments that only happen one time. So that’s, you know, I’m still making that same type of movie that I’ve always made in terms of my process. But in terms of specifics with the book, there are a few specific details that – well of course there’s omissions, there’s expansions, but there’s a few plot details that I changed, because I thought they would work better in a cinematic format and I had really the support of the author, M. L. Steadman. She really trusted me, she had loved the script that I read. We had discussions, I don’t want to say arguments, but disagreements about a few things early on and I think she understood that movies and literature are two different mediums and they each need different – they each have different languages.
I’m wondering if the arguments got as intense as Disney with Mary Poppins.
CIANFRANCE: Oh, I don’t know what happened there.
She hated Disney for what he did, it’s like a whole thing.
CIANFRANCE: Well, I’ll say this: Steadman, you know, the author of the book, she told me after she saw the first rough cut of the movie, she said she spent the whole day weeping because she felt that she had been understood, and said, “Isn’t that the point of life? To be understood?” So, I wanted to pay tribute to that book. My north stars I was shooting were the feelings and emotions that I had when I was first reading the book, so I just always tried to trust that, and use that as my north star when making the movie.
You touched on it a little bit – but you’re known for being authentic in the moment at all times, and I am curious: after working with Ryan, what was it like working with Michael? Because Gosling and Fassbender are both such phenomenal actors?
CIANFRANCE: Yeah, I mean, it’s – I have always loved Michael after I saw him for the first time in Hunger. Prepping Blue Valentine, my wife and I went to see Hunger, and I was just blown away by him in that movie, but I’ve always felt that he is such a mental giant in movies. He’s feels like always the smartest guy on screen, and he feels totally in control and I think this character of Tom, what was interesting to me was it was more a story about a man’s heart. And with Michael, I really wanted to see his heart, and I wanted to see something. I felt like I haven’t seen that from him before. I’ve always seen the brain of Fassbender, and to me, this character presenting an interesting challenge in that it’s his mind versus his heart. You know, it’s his honor and his duty versus his love, and when I met with Michael, it was just clear he was the guy and became such an important collaborator to me and I loved his performance. He was amazing.
Your movie’s a little over two hours, how long was your first cut?
CIANFRANCE: My first cut was never that much longer, maybe 2 hours and 20 minutes.
Oh, it’s really close.
CIANFRANCE: Yeah, it’s pretty close. I guess you know my first cut there was scenes that I cut out of the movie that ended up going in the movie in the final cut. I spent so long editing, I spent probably a year in total cutting this movie. A few breaks in between. I feel like the job in editing is to let the movie tell you what it is. So again, it’s like sculpture. You just start taking away, you add a nose here, you cut off like the side of the cheek over here in the crease and you have a face. But it really reveals to you what it means to be over time, and if you have enough time. Fortunately I had enough time to make the movie I wanted.
I was gonna say, most filmmakers don’t have the luxury of that much time to cut their film.
CIANFRANCE: It’s crazy to me, the industry standard. Usually they give you 10 weeks to cut a movie, and it’s impossible. I don’t know how I would even come close to beginning to cut a movie in 10 weeks. After 10 weeks, I’m just kind of getting used to my footage, you know? So that’s one thing I’ve always fought for and luckily, I’ve had the support of my producers to really put up a shield to defend me on that, and they gave me the time to kind of make it – what I needed to do it. Jim Houghton and Ron Patane were cutting it with me again and we just have our process down. We’re getting faster, but we’re still incredibly slow.
I’m curious who did you show – because you need to get honest feedback when you’re cutting a film, so who is in your little circle in your first friends and family screening and are they really giving you honest feedback?
CIANFRANCE: Oh, yeah. I don’t – I’m fortunate and cursed to not have a circle of friends that are “yes men”. I screen a film repeatedly when I’m editing. I think we screened this movie 12 times before I ever had a proper test screening, and I’ve done that on all of my films, and my friends are harsh on me. David Heyman can attest to that, right David? They were harsh. And they are always harsh. Then after I stay friends, David says, “What?” They give me – they don’t – they are incredibly critical, but I appreciate that. That’s what I want. They’re critical and supportive, yeah. I screen the movie so much when I’m cutting because I get so close to it in the editing room and I cut myself. So as you know, as we’re going, sometimes you get too close to it, so that the only way to truly see the movie when you’re so close that they only way to get objectivity is to screen it, and so I screen it every few weeks, basically as I’m editing. Once I have a cut every few weeks, I screen it and just, I can see the movie, once it’s around all those people and all that energy.
What do you wish you knew two years ago about this film?
CIANFRANCE: What I wish I knew? I don’t know. I don’t have any regrets with the film, if that’s the question.
Sometimes filmmakers are like I wish on Day 32, you know what I mean? That that morning was gonna be worked out or whatever it might be, you know?
CIANFRANCE: You know, honestly I feel like it went exactly the way it was supposed to. I mean it was full of struggles and it was incredibly difficult and exhausting to make. You know what, the hardest thing for me was just being in New Zealand for three months and not seeing my wife and kids. That was the biggest hurdle, the biggest obstacle. But you know, I can’t think of one thing we would’ve changed in our process.
I definitely wanna touch on the release date a little bit. A lot of people – well a lot of the industry people who look at festivals and all that bullshit were like, you know September 2nd is a weird date because it’s right around TIFF, it’s right around the festivals. Was there any thought about aiming for TIFF again, like you did the last time? And then releasing it soon after? Or was September 2nd just the date that was best for the film?
CIANFRANCE: First off I’ll say all the festivals have not yet announced what they’re playing at the festivals. But those announcements will be coming and possibly, there’ll be some more information for this question. I remember when Blue Valentine came out and Harvey gave it the December 31st release date. I kept reading all these articles that Blue Valentine gets the kiss of death release date. I think release dates are always changing, and especially this year, it’s a particularly interesting year because you have the election. And I think a lot of films are gonna be releasing closer to additional awards time and are going to have to compete with Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton. So for me, September 2nd release date is an opportunity to forge new ground with a release date.
No totally, I’m also reading between the lines, and it makes a lot of sense now. I understand. I know you gotta go, but I have to ask: while you were in the editing room, are you writing other stuff? Beause man, you know I’m a big fan of your work so I need to get another movie out of you a little sooner, I’m a demanding SOB.
CIANFRANCE: Yeah, I have another script that I just finished that David Heyman’s also producing, Heyman and Jefferey Clifford, basically both are teaming up on this giant epic called Empire of the Summer Moon based on a book that came out a few years back, that’s for Warner Bros and yeah, we just delivered the fourth draft of the script and pushing for that to be shot next year.
First of all I’m so happy you have such a great relationship with David, because he’s such a good producer, and so filmmaker friendly.
CIANFRANCE: He is, he’s the best.
He’s not a bad person.
CIANFRANCE: He’s not. Only sometimes.