Smells Like Marine Spirit

Director Derek Cianfrance discusses his intense relationship drama The Light Between Oceans – and seeing stars Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander fall for each other on set.

Derek Cianfrance is not known for making easy, breezy films. His work on Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond The Pines and now The Light Between Oceans explores the harshest struggles and deepest pains that accompany love, and the decisions we make. His desire to reveal the truth of our humanity, no matter how ugly, has been a lifelong attraction.

“When people used to come visit my family in our home,” recalls Cianfrance, “we used to change – we transformed into these perfect versions of ourselves. When they left, we would go back to being real again. Growing up, I could never understand why we always had photos of us smiling, because we don’t smile all the time. And to just have smiling pictures seemed disingenuous.

“As a kid, I used to try to take pictures of us fighting, to record our arguments. To me, that was where the truth was. So I’ve always tried to make films about what happens inside homes, and this seemed like an allegory for that. It’s about the reckoning that happens when secrets hit the light of day.”

With this lifelong curiosity, it’s no wonder that Cianfrance was attracted to ML Stedman’s novel about a lighthouse keeper, Tom (Michael Fassbender), and the secrets that are created within his marriage to Isabel (Alicia Vikander).

Though in many ways an old-fashioned melodrama, The Light Between Oceans is also subversive. After Isabel suffers two miscarriages, she finds a baby who has survived a shipwreck, and the couple keep the child. But Tom soon becomes aware that the child’s mother is alive and grieving, and struggles with what to do. Suddenly, the audience becomes aware that the lead characters are technically kidnappers – but then, Cianfrance has never cared about writing likable characters.

“Hollywood has this blanket likability clause that’s frustrating,” sighs the 42-year-old. “I always get notes on my characters saying, ‘This person isn’t likable or sympathetic’, and my response is that none of us are always likable. This movie is built around the choices that these characters make, which are often choices driven by emotion. And choices made by emotion often have the most severe consequences, but as human beings we can’t help but make them. These characters aren’t good or bad, they’re just human.”

In The Light Between Oceans, Cianfrance tries to capture every facet of his characters’ inner conflict and emotional process, keeping his camera close on their faces.

“John Ford said that the most interesting landscape is that of the human face,” he notes, “and I can’t help but stay close on my actors’ faces.”

For such an intensely character-driven film, finding the right actors was vital. For the role of Tom, the director only ever had one actor in mind.

“I wrote the role thinking of Michael Fassbender,” says Cianfrance. “I think he’s one of the smartest actors out there. He’s often playing very intellectual, mind-driven roles. In this movie, Tom is having this battle between his mind and his heart, between truth and love. And I hadn’t seen Michael’s heart accessed in this way in movies before. I realised I could access that and bring it to the fore.”

Regarding Isabel, the director had some pretty lofty ideas for the emotional, impulsive character.  

“I wanted Vivian Leigh from Gone With The Wind,” laughs Cianfrance. “I wanted Gena Rowlands from A Woman Under The Influence and I wanted Emily Watson from Breaking The Waves. And I found Alicia. She had all those qualities and more.”

Cianfrance is known for demanding a lot from his actors, and The Light Between Oceans was no different. The film was shot over five weeks in isolated spots of New Zealand and Tasmania, and Cianfrance requested that Fassbender and Vikander live together during that time. As Hollywood now knows, the two actors became romantically involved during production – actually not a novelty on a Cianfrance film. The director also unwittingly played matchmaker to Ryan Gosling and Eva Mendes, who fell in love while co-starring in The Place Beyond The Pines.

As fictional love became reality, how did Cianfrance experience watching Fassbender and Vikander fall in love in front of his camera?  

“It was beautiful watching Michael and Alicia working together on set,” Cianfrance remarks. “I’m not that nosy, in terms of people’s personal lives, but here’s what I saw on set: I saw Michael, who I thought was this heavyweight champion, I saw him meet his match in Alicia. She came on screen like a thoroughbred, and he didn’t know what to do because he was used to knocking people out in the second round.

“But here she was, strong and inexhaustible. And he has some pride to him, he wouldn’t give in. So they would go round for round, take after take, pushing each other and raising the bar. But then when you reach those highs, sometimes you fall, and they started catching each other and really caring for each other. And it was beautiful to watch that partnership unfold.”

The Light Between Oceans is in cinemas from November 1.

 

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