Derek Cianfrance knows a thing or two about heartbreak. The “Blue Valentine” and “The Place Beyond the Pines” helmer is best known for making gut-punch features that turn electric love stories into elegies (and sometimes even eulogies) on the meaning of commitment and family, so it’s no surprise that his latest feature — distributed by Walt Disney and their DreamWorks, and thus his first real studio film — explores those same themes, albeit on a much bigger scale.
For his first film since 2012’s “Pines,” Cianfrance has taken on M.L. Stedman’s best-selling novel “The Light Between Oceans,” a tearjerker that rarely lets up on an emotionally wrenching story. Cianfrance adapted the novel himself, which follows a WWI vet (played by Michael Fassbender) as he attempts to find some much-deserved peace and quiet when he takes a job tending a lone lighthouse on a secluded island off the coast of Australia. That plan is thrown into initially wonderful turmoil when he falls for the daughter of a local family, played by newly minted Academy Award winner Alicia Vikander, and the two set about making a life for themselves on their beautiful and isolated island. But their happiness is short-lived, as Fassbender’s Tom and Vikander’s Isabel suffer a series of miscarriages that wear their nerves (and hearts) ever thinner.
Although the story sounds right up Cianfrance’s alley, the filmmaker recently told IndieWire that he was attracted to it because it did the one thing he so desperately wanted: It got him out of his own head.
“That’s a Pretty Cinematic Title”
“After ‘Place Beyond the Pines,’ honestly, I was sick of myself,” Cianfrance said. “Sick of my own ideas. I wanted to do an adaptation, but everything I’d been reading, I just didn’t understand it.”
While Cianfrance was being courted to direct a number of projects, he couldn’t get himself to feel invested in any of them.
“I would read all these scripts and I had just no idea what was going on,” he explained. “Some of the scripts that they send me, like the ‘Asteroid’ movie, I just had no idea. I read the scripts and I honestly do not know what’s going on. I have no idea. I can’t even read words. I just don’t know what’s happening.”
Fortunately, a chance encounter with no less than Steven Spielberg — who Cianfrance initially met while making the rounds on the awards circuit, only to be bowled over when Spielberg told him “Blue Valentine” was his favorite film of 2010 — helped align him with DreamWorks, who offered him a number of different options to potentially helm.
“They gave me a pile of books,” Cianfrance remembered. “I looked through them and there was a book called ‘The Light Between Oceans,’ and I thought, ‘That’s a pretty cinematic title.’ Cracked it open and started reading it, and it’s about this lightkeeper, which is a very cinematic job.”
As Cianfrance read more of Stedman’s novel, he began to recognize not just the inherently cinematic attributes of the story, but a family whose story he desperately wanted to tell. A family, in fact, whose story he had always wanted to tell.
Every Man an Island
“He has this family on this island,” Cianfrance said. “When I was a kid, I always thought people lived on islands, because when people used to come to my house, when we’d have company, we would change. When the company would leave, we’d get back to the truth, we’d get back to being real again. I’ve always tried to make movies that are about those families.”
And Cianfrance’s early instinct to adapt someone else’s material proved to be the right move as well, as Stedman’s book provided a strong structure that he could build off in service to his own take on the material. Even with the novel as his base, Cianfrance could still make a “Derek Cianfrance film,” free of the stuff that had been holding him back post-“Pines.” (Cianfrance indicated that Stedman is very pleased with the final product.)
“I just thought this is an extension of everything I’ve been trying to do, but the structure is intact,” he said. “That was my intention in the first place, was to deal with story in a way where I had a framework already set and I could play within that framework and kind of push to the boundaries. You need to know where those boundaries are.”
As for that “everything” Cianfrance had been trying to do, it also extended to the story, which echoes so much of his previous work. First and foremost in Cianfrance’s eyes? “It’s a relationship movie.”
The Power of Love
“It’s a companion piece to ‘Blue Valentine’ in a way, because it’s about love,” the director continued. “This movie, to me, is about love surviving children. It’s about the power of love, and when the kids go off to school when they’re 18, that the love is still there.”
That’s a fine bookend to “Blue Valentine,” which features Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams as a once deeply in love couple who struggle to make their relationship work as time — including the birth of their child — marches ever onward, but the links between the two films go even deeper than that.
“To me, the ending of ‘Blue Valentine’ was always a hopeful ending, because that movie was about how being in a relationship can kind of crush your individuality, can crush who is you,” Cianfrance said. “You become a pair and you lose some of that person that you were. This movie is about when you’re an individual, and having a partner who unlock parts of you and make you a better person. This movie is about really wanting to, despite everything, stay together and get stronger and build.”
When it came time to cast his leads, Cianfrance knew early on that he wanted Fassbender to play Tom, his haunted solider-turned-lighthouse-keeper, who wrestles with some of the film’s most wrenching moments.
“When I was prepping ‘Blue Valentine,’ I went to go see ‘Hunger’ and I was just blown away by that guy,” he said. “The thing that always stood out about him was his mind. What I was curious about with Michael, and what I didn’t know, was the heart. I had never really seen the heart of Michael Fassbender in a movie.”
Cianfrance’s desire to match up Fassbender’s heart and head on the big screen ultimately formed the film’s central theme — a “battle between truth and love” — that the filmmaker compared to no less than the “Star Wars” franchise. Casting the actress who could push Fassbender to those limits wasn’t as easy.
The director asked his casting director, Francine Maisler, to find him what now sounds a bit like a Hollywood unicorn. As he tells it, Cianfrance was looking for an actress who could embody Gena Rowlands from “A Woman Under the Influence,” Vivien Leigh from “Gone With the Wind” and Emily Watson from “Breaking the Waves.” Maisler offered up Vikander, and Cianfrance admits he initially had “no idea” who she was.
After a crash course in Vikander’s filmography — he started with “A Royal Affair” — he called her in for an audition, a process he rarely puts himself (or his possible stars) through.
“I wanted to see what she would do. For four hours, she put herself out there for me,” he explained. “I ask all my actors to do two things. I ask them to fail for me, and I ask them to surprise me. In this audition, she was failing and surprising me every second. I realized she was it.”
Once set on his stars, Cianfrance took Fassbender, Vikander and the production on a literal journey: to a remote New Zealand peninsula (lighthouse included) that was absolutely perfect, right down its profound isolation. “All I had to do was convince the actors to live there with me,” Cianfrance laughed.
Cianfrance and his stars lived on the peninsula for five weeks, during which time it’s rumored that Fassbender and Vikander — now a couple in real life — fell in love right alongside Tom and Isabel. Even that experience spoke to the true emotion of the film, and all Cianfrance would say of it was, “We found a place where the acting stopped and behavior began.”
Where the Light Gets In
The final product is a deeply emotional film that hits plenty of traditional notes, while also folding in the kind of big moral questions Cianfrance still loves to ask (and rarely wants to answer). For him, that means the film deals “in the gray area of humanity” that he’s obsessed with portraying.
“There’s this thing in Hollywood about the sympathetic character and likability. I’ve never understood that because the people I love most in my life are not likable all the time,” he said. “My wife is not always likable. I’m certainly not always likable. My dad is not always likable. We’re human beings.”
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/Entertainment One
And although “The Light Between Oceans” doesn’t offer up a clean ending, Cianfrance seems personally pleased with the ambiguity it deals in.
“In all of my movies, every character, every person makes choices,” he said. “Oftentimes the characters in my movies make choices based on their heart. I love people that work with passion and love. When you make choices that way, there’s reverberations, consequences. That’s what I’m interested in, that echo, that ripple of choice.”
Despite the sizable chunk of time between “The Place Beyond the Pines” and “The Light Between Oceans,” Cianfrance isn’t eager to suddenly start churning out a ton of films, though he’s got plenty lined up, including his long-in-the-making drama “Metalhead” and a script for the fact-based “ESPN: Those Guys Have All the Fun” (although once attached to direct that project as well, Cianfrance said he suspects another director will take over).
“I’ve been on a roll for the last little while here,” he said. “Every three years, I come out with a movie. It’s just my pace. I can’t imagine being like Woody Allen, making a film every year. The films I make, I really live with them. They become such a part of my life, but I’m always working, always writing.”
But Cianfrance does expect that his next feature, an adaptation of a biography about the Comanche chief Quanah written by S.C. Gwynne, will come along sooner rather than later.
“I have my next script now called ‘Empire of the Summer Moon,’ which hopefully I’ll be in production on in the spring,” he said. “But then again, that’ll be like a 100-day production and that’ll be another year editing that. I’ve already spent three years writing that.”
It’s how he likes it, to be honest.
“I believe in longevity. That’s my goal,” Cianfrance explained. “I’m not trying to make a million movies. The very last movie I make is the one I want to make the best. I always look at the tortoise and the hare. I relate to the tortoise. He wins.”
“The Light Between Oceans” opens on Friday, September 2.