The Light Between Oceans
The best-selling novel that swept readers away with its transporting story of fate, love, moral dilemmas and the lengths one couple will go to see their hard-fought dreams realized, comes to the screen as a lush, classically star-crossed romance starring Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander and Rachel Weisz written for the screen and directed by Derek Cianfrance.
As mesmerizingly beautiful as it is heartbreaking, M.L. Stedman’s novel “The Light Between Oceans” was a literary sensation upon its publication in 2012. Set on the remote edge of Western Australia in the years following the devastation of the Great War, the book lured readers into a seductively old-fashioned tale of love and impossible choices beneath which lay roiling, contemporary questions of right and wrong, the effects of war and peace, the wonders of connection and the dangers of blind scruples.
This is where Tom Sherbourne, a shell-shocked veteran, devotes himself to his new job as lighthouse keeper on the otherwise uninhabited Janus Rock, surrounded by nothing but the vast sea, seeking solace in the solitude. He intends to remain alone, but unexpectedly meets Isabel Graysmark, a vivacious young woman from the town of Partageuse across the harbor, herself grieving two brothers lost in the war.
Despite the obstacles, their love flourishes in the stark isolation and they are soon married. Passionate for each other and hoping to be part of creating a new life together, they try to start a family, but fate intercedes. Then, one night, a mysterious rowboat holding a dead man and an infant girl washes ashore, setting off a chain of decisions—some impetuous, others wrenching— that unravel with shattering consequences.
Cianfrance immediately felt the cinematic potential of a story that invokes the power of landscape, the aftermath of war, the all-consuming state of passion and, most of all, the ageless tradition of romances that push a couple into illuminating moral borderlands. He adapted Stedman’s book faithfully, yet with a filmmaker’s eye for the details that propel human relationships into both bliss and catastrophe.
“’The Light Between Oceans’ is a film about love, truth and the secrets people keep in relationships, and what happens when those secrets are exposed to the light of day,” says Cianfrance. “It is a moral drama, but at the core, it is a timeless love story.”
DreamWorks Pictures and Reliance Entertainment present, in association with Participant Media, “The Light Between Oceans,” starring two-time Academy Award® nominee Michael Fassbender, Oscar® winner Alicia Vikander, Oscar and Golden Globe® winner Rachel Weisz, Bryan Brown and Jack Thompson. The film is written for the screen and directed by Derek Cianfrance based on the novel by M.L. Stedman and produced by Oscar nominee David Heyman, p.g.a. and Jeffrey Clifford, p.g.a. The executive producers are Tom Karnowski, Rosie Alison, Jeff Skoll and Jonathan King.
TELLING SECRETS CINEMATICALLY: THE ADAPTATION
M.L. Stedman’s novel “The Light Between Oceans” was published in the U.S. by Scribner in July, 2012 and was immediately embraced by readers and critics alike, appearing on both The New York Times and USA Today’s bestseller lists and as Amazon’s Best Book of the Month for August of that year. Since then it has been translated into over 35 languages.
“The Light Between Oceans” marks the first time director Derek Cianfrance has adapted a novel, but he has long been interested in creating a cinema of intimacy and probing into themes of love, family legacy, loneliness and choices—the very same themes that made Stedman’s novel so resonant to so many. He won acclaim in 2010 for writing and directing “Blue Valentine,” a visually inventive portrait of a marriage breaking apart, then garnered accolades for writing and directing “The Place Beyond the Pines,” a lyrically told crime drama that turns a bank heist into an intense father-son love story.
“I’ve essentially made exploring relationships and families my life's work to this point,” he says. “I feel as if my mission as a filmmaker is to explore the most intimate relationships in both private and expansive ways.”
With “The Light Between Oceans,” Cianfrance saw a chance to explore that duality in an entirely fresh way. The allure of Stedman’s book was in part its fable-like elements: a secluded island escape, a love affair removed from the constraints of society, a crying baby found at sea, and a grieving woman whose husband and only child disappear without a trace. But what really drew him in was the chance to explore how even the most isolated and intense love must find a way to weather the toughness of truth and the consequences of life’s harshest choices.
It’s no coincidence that the story of “The Light Between Oceans” takes place on Janus Rock, aptly named after the two-faced Roman God of endings and beginnings. Like Janus, the characters of Tom and Isabel are caught between two poles: between a past haunted by war’s destruction and a future they hope to imagine together; between hiding away from the darkness of the world and chasing the flickering promise of light; between doing what seems fair in the moment and seeing what is truly just. The trick was wrapping all of this into a film that is also a spellbinding romance and, ultimately, a reckoning.
For Cianfrance, the best way in was through the personal emotions he experienced while reading the book himself. “I wanted to be incredibly faithful to the book,” he explains. “The most meaningful compliment on the film I've received so far was from Stedman herself, who said she spent the day weeping after attending a screening…weeping because she felt that she was understood. She said, ‘Isn't that the point of life, that we, as human beings, are trying to be understood by each other?’”
Like millions of fans around the world, Cianfrance was transfixed by Stedman’s writing, her ability to create equal parts suspense and poetry out of dark secrets and doom-laden decisions. He remembers openly crying on the subway while reading the book, despite the stares. “In the years since, I've seen other people crying while reading the book in cafes, parks and subways and it validates for me that this is such a deeply human and universal story,” he says. “I think people are drawn to it because it is so honest about the pain of love and about love lost, but also because it then becomes a beautiful rendering of redemption and healing.”
Already able to visualize the story unspooling on the screen, Cianfrance made the decision to go after the story with total commitment. At that point, the novel had been acquired by DreamWorks and was in early stages of development by producer David Heyman (“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” “Gravity,” the “Harry Potter” films) of Heyday Films. Heyman, too, had fallen for the book at the suggestion of executive producer Rosie Alison (“Testament of Youth,” “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas”).
“I’m very drawn to stories where you can see all sides, and this is a story that economically shows all sides,” Heyman says. “You see not just Tom’s, Isabel’s and Hannah’s sides in what happens, but every character you meet seems to bring in another layer. In that way, the story takes you on a personal, emotional journey that I think people will want to discuss long after they’ve left the theatre.”
Adds Alison, “The book has a hard, diamond-like quality in its take on love, loss and self-sacrifice. In a sense it’s a psychological thriller in which the mystery is where the strongest love lies.”
Cianfrance approached Heyman ready to fight for the project, telling him he was destined to make the film, and his enthusiasm was irresistible. Having seen “Blue Valentine” and “The Place Beyond the Pines,” Heyman already knew Cianfrance’s nuanced writing and strong visual style were a match for the vivid immersiveness of the book.
“There’s no artifice to Derek’s work,” Heyman says. “That was so key to this adaptation because it’s such a charged story. We were fortunate that Derek connected with these characters in a profound way. The spirit of the book is written on every page of his script and felt in every frame of the film.”
Cianfrance wrote the screenplay without input from Stedman, but the author was omnipresent in his head. “Even though we never talked, I had such a deep relationship with her in my mind. I treated her words as scripture. I read the book so many times, I had it memorized,” he explains. “I always tried to remain true to the feelings I had reading it for the first time. That was my North Star.”
He also made sure to keep the book’s rigorous lack of judgment towards its complex characters intact. “Something that really attracted me is the fact that there are no bad people in the story,” he explains. “That doesn't mean everyone makes the right choices or that they don't hurt other people, but in their hearts and in their minds and in their souls they are good people. And as a filmmaker interested in humanity, it was a great privilege to try to tell a story where the supposed ‘villains’ of the story might be the people you love most.”
While Cianfrance was steadfast in his respect for the material, he was equally as dedicated in wanting to find that mysterious alchemy that allows works of literature to live and breathe in movie theatres. In fact, he himself faced many wrenching decisions during the adaptation: decisions about where to compact Stedman’s carefully-structured tale and where to translate scenes into something more explicitly visual so it could feel alive in flesh and blood.
“In any adaptation, I think the greatest challenge is that of subtraction, what you must leave out,” he says. “It’s like sculpture; once you embrace that, it can be the wind beneath your wings. Eventually you can expand the moments and themes that you love and push the boundaries to find even more truthfulness. This is when it really starts to become alive. There are of course key differences between cinema and literature and one of those is the way time plays out. There has to be a different way of handling pace and also of handling secrets and revelations.”
The latter especially intrigued the director, who always saw a central theme of the story as the way secrets within a marriage can be both wrecking and uniting. “The way cinema reveals secrets was as important to making the adaptation work,” Cianfrance says. “For example, in the book, Tom and Isabel both learn the truth about the baby at the same time, but in the movie, Tom sees it first, so you see and feel Tom carrying this weight alone.”
Only after he’d completed several drafts did Cianfrance meet Stedman for the first time. “I was so nervous,” he remembers, “Because I respect her so greatly and truly hoped I could do her work justice. We had dinner together and she was just one of the most charming, thoughtful, loving human beings I’ve ever met. She’s a very private person, but she became a great support to me as I made the film. I felt very sensitive to the fact I was taking her creation somewhere new, and her trust went a long way in giving me the confidence I needed to make the film.”
Says Stedman, “I’m so fortunate that, through Heyday Films and DreamWorks, this project found its way into the hands of the wonderful Derek Cianfrance. He has expertly and lovingly brought the world of the book to life in a new medium, complete with brilliant cast, cinematography and music. The result is an exquisitely beautiful and emotionally authentic film that stays true to the spirit of my novel, yet also embodies the deeply personal interpretation of the director and his actors. It’s been a great privilege to watch it come into being.”
The producers were thrilled with the structure of the screenplay. “We knew we had something special,” says producer Jeffrey Clifford (“Chloe,” “Up in the Air”). “Derek’s script distilled the essential emotions of the novel in authentic and naturalistic ways and really brought to life the strength of the characters.”
The cast was equally as affected by Cianfrance’s draft. “The script moved me to tears, as the book did,” says Michael Fassbender, who takes on the conflicted character of Tom Sherbourne. “Tom and Isabel's love story is so beautifully told. When we see something on screen that we relate to as human beings—and I think people will see themselves in Tom and Isabel—that is when cinema is most powerful.”
TOM SHERBOURNE: LIGHTHOUSE AND SECRET KEEPER
As “The Light Between Oceans” begins, Tom Sherbourne, a combat veteran haunted by time spent on the western front battlefields in a brutal war that took the lives of 60,000 of his countryman, arrives in Western Australia. Trying to escape the looping cycles of grief, guilt and trauma, he finds a perfect way to be secluded, yet useful, as the lighthouse keeper who meticulously keeps the beacon between the Indian and Southern oceans burning. Yet, rather than isolation, Tom finds himself instead being opened up in previously unimaginable ways by the love of a woman who truly wants to know his heart—a love that nearly unravels him.
Portraying this extraordinary unfolding of a solitary, principled man is two-time Academy Award® nominee Michael Fassbender in what is his most intimate and humane role to-date. Though he has riveted audiences as the sexually-compulsive Brandon in “Shame,” as the mutant Magneto in the “X-Men” series, as a cruel slave owner in “12 Years a Slave” and as the ingenious leader of Apple in “Steve Jobs,” this role was unlike any other he has tackled before.
That difference excited Derek Cianfrance. He explains, “I’ve been absolutely hypnotized and blown away by Michael’s presence on the screen for years. What always stood out to me was how smart he is, how his brain works on screen—it is larger-than-life. But with this character, I wanted to see the heart of Michael Fassbender—the heart that goes along with his physicality and intelligence. I wanted him to put his soul and vulnerability on the screen. I wanted to see the battle between Michael’s heart and Michael’s mind.”
Cianfrance continues, “When we met, I asked Michael if he had ever been in love, and when he laughed at me and said ‘yes,’ I felt an instant kind of brotherhood with him. And there was really no one else at that point. I felt it was destiny for him to be Tom. Tom is like a boiling pot of water with a lid on it. On the surface, he is very contained, but underneath there is a storm brewing.”
And Fassbender was drawn to that storm as well; drawn to a man who has an almost urgent need to be decent in the wake of war’s amorality, even more so when he falls in love. “Reading the book and script, I was impressed by Tom’s principles, loyalty and strength of character,” Fassbender says. “He’s a stoic, honest man, but he’s also a man trying to mend himself. He’s carrying all these mental scars from combat, yet when he meets Isabel, her freshness and innocence motivate him to take a chance on opening his heart.”
Tom’s essential wariness towards passion became a major thread in the character’s fabric. “He is numb from what he’s seen men to do each other and not hugely at peace with people anymore,” observes Fassbender. “That’s why working on the lighthouse seems like a tonic for him. But when Isabel comes into his life, he has a kind of sensual reawakening and starts to become whole again.”
As Tom’s innermost passion emerges in Isabel’s presence, the more he feels he cannot imagine the island without her, so when a child enters their lives, though he is visibly torn between his sense of duty and his wife’s happiness, he ultimately concedes to a choice that will rock many worlds. “When the boat washes ashore, it's a very particular time in Tom and Isabel’s relationship, and that informs the decisions they make,” says Fassbender. “There’s also the fact that they’re so alone on the island. There’s an awareness that what seemed like paradise could turn into a prison.”
The decision to keep the baby as their own proves ominous, but Fassbender sympathizes with Tom’s discomfiting decision to go with his heart, despite the profound misgivings of his head. “One of the things about this story is that it has the complexity of real life,” says the actor. “These things happen in life where you have to make a choice that has no simple or right answer. The story’s not about judging who is good and who is bad. It’s really about how we deal with the outcomes of our choices, and to me that is what defines us as human beings. For Tom, once he realizes what they’ve really done, it eats away at him, because at bottom, he is a man who believes in the order of things; he believes in doing right by others.”
As the baby, whom they name Lucy, grows up, she becomes an infinite source of affection and pleasure for Tom, which eats at him even more. “Tom is the kind of man who knows all about the tides, the stars, where fossils come from, and he loves sharing all that with Lucy. As with most children, her curiosity, enthusiasm and excitement make him feel very alive,” says Fassbender. “At the same time, raising Lucy for four years with this buried secret is constantly going against his natural being.”
Those divisions between his love of being a father and his fear of what he has done to others slowly become perceptible in every sinew of Fassbender’s body. “I’m very proud of his performance,” says Cianfrance. “He shows you Tom as a beacon of security and safety, yet also someone who is very scared. I think Michael is one of very few actors who could do that simultaneously…who could hold steadfast to this exterior shell of Tom while also letting you see what is unraveling inside him.”
Fassbender believes Cianfrance got a lot from his performance because the director put so much in. “Derek is the kind of director who doesn't like to leave any stone unturned,” he explains. “Yet you really feel he's got your back, and there's a sense of trust.” He was especially intrigued by Cianfrance’s trademark long takes. “As an actor, it takes a lot of concentration and focus to work like that but you realize that it allows Derek to find those moments where you are truly the most aware and alive.”
In addition to having to pry open Tom’s most walled-off emotions, the role was also physically draining for the actor since Janus Rock is so exposed to the elements and has only Tom to maintain it. “I can’t remember any time in my adult life where I went to bed before midnight,” he laughs, “But on this film, I was passing out at nine every night.”
For all that Tom sets in motion, Fassbender believes that he also experiences something invaluable on Janus. “Even if things go wrong for Tom, at least he's known love, he’s felt invested in something, and he's perhaps lived 10 lifetimes in those four years on Janus before things go awry,” he summarizes.
ISABEL SHERBOURNE: A LIFE-ALTERING CHOICE
Beautiful, spirited and determined, Isabel (Graysmark) Sherbourne is at once a beguiling mystery to Tom and the source of his enchantment in the aftermath of war. She is also the stimulus behind the choice that will bring husband and wife to a reckoning. To play Isabel in all her challenging layers—her vivacity, her loyalty to her instincts and her recklessness—Derek Cianfrance knew he would need an actress capable of plunging deep beneath the surface. He found that in Oscar® winner Alicia Vikander, the young ballerina turned actress who garnered acclaim for two of 2015’s most intriguing female roles: Ava, the android with superior artificial intelligence, in “Ex Machina” and Gerda Wegener, the artist wife of one of the first recipients of sex change surgery, in “The Danish Girl.”
“Isabel has no filter; she is what she feels” Cianfrance says. “I didn't know who I would find who could be that vulnerable, that open, that mercurial, that brave. So, I went on a search and met with many great actresses, but at the time, I had never heard of Alicia until our casting director told me to watch ‘A Royal Affair.’ When I finally met Alicia, I knew instantly she was Isabel. I read some scenes with her, which I don't normally do, and just fell in love because she went for it; absolutely with reckless abandon. I also sensed that she and Michael would fit together like a glove. And I was right—they played off of each other in such a beautiful way.”
As Michael Fassbender did with Tom, Vikander felt a magnetic draw to the character of Isabel. “I was impressed by how much life Isabel brings to the beginning of the story. Like Tom, she’s been through trauma and felt a great loss with both her brothers dying in the war,” Vikander says. “And yet somehow she still has this beautiful spark and so much fire, and that’s why Tom gets thrown by her.”
For Vikander, Isabel’s attraction to Tom is in part a search for freedom and identity. “In Tom, I think Isabel finds a man who actually lets her be who she is. I think she feels with Tom that she’s finally able to relax and be herself,” she says.
That self is full of contradictions, something which Vikander embraced. “I see Isabel as very strong but also naïve and vulnerable. She’s a person who goes with her impulses for better and for worse,” she explains. “She has a tough journey in the film, but I was always drawn by her willpower and strength of spirit.”
As for her decision to pretend the infant who washes ashore is her own daughter, Vikander sees Isabel as willfully ignoring the most painful outcome imaginable, and instead throwing herself into the overwhelming feelings of love and maternal instincts. “Sometimes in life we make decisions that maybe are not the best decisions,” she says, “But there are two sides to every story and I think the beauty of this film is that you feel for all the characters and understand why they do what they do. I felt equally for Isabel, for Tom and for Hannah.”
The passionate chemistry with Fassbender was essential, but equally as important was Vikander’s relationship with Florence Clery, who plays young Lucy/Grace at age four, when her life is turned upside down. “Florence is extraordinary,” says Vikander. “I had to fight just to keep up with her incredible imagination. She has such natural presence. I truly fell in love with her, which made it all the more heartbreaking.”
Cianfrance’s directorial approach kept those emotions volatile. “Derek is so humble and giving in the way he just lets the actors be in the scene as the camera rolls, waiting to see what happens. He’s very emotionally intelligent,” says Vikander. “At the same time, he’s well prepared. He’s already editing the film while making it, so he gives you different ideas of how each scene could turn out, which really helps.”
For the scene in which Isabel arrives for the first time on Janus Rock, Cianfrance wanted a completely unmediated response, so he brought Vikander to the set for the first time blindfolded in pitch-blackness. She explains, “They walked me into this windowless shed in the darkness, where they put me in my costume for the first time and had me sit there. I didn’t see Derek, I didn’t see anyone. Then the AD came in and told me they were going to open the door and that I should walk towards Derek and the crew and experience the island for the first time, which is what I did.”
She continues, “I opened the door and ran up the hill as Isabel, and that’s when I felt her child-like excitement and love of nature. Then I walked up towards the lighthouse, and at that moment the sun came up…I had never seen such beauty in my life. I experienced it as Isabel, and it’s something that I will carry with me forever.”
“That moment was just purity,” adds Cianfrance. “It was something you couldn’t write, something you couldn’t expect…it was Alicia becoming Isabel before our eyes, seeing this place for the first time.”
HANNAH ROENNFELDT: IN SEARCH OF AN ANSWER
When Tom and Isabel Sherbourne find a baby in a floating dinghy, they make a wished-for assumption that the baby’s parents are gone. Only later does Tom learn of the existence of the woman who will wreak havoc on his conscience for years to come: Hannah Roennfeldt, a resident of Partageuse clinging desperately to the unlikely hope that she will one day find her husband and baby lost at sea. As a character who goes from scorn and sorrow to dismay and ultimately reconciliation, Hannah is as key to the story’s human intrigue as Tom and Isabel.
Thus it was that Derek Cianfrance cast Academy Award® winner Rachel Weisz, known for bringing multi-chromatic shadings to a range of film characters in titles like “The Constant Gardener,” “The Lovely Bones,” “About a Boy” and, most recently, “The Lobster.” The director had wanted to work with Weisz for years, and Hannah seemed like a role for which she had special insight. “She’s a mother, and I think you have to be a parent to truly understand Hannah,” Cianfrance says. “I had an amazing collaboration with Rachel, one of the deepest, most rewarding experiences I’ve had in terms of the places we got to in our trust with each other.”
He acknowledges that Weisz faced a tightrope walk to keep Hannah’s bereavement real without sliding into sentiment, and had the actress meet with a grief counselor to help provide some insight into the grieving process when the outcome of a loved one is unknown. “It was around the time of the Malaysian airplane crash when the plane and passengers could not be found, and we had numerous conversations about how hard it must be for those families trying to keep hope alive when everyone else assumed the worst,” Cianfrance says. “Rachel and I talked a lot about how Hannah’s hope is seen as delusional by the town, but it’s the thing that keeps her going. The remarkable thing about her is that she never loses faith…she stays steady as a dedicated mother and wife, sustained by hope.”
Weisz was drawn to the characters in Stedman’s story because each one was flawed, as she is more interested in characters who are not perfect people. She was also struck by how fully the screenplay channeled the cathartic emotions of the novel. “I think it's one of the most faithful adaptations I've ever come across,” she says. “It was so true to the experience of reading the book. Like the book, it touches a raw nerve.”
Still, she knew the character would take her into some turbulent corners of the psyche, where the residues of loss, betrayal and the need to know the truth no matter what, combine in volatile ways. “Hannah is a challenge because she’s so heartbroken,” she explains. “I can't imagine a greater loss than to lose your child and husband at sea, and not even have the closure of a burial. So I saw her as existing in a state of limbo, waiting for answers that she must believe will someday appear.”
Hannah’s story is also a love story, one that is set into motion by her own rebellious courtship with a German immigrant, Frank Roennfeldt (Leon Ford), someone her wealthy father forbid her to see at a time when prejudice against Germans, the wartime enemy, was at its peak. She stands by Frank, which leads to the birth of their beloved daughter Grace, and, ultimately to the tragic night Frank ends up adrift at sea with the child. “There’s a lot of love in this story, between parents and children but also between husbands and wives,” says Weisz.
For Hannah, the long-awaited discovery of her daughter’s surprising fate is at once a moment of elation and alarm, as she comes to the realization that their bond has been cut. Hannah’s love for her daughter has not changed, but her daughter now sees her as a frightening stranger. “It’s a complete shock to Hannah that her own child doesn't know her anymore, and doesn't think of her as her mother. I think it brings up fascinating concepts about nature and nurture and what it means to be a parent,” Weisz says.
Like Alicia Vikander, Weisz says young Florence Clery, who plays Grace/Lucy, made exploring Hannah’s maternal dilemmas even more powerful. “Florence loves to play and invent and I think she might grow up to be a director,” laughs Weisz, “Because she was very good at organizing everything on the set.”
Given their conflicted relationship, rife with incomprehension and frustration, Weisz looked for her own ways to work with Florence. “We had some tough scenes so I really wanted to try to make her feel safe, and explain things to her,” she says. “I've got a 9-year-old myself, so I know how to play games with kids to keep things on a lighter level and that was really, really important for us.”
Though Hannah’s and Isabel’s stories move along two separate tracks, they ultimately collide. One of Weisz’s most intense scenes comes in Hannah’s first face-to-face encounter with Isabel after her daughter returns. “It's two devoted mothers facing off,” describes Weisz, “And it’s highly charged.”
As for who is right, Weisz hopes audiences will debate that lingering question. “I love that this story is almost biblical in how it explores morality,” she says. “I think there will be people who will find one character's actions completely understandable and others who think the same character is in the wrong. That’s intriguing because I think morality comes into play most when things aren’t black and white, when the answers aren’t easy. Most of life is a grey area and this story brings humanity and empathy to a group of people caught in that grey.”
According to the actress, Cianfrance was a constant guide through the grey zones where people make mistakes out of love and longing. “Derek really directs,” Weisz says. “He really gets in there and gives you suggestions as to how to play scenes a number of different ways, which I loved. You never know which take will be the one that will fit the movie, but you know Derek is always looking for the truest moments. He inspires you to go right to the edge of your capabilities—and maybe just a bit beyond—whilst being immensely kind and supportive.”
CASTING THE SUPPORTING ROLES
Surrounding Weisz, Fassbender and Vikander in their taut triangle is a supporting cast made up of both exciting newcomers and screen veterans. Celebrated Australian actor Jack Thompson, known for his roles in films ranging from “The Great Gatsby” and “Breaker Morant” to “Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones,” portrays Ralph, the salty, sea-faring skipper of the Windward Spirit, the sole source of transportation for people and supplies to and from Janus Rock. “The sea is in Ralph’s veins,” says Thompson. “I think the ocean’s beauty, fury and extraordinary elemental qualities give those who make their life living in it an essential humility, and that sums up Ralph.”
Adds Cianfrance, “Jack is one of the most vital life forces I've met. Every time I see Jack, I see joy, honor and truth. I felt he was born to play Ralph.”
Another beloved Australian actor, Bryan Brown, known for roles in “The Thorn Birds,” “Cocktail” and “Australia,” among numerous others, is Septimus Potts, Hannah’s wealthy, influential father, a man who cuts his daughter off financially when she marries a German man. “To play Septimus, we needed someone who carries real weight and gravitas but is not one for sentiment,” says producer David Heyman. “We wanted someone very commanding, and Bryan has that in spades.”
Cianfrance adds, “Septimus is a very interesting character to me because his choice to not embrace his daughter's husband is an inciting element of the whole movie. Had he put his arms around his daughter and accepted her choice, these events would not have happened. So he's the agent of all that occurs, and then at the end of the movie, he becomes central to the healing.”
Isabel’s more humble parents, Violet and Bill Graysmark, are played by veteran Australian actors Jane Menelaus (“Quills,” “The Eye of the Storm”) and Garry McDonald (“Moulin Rouge,” “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark”). Florence Clery, an incredibly-spirited 4-year-old from Chichester, England with no previous film experience, was cast as Lucy/Grace.
Rounding out the cast are Thomas Unger as Ralph’s sidekick Bluey Smart; Emily Barclay as Hannah’s sister Gwen; and Caren Pistorius as the adult Lucy Grace, who wants to confront the mysteries of her past.
“The casting was so fundamental for this film, especially because Derek makes each of his relationships with the actors so intimate, says Heyman. “He creates a sacrosanct environment that allows the actors to try anything, to have no fear of failure, which is so important. And he does these long takes in which they go on a journey, where they are not so much performing as being in the moment, and it’s a beautiful thing to behold.”
BRINGING THE BOOK’S EVOCATIVE AMBIANCE TO THE SCREEN
“The Light Between Oceans” is driven by the passionate performances of its cast, but the foundation of those performances is the film’s authentic recreation of an evocative place and time. Director Derek Cianfrance wanted to immerse viewers in the primal atmosphere of Janus Rock with its harsh beauty and tempestuous weather, as well as the parochial small towns of Western Australia still reeling, both psychologically and socially, from World War I.
As such, he worked with an accomplished creative team that includes: two-time Emmy Award®-winning director of photography Adam Arkapaw; production designer Karen Murphy; editors Ron Patane and Jim Helton; and costume designer Erin Benach. The score is by Academy Award® winner Alexandre Desplat.
The director created a tight-knit circle with his team. “One of the things that really impressed me is how much faith Derek puts in the people with whom he works,” says producer David Heyman. “He guides and shapes the work, but he also is eager to listen and discover.”
Principal photography on “The Light Between Oceans” took place over 45 days in the Fall of 2014 on locations in the Marlborough and Otago regions of New Zealand and on the Australian island of Tasmania.
One of the first tasks for the production was finding the film’s Janus Rock, as the lighthouse is very much a character and a key element of the story. Lighthouses have long been a staple of mythmaking in literature, symbolizing at once sanctuary, steadiness and the belief that illumination can break even the thickest darkness. The Janus lighthouse has particular resonance in M.L. Stedman’s novel, situated as it is facing the juncture of the Indian and Southern oceans, two worlds meeting and melding.
To find a lighthouse that would mirror the imagery of the book, the filmmakers embarked on an extensive quest, which involved trips to more than 300 lighthouses across Australia and New Zealand. They struck gold with the Cape Campbell Lighthouse, situated on Cook Strait at the very northeastern tip of New Zealand’s South Island. The lighthouse, which has guided ships through treacherous waters and gale force winds since 1870, is a 72-foot tower replete with a lighthouse keeper’s cottage and garden positioned perfectly below it.
“After searching two countries top to bottom, we found Cape Campbell,” recalls location manager Jared Connon. “Once Derek stood in its lighthouse and looked out at the water and saw a reef of rocks running out from the point, we knew we had our Janus. Derek was especially taken by the view, as it truly looked like there were two oceans meeting.”
Says Cianfrance, “Janus is an island of duality; of light and dark, of love and hate, of truth and lies. It’s an island where great pleasures and great pains unfold, where life and death happen. It always felt like a mythical place to me, and I was excited to create this island that no one had ever been to.”
“Cape Campbell was inspiring to me because lighthouse-keepers have lived there for so many years, and I felt I could sense their ghosts,” continues the director. “On one of the first walks I took there, I came across an old grave that read, ‘For our beloved daughter, taken too soon, August-December 1896,’ so you knew it was a baby. And I was just filled with an overwhelming sense of the lives lived there; of the joys and the sorrows, of the lives and the deaths. And we just tried to tap into those spirits and become part of the memory of that place.”
While Cape Campbell is actually a peninsula, not an island, its location geographically makes it feel as if removed from the rest of civilization. The only means of entry are via a private road or a lengthy hiking trail, which is only visible at low tide. “It’s like no other location I’ve ever filmed at,” says Connon, whose vast experience includes location managing “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” films. “It’s so affected by the elements. We were very much dictated to by weather but it’s a most stunning environment.”
Fierce winds and thunder and lightning storms, not uncommon for the region in the spring, did cause minimal destruction to the production’s base camp several nights during production, but the cast and crew more than survived. The harsh elements, the isolation and the lack of modern conveniences (including cell phone reception) brought everyone closer together, and this core group emerged with a tremendous sense of achievement and a camaraderie that sustained them throughout the production.
Cianfrance was especially drawn to the idea that the small cast and crew could essentially camp out a stone’s throw from the sets in the very same shifting, elemental conditions in which the characters exist. During the shoot, they lived together amid wild lightning storms, savage winds and few signs of the outside world, replicating the lifestyle of Tom and Isabel to a great degree.
“Since the story is in part about isolation, I really felt like we needed to be isolated while making the movie,” he says. “I wanted us all to be in the same spot so that we could wake up and film the sunrise and do scenes in the middle of the night and become part of this real environment. I always try to create experiences for my actors so that their performances can transcend ‘acting’ and become ‘being.’”
Alicia Vikander was grateful for the opportunity to live where the film was shot, as it allowed her to completely inhabit a person living in such an isolated, rugged atmosphere. “Derek created this wonderful, real space for us to explore from, and I think it’s the biggest gift I’ve ever received as an actor,” she says. “To actually live amid the sea and the storms, having moments of being both scared and amazed, was quite extraordinary and revealing about who Isabel is.”
While the rugged skyline and misty skies were essential to the textured moods cinematographer Arkapaw (“Macbeth,” “Animal Kingdom”) brings to the film, production designer Karen Murphy worked painstakingly to make the interiors on Janus equally atmospheric, lending a touch of human civility. “I felt the light-keeper’s cottage and the lighthouse interiors had to be especially unique and feel very lived-in,” says the artist, whose credits include “The Great Gatsby” and “The Kite Runner.” “So we created a space where any cupboard could be opened and there you would find a plate or a fork or a potato. It was a real home.”
After several weeks in the seclusion of the Cape Campbell lighthouse location, the production moved to the charming city of Dunedin on the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island, which has a population of 125,000. It was there that Murphy and her team began to create the fictional town of Partaguese, the gateway to Janus Rock, transporting shops and streets with vintage signage, horse drawn wagons and period automobiles, shootings scenes taking place in the Graysmark’s home, the church and the jail, among others.
The production also filmed in Dunedin’s suburb of Port Chalmers, where existing buildings doubled for McPhee’s Bookshop, where Hannah first meets Frank, and Mouchemore’s Haberdashery, where Isabel finally comes face-to-face with Hannah and Lucy/Grace. Hannah and Frank’s modest cottage was found in St. Bathans, an old gold mining settlement inland from Dunedin. All of the art department’s work was in stark contrast to the 7-story, 2,000 passenger cruise ship docked just a block down the street.
“The truth really is in the details,” says Murphy. “I spent a lot of time in Australian libraries searching through photographs of everything from haberdashery shops to police stations.”
The same attention to authenticity imbues the work of costume designer Erin Benach (“Drive,” “The Lincoln Lawyer”), who loved working with the fabrics and hand-made designs of the early 20th Century. “This was a time without mass production, so everything had really fine, detailed work,” explains Benach. “Everything had buttons and snaps and was beautifully embroidered, and I wanted to make sure we captured all those details first and foremost.”
In discussing Benach’s work, Michael Fassbender says, “The costumes in this film felt like the final element of truly becoming the character…it’s the icing on the cake. Tom is very sort of pedantic in his dress, because he's coming from the army. His clothing embodies the idea of somebody who still has that residue of the war.”
While the majority of filming locations were found in New Zealand, some exteriors needed for the fictitious coastal town of Partageuse were found in the small town of Stanley on the island of Tasmania, 1500 miles across the Tasman Sea, east of New Zealand. Stanley, population 460, is a tourist spot on the north-west coast of Tasmania with a vintage-looking main street and a wharf area that was perfect for the story. “Stanley has a Main Street that is fairly quiet with little commercial activity,” says Murphy. “It’s a location we could take over and make a back lot out of, and it sits uniquely on the hillside so it offers a lot of great backgrounds for us.”
Every facet of creating tension, mood and feeling was vital to Cianfrance, and equally so as he headed to the editing room with Ron Patane and Jim Helton, who also cut “The Place Beyond the Pines” and “Blue Valentine” for the director and worked on the lyrical score with composer Alexandre Desplat (“The Danish Girl,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel”).
“What always carried us through was Derek’s passion for M.L. Stedman’s story and his deep understanding and connection to it,” says producer Jeffrey Clifford. “For Derek, this was not merely a job. It was something that he felt he had to do and was willing to make personal sacrifices to achieve it.”
As for what Cianfrance hopes audiences will take away from this journey, he summarizes, “I hope people come away having experienced an undeniable love story, a classic fable in which love and truth battle each other. And hopefully they’ll leave the theatre debating with each other about who they most identify with and about who made the right choices and why.”