Interview: Why ‘The Light Between Oceans’ Director Derek Cianfrance Is Obsessed with Longevity and the Passage of Time
Posted on Friday, September 2nd, 2016 by Jack Giroux
With his adaptation of M. L. Stedman‘s bestselling novel, writer-director Derek Cianfrance wanted to make The Light Between Oceans a cross between a John Cassavettes movie and a Dean Lean film, a personal tale told against an epic backdrop. Cianfrance, both in his films and in person, proudly wears his influences on his sleeves, but The Light Between Oceans still features staples we’re now coming to expect from the filmmaker behind Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines.
Like the relationships in Cianfrance’s two previous dramas, Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) and Isabel Graysmark’s (Alicia Vikander) intense love for each other is tangible, intimate and often painful. When Isabel first enters a room, Tom’s face is lit up as if a miracle is unfolding before him. As Cianfrance tells us, he wants these seemingly minor moments to feel grand — but that’s not all we talk about with the filmmaker.
Below, read our Derek Cianfrance interview, in which he discusses with us the themes that tie his body of work together, his dreams of longevity as a director, the 209 hours of footage he shot for The Light Between Oceans, and more.
The past three films you’ve made explore the passage of time. Are you just naturally drawn to that idea as a storyteller?
Yeah, passage of time. Cinema holds time in a really interesting way. You know, the passage of time in cinema is special. It’s a special thing to play with. With Blue Valentine, it was about the crosscut of time. I was just thinking…I was in a breakup one time myself. I was crosscutting the best times, the best versions of myself as my girlfriend and I at the time were saying the worst possible things to each other. I also remembered all the more beautiful things we said to each other. So that’s kinda where that came from. With Place Beyond the Pines, my wife was pregnant with our second child, and I was thinking about the fire I always felt inside of me. And I was thinking about how I’d pass that on. I didn’t want to pass it on to him. You know, that fire that came from my great great grandfather. So that’s about time, and legacy, and about what we pass on. So with Place Beyond the Pines, I wanted to make a film that was really a baton pass.
With this movie, I was really interested in dealing with memory. From a personal place, when I was a kid I used to think I lived on an island, because when people would visit me or I’d visit my family, we would change. We’d become the perfect versions of ourselves. Then when people would leave we’d go back to being real again. The same thing would happen at my friends’ houses. I’d be in their basements, and we’d be playing pinball and upstairs their parents would be having these abusive fights and stuff.
So when I read this book and I saw that it was about a lighthouse keeper who lived on an island with his wife, and they held this secret, I just felt like I was born to make that. After Place Beyond the Pines, I was kind of sick of myself and sick of my own ideas. I wanted to work with an undeniable story, but I couldn’t find anything that I understood. And when I read this book I just understood it. It felt like my movies. It felt like my themes. It felt like things that I was dealing with. And the way she dealt with time in the book and the way I wanted to deal with it in the movie was this idea of this folding of moments, the eternity of every moment and the fleetingness of moments. You know, a relationship between someone, especially a parent to a child, is so fleeting.
When you have a baby, it’s such a fleeting moment. Those kids, they grow up so quick. I have a son right now who just told me, he was like, “Dad, guess what size shoe I wear.” I said, “What?” He said, “I wear an eight. It’s a man’s shoe. I can now pick man shoes.” I’m like, “Oh, man. I’m so happy for you,” but a part of me is like, “Man, he’s going to become a man now.”
With this movie, I was thinking about insignificance. Like, significance, but in the big picture of things it seemed…it’s looked at as insignificant. That was the idea of setting it in this really epic landscape to have the smallest human details and the smallest human moments be as momentous as any David Lean wide shot. I wanted to make the John Cassavetes movie in that David Lean landscape where those incredibly small human detailed relationships and moments were as important, seemingly, as all eternity of time.
Why were you sick of your ideas after The Place Beyond the Pines?
Just natural self-loathing, which is an important feeling that any artist needs to have. You need to hate yourself. You need to want to destroy yourself if you are going to make good work, if you are going to keep pushing yourself. If I’m ever satisfied with what I do, then I might as well just get a couch. You know what I mean? Just sit on the couch. I might as well just stagnate. So I’m never satisfied. Every film I make I’m trying to push myself, because filmmaking is an amalgamation of all the arts.
So in my first student feature, Brother Tied, I was really focused on aesthetic and cinematic language, grammar. With Blue Valentine, I was really obsessed with performance. With Pines, I was obsessed with taking all those things I learned—aesthetics and performance. With Oceans, I just wanted to deal with something that had a structure in place so that I could play in there.
In my next film now I’m doing another adaptation of S.C. Gwynne‘s Empire of the Summer Moon, but it’s more of a challenging adaptation because it’s historical. And there are historical benchmarks but not details. So we have to really imagine the details as we would be working from just pure imagine when we write an original script.
To me, each of my films try to mirror where I’m at as a man in this world, as a human being in this world, where I’m at in my own personal life. They mirror exactly where I’m at. Also, I’m obsessed with longevity as a filmmaker. I’m trying to ultimately make my best film be my last film. I’ll say it right here. Come and See by Elem Klimov, that’s my North Star in terms of, you know, artistically of what to try to get to and try to make your last thing be your best.