Interview: Why 'The Light Between Oceans' Director Derek Cianfrance Is Obsessed With Longevity And The Passage Of Time

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.

Derek Cianfrance Light Between

Before, you wrote original material, but now you're writing your second adaptation. With adaptations, are you easily able to look at the material and think, "I see myself in this"? 

Very rarely. It never happens. I never read something that I want to do. But Empire of the Summer Moon was something I actually read...It's a historical novel on the rise of the Comanche nation, basically, Indian wars. I grew up in Colorado, and I grew up in this American landscape that's filled with Home Depots and shopping centers. But under our feet where I grew up there were whole other civilizations there, not too long ago either, and a whole 'nother set of life there.

I feel like as I travel through this country, I feel like it's ignored in some way or forgotten. I'm trying to revisit the ghosts of our nation's past. And I'm trying to make the same movies that I've been making where there's no, necessarily, good guys. There are no heroes. There are no villains. There's just people. I want to make a movie about the Comanches that I haven't seen before. I don't want to make the John Wayne version of it and I don't want to make the Kevin Costner version of it. I want to make what I see as the real version. I want to make the American home movie version of the epic western. I don't even consider it a western. I just consider it an epic.

And then I have originals that I'm working on as well. I have a movie called I See Red that I'm working on which is an extremely personal movie. We'll see. We'll see what happens. But Empire is the next one.

How's your experience been making commercials? The Dick's Sporting Goods ad you did is great. Can you make those personal? 

Well, that's an assignment, right? I do commercials so I can keep my art pure. I do commercials because I never have to take a movie to make money. I haven't yet anyway. It's so I can do exactly what I want when I make movies. And in commercials, I get to experiment. I get to work with different DPs. I get to try things out. I get to work with actors in different ways. Every once in a while, you get a commercial presented to you that feels like an extension of your work where you don't feel like you're really selling anything.

I actually just came home yesterday from Toronto where I shot another...it became like my calling card, I guess, in commercials, like the single take guy. I just did this other crazy single take with Sean Bobbitt (The Place Beyond The Pines) as my DP, which is in the subways of Toronto. It's 25 people and 350 extras and this kind of symphony of people. On that one, I had an incredibly deep process with each and every one of my actors, and I got to really deep places with them.

But those commercials wouldn't be something I would do on my own, though. I gotta get paid to do those. Someone's gotta pay me for my time.

How did you end up working with [cinematographer] Adam Arkapaw (True Detective)? What do you look for in a DP? 

I didn't know who my DP was going to be. I invited him over to my house for dinner. He went in the backyard with my kids, and he played basketball with them for two hours. It was regardless of any of his work that I'd ever seen that won him the job, because it showed me that he was able to go into situations and live in those situations. And my process is all about the experience.

We went out to this lighthouse location, and we lived there for five weeks. I needed a DP that was going to be able to go there as a human being and make discoveries with me. The fact that he could go in the backyard and play basketball with my kids showed me that, that he could be open enough not to have to control a situation; he could embrace a situation that unfolded before his eyes.

He told me when the movie was done that he had never been as exhausted making a film because he said he was used to making movies where the images told the story. And in this movie, the actors were telling the story. I said, "Yeah, that's what I'm trying to do as a filmmaker, have an incredible patience to instigate moments and to wait for the moments to happen." I feel like a chef is all about being consistent. A chef is someone who has to make the same meal 300 times a night the same way.

As a filmmaker, what I'm trying to do is I'm trying to find moments that happen once. I'm trying to find moments that can never be replicated. That means my DPs have to be super alert, and they can't miss it. Like Ryan Gosling and Ben Mendelsohn dancing with the dog in Place Beyond the Pines, you can't get a take two on that. That doesn't happen again. You could say make it happen again, but it's never going to be Halley's Comet. You have to sometimes wait 77 years for Halley's Comet to come by. When it's there, you gotta get it and then it's gone. And then you can show it forever. I saw Halley's Comet once. I was there. And that's it. I'll never see it again. I don't think I'll live another 77 years to see it.

So that's what I talked about with him. And the look of it, we wanted to make something that was unaffected. Early on, when we were out location scouting, I was there with the head of production from DreamWorks, and they were talking about, "So where does the green screen go?" And I was like, "There is no green screen. We have to find locations that are real."

So that's the whole idea of discovery to me. I have to get DPs on board that are interested and ready to discover with me. And Adam was there. He was totally there for me.

Cianfrance on set

Do you recall any discoveries you made with Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander?

Like every moment, yeah. Living out there at the lighthouse with those guys, they...I had to fight hard to be able to do it, to have my process the way I wanted to, to shoot out there at the lighthouse with them. What I didn't want to do was go to a hotel every night. I wanted to immerse ourselves in almost like a camp, a filmmaking camp where it was me and Michael and Alicia and like 12 people on the crew. And it wasn't about the lights, and it wasn't about the equipment. It was about the exploration of these moments.

So I told Michael, I said, "I want you to live out there." And he said, "Is it really necessary?" You ever hear that thing where Laurence Olivier told Dustin Hoffman: "Try acting. It's easier"? That's kind of what Michael told me. I was like, "Michael, I'm trying to give you an experience. I worked really hard to give you this. Just give it a shot." He was like, "OK. I'll give it one night."

Flash-forward to five weeks later, we had to pull him kicking and screaming out of that place because he was in; he lived in. So every day we shot we made discoveries. The first three days I worked with Michael, he asked my costume designer at the end of it, he was like, "When are we going to start shooting the movie? What are we doing?" Because all he'd been doing was cleaning the hens and making himself breakfast with eggs, he'd got from the chicken coop and living, basically.

What I'm trying to do with my actors is find the place where they forget that they're acting and find the place where acting stops and being begins, where the story stops and life begins, where we're just getting into kind of regular human...Really, I feel like a documentarian of fiction when I'm doing these things.

Every moment that you see on the screen...I shot 209 hours. That's why it took me over a year to edit the movie. Thankfully, I had DreamWorks that believed in me and believed in my process enough to let me do that. But it takes a long time to then carve out the movie when you have so much and so much gold. But I think every moment in the movie is pretty much a fleeting moment. That's ultimately what I'm trying to get.

When you start working with all of that footage, do you know exactly where you want the movie to end up?

Oh, yeah. Traditionally, on movies, you have a script supervisor, and then you tell them, "OK. That's a certain take." So you shoot like, say, six takes or something, and you are like, "Yeah, I like 3 and 6". You go into edit and then your editor looks at takes 3 and 6. We don't do that. I have two editors that I've worked with on my last three movies—Jim Helton, Ron Patane, and myself. And we watched all 209 hours, and that's everything. The process of watching everything takes weeks and weeks. Traditionally, in a movie you get 10 weeks to edit a movie, which is just insane to me. It's impossible for my process. I feel like there's a lot of antiquated rules to making movies which I don't follow. And I've been fortunate enough to have studios, or financiers, or producers that allow me to be me because I think I get what I get.

Anyway, so we watch everything. And yeah, there's always discoveries that are made throughout there. There are things that I didn't see when I was shooting. There are things that I go in and I know that, yeah, we have to get that moment. Like Ryan Gosling in bed with the dog, that was the first thing that I showed Jim when I went into the editing room.

You make tons of discoveries, but then you just need to be patient. It's like sculpting. Editing, it's the worst because you just spend all your time in there just whittling it down and killing things; murdering moments, murdering whole performances until you sculpt it down into the final piece.

But yeah, the whole time I have my structure that I'm working towards. I have a giant wall filled with story beats. But that's...again, that's the beauty of this adaptation, is like the structure is so important as an artist. If you don't have a structure, you have a blob. You just have an amoeba, like a splat. There's no shape to it. Structure gives you shape.

The relationships in your films are intensely personal. What do you look for specifically in actors that tell you they can get to that place? 

I'm looking for humanity. I don't necessarily audition actors. I'm not looking for their ability, their skill as an actor. I'm looking for who they are as human beings because I put them into situations where they have to be human. And another thing I'm looking for is courage. That's not to say I'm not looking for fearlessness. I'm not looking for an extreme athlete who is like, "Yeah, man. I'll do anything." I like an actor who is resistant, because what that tells me is that they're scared. And if you are scared but you still confront it, then you are all of a sudden courageous. And so, that's what I try to find with actors, is people that are full of questions, that are smart, that are fearful, and ultimately that are courageous.

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The Light Between Oceans is now in theaters.