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.


The Light Between Oceans is now in theaters.

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