No man is an island

Derek Cianfrance on dysfunctional families and The Light Between Oceans.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Derek Cianfrance and Jeff Nichols share more than a laugh
Derek Cianfrance and Jeff Nichols share more than a laugh Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Jeff Nichols, who is at Cannes with Loving, inspired Derek Cianfrance's method for his latest, The Light Between Oceans, starring Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander and Rachel Weisz.

Alicia Vikander will star in The Light Between Oceans
Alicia Vikander will star in The Light Between Oceans Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

At the 21 Club tea, honoring Nichols' Midnight Special, hosted by Michael Shannon with Kirsten Dunst (Cannes jury member) and Jaeden Lieberher, The Place Beyond The Pines director Derek Cianfrance spoke to me about Steven Spielberg's "pile of stuff" at Dreamworks, Ryan Gosling and Ben Mendelsohn, childhood memories of Martin Scorsese, John Cassavetes, Pier Paolo Pasolini and George Romero films, Shannon Plumb's Towheads and The Narcissist, but not Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse. Erin Benach, Nicolas Winding Refn's The Neon Demon costume designer, will be dressing the stars in Cianfrance's latest. She also worked with Nichols on Midnight Special and Loving.

Anne-Katrin Titze: When can we see your new movie?

Derek Cianfrance: The Light Between Oceans is going to open in the fall. Right now, it's a September release date. It's Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz. I adapted this book called The Light Between Oceans by ML Stedman. It's a book that I had read. Steven Spielberg had been a fan of Blue Valentine and he invited me into his office to try to do something with Dreamworks and they gave me a pile of stuff, of books, and stuff they were doing.

I've never adapted anything or done anyone else's stuff. But I read this book and on the first page … That's this sickness I have - whenever I read anything, I think to myself, can this be a movie? And so from page one it felt like a movie. Every page I turned, it felt like a movie.

Nice Guy Ryan Gosling with Ben Mendelsohn:
Nice Guy Ryan Gosling with Ben Mendelsohn: "They have this secret that they share …" Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: What was it on page one that caught your attention?

DC: It's about a lighthouse keeper who lives on an island.

AKT: Alright, I can already see the movie.

DC: My whole life I always thought that people's relationships were islands. I always thought that what happened inside my house as a kid growing up, only we knew what was going on in there. To the rest of the world we were someone else. So I've always thought since I was a kid that every home is an island.

So the idea of doing a relationship movie that took place on a literal island felt like it was destiny for me. I turned every page in the book and felt that it was my movie. It was all ideas I was dealing with in my own movies about legacy, relationships and secrets.

AKT: This story [The Light Between Oceans] is about mothers and daughters whereas The Place Beyond the Pines was all about fathers and sons.

DC: Yeah, I can only make family movies. I'm into making family movies, dysfunctional family movies.

On Ben Mendelsohn in The Place Beyond The Pines:
On Ben Mendelsohn in The Place Beyond The Pines: "He lives in his own world." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: Towheads

DC: Oh, you've watched my wife's [Shannon Plumb] movie?

AKT: I loved it!

DC: Yeah, that's the best.

AKT: You are in there as a shadow.

DC: I tried to get her to put my face in the movie, but she wouldn't.

AKT: Is she working on a new project?

DC: She is making her own movie right now, called The Narcissist. She just shot three days.

AKT: It's not about you?

DC: No! It's about her. [laughs] Yes, thank you! It's a little bit about me, maybe. No, it's about her.

AKT: What you just said about islands made me think of Ben Mendelsohn's character in The Place Beyond The Pines. He is the epitome of a man being an island.

Shannon Plumb's Towheads:
Shannon Plumb's Towheads: "I tried to get her to put my face in the movie."

DC: Yeah. He lives in his own world. And when Ryan [Gosling] comes into his world they have this secret that they share and then bring that secret out into the world. That's how I see relationships and cinema, too. I see cinema as a very voyeuristic medium and it's about secrets.

AKT: You were just talking with Jeff Nichols - what do you take from a film like Midnight Special?

DC: I had already stolen from Jeff. I had heard that he does that notecard approach. So, actually, when I adapted The Light Between Oceans, I'd heard that he had done a bunch of notecards. So I broke down the book into notecards and just totally did his style. It really, really helped from an organizational standpoint. Look, I spent my whole childhood watching Scorsese and Pasolini and George Romero movies and Cassavetes movies and trying to learn from them.

"My whole life I always thought that people's relationships were islands." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

I read their bios and did all that and then when you have a chance to start making films and you admire other filmmakers that are your contemporaries, I think it's always interesting to hear from them about what their process is. Jeff's films, they always feel like deeply personal films kind of disguised as genre movies.

AKT: There is nothing supernatural in your new film?

DC: No, it's all super human. It takes place in the 1920s on a lighthouse so it's a little bit of a time warp. It's just about the human heart.

AKT: Did you read Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse in preparation?

DC: No, I didn't.

The Light Between Oceans will open in the US on September 2 and in the UK on January 6, 2017.

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