Anna Pniowsky on Light Of My Life director and co-star Casey Affleck: "Casey is a phenomenal actor and I'm very thankful that I got to work with him and learn from him." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
Anna Pniowsky stars opposite Light Of My Life screenwriter/director Casey Affleck in a father-daughter relationship. They live in a post-catastrophe society of the future, where the female population is feared to be wiped out by a mysterious plague, which has taken her mother, played by Elisabeth Moss. Affleck, a longtime favourite of David Lowery (Ain't Them Bodies Saints, A Ghost Story, The Old Man & The Gun), Best Actor Oscar winner for Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester By The Sea, and director of the Joaquin Phoenix film I'm Still Here, creates in Light Of My Life an alternative universe where disguise is a mode of survival.
Rag (Anna Pniowsky) with Dad (Casey Affleck): "I was comfortable around him and I could be vulnerable around the camera."
Similar to the situation in Debra Granik's Leave No Trace, starring Ben Foster and Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, life in the wilderness is tougher on the child than the parent. "Don't make it about me," says Rag (Pniowsky) to her father (Affleck), who is about to tell her a story. It's a long tale about a girl fox named Goldie and her husband Art and a rival named Fang, and a flood and an ark. It's a beautiful way to start a film that tackles the nature of storytelling.
Rag wonders if she is the only girl of her species left on earth. Her father does everything to protect her, which includes pretending that she is a boy when around other people, which rarely occurs. Affleck, the director, is less interested in painting dystopian cataclysm than in providing a mood, a sense of what major disasters do to individuals. Light of My Life is closer to the films he made with David Lowery. There is a ghostly quality to the way these two survivors move through the snow, wrapped in raggedy blankets.
When they come to an abandoned house, a bit like Goldilocks or Snow White, the girl clothes that Rag finds upstairs fit her perfectly. In moments like this, the film opens up to issues about gender, desire, and how much it means to be able to freely choose what you want to wear.
In midtown Manhattan, I met with the formidable Anna Pniowsky for a conversation on Light Of My Life, which had its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year and screened at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival.
Anna Pniowsky as Rag with Dad (Casey Affleck): "I myself, I'm pretty tough, I'd like to think. I mean, I'm not like super tough."
Anne-Katrin Titze: First question - Are you "tough and outdoorsy"? As you say in the film?
Anna Pniowsky: I myself, I'm pretty tough, I'd like to think. I mean, I'm not like super tough. You know, I hate bugs but I can stand cold. So I'd say I'm half and half. I'm from Canada, the third coldest city in the world. I can stand the cold - I don't know if that counts as tough and outdoorsy.
AKT: There's a lot of snow, so the cold part is more on your level than the bugs. A lot of the film is about storytelling. The scene in the beginning, the first ten minutes are really beautiful with you mostly listening and then making the most remarkable comments. How did you film this? Was it all scripted or some of it improvised? Did you know everything that was going to come?
AP: It was scripted. I mean, I'm sure a few words came in here and there. But we stuck to the script for the most part. That scene took a whole day of filming. We just kind of kept rolling or sometimes one of us would mess up so we'd start again.
AKT: Your reactions are great. When he comes up with the name Fang [for the antagonist in the Noah's Ark story the father is telling her]. It was very realistic, as if you were totally surprised. Did you grow up with storytelling? Were you told stories?
AP: I was told stories, mostly by my dad. Yeah, I think storytelling was a big part of my childhood. Even though I still am a kid technically, I'm only 13. I'm acting like I'm 20.
Anna Pniowsky on Rag in Light Of My Life: "In this movie, it's having to go in hiding. Things like that, you know, pretending to be a boy."
AKT: What kind of stories? Fairy tales?
AP: Fairy tales, yeah.
AKT: Did you have a favourite?
AP: I did. Me and my sister. I have a sister [Abigail]. If I remember correctly, we were both princesses. That was my favourite. I always wanted to be a princess. We had this horse, I think. And then the horse went missing or something like that. That one was my favourite. I think we found the horse at the end. Happy ending. I just remember this, when I was younger, I had this huge book of Disney stories. It was very big and I would read that. Or someone would read it to me.
AKT: Reading, storytelling - it's so important in this film that has none of the technology that you grow up with here. It gets to the basics. Did you have an appreciation after being in this film? A thought of "Wow, my life is really good. I don't have to sleep in the forest"? Did you feel that way a little?
AP: Yeah, it was kind of, not really a reality check, but it was a little eye-opening. Just the thought of civilisation collapsing. It's a little bit of a scary thought to lose everything.
AKT: And to lose all women in the world!
AP: Yeah, to lose your loved ones and your role models. And in this movie, it's having to go in hiding. Things like that, you know, pretending to be a boy. I think that is kind of a little freaky. So think about if that were ever to actually happen. So far it hasn't luckily. Let's keep our fingers crossed.
Anna Pniowsky: "When I was younger, I had this huge book of Disney stories. It was very big and I would read that. Or someone would read it to me."
AKT: Could you identify with her, just on a small level, wanting to wear a dress after filming? Wanting to wear something other than these outdoorsy tough boys' clothes?
AP: You know what? I actually, even on and off, but I mostly wanted to wear dresses constantly. Because I actually did cut my hair very short. I mean, I was younger.
AKT: How old were you during the shoot?
AP: I was eleven. People would sometimes actually mistake me as a boy in real life, so I felt the need to wear skirts and things like that. Because I was a little girl and it hurt my feelings sometimes. Especially, I started middle school with an awful haircut - because people did mistake me as a boy, even though girls can have short haircuts. I think at that time it was more common for boys to have short hair. So I would always want to wear like girly things and stuff like that. As Rag did.
AKT: Tell me a little bit about the casting! Did you have long hair when you were chosen?
AP: I did! And it was funny because I had multiple callbacks and on one of them Casey started talking about how short he would cut my hair. I didn't know if I had gotten the role or not. It was a little confusing. I had very long hair, actually it was down to my waist.
AKT: And he saw through it, as, of course, it's not the hair, but something else that makes you the perfect Rag. Tell me a bit about how you were working together with Casey?
AP: I mean, Casey is a phenomenal actor and I'm very thankful that I got to work with him and learn from him. I was comfortable around him and I could be vulnerable around the camera, which is important in this kind of character-driven film.
AKT: Casey is acting with you and directing you at the same time.
Anna Pniowsky on Light Of My Life: "Different people take away different things, which is one thing that's really great about this movie."
AP: I think it made it easier for him - I don't want to put words into his mouth - but I hope that it made it easier that it was mostly just us for the film. He could change the way he acts to effect the way that I act if he wanted to give direction. It felt normal.
AKT: What kind of movies do you like? What do you watch as an audience?
AP: I tend to like comedic shows. My favourite show is The Office. By far, my favourite show ever. I do like to watch sad films sometimes, it kind of depends what mood I'm in.
AKT: Do you remember the first movie you ever saw?
AP: The first movie I ever saw? I'm sure I watched cartoon movies. My first memorable one was most likely Cinderella or The Little Mermaid. Disney.
AKT: That seems to be it for most people. You probably haven't seen a French film called Donkey Skin? A fairy-tale film, a beautiful one from almost fifty years ago. I introduced a screening of it at the French Institute Alliance Française around the corner from here the day before yesterday. And the director of that film, Jacques Demy - even his first film was by Disney - Snow White.
[In Light Of My Life] there is a great moment on the bridge when you're doing that kind of boy walk. Did you have a choreographer?
AP: I didn't have a choreographer for that. I just copied Casey. He has a very strong strut. It's a very manly kind of big walk. I just mimicked him.
AKT: What about the toothbrush with the dirt?
Light Of My Life poster - opens in the US on August 9
AP: It was charcoal. We had this like nature person come in before filming and he would show me all kinds of things and give me little lessons on nature. Charcoal apparently it whitens your teeth. I was born with kind of yellow teeth and now I use charcoal toothpaste, which is funny.
AKT: That's what making a film can do - you change your toothpaste. Anything else you learned? How to make fire? Or a tent?
AP: I really wish that I could say that I did learn nature-y things from the film, but I don't think so.
AKT: There are some scary moments - mother and daughter skeletons. I don't know if you've ever seen the Hitchcock movie Psycho?
AP: Sorry? No. Is it scary?
AKT: Forget it. That'll be for later.
AP: I hate scary movies.
AKT: Did they hide things from you during filming because you were only 11?
AP: Oh no! I know that it's fake and I'm aware. They [the skeletons] were a little scary though. I will say they freaked me out a little bit.
AKT: One of the greatest lines is about ten minutes in and you say "You said it was about Goldie [the female fox in Casey's story] and then it was all about Art [the male fox]." The film comes back to it, and the idea of men taking over. This is a great feminist statement there. It's too often forgotten that there's another voice.
AP: I don't know. I don't fully know the reason why he wrote any particular lines. I think different audiences take away different things. Different people take away different things, which is one thing that's really great about this movie.
Light Of My Life opens in the US on August 9 and on Digital and On Demand the same day.