Filmmaker Derek Cianfrance can recall exactly the subway ride when he knew he was destined to make a big screen adaptation of M.L. Stedman’s best-selling novel “The Light Between Oceans.”
“I was on the C train coming home to Brooklyn,” Cianfrance said in a recent phone conversation from Los Angeles.
“I was reading the last chapter and I started crying. I don’t cry that much, especially not in public. It’s embarrassing. But at the same time I felt good, because I knew that if anybody else had read what I just read, they’d be crying, too.
“Since then I’ve watched people reading the novel on trains and in coffee shops. And frequently they’re in tears.”
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There undoubtedly will be some hankies pulled when Cianfrance’s film opens Sept. 2 to kick off the more serious fall movie season. It stars Michael Fassbender as a post-WWI lighthouse keeper and Alicia Vikander as his wife. The two are resigned to never having children, and then a rowboat washes up on their island with a baby aboard.
For years they are a happy little family living in glorious isolation. But then they learn of a woman (Rachel Weisz) who lost her baby at sea.
“I found the story to be incredibly beautiful and human,” Cianfrance said, “and in line with the themes and questions I’d raised in my earlier films” — “Blue Valentine” and “The Place Beyond the Pines.”
As with those earlier films, Cianfrance employed virtually no rehearsal, preferring to capture his players’ spontaneous reactions to places and situations.
“I’m always trying to find a place where story stops and life begins, where acting stops and just being begins. I found this location in New Zealand, a lighthouse about 90 minutes down a dirt road from anywhere. No hotels, no TV, no cellphone service, no computers.
“And Michael and Alicia and I lived there in complete isolation while we made the movie. I didn’t want any easy escape. I wanted to spend summer camp with my actors.”
Fassbender, perhaps best known as Magneto in the “X-Men” franchise, spent his first three days alone on the set doing all the things his character would have done.
“First I had him polish the lamp,” Cianfrance recalled. “He cooked himself breakfast with eggs he got from the chicken coop. He made a fire in the wood-burning stove. He shaved and made his bed and tended the garden.
“I wanted to get him to the place where he stopped even thinking about making a movie, where he just became this character.”
Vikander (an Oscar winner for “The Danish Girl”), who plays his new bride, was brought to the location a week later in the dead of night and not allowed to go outside until the sun rose.
“Coming to this place is a journey to the edge of the world. If you arrived wearing a blindfold and then took it off, your jaw would drop from the beauty and isolation. I wanted Alicia to have that experience.”
Cianfrance said he likes to think of “Light” as a melding of the influences of two of his favorite directors: John Cassavetes, who made intimate relationship pictures like “Husbands” and “A Woman Under the Influence,” and David Lean, known for big productions like “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Doctor Zhivago.”
“I thought this was like a John Cassavetes movie in a David Lean landscape. What was important in this movie was scale: the epic versus the intimate.”
“One reason Cassavetes is a hero to me is that his movies grew with him, they reflected the stages of his life. He made movies about where he was at that time.
“That’s what I want to do with my films. I’m big on issues of love and family — that’s my life’s mission as regards cinema.”
Though “The Light Between Oceans” is his first studio film after years of independent productions, Cianfrance said he was allowed to do things his way. Of course, some of that might be because of the far-flung location.
“I guess no studio executive wanted to travel 45 hours to visit the set,” he said. “Anyway, they let me make the movie I wanted.”
Cianfrance is already preparing his next movie, “Empire of the Summer Moon,” based on a nonfiction book about Comanche civilization.
“It’s not going to be a John Wayne movie or a Kevin Costner movie,” he said. “It won’t be racist, and it won’t be about liberal guilt. I think it will be a whole new way of looking at the subject.”
Read more of freelancer Robert W. Butler’s film coverage at ButlersCinemaScene.com.