As mesmerizingly beautiful as it is heartbreaking, M.L. Stedman’s novel THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS has been eloquently and almost literally brought to life by Writer/Director Derek Cianfrance, Actors Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander and Rachel Weisz, Director of Photography Adam Arkapaw, Production Designer Karen Murphy, Set Decorator Rebecca Cohen, Costume Designer Erin Benach and their crews, with a deep commitment by all.
Tom Sherbourne [Fassbender], a shell-shocked veteran of WWI, devotes himself to his new job as lighthouse keeper on the otherwise uninhabited Janus Rock, surrounded by nothing but the vast sea, seeking solace in the solitude. He intends to remain alone, but unexpectedly meets Isabel Graysmark [Vikander], a vivacious young woman from the town of Partageuse across the harbor, herself grieving two brothers lost in the war. Despite the obstacles, their love flourishes in the stark isolation and they are soon married. Passionate for each other and hoping to be part of creating a new life together, they try to start a family, but fate intercedes. Then, one night, a mysterious rowboat holding a dead man and an infant girl washes ashore, setting off a chain of decisions—some impetuous, others wrenching— that unravel with shattering consequences. —DreamWorks
Director Derek Cianfrance [BLUE VALENTINE, THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES] describes himself as a documentarian of fiction.
His intent is to make the fiction seem so real that it almost becomes real. He wants his films to be an immersive experience, not only for the audience, but for the actors as well, which requires the sets to become habitable—not only staged creations or re-creations, but actual complete environments.
In a fascinating discussion, Cianfrance talks with SET DECOR about the challenges and the necessity of “trying to be as truthful as possible,” even and especially with a fictional tale.
SET DECOR: Since Janus Island, the highly symbolic two-sided point between oceans is so significant, let’s talk about the lighthouse and the keeper’s cottage…
Director Derek Cianfrance: Since the story is in part about isolation, I really felt like we needed to be isolated while making the movie. I wanted us all to be in the same spot so that we could wake up and film the sunrise and do scenes in the middle of the night and become part of this real environment. I always try to create experiences for my actors so that their performances can transcend ‘acting’ and become ‘being.’”
So Karen Murphy, my great production designer, was really my right hand collaborator on trying to find places that existed. And the ultimate location that we found was the Cape Campbell lighthouse, which is on a cape about an hour and a half by dirt road from any other people.
Karen and I had visited probably 50 lighthouse locations between Australia and New Zealand over 3-4 months. And Cape Campbell was the final place we landed. What it had that worked for us is that it was isolated. There was no town nearby, so we could create an environment where we would be alone. And I wanted the actors to be alone.
So Karen adapted the house, put on some additions to the keeper’s cottage that were all perfectly in tune with period details, and we were in the 1920s.
I remember one incident that just blew my mind was when we were shooting with a toddler, a 1-year-old, and you know with a 1-year-old, it’s like working with a puppy. You can’t tell them where to go, you can just hope that they go somewhere that you can use. Of course this 1-year-old was just not doing what I wanted at all, and she ran to the corner of the room, but what I realized is that anywhere she went, the shot was still good. I remember she was standing next to a hinge on a door, and when the day was over I gave Karen a hug and told her, “That hinge will make it into the movie. There was not a foot, a corner of this environment that I could not shoot.” She made the place completely 360, with so many subtle details…
Also, her right hand person, her set decorator Rebecca Cohen, who would have been in charge of so many of those details…
Yes, Rebecca! She was tireless, inexhaustible, and she came at it all the time with such good humor! With Karen and Rebecca, the place was truly transformed back into that time—so much so, that for the first 3 days of shooting, we had Michael Fassbender basically live there. I filmed him just living and working. He cleaned the lens of the light and he milked the goats and he made himself breakfast, and after the third day, he asked one of my crewmembers, “What have we been doing? Are we rehearsing? When are we going to make the movie?” We had been making the movie the whole time!
During that time, if he wanted bacon for breakfast, he had to go get and cook it. Karen and Rebecca had made up the box. It wasn’t a refrigerator, it was like how they would keep it in the 1920s, outside, and the bacon was under some cheesecloth so the flies wouldn’t get it. And there were eggs from the live chickens in the chicken coop. So every morning, he’d have to go find his eggs. If he wanted to get water to do his dishes, he had to go to the well to get it. It was a completely functional place. And if he opened up the cupboard, there was silverware in there, along with basic cooking supplies in tins of the time.
So it was totally experiential for him…
That’s right. And that was crucial to me as a filmmaker, because I spent 12 years making documentaries, so I’m always looking for a place where acting stops and behavior begins…or being begins.
And I want these places where the people live to be actually alive.
And Karen Murphy and Rebecca created these living breathing environments that you could interact in…
They understood how crazy some of the requests we had were, how specific my insistence was, because I really did want to go back in time. I have to say, sometimes there were other crewmembers who thought I was completely off my rocker…even Michael. I mean, when he first showed up and I said, “Yeah, I want you to live here.” His response was, “Is that really necessary?” And I said, “Well, what I’m trying to give you is an experience, Michael.” And he says, “Let’s try it for a night and see how it goes.” Flash-forward to 5 weeks later, he didn’t want to leave. I had to drag him out of there.
And, you know, it’s because of Karen and Rebecca and all that they put into it.
They are the first line in making it completely authentic, truthful.
You know, I guess all cinema is base upon suspension of dis-belief…
Right, and they are there to provide the credibility as much as possible.
Yeah, but they’re also suspending the disbelief on set. Not just when you are sitting in the audience and you watch it, but because of where we were and what they made come alive. When we were making it, we were all kind of believing that we were there in that time. We had no cell phone service. We were actually in the 1920s.
It HAS to be a fully realized world. And the fact that they did such good work on it, it gave both Michael and Alicia their world. It was a real place.
And that goes back to my first production meetings with DreamWorks. I was like, “There can be no green screen.” Once you see that green screen, you’re all of a sudden not immersed, you know you’re in a movie. And I’m always trying to forget that we’re making a movie. I don’t even say “Action” or “Cut” because I don’t want them to get performance anxiety. I want them to always be alive.
No wonder Michael wasn’t sure whether you were filming or not!
Well, we haven’t even mentioned the natural beauty of this somewhat barren place, but it is reflected in the simplicity of the cottage and lighthouse. And to go from this wonderful setting to some of the other sets, the sort of touchstone for Isabel is her family home. There’s a warmth there, a sense of family, sanctuary even at times. Again, it’s simply done but it has such a truth about it.
Yeah, you know, sometimes when I see period pieces, they feel too untouchable. They feel like everything is perfect, right? They almost feel like museum pieces. Like when I’m in some period movies, I feel that I have to whisper. And what was crucial with Karen and Rebecca for these homes was to make something that where we could yell in there.
I remember, we were shooting a scene at dinner and everyone was so careful. Jane Menelaus, who plays Violet, Isabel’s mom, was cutting her roast on her plate so silently and politely, because she said she didn’t want to scratch the fine china. So I took a plate, smashed it on the ground, and I said, “This is what we have to do to our china..” And Rebecca came up to me and told me, “Uh, that plate that you just broke was one of a set, and since we have to pay for the whole set, you just spent $2500 by breaking that plate.” But, she did it with a wink and with good humor. But, to me, breaking the plate was important. I did something like that one time, too, with the light-keeper’s cottage. Around the chicken coop, there was this white picket fence, and I broke some of the picket s one day, just because I wanted to make sure that we weren’t too precious.
Then we have Hannah and Frank’s cottage, which again, was so evocative. It was very tasteful, simple, but you got that feeling of her grief. Not only because it was darker inside, but it was just held back a little bit. And then the red, the brick red of the fence and the roof and the mailbox…
You know, that place that we chose for Hannah’s cottage, I have to say, that everyone hated my guts for picking that place, because it was literally the smallest possible house we could find…
But Hannah and Frank are kind of the flip side of the coin to Tom and Isabel. So I wanted to have kind of a reference…to allude to each other. That little cottage reminded me of the lighthouse keeper’s cottage. It felt about the same size. It felt intimate. And I felt like Hannah’s story—she goes from the largest house in town, the richest person’s house, to this tiny house—I feel like that house is a representation of love.
It is very romantic. It really is. But there’s also an emptiness. Not of things but in the air.
Exactly. Frank is missing. And yet he’s there in photographs and the things they shared. I talked with Rachel Weisz about this quite a bit and, it’s important, it went into our kind of design for the house. We were talking about those poor families that lost people in that Malaysia airline flight that went missing. It was all over the news just before we began shooting. And I remember Rachel and I and Karen and Rebecca talked about those families. You know, that plane still hasn’t been found. So those families had to keep hope in the face of truth. Hope represented a great denial for them, but they couldn’t give up hope. And we talked about how painful that hope can be sometimes, because you know what the truth is but you can’t give it up. And that house, to me, wanted to represent this melancholic sense of denial, but that hope and love were stronger…
It was very much both.
And then little Lucy-Grace’s room, or “Grace’s” room, in Hannah’s reference, that’s a little girl’s dream room, but of course, it wasn’t something that the little girl could respond to the way Hannah expected. And just the details, like when Hannah lifted that embroidered bedskirt and we saw the couple of little toys that we knew Lucy kept there for safety…that was beautifully done.
Yeah. I thought those details were great. And all of that, all of those toys…again, if we’re going into a behavioral place with the actors, those were the toys that the little girl Florence, who played Lucy-Grace, played with. And she had a little doll that they gave her that she named Mavis, then there’s these monkey-like finger puppets that are under the bed. Those were her playthings, they weren’t just props or set dressing. They were actually kind of loved and used and, you know, Florence still has Mavis to this day.
The colors were stronger in this setting…so much red and blue in that house. Was there anything specific about that choice? Of course, the lighthouse cottage was all the creams and ivories and light-filled, and so this, with the reds and blues was more grounded…
Yeah. Which is Hannah. To me, Hannah is kind of the blues in the movie. She’s aware. Tom & Isabel, they’re that island, I always kind of wanted it to feel like Easter.
Ah! That Spring light, yes…
Yeah, and Hannah is the Fall. Not to say that it’s any less beautiful, but it’s clinging on, and that blue just gave her this kind of melancholic, like baritone tone. And I feel that’s Rachel as well.
And then to follow that, would be Tom and Isabel’s home at the end, in which we do not see Isabel, but we feel her. It also showed us that change of time, but not of character. We saw a little bit more contemporary furniture and items, but limited, and the deeper pastels…
The house that we found…I was immediately compelled by it because it was so isolated.
Up on that bluff…
Up on that bluff, exactly. And we went to visit that place and we knocked on the door and there was this guy, a surfer, who lived at the place, who was distilling moonshine. There was no bathroom, the place was devastated. And so, again, that was one of the places…hah! You love all the places that I had to fight hardest for. It was a complete disaster. Karen Murphy lamented to me that she was a renovations expert after making this movie, and she improved all the houses. We could only afford to finish half of this house, mainly the LR and the kitchen, and again, it was completely functional. And, again, it feels like we are jumping in time, because all the period details are so precisely done. We’ve jumped forward some 20 years, but I wanted it to feel like a continuation of Tom and Isabel on that island.
It did. It totally did.
You have to figure that they lived the rest of their years a bit as outcasts, so the remote setting above the sea seemed exactly them.
You know, to me, one of the reasons I wanted to do the movie in the first place is that I believe it was a hopeful ending because it was about the power of being an individual.
To me, the beauty of this movie is that this couple can survive children…that intense love one has for a child. I look at so many friends or families, the kids turn 18 and then the parents go out to dinner with each other and they can’t talk to each other any more and they get divorces because they gave everything to their children. The test for me is can love survive children, and I wanted Tom and Isabel to actually survive that and have this house filled with not sadness but love. I wanted it to be a place of love.
Exactly how it translated onto the screen.
And then in this movie-making world, isn’t it wonderful that instead of leaving a negative imprint on these spaces, you’ve left little legacies. You’ve touched them in a beautiful way. That must feel wonderful.
Yes! I would say that when I first found that lighthouse location, Cape Campbell, I was wandering around and I came across a grave from 1896 of an infant that had died while living there. It was a little girl. She was 5-months-old. And I thought to myself that there had been life that had lived here already, and that there were spirits here and that there were memories here, and that if we came in to make a movie here, we would try to commune with those spirits. We would try to become a memory of this place. And in the future, a hundred years from now, our experience would still live there.
And, you know, what I never wanted to do with the film was to come in with like a bulldozer and change the world and obliterate the other memories. I wanted to go in and be a part of it, a part of the world. And I think that’s my whole intention as a filmmaker, it’s not to erase the world with my vision but to try to partake in the world, and so we made this movie with these great heightened emotions and this incredible human story in these real places.