The Light Between Oceans press conference with Michael Fassbender and Alicia VikanderVenice Film Festival 2016
The Light Between Oceans is Derek Cianfrance’s adaptation of the book of the same name, written by ML Stedman. Set after the end of the Great War in Australia, the picture features Hollywood stars Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander who interpret a couple looking after an isolated lighthouse. One day they rescue a baby girl from a rowboat and decide to keep her as their own child.
Why did you decide to adapt this story?
Derek Cianfrance: After my last film, The Place Beyond the Pines, I was sick of myself and my own ideas. I wanted to adapt something and I spent a year reading scripts, but I couldn’t seeing myself working on any of those. Then I met someone at Dreamworks. [It turned out] Spielberg was a big fan of Blue Valentine – I always thought of it as ET without aliens. I thought this book had a cinematic potential: the lighthouse is a projector, projecting in the dark… For me, growing up in Colorado it was like being on an island. We would transform ourselves when people were visiting, then we would go back to our real selves. A year after the Dreamworks meeting, they finally gave me a shot to do it.
It might be the first time you Michael have interpreted a family man
Michael Fassbender: Is it? Let me think about it…maybe Magneto?
How do you keep your Swedish roots in your roles, after the Oscar and all the success?
Alicia Vikander: Yes that is part of me, I was brought up in Sweden. In my work I think it shines through and you can bring your heritage [on the set]. Although it’s a small country, there’s wonderful filmmaking [in Sweden]. Working away, in English, and travelling, you learn about cultures while making movies. I cherish where I come from a lot and I try to adapt that and get inspired but also try to be inspired by other people’s backgrounds.
How do you feel about your character’s decision? Did you think about it yourself?
MF: It’s a tricky situation obviously. You have two people on this island, they fall in love, it seems like an idillic island that belongs to themselves. They try to start a family but then there are the miscarriages, and the isolation puts them in a position where their relationship decades. Isabel (Alicia Vikander) should have talked with a neighbour. When they made the decision about the statement, whether it’s right or not, you need to be true with yourself and make a decision you can live with. Tom made a promise after war that he wouldn’t hurt another human being. He couldn’t live with Hannah’s pain after he sees her.
DC: It’s a battle between truth and love. Tom (Michael Fassbender) is a character who always knows the difference between right and wrong, he is a good moral character. At the beginning of the movie he is a man who survived, he isn’t alive, he just wants to let the time try to heal this pain. Isabel is grieving too, from the loss of the brothers, but she is still alive. One character is in his head, the other one is in his heart. When they find the baby he can save his wife’s life with that decision. Characters in my films usually choose with emotion. They aren’t heroes or villains, they are just human beings making decisions with their heart and emotions.
Do you have any personal life experience that helped you throughout the filmmaking process?
AV: I’m not a mother, it was one of the biggest challenges in this film, the extreme longing for a child this woman has, it’s something many women share. [When I act] I use my imagination to try and figure out what my character try to feel. I haven’t had a child yet but it’s something so profound I had to think how it would be like to have a child. The fact many people could have thought “she really doesn’t know what it’s like” put pressure on me. Women shared their experience with me so that I could tell the story even though I didn’t even the experience. Miscarriage is a trauma many people can relate to, it happens but they don’t talk about it.
DF: I’m a father, I love my mother and my wife who is such a great mother. My mother-in-law told me “you are going to be miserable now for the rest of your life”, because the way you love him now you are going to love him when he’ll turn 40 and he’ll live somewhere else. Isabel and Hannah, they are both the child’s mother. That is part of the impossibility of this question and the story. What I loved about the book’s writing was that there were no heroes or villain. Flashback to my jury duties, deciding about someone being guilty or not guilty, at times I was certain he was guilty and then I was sure he was innocent after the defence talked. It’s the same with this movie. It’s a meditation on how it feels to be a parent.
What do you think of your characters and this movie?
AV: I read the script, I fell in love with the book, and I thought it wasn’t easy to adapt it. I wondered how was I supposed to feel? Nowadays there’s always a protagonist and a hero, whereas this is just a story of real people, good people that sometimes don’t make the best decisions. People learning what it means to forgive. I didn’t get an answer to my questions in the end, I just felt for the characters in this film.
MF: I loved Tom wen I read the story, he seemed to be a man of time gone by. His strength and loyalty, I just thought: if I could just use a little bit of what Tom has got. ML Stedman started the book on purpose after the Great War and the damage that happened to the people in the world. We have Isabel’s character full of life and possibility, the idea of future. And then what happens to them? Like Alicia said, many people go through miscarriages but they don’t talk about them. It’s life though. The best part of this story is forgiveness, Hannah manages to forgive them – my God. We see so many immigrants dying at sea today, and the prejudice when people arrive in the countries. It’s time for forgiveness. When you see Lucy at the end of the movie, she’s very positive and optimistic. She has come through this. Human beings survive and adapt. That’s one of the most amazing things about human beings, surviving hardships.
How far can you go to satisfy your desire to be parents?
MF: If you want to be a parent you should wonder: what can I offer to the child? Rather than what the child could offer you.
AV: Isabel has not been in the war herself but she has lost people. And she kept her life thoughts running. The main thing for her is to continue life, the one thing he could hold on to. Then Tom comes in, and the longing for the continuation of life and to be part of new life meant so much to her. It’s clear in this film that Tom and Isabel make very wrong decisions at some point but that’s the drama. The island becomes their emotional prison in the end.
How was working together?
AV: I was so into the works of Derek, Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines, and I knew Michael was attached to Tom. I was so excited to work with them, I was so nervous. First time we met with Derek he said he expected his actors to surprise him. It was a challenge and a wonderful thing.
MF: I was kind of scared when Alicia came, she was so fierce and hungry. It’s always a great thing to see in an actor, she wasn’t as well known yet, people in the industry knew where she was heading though. She was given an opportunity and grabbed it with both hands. New fresh actors make more established actors up their game. I felt like I had to get my shit together, be there and respond. Derek is somebody who demands more and more and more. When he discovers something you go for another 35-minutes take. It was a very tense experience but also rewarding.
Filippo L’Astorina, the Editor
Photos: Laura Denti