The Light Between Oceans press conference with Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander and director Derek CianfranceCultureCinema
Promoting the release of The Light Between Oceans, Derek Cianfrance’s new heart-wrenching film, The Upcoming caught up with the director and lead actors Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander as they discussed the emotional process of making this feature, what it was like working with children and babies, and how they went about finding such a remote location for the movie.
Derek, what was the attraction for you with this novel and story?
Derek Cianfrance: When I first read it I was so taken with the emotion of it. I was on a subway train in Brooklyn and I was crying – it was so embarrassing to be crying but I thought if everyone else was reading what I was reading, they’d be crying too. Eventually when I wrote the script and sent it to these guys they were crying too. Yeah basically I wanted to do it because I wanted to cry more.
Michael Fassbender: And make other people cry too.
Alicia, your character goes on a wonderful journey – was that a lot of fun to explore, and delve into?
Alicia Vikander: Definitely. She’s an interesting character and quite complex. When you meet her at the start, alongside all these people who have gone through such loss after the First World War, a whole generation of men wiped out, she’s still young and coming of age as a woman. She’s still quite naïve but she’s got this immense amount of life spirit within her. I love that in both the book and the script there’s this element of a young woman, who’s almost unlikeable at the beginning, because she’s so upfront and she just acts and says things without thinking. But it comes down to the fact that she never does something unless it comes straight from the heart. She wants to do good, and I admire her just wanting to believe in life despite living in a home in mourning for her brothers. She wants to believe in life, create life, find a husband and create a family. So it’s a big arc, and I think it was interesting for both Michael and me to play ordinary, good people, who sometimes don’t always make the best decisions. I think that’s relatable.
And for you, Michael, from the first scene your character Tom seems to have this tremendous backstory in terms of what he’s gone through to get to the point where we meet him. Was that something that you and Derek talked about and explored?
MF: Yeah absolutely, it was something that Derek and I talked about. I guess we talked about lots of things; we’d go for walks and chat about life and things that weren’t related to the film. But definitely, what Tom is bringing with him when we meet him in the film – I was very aware that it had to be written on his face, in his soul, that he’s almost carrying this sort of shadow of death, of France, of trench warfare, and just the horrors of World War One around with him. And everything about him is that war; the fact that he survived it, and his survivor’s guilt, and that he seeks a job that’s going to put him in absolute isolation. So for sure, that was something that I was very focused on.
Alicia, you have to be complimented on your accent – not only do you get the Australian accent right, you get the Perth accent right. Did you use a dialect coach and how much work did you put into getting that accent right?
AV: Oh, well thank you! I was terrified each day of having to do any accent. We started with discussing whether or not we should do an RP accent, knowing of course that a lot of the Australian sounds came along after the First World War. But when we met our dialect coach he said that he thought there was a way of morphing in what was the beginning of what we now consider the Australian sounds. So we tried to find the voice of the individual character, and also trying to find the sound of that period was very important. But yes, we spent many hours, there was a lot of frustration going on. I mean me now, being an actor and not working in my native language, it’s kind of what makes you come to work everyday, it brings you back into character, immediately. So when you find that voice, when I found Isabelle’s voice, it was a fast-track way to get into her.
Derek, how important is the theme of religion, or more broadly faith, in the film. And Alicia and Michael, in what ways does it shape your characters and their actions?
DC: Well I grew up Catholic, I guess you’d call that a “recovering Catholic” now? You ask how it comes into the movie, and I think for Tom, he has so much guilt, and for me as a Catholic I also have so much guilt about every move I make in life, every choice I make. So these characters definitely live in that world, where especially Tom at the beginning of the movie has this sort of cloud over him of guilt and sin. And one of the things I loved about the story was that it’s ultimately about forgiveness. Forgiveness of his sins, of their sins of the human error really. Ultimately, it’s a human story about humans who make mistakes, with good intentions. And so for me that was really the role of religion, forgiveness. People forgiving others for just being human.
AV: I agree. That was everything I thought when you asked the question. In the period where the film is set, after all the horrors people had seen and the guilt they felt, if there is an overarching message it’s that fact that you can relate to these characters. Normally nowadays I think people try to find a protagonist and a villain, and you can’t really with this story, that’s the beauty of it. All these three characters, even the ones that made a terrible, terrible choice, they find a way in the end of taking responsibility for their actions and find a way forward and a way to forgive.
MF: I think at the time that we’re dealing with religion played more of a role in everyday society. Personally, I think that Tom, after his experiences in the war, is a religious person. In the book, it says that he makes a pact with God that if he gets out of this alive not to forget the horrors he’s seen. I think perhaps being in that scenario as a soldier and being so close to death one can sort of find a new-found faith. But I think he’s definitely someone who believes in God, and thinks there will be consequences for his actions.
How do you prevent such an emotional story from tipping into melodrama, as both a director and actors?
DC: I grew up watching a lot of melodramas, I always loved them. Douglas Sirk movies, I loved Powell and Pressburger movies, I loved Victor Fleming and David Lee and I also grew up watching Days of Our Lives, I loved Days of Our Lives. So, melodrama – I don’t really understand that as a genre, I just understand truth and emotional truth. And I also understand that when you’re making a movie about these emotional characters who are making emotional decisions, their emotions have to be heightened. Like for me, anytime I’m emotional I usually regret it: crying on that subway train I was so embarrassed. Being on the side of my son’s soccer team yelling at other parents – I regret it afterwards. I just always regret my emotions. And these characters are emotional, so I think all we thought about was trying to approach those emotional moments as honestly as possible. And I had two of the greatest actors on the planet with me, and we were like truth metres for one another. Anytime it felt like we were pushing, it wasn’t right. There was a time early on I have to say, I must confess, when Michael cried early on in the movie that I thought, yeah – there we go.
MF: The crying thing again.
DC: I know but eight weeks into it, we would meet before scenes and say whatever we do, let’s not cry and he was like “Yeah, I don’t want to cry anymore”, but it was so ripe with emotion we couldn’t stop crying. The whole movie was snotty crying while we were shooting it. We couldn’t help it.
MF: But what is the definition of a melodrama, that’s the question. It’s a scenario isn’t it where the good is good, and the bad is bad and they’re played pretty one dimensionally. I can call this film a melodrama at times as well, but in a weird way the good people are making bad choices, it’s an interesting thing. Especially if something becomes emotionally overwrought, let’s say, and becomes too much for an audience, if it’s too heavily weighted emotionally as opposed to the narrative… I don’t know, really as a performer, that’s in the director’s hands. What we try and do as performers is give as many options for any given scene. We may play it with different intentions and different emotional content, different activities, to get what we want. And then really it’s up to the director to come up with that vision.
How significant was the remote nature of the locations – did you feel more like you were living in the movie than you might if you were somewhere where you were going back to a metropolitan hotel every night?
AV: I’ve done a few films now where you end up going out on location with a crew where you’re living close to each other. If you’re doing something in London everyone just goes back home at the end of every day, but on location you create a community and work very intensely and tightly together in all departments and that gives a lot. But one of the best perks of this job is that you get to go to lots of places that I wouldn’t likely have ended up if it weren’t for my job. And then I arrived on set and everyone told me I had to go and see the nature because it’s extraordinary. Every evening and every morning I saw a new sunrise and in my audition, Derek said “Well I expect my actors to fail and surprise me and in turn I give them experiences”. And this was one. I’d never felt so small in the world. You really get a sense of what isolation means, and to have a wind that never stops – it kind of could drive you mad.
Derek, were the locations that you wanted to use easy to find?
AV: No he was really angry!
DC: I spent like six months trying to find the perfect place. We were going to shoot in Australia, but then Pirates of the Caribbean came into town and took all the tax credit away. That’s Pirates of the Caribbean 5. So, we had to go find another spot. We looked at New Zealand, which is such a gorgeous country: it’s further south, so the light is really beautiful, it’s always really low in the sky. There were many great islands that had lighthouses on them, but they also had indigenous populations and protected lizards, so we couldn’t go on those. And then there was this great island we found but the lighthouse was, you know..
DV: Yes, stumpy. Thank you, Michael. And the only reason I agreed to look at it was because I was told that it was an hour and a half away from any kind of civilisation, and I just always wanted to live somewhere like that. I love going to camp. And I thought that the isolation might be good for us making this movie. We had nowhere to go, we didn’t have technology to escape to, we didn’t have any distractions, we just had each other. I was very thankful that these guys agreed to do it. Thanks guys. [Laughter]
As actors do you get time to explore the locations you go to?
AV: Actually I would say it’s when we do these press tours that we see nothing. Of course, from Monday to Friday and some Saturdays we worked round the clock. But the beautiful thing about making a film in one city is that first of all you fly over your own crew, but you also get some local crew in and can end up spending two or three months with local people – which you don’t normally do as tourists. You actually meet the people from that place. And if you have weekends, like we did, you get the chance to get their recommendations. We did some hiking and went on trips. So when you’re working on a film that is based in one place for a few weeks or months it’s really nice that you get to know it.
Michael, I know they say never work with children or animals, how did you find it working with the babies?
MF: Yeah, babies. I guess they’re either quiet or they’re not! Yeah babies there’s not a lot you can do. With kids you can work with them because they can talk, and express themselves. I’ve always found that when children have to adhere to a script that they can sometimes tense up or freeze up and be quite rigid. But when they’re improvising they’re magical. It’s kind of like a stream of consciousness, it comes flowing out of them. They’ve got such freedom in their imagination and it’s actually quite hard to keep up with them and have a response to them. They don’t like to repeat things! You know, they don’t want to go again! They’ve already done it, and it’s unnatural, and they’re right! But I’ve always found that you can learn a lot from working with kids, from the enjoyment they take in creating a magical world and filling it with imagination. Their commitment to the imagination is quite intoxicating.
Did it make you broody at all?
MF: Err, I like kids!
Michael, you’ve also recently appeared in Trespass Against Us, which is a completely different role. Are there certain roles that you find easier or quicker to shake off than others?
MF: It depends on the amount of time you have going into it. Sometimes you might know you’ve got six week to two months before going into the next job so you can prepare accordingly. I suppose the thing is if I know I’m going into another job it’s a very easy way to cleanse the other person out because it’s just about getting the new person right. It sounds like I’m going to be nuts in a few years! I’ll be in an old people’s home you know – “Oh no, here comes Macbeth again, Jesus” – so it’s quite a good way to clear the decks and start again. It’s been a bit like that the last five or six years where I’ve gone job to job. Trespass was right before this one, funnily enough.
What were the most challenging aspects of playing your respective characters? And for Derek, what surprises did Michael and Alicia bring to the roles?
AV: I think the greatest challenge I had playing Isabel was that when I read the script I didn’t immediately fall in love with her. But when I read the book, I did end up feeling for her, and when looking on Goodreads.com, there were discussions going on about her, and I wanted that to still be there, that she wasn’t a simple person that she had all these elements to her, different sides. And yet, you believe that the mistake she makes comes from the heart. Also, trying to portray a mother, which I am not, and trying to get an insight on that because it’s such a big part of what goes on.
MF: I suppose for me it’s trying to visualise the character in your head and what they represent, and coming to a physical place with that. It’s kind of difficult with some characters. I suppose with Tom I was so taken with him, he’s like a hero to me, it’s like he’s a man from a by-gone era. They don’t make them like that anymore; he’s a quiet man who doesn’t vocalise what he’s feeling. Huge dignity and loyalty. I just thought this is a great man, and I would aspire to be like that. It’s hard to know if you’re managing to physically embody the character that you’re imagining, that’s where the director comes into play. You know, to either give you reassurance, or say, what the fuck are you doing?
DC: I’ll just say that when I’ve been adapting and writing these things, I’m often sick of it by the time I’m on set because I’ve been seeing it in my head the whole time. And to get on set and to have it become real, to have these two great actors in these roles – that’s to me the most thrilling moment of my life, and as a director there are so few days you actually get to shoot, but to me that’s where the essence is. To me, Michael, he was like a heavy weight champ and when you go to fight with a heavyweight champ you got to show up! So Alicia showed up, and she was like this thoroughbred and so a heavyweight champ is used to getting someone down in the second round, but she kept running. So they kept raising this bar for one another on set and it was so wonderful to watch these two great performers just pushing each other. I didn’t have to do much pushing because they were doing it for each other! And it was beautiful to see when they had each other’s backs. There was only one time when they teamed up against me.
MF: When was that!
DC: You remember. You said some things you can’t take back. [Laughter]
You managed to have three Australian acting legends in the film with you: Jack Thompson, Bryan Brown and Garry MacDonald. How were they to work with?
AV: Amazing. I was so glad to see Jack again. I met him in Venice and then weirdly also met him in Vegas! But I’m still at the beginning of my career so every time I get to work with actors whose work I’ve seen, that I look up to, and to suddenly get the chance not only to shake their hands and tell them how much I appreciate them, but get the chance to work with them is always extremely humbling.
MF: Yeah, I had met Bryan Brown before at a party and I had started doing my best Cocktail impersonation: “Coughlin’s law..” So it was great to work with him! Jack Thompson and Garry as well. There’s a sort of musicality to them, and with Jack, he’s a poet as well as anything else, they’ve just got a real knack for story telling. I don’t know if that’s because of their Irish heritage – you know all the Irish convicts going out to Australia! – but there’s a natural gift that the Australians have for story telling, I find. I think you can see it with the sort of talent that comes out of the country. There’s a great humanity to Australian artists or performers, and they also have an understanding of the land and the harshness of the environment and what it can throw at you. So yeah, it was a blast! Garry was improvising as well during the wedding scene – it was hilarious.
DC: Yeah for me, I had no idea who Norman Gunston was, but he was Borat before Borat, right! He’s the original Ali G! He’s the best and the bravest and they were all such a joy, all the Australian cast. I have to give credit to Ben Mendelsohn, he pretty much cast the whole Australian portion of the film.
MF: And full credit to Derek as well, I have to say, in the casting process he’s always searching for truth. Whether or not someone is known on the scene or not. As an actor before, when I was always trying to get cast in something you always look for those directors who are open to a fresh face or a name that’s not on the list. And amongst Derek’s great traits that’s one fantastic one, giving people the opportunity to do things they might not otherwise get.
DC: And then I cut him out of the film! Haha, joking.
Photo: Andrea Avezzu
The Light Between Oceans is released nationwide on 4th November 2016.
Read our review here.