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Interview: The Light Between Oceans Director Derek Cianfrance Masterfully Breaks Down Shooting on Film Versus Digital

"If I was to shoot Light Between Oceans on film, it would have cost another million dollars on my budget."

The Light Between Oceans tells the story of a WWI hero (Michael Fassbender) who gets hired as a lighthouse keeper and ends up marrying a local woman named Isabel (Alicia Vikander). After suffering two miscarriages, the couple had given up hope on having a child of their own until a boat carrying a dead man and an infant washes ashore. Rather than reporting her to the authorities, the couple decides to raise her as their own. Years later, they come face-to-face with the girl’s birth mother and are suddenly faced with the consequences of their actions.

The period drama was directed by Derek Cianfrance, best known for his work on Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines. In a special conversation with The Mary Sue, he broke down what it means to shoot on film versus digital and also highlighted a number of women and POC filmmakers whose work excited him.

The Mary Sue: What is it about these gut-punching stories makes you want to tackle them so often?

Derek Cianfrance: I’m kinda obsessed with emotions…emotional truths and the danger of emotion. I feel like in all my movies, my characters are always making emotional choices. They’re always living life with their hearts more so than [with] their minds and there’s always a conflict that happens when their brain tries to talk to their heart in my movies. And I’m just obsessed with that kind of consequence that stems from emotional choices and the nonjudgmental perspective on that. I love human beings and I love human beings for all their mistakes. So all the characters in my movies, they always make choices that…they’re inherently choices made with good intentions but they always have reverberations to them and they always end up hurting other people. So, I’m trying to delve into that human heart on the screen.

TMS: You’ve made reference to a style of filmmaking called “experience.” What does that mean and does it have any relation to method acting?

DC: I’m not really sure about method acting. All I know is that as a filmmaker, I think what I can give my actors is an experience. When I’m making a film, to me, it’s the most pleasurable part of my life. And it’s also the rarest time. For instance, Blue Valentine…I spent 12 years thinking about that movie, dreaming about that movie, writing that movie, trying to get that movie made and then I finally l made it and I shot it in 25 days. You just look at 25 days versus 12 years—it’s like a very small amount of time. So when I’m shooting with actors and when I’m on set, it’s pure life. And what I try to do with my actors on set is I try to get them to live. What I wanna do is just capture life as purely as I can on set. So we have a script always but, to me, if the actors only do the words that I’ve written on the script, I’m always kinda bored.

What I try to always do is set up situations and experiences for my actors so when I’m shooting, I can capture one moment. And it’s not theater, it’s cinema. So you only have to get things once. It could be the first take or it could be the 30th take, but I’m always trying to look for the unrepeatable moment and then I want my actors to live on screen. If you were watching the movie, I want you to be watching real living moments on screen. That’s what thrills me most about movies. I kind of love documentaries more than I love narrative films anymore. I feel like a Frederick Wiseman documentary or a Maysles brothers documentary is always more thrilling to me than scripted narrative.

TMS: Today, most filmmakers shoot on digital. Do you feel like there’s authenticity in digital or are you of the old school frame of mind that shooting on actual film is where the real cinema is at?

DC: I think Coppola said it one time that film would finally become an art form when some 14 year old girl from Ohio would pick up a video camera and make a masterpiece. Certainly, with digital’s tools, what’s happened is more and more people have been able to tell stories who wouldn’t have been able to before. There’s so many moments that are always captured even on like iPhone. See, with a film like Tangerine, I don’t think that film is any less authentic or pure of an artistic expression because it’s shot on an iPhone. It’s quite the opposite. I think the iPhone allowed a certain intimacy to occur between the camera and the characters. So I’m all for digital but I also love film.

What really, to me, happens is there’s a process difference when you’re shooting on digital versus film. On film, you’ll always have a magazine that will run out. When I [shot] Place Beyond the Pines, we shot that on 2 perf 33 mm which meant that we had 9 minutes and 20 seconds before the magazine ran out. So that meant that in each scene that I would set up…’cause when I work with actors I never say action or cut…that meant when I started shooting, the actors would have nine minutes to get it. And what happens to the actors when I shoot film is they become more like athletes and it becomes like a ticking clock. If you imagine like a basketball game or a football game, you have these quarters and you only have so much time to put points up on the board. And so there’s this urgency that happens on film which I think is so thrilling.

Where as on digital, what can end up happening is you can erode time because you can shoot so much longer. So, the second half of Blue Valentine, I shot on digital and I did that in a way because I wanted to capture the love that eroded through time and so I would do 45 minute takes to try to get to these moments when the actors would just forget they were on screen. What ended up happening on Light Between Oceans is, I wanted to shoot that on film but I was shooting in Australia and New Zealand and at that time, all the labs had closed down. And what’s really unfortunate right now for filmmakers is the choice is being taken away between digital and film, and more and more filmmakers are being forced into shooting digital.

Now, I’m happy with the way that digital photography turned out in Light Between Oceans. I adapted to a method of shooting with it where I could shoot longer takes with my actors and we could shoot the 10 minutes before and 10 minutes after the scripted scene that we actually shot…But what’s disappointing is when you have guys like George Lucas a dozen or so years ago come out and declare that film was dead, they actually went out and killed it for a lot of people. And so, whenever I can, if the project is right, I try to shoot on film. But it’s just getting harder and harder to do because there’s less and less labs. I think there’s one lab in America now, in LA. If I was to shoot Light Between Oceans on film, it would have cost like another million dollars on my budget. I would have had to send my dailies to Mumbai and it would have taken six days to get my dailies back. So it was kind of unrealistic. The option was taken off the table for me on that.

TMS: Who are some women and minority directors with films that make you really excited?

DC: So many. I’ve always loved Kelly Reichardt (Certain Women). She’s always been one of my favorite filmmakers. Every time she has a movie, I have to see it on the big screen because I think she does this magical thing about shooting very small stories and I think they need to be seen big. My wife (Shannon Plumb) is a great filmmaker. She made over 200 shorts so I’m like her biggest fan. One of my favorite cinematographers to work with has been Bradford Young (Selma, Oscar nominee for Arrival). I think he’s gonna shoot the next Star Wars movie (Ed note: He will shoot the Han Solo film). I’ve done some commercials with him, and he’s always been one of my favorites.

Charles Burnett: If you look back in the day, like Killer of Sheep, is one of those seminal American movies…One of the great American movies that you can look down the line and see how traces itself to Barry Jenkins. I thought Moonlight was an absolute masterpiece. I could go back to Maya Deren (Meshes of the Afternoon, At Land) to Leni Riefenstahl (Triumph of the Will, Underwater Impressions) to Gordon Parks (Shaft, The Learning Tree). So many filmmakers with voices out there. Ryan Coogler (Black Panther, Creed)…I love what he’s been doing. I love that more and more opportunities and more people’s stories are being able to be represented now. But there’s always those seminal films to me…Chantal Akerman (Captive, No Home Movie)…pure to these filmmakers…Liv Ullmann (Miss Julie, Sophie)…that were able to tell these stories…Marleen Gorris, who made A Question of Silence, which I saw 25 years ago and still can’t unsee.

The Light Between Oceans  is out on Blu-ray and Digtal HD now.

(image via screencap)

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