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The Forced Intimacy of Derek Cianfrance

How the director of ‘The Light Between Oceans’ and ‘Blue Valentine’ conjures love, pain, and tabloid drama out of his made-up world


Michael Fassbender didn’t want to live like this. He thought he was coming on board an early 20th century period piece, based on a best-selling weepie, to tell a crushing story of loss with the filmmaker who’d made the sensitive indie dramas Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines. And that was true — Derek Cianfrance was making this movie. But he wasn’t here to act. As in all of Cianfrance’s films, his stars must occupy the dollhouses of his design. You don’t just make a Derek Cianfrance movie. You live it.

So when Fassbender signed on to star as Tom Sherbourne, a lighthouse keeper in the adaptation of M.L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans, he didn’t think he’d actually have to keep a lighthouse. But there he was, almost exactly two years ago, on the shores of Cape Campbell, an utterly isolated mass of land in the far reaches of South Island, New Zealand, polishing the rain-stained lens on the top floor of a massive lighthouse for hours at a time. Lighthouses project their beams with high intensity and clarity — the lens needs to be pristine to guide ships home. So Fassbender waxed on and waxed off, for two hours a day. Starting at 5 in the morning. Every day. For five weeks. After the polishing, Fassbender would trek downstairs and start a fire in the wood stove. Then he’d head to the chicken coop and fetch some eggs for his breakfast, but not before nabbing some bacon from the cooling box out back, wedged under flypaper. After he ate, it was time to water the garden. Then he’d set down and shine his shoes. In the afternoon, he’d spend some time in the woodshop. And then, at day’s end, on his knees beside his bed, he’d pray. The next morning would be an early one, full of polishing. He needed his rest. So he slept. Alone.

“I wanted to make a movie about isolation and about what happens on the island,” Cianfrance says. “I remember, when I first presented that idea to Michael … And he was like, ‘Is it really necessary?’”

At this point in our conversation over coffee, Cianfrance leans back and starts motoring. And he doesn’t need the coffee to get going. This is how he is.

Derek Cianfrance (Getty Images)
Derek Cianfrance (Getty Images)

“You ever hear that story of Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman where they’re making Marathon Man? Dustin Hoffman shows up [for the scene] to get his teeth pulled out, and he had not slept for four nights, and Laurence Olivier said, ‘Try acting, kid, it’s easier.’ Fassbender was kind of saying that to me. And I was like, ‘Look, man, this is a gift I’m giving to you. More than anything I can whisper in your ear, more than any kind of secret direction I can give you, I can give you an experience.’ I said, ‘So please just give it a shot; embrace it.’

“And he says, ‘I’ll give it one night.’ Flash forward five weeks later, I couldn’t pull him away.”

The Light Between Oceans is Cianfrance’s fourth and by far his biggest film — it’s a story with sweep and grandeur and visuals that actually capture the titular vista. In his two previous films, intimacy and legacy were the twin themes (his first, 1998’s Brother Tied, is largely unseen by the public). In both, his stars reportedly became more intimate off-screen. During his breakout movie’s press tour, Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams danced around the notion of a relationship born out of the thrashing and often difficult to watch Blue Valentine. It was a relationship forged inside a home that Gosling, Williams, and the actress who portrayed their daughter lived in together for one month to create a kind of forced intimacy.

“We also celebrated fake Christmas and put up Christmas trees, and baked birthday cakes and bought birthday presents, and went to Sears,” Gosling told NPR. “We fought all day, and then we’d have to take [our characters’ daughter] Faith to the family fun park … whatever we could do to create real memories, so when it came time to shoot the [last] part of the film, we were drawing on real memories.”

A year later, Gosling began a romantic relationship with Eva Mendes, with whom he would costar in The Place Beyond the Pines for Cianfrance. They have two children together now. In both movies, Gosling’s character endures a traumatic, star-crossed connection with the female lead.

“Most movies, you have to try and forget you’re making a movie, because there are trailers and booms and lights and marks, and it’s everywhere,” Gosling said in 2010. “And with this, you’re trying to remember that it is a movie, because it’s so easy to get lost in it.”

Cianfrance, who is 42 and was once described as resembling Gosling’s “slightly less glamorous brother,” has an uncommon gift for explaining his vision to strangers. You can see why he’d be so appealing to actors. He’s verbose and talks in complete sentences — if he weren’t so steadfastly committed to selling his ideas in conversation, you might describe him as soulful. He’s not shy about his work, or how good it is — he casually but plainly mentioned to me that Blue Valentine was Steven Spielberg’s favorite movie of 2010. He has the word “AMIGO” tattooed across the knuckles of his right hand, which he often runs through his thinning hair while talking. It’s a mantra, inspired by a meeting with a mortally wounded man. Cianfrance is genuinely earnest, the kind of person who says he only has time for three things, in no particular order: his wife, the artist Shannon Plumb; his kids; and his movies. At times he seems rehearsed, but it seems like he believes every word.

“I’m trying to fill the movies up with fleeting moments because that’s what life is,” he says. “I made documentaries for years, and I just became addicted like a drug to real life, and to vérité and following people and instigating them and getting things that can’t happen again.”

Cianfrance was born and raised Catholic in a Colorado suburb, the son of a teacher and a retail worker who eventually divorced when he was 20 years old. It doesn’t take long in a conversation for Cianfrance to reflect on this fact. In describing the island-bound isolation of his new movie, he readily veers into personal history.

“I used to think that families were islands because when people would come visit us, we would change, we would become these charming, charismatic versions of ourselves,” says Cianfrance, who as a kid captured his family’s darkest moments in photographs. “And then people would leave and we’d go back to being real. I remember when my parents split up, my friends were shocked; they were like, ‘What!’ And I was like, not shocked, you know what I mean? So I always thought that every home is an island. I just always thought that families held secrets, and I’ve made the mission of my life’s — my films — from when I was 13 on, to make movies about the secrets that happen inside homes.”

Like his past two movies, the themes are essentially the same — beautiful, wounded people sharing secrets and trading pain in close quarters in an effort to understand each other. Blue Valentine was about individuating inside a relationship. The Place Beyond the Pines was about reconciling legacy and what we pass to each other. The Light Between Oceans isn’t just about what happens inside a family, but how the choices made in remote places can affect an entire community. “I’m basically making the same film,” Cianfrance says, “just with a bigger canvas.”

In The Light Between Oceans, Fassbender and Alicia Vikander play an Australian couple who struggle with building a family on the island in the aftermath of World War I. There is hardship and struggle and gorgeous scenery; lushly designed, old-fashioned melodrama. Vikander’s beauty is windswept and Fassbender sports a tidy mustache. In one romantic, sun-dappled scene, she shaves him. When an infant washes ashore on a rowboat, the couple are confronted with a devastating choice: keep the child they’ve longed for, or return it to the authorities, and resume their lives of quiet (albeit sublime) desperation. It’s a punishing story operating at the bottom corner of a breathtaking J.M.W. Turner painting.

Cianfrance has told the story of his relationship with the book several times now. It starts with him bursting into tears while reading it on the C train of the New York City subway.

“I was so embarrassed to be crying, and I thought to myself, ‘If any one of these people on the train was reading what I was reading and open to it, they would be feeling exactly the same way,’” he says now. “I went on the warpath to get [the rights]; they had already hired someone else to write [the screenplay], and eventually I was like someone waiting for their wedding night, keeping themselves pure, so I just didn’t take any other movies, I did commercials, until finally I got a shot, until they gave me a shot to do it.”

Cianfrance’s hero is the writer-director–independent cinema maestro John Cassavetes, who used similarly immersive and invasive methods on his sets. Cianfrance also a has similar philosophy about love as doomed euphoria. Cassavetes routinely worked with his wife and best friends in his films. Cianfrance seems to be creating wives and husbands and best friends every time he makes a movie. Fassbender and Vikander fell in love on set. They’re still together today.

Perhaps it’s the intensity he fosters on set that births all this connection. Vikander recalled to Vanity Fair this month how Cianfrance keeps things unpredictable.

Vikander, who won an Oscar in February for her performance in The Danish Girl, is unbound in Oceans — she has an open and uncomplicated way of expressing anguish that this movie is built around. But Fassbender and Vikander, like Gosling and Williams and Mendes before them, have been deft and cagey about revealing the nature of their private relationships off-screen. Fassbender gave Vanity Fair a quote, and it appears to have been delivered through the gritted teeth of an Irishman I recognize. “These things of course sort of spill through to what you’re doing,” he said, in reference to the relationship with Vikander that ensued.

Cianfrance is not so far removed from his own blast radius. Every time he makes a movie, he risks wounding someone close to him whose life he may be reflecting upon.

“I’m sure when Blue Valentine comes out and the front page of the local paper talks about ‘Filmmaker makes good telling the story of the pain from his childhood, his parents’ divorce,’ it’s a conflicting experience,” he says. “But not everyone in my life, like my mom and dad or my kids, haven’t made a choice to be artists, so you have to be cautious about those things. That’s the only place it gets really confusing to me.”

For every new family that grows out of one of his movies, there’s a broken one in the back of his mind.

“[My parents] couldn’t understand when I was a kid why I was taking pictures of them fighting,” Cianfrance says. “My dad couldn’t understand why on our trip to Disneyland, the only time I cared to bring out my video camera was when he blew a tire in the middle of the desert, and was screaming at me for doing it. I’m just trying to take real family pictures.”