Credit: Davi Russo

Derek Cianfrance is in downtown Manhattan, looking at the Hudson River. “I jumped in there once,” he says.

The acclaimed director of Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines tells the story of his spontaneous New York City waterway swim. It was the Fourth of July in 2003 and Cianfrance was holding his girlfriend’s hand while sitting on a sailboat as it motored its way past the George Washington Bridge.

“Everybody on the sailboat was in the movie business and they were all talking about these movies they were doing,” he recalls. “And I was losing my f—ing mind on that boat. So I went right off the side and when my head came up I was about 60 yards away, because the current was so strong. But I turned around to see my girlfriend in the water and screaming my name. She was holding onto the bow of the boat, because she can’t swim. And I knew that was the girl for me. And as I turned over onto my back and floated down the river, I thought to myself, ‘I’m not gonna die. I actually just found my wife.’ “

He swam to the shore and scrambled up the rocks. “And anyway,” he says, “that night my son was conceived.”

Eleven years later, Cianfrance took another crazy leap. This time it was to the other side of the world — a tiny peninsula named Cape Campbell in New Zealand — for the making of his latest film, the sumptuous, heartbreaking adaptation of M.L. Stedman’s novel The Light Between Oceans (in theaters Sept. 2). Starring Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander as a lighthouse keeper and his wife, the story moves from swooning romance to wrenching tragedy, as the couple falls in love and later suffer multiple miscarriages. One day, a rowboat washes ashore their island with a newborn baby inside. And the decisions that both of them make regarding the child will have devastating consequences.

In a refreshingly honest conversation, Cianfrance, 42, talks openly about the film’s lengthy editing process, how the 1920s period drama fits completely within his oeuvre​ as a filmmaker, and about the real life romance that blossomed between his lead actors — a frequent occurrence on his films.

Credit: Davi Russo

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You filmed the movie in New Zealand more than two years ago. Can you talk about the long post-production process?

DEREK CIANFRANCE: Well, I relate to the tortoise. He wins the race. A typical editing time for a movie is 10 weeks and then the jig is up. But I was fortunate enough to have a studio behind me that believed in my process and they let me spend a year editing. I went out with the actors onto an island — or a peninsula, actually — and we lived there for five weeks, trying to find a place where acting stops and being beings. And where the story stops and life begins. When I get into the editing room, I’m trying to find the most truthful moments possible and sculpt them into this satisfying narrative.

Is it annoying that some people act skeptical of a movie’s quality if there’s a long wait?

The whole time, of course, as I’m editing, I see blogs. Part of me wants to respond to it, but at the same time you don’t pay attention to that stuff. It’s all hype. You just let the movie speak for itself.

How much footage did you shoot?

209 hours.

Wow. Was the first cut like a miniseries?

No, the first cut was maybe two hours and 20 minutes. It’s about two hours and 10 minutes now. So I’m using 1 percent of what was shot. Editing is murder – I hate murdering. So I basically torture my footage and it dies slow deaths.

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman
Credit: Dreamworks

The visual look of the movie is so magnificent, all these gorgeous sunsets on the island. How much of that was achieved with special effects?

Hardly any at all. I fought tooth and nail to shoot in real locations. We used effects only to paint out things every now and again. I mean, you go to New Zealand and the light is beautiful there because it’s so far south, so [the sun] doesn’t get up above your head too much. The sun’s always near the horizon and it has a certain glow to it. You can’t not take a good picture of it. But if you’ve got a guy like [cinematographer] Adam [Arkapaw] around, who has a million dollar eye, with his ability to frame and find the light, it’s just a gift.

And that wind seems very real.

Oh, it was. We were at what felt like one of the windiest places in the world. The beef that comes from that part of New Zealand is special because the first wind that hits that beef is fresh air, oxygenated. So we were in the middle of this pure, rugged, primal landscape.

What was it like working with actors on these raw emotional scenes, while you and them are also wrestling with the environment?

The weather helps. I mean, I don’t want to control the weather. I don’t want to control the actors either. I want to put them in a place where they can have an experience. If you live on this location, like we all did, and the wind is keeping you up at night, when you show up the next day you’re rattled. It emotionally, psychologically drives you crazy.

People might at first think that this material is a big departure for you, because it’s based on a bestselling novel and the story seems very tasteful. But look closer and it’s right in your wheelhouse.

Yeah, it is. When I read the book I thought this was all about family, which I’ve focused on before.

What were some of your first thoughts after reading the book?

Well, when I was a kid, I used to think that people lived on islands. Because in my house when we had company come over I noticed that we changed our behavior. And we the company left we became the truth again. I remember going over to friends’ houses and being in their basements playing pinball and listening to their alcoholic parents scream at each other upstairs. I was thinking, everyone lives on an island.

I can go back to all your films and think of the idea of islands as a very universal theme.

It’s universal in life. I’ll be in an apartment building and I’ll think that there are fifty islands in that apartment building. I’d drive down the street and look at the houses and say, “That’s an island and that’s an island.” I’ve always thought that relationships were like islands too. There were secrets that happened on those islands. I’ve made it my quest to try and capture the truth of love. And that’s what drew me to M.L. Stedman’s book. It’s about a literal island and this great secret on the island.

So you know you’re a bit of a matchmaker as a director?

[Laughs] I’ll let you say it.

Ryan Gosling and Eva Mendes are still a couple after meeting on The Place Beyond the Pines. And Fassbender and Vikander still seem happy together, two years later. Do you think that the romance of the story takes some credit?

Well, we were real out there, that’s all I can say. Filmmaking can be the worst. It can be all faking, sitting in front of the mirror, putting on makeup, doing your lines and then going home. We were doing none of that. Michael and Alicia weren’t acting on green screens with Jar Jar Binks here. So my relationship with Michael and Alicia was a real human relationship and their relationship together was real human relationships. And then I was seeing this great respect that they had for each other. And, yes, the movie witnessed love. And that was a gift.

Did you shoot in sequence?

No, I don’t really care about that. One of the earliest scenes we shot was their love scene.

Oh really?

Yeah, I’ve done that on Blue Valentine and Place Beyond the Pines. The very first scenes were love scenes. Two actors completely naked on set — let’s not get all nervous and build up to it. Let’s start there. It’s like jumping in to the deep end.

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The Light Between Oceans
  • Movie
  • 130 minutes