'Michael is the heavyweight champion of the world,' director Derek Cianfrance tells EW, 'and Alicia is a thoroughbred.'
The tiny gravestone had become so cushioned in the grass that you could walk by and not even see it.
But writer-director Derek Cianfrance did. Two years ago, Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines) was scouting locations for his adaptation of M.L. Stedman’s best-selling tearjerker The Light Between Oceans (in theaters Sept. 2). And as he hiked around Cape Campbell, a peninsula in New Zealand with a black-and-white-striped lighthouse, he spotted the marker. On it was etched “For Our Beloved Daughter, Gone Too Soon, September 1896 – December 1896.”
Cianfrance was shaken. “I realized there have been light-keepers and people living here for 100 years,” he says. “And there had been life and death and love and tragedy, right here under our feet.”
Suffice to say, Cape Campbell got the part. With a bit of digital magic, it was transformed into Janus Rock, a fictional Australian island on which stoic lighthouse keeper Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) resides with his wife, Isabel (Alicia Vikander). The movie takes place in the 1920s, and the couple is living in peaceful isolation, a half day’s boat ride from the nearest people. Then tragedy strikes. Isabel suffers one miscarriage, and another, and sinks into despair — until one day when a rowboat washes ashore with a baby girl and her dead father aboard. Isabel persuades Tom to keep the newborn, but it’s an agonizing decision, especially when he encounters a bereaved woman (Rachel Weisz) on the mainland who he suspects is the girl’s mother.
“I was very excited by the story itself,” Fassbender says. “It’s just ordinary decent humans trying to be happy — and making decisions that, well, maybe aren’t the best.” The Oscar nominee was Cianfrance’s first choice for Tom, and that was dictated by the character’s dilemma. “Michael is one of the greatest brains in the movies,” the director says. “He’s Magneto, who can move objects with his brain. He’s Steve Jobs. But I wanted to make a movie about this guy who is battling between his mind, which tells him what’s right and wrong, and his heart.”
For the emotionally wrenching role of Isabel, Cianfrance gave his casting directors a tall order. He asked for Vivien Leigh in Gone With the Wind and Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence and Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves. So when they recommended Alicia Vikander, his reaction was, “Who?”
At the time, Ex Machina hadn’t been released and Vikander was still nine months away from filming The Danish Girl, for which she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in February. Upon hearing that she matched up to names like Leigh, Rowlands, and Watson for the highly-sought part, she is momentarily speechless.
“Um, well, those are three of the people that inspire me to act,” she says. “I loved meeting him because he has an immerse amount of passion. I had seen Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines and I had gotten so close to these characters that I felt they were ordinary people who I could see when I walked down the street.”
In their first meeting, Cianfrance offered Vikander a kind of dare. She remembers, “Derek said firmly, ‘I expect you to fail for me, and I expect you to surprise me. I was up for that challenge.”
And the director could not be happier than she was up for it. “Alicia and I met for two hours,” he says, “With actors, its such a vulnerable craft that people can get protective of themselves. But she was not. And her courage led the way with us. I hired her on the spot. Then I called Michael [Fassbender] and told him, ‘I found her,’ and he said, ‘I can hear it in your voice.’ “
Cianfrance knew that had a winning team. “Michael is the heavyweight champion of the world, pound for pound, and Alicia is like a thoroughbred. So we had Muhammed Ali and Seabiscut. Naturally they’re going to be champions together.”
For more on The Light Between Oceans, including director Derek Cianfrance’s thoughts about his role as a directorial Cupid (Fassbender and Vikander, plus Ryan Gosling and Eva Mendes), click here.
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