Facing the light

Facing the light

November 7, 2023

The Director’s Chair

Director Shawn Levy reflects on achieving his long-standing ambition to bring Anthony Doerr novel All The Light We Cannot See to the screen and why the themes of the Netflix drama are more resonant than ever.

For several years, director Shawn Levy harboured an ambition to adapt Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel All The Lights We Cannot See for the screen. However, for a long time the rights were taken as several attempts to turn it into a movie failed to take off.

Shawn Levy on set with Hugh Laurie as Uncle Etienne

But then when they became available again, Levy and 21 Laps producing partner Dan Levine snapped them up. The result is a four-part Netflix limited series of the same name, which marks Levy’s first period drama among a body of work that includes feature films Night at the Museum, Free Guy and The Adam Project, as well as Stranger Things, the Netflix sci-fi phenomenon created by the Duffer Brothers.

Set during the Second World War, All The Light We Cannot See follows the story of Marie-Laure, a blind French girl and her father, Daniel LeBlanc, who flee German-occupied Paris with a legendary diamond to keep it from falling into the hands of the Nazis.

Relentlessly pursued by a cruel Gestapo officer who seeks to possess the stone for his own selfish ends, Marie-Laure and Daniel find refuge in St Malo, where they take up residence with a reclusive uncle who transmits clandestine radio broadcasts for the Resistance. Yet here in this once-idyllic seaside city, Marie-Laure’s path also collides with the unlikeliest of kindred spirits: Werner, a brilliant teenager enlisted by Hitler’s regime to track down illegal broadcasts.

Blind actor Aria Mia Loberti as the older Marie-Laure

Written by Steven Knight (Peaky Blinders), the miniseries stars newcomers Aria Mia Loberti and Nell Sutton as the older and younger Marie-Laure respectively, with Mark Ruffalo (Daniel LeBlanc), Hugh Laurie (Uncle Etienne), Louis Hofmann (Werner), Lars Eidinger (Von Rumpel) and Marion Bailey (Madame Manec).

Notably, the casting of Loberti and Sutton marks All The Light as the first project of its size and scope to cast blind roles authentically with blind actors.

Here, Levy explains why he was so determined to adapt Doerr’s book, discusses his approach to filmmaking and looks back on filming the series in Hungary and on location in St Malo against the backdrop of global conflicts.

The young Marie-Laure is played by Nell Sutton and her father by Mark Ruffalo

How are you reflecting on what you’ve created over the last few years?
At every step along the way, it was one of the most creatively gratifying things I’ve ever done. It was unlike anything I’ve ever done. But I found it incredibly satisfying to do something in a tone and a visual style unlike my prior work. But what I’m reflecting on currently is, when I made this show, it felt like it had resonant themes. Then I shot the show while Russia was invading Ukraine, and I was astounded at the timeliness of many of its themes. To be now releasing the show with yet another war raging in our world, yet more evidence of the inhumane ways that humans can behave, I reflect on the importance of these themes.

I didn’t do this show because it felt important. I did it because it felt resonant and connective with other people. It now feels also important that it is reminding us of certain themes that are critically urgent, namely the need to hold on to our better selves, our humanity, our empathy in the midst of even very dark times.

It must be powerful watching it back and finding that some things in the show are now coming to the fore in a different way.
I watched it for the first time with a New York audience [recently], and there were images, lines and sequences where you could hear people inhale or gasp because some of it is stunningly current in its topicality and some of it reflects things we’re reading and seeing online. I don’t run from that, though, because if a story can be both populist and hopefully entertaining, but also say things that land for other people, that’s ultimately the dream.

Shawn Levy aimed for ‘soft and poetic’ lighting to reflect the fable-like story

You say this is unlike anything you’ve done before. Why were you so determined to make this project?
I’d always wanted to make a pure drama and also a historic drama. This checked those boxes, but I feel like so many historical dramas, they are lovely to look at, they are finely crafted, but they are emotionally remote or cold. I felt that there was an opportunity in this book, in this story, to do something that had sweep and epic scale and lovely aesthetics, but that was equally big in feeling, equally rich in emotion. That was the combination, the combination of epic and intimate that drew me in and made this irresistible.

Can you describe your partnership with Steven Knight. How did you make sure you were both on the same page in terms of the story you wanted to tell?
I knew early on we’d be at least a similar page because we had both read the book years earlier and we were both huge fans and immensely respectful of the book long before we were thinking about writing, directing or producing it. Steve early on, when I first spoke to him, said, ‘I don’t want a writers’ room. I don’t want to farm out scripts to different writers. I’m going to do all of it myself.’ When I got that first draft of the first episode, it was so good already, and that was the moment where I decided I would direct all of them myself and I would approach it like a four-hour movie.

Steven was receptive to my notes. We would do iterations of the drafts. He would do revisions based on observations or reactions that I had. It was this pretty amazing partnership because neither one of us are rookies. Neither one of us are young and new and trying to puff up our chest. We’ve both achieved enough in our careers that we are happy to hand over the baton, so when Steve was writing, he was definitely quarterbacking this process. He was leading the charge, writing the scripts. But then he handed them to me with complete trust and he said, ‘Now go make them.’

Louis Hofmann as Werner who becomes an unlikely kindred spirit of Marie-Laure

The way that they got brought to life, maybe occasionally with revisions on the fly once I cast actors, but Steve was incredibly trusting and respectful of my stage of the process. Then, of course, we came back together in post-production and ultimately crafted episodes in a show that we both feel very proud of. We’re both definitely bonded in the fact that the most important thing was ‘how is Anthony Doerr going to react?’ Then when Anthony watched the show, he was over-the-moon happy with it, in spite of its changes through adaptation. Anthony is so enthusiastic about the way the show has come together. That was the biggest sigh of relief for Steve and I.

You liken it to a four-hour movie. Was it a big decision for you to direct it all, and how was it different to making four standalone episodes of Stranger Things?
Well, it is different, because the entirety is directed by me, so there’s one directorial style, vision, voice – and I also just didn’t want to share on this one. The scripts were too good. I was just like, ‘Mine!’ And that was largely driven by how resonant I found the father-daughter storyline and what a personal part of my life that is. Stranger Things, that’s Duffer voice, Duffer vision. But I’ve always come in and done episodes every year and I’ve loved it. I have found directing Stranger Things to be so creatively invigorating.

Among the many lessons of Stranger Things – and this did inform All The Light We Cannot See – [was that] early on, the Duffers and I decided we were going to think of Stranger Things as a TV series. We were going to think of it as longform storytelling and do it cinematically. The satisfaction of that, the success of that, has been invigorating and also encouraging. So I approached All The Light in the same way with a very ambitious visual scale and a rigour in production design, cinematography and effects that you would not normally see on most television. I just kept saying ‘the movie, the movie, the movie.’ It just happens to have these breaks every hour, but definitely I approached it cinematically.

Gestapo officer Von Rumpel (Lars Eidinger) pursues a legendary diamond

What kind of visual director are you? Do you like to use the camera in a certain way?
There are certain filmmakers who have a signature aesthetic regardless of script and which movie or show it is. Baz Luhrmann, Wes Anderson – their work is always immediately identifiable as their work. I am a different kind of filmmaker. I set the visual language based on the tone of the screenplay, so it’s why Free Guy looks very different from Night at the Museum or The Adam Project.

All The Light is a story with a certain lyrical elegance combined with historic setting, so immediately that, for me, conjured up visuals that would be sumptuous and tender, lighting that would be soft and often more poetic than it is hyper naturalistic. This isn’t a [Bourne director] Paul Greengrass Second World War story. This is an Anthony Doerr novel that is set in wartime but has this almost fable-like feeling. I wanted a visual correlative to that tone, so with my creative team I set the visual language accordingly.

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