The four-part limited series, which launched on Thursday, is quite liberal at time when it comes to bringing the story to life on screen. But, a page-for-page adaptation was never the goal. Instead, director and executive producer Shawn Levy told Deadline he expects audiences to feel “the heart of the story” is present throughout.
Crediting screenwriter Steven Knight, who penned the series, Levy used this analogy: “The book is the mountain. The mountain will always exist. Long after us, the mountain will be here. We did a painting of that mountain. We’re not trying to replace it. We’re not trying to make a photograph or a Xerox. It’s our impression of that mountain.”
“If we’ve done our job right, the events might have tweaks and diversions, but the heart of the story in both its ideas and characters are faithful to Anthony Doerr’s creation,” he continued. “To have Anthony be as thrilled as he is with this finished product of the series, that is the most gratifying thing that’s happened.”
Levy has been working to secure the rights to All The Light We Cannot See since Doerr’s novel was published in 2014, making the World War II story a deeply personal project.
The story follows story of Marie-Laure, a blind French girl played as a young adult by Aria Mia Loberti and as a child by Nell Sutton. Both girls are legally blind, and they were cast after a global search for an actress without sight, at Levy’s instance. Mark Ruffalo stars alongside both girls as Marie-Laure’s father, Daniel LeBlanc, who flees German-occupied Paris with his daughter to Saint-Malo, where they take up residence with a reclusive uncle (played by Hugh Laurie) who transmits clandestine radio broadcasts as part of the resistance.
In Saint-Malo, Marie-Laure’s path also collides inexorably with the unlikeliest of kindred spirits: Werner [Louis Hofmann], a brilliant teenager enlisted by Hitler’s regime to track down illegal broadcasts, who instead shares a secret connection to Marie-Laure as well as her faith in humanity and the possibility of hope.
In the interview below, Levy details his search to find the perfect casting for Marie-Laure, the many challenges of bringing this adaptation to life, and the desire for authenticity that drove his decisions as both a director and executive producer.
DEADLINE: Can you tell me more about finding Aria Mia Loberti and Nell Sutton?
SHAWN LEVY: I was pretty clear that the best way to approach this material would be to go after authenticity in casting. But the truth is that when you decide, as I did, early on to try and cast someone who was low vision or blind to play this blind protagonist, you eliminate all the normal paths that one usually uses for casting. You’re not calling agents. You’re not calling managers. Because the truth is that this is an underrepresented community, traditionally, not utilized that much in film and storytelling. Lucy Bevan and Emily Brockmann, my incredible casting directors, they had to get really industrious and creative. So we were going to schools for the blind, we were putting out e-blasts to literally just open calls on the internet for anyone who wanted send in an audition…we got well over 1000 videos. Among those, there was this 8-year-old named Nell Sutton from a tiny town in Wales and this graduate PhD candidate in rhetoric, a former Fulbright scholar, named Aria Mia Loberti. In the midst of so many open audition submissions, they were instantly noticeable, and it’s not because they had polish. It’s not even because their performances were so great in those early readings. But it’s because they had a quality that was super compelling. In the case of Nell, I compare her sometimes to the bubbles into ginger ale or champagne. She has this effervescence and humor and warmth that’s irresistible. And in fact, Nell was the first person I cast in this show, before even [Mark] Ruffalo and Hugh Laurie. Aria had a fierce intellect and this luminous quality on screen — even in a crappy, Zoom quality image — where you just felt this young woman’s power, her inner strength. I knew that both these girls had things I could work with, and also would be able to teach me the many things I did not know about navigating life without sight.
DEADLINE: I imagine there are many challenges when directing young actors without much experience. How did you approach directing young actors without sight?
LEVY: I have to admit that, like many of us, I haven’t spent a lot of extensive time with someone who’s blind. So I don’t know that I realized how much I would have to change and evolve the way I do my job. I’m obviously an expressive person. I often will direct using my face or my hands. If I’m directing Hugh [Jackman] and Ryan [Reynolds] in a scene on Deadpool, I might just go, ‘Hey, guys,’ and I’ll give them a gesture or a facial expression. They’ll know from looking at me what I want them to do with the adjustment. What I realized early on with Nell and Aria is that that’s irrelevant. That is not useful. But what is useful is choosing my words descriptively, concisely, and going up right next to them so that what I said is also complemented by how I say it, and the energy that they feel in proximity with each other and with me. So it was this very different mode of directing. That was challenging at first, but really exciting, because I’ve done this job for a while, and it was a really cool challenge to modify the way I do this job that I’ve done for so long, and it ended up being fascinating.
DEADLINE: What about shooting on location? I was surprised to see that you actually did take the production to Saint-Malo.
LEVY: I think that there’s always a few things on every project where, as a director, you have to be stubborn. You have to be tenacious. So the truth is we decided early on, we’re going to shoot predominantly in Budapest, Hungary, because the streets there look like pre-war Paris. So you get a lot of built in production value. We built some huge interior sets in Budapest, like the grotto and the hero house. So it doesn’t make a lot of fiscal sense to then uproot a production and go to another country to shoot just a handful of days, but Saint-Malo… I was a rabid fan of this book. I love the book. Saint-Malo is iconic and a signature element of the book. It just felt wrong to me to fake it, to do it with visual effects. So I went and I scouted Saint-Malo, and it was — it’s hard to describe it…the way that city relates to the sea and the shifts in that tide, and that looming rampart wall that protects the perimeter. It has an epic scale, a historic texture. I said then and there, ‘I know it’s inefficient, and it probably costs more money. But we’re coming here, and we’re shooting a chunk of this in the real place.’
DEADLINE: There’s no denying those shots are incredible. They have a quality that seems hard to re-create.
LEVY: You can do a lot of thing with visual effects. But, it’s interesting. Over the course of my career, visual effects have evolved. They can pretty much do anything now. But I’m almost working in the other direction. The more easy it is to use visual effects, the more tenaciously I tried to use practical effects and practical locations, because I think the audience can feel the difference.
DEADLINE: Do you think the actors can feel the difference?
LEVY: This is a thing that people don’t talk about a lot. A lot of people like to talk about practical locations, practical effects, but the effect on the actors is not discussed as much as it should be. Because that’s everything. I learned that on Real Steel. It was Spielberg, my executive producer, who was like, ‘You should build some real robots… I built real dinosaur sections on Jurassic. It changes the reality of the actor’s performance.’ On Real Steel, it was a game changer, the way that little boy Dakota [Goyo] would react in the face of Adam, a real nine-foot-tall robot being remote controlled by a puppeteer. Similarly, being able to let Ruffalo and Aria do a walk and talk along that iconic, epic beach, on the coast of France. It gave a grounded [feeling]. Again, it comes back to that word that was dominant for me on this project — authenticity. In the same way that Aria’s experiences a blind person did. Wherever I can give my actors the real thing, I know it makes the performances better.
DEADLINE: You’ve mentioned before how long you’ve been working to secure the rights to this book, but since then you’ve really had a whole other phase of your career. What do you feel like this version of you brought to the project that nearly 10 years ago you might not have?
LEVY: I think when I read this book, I had just finished the last of my Night At The Museum movies. And I want to say that I read this book, pre-Arrival, pre-Stranger Things, definitely pre-Free Guy and Adam Project. So I was in this moment where I had done a lot of family comedies. I wanted creative experiences that were challenging and maybe unexpected. When I read the book, I couldn’t get the rights, they were already snatched up. But like three years later, they became available, and Dan Levine and I had 21 Laps. We chased them down and we got them. But in the interim, we had produced Arrival. We had produced and I had directed some Stranger Things. So those projects were incredibly invigorating to me creatively. They made me aware of muscles I didn’t know I had, and it I think equipped me for this different kind of storytelling in a way that I might not have been equipped three, four years earlier.
DEADLINE: How do you feel about the series premiering right now, with everything going on in the world?
LEVY: This show is coming out at a time where I think we need reminders of certain themes, certain lessons. Not only that history, heartbreakingly, repeats itself in terms of the cruelty that humans can do to each other, but the need to hold on to shreds of hope, certainly a capacity for empathy, and for connection. And to not reduce the other to just what they are, but to be able to see people for who they are. I think these are all really unexpectedly timely ideas and maybe, indeed, the show’s coming out now, because we need those reminders now.
DEADLINE: How was your collaboration with Anthony? Especially after the original adaptation did not come to fruition.
LEVY: One big reason he took this leap of faith with 21 laps and Steven Knight was that we were proposing a form that would match content. The limited series would allow us to honor the book, rather than shrink the content to shove it into a form or a specific running time. So once Tony signed off on that central premise, he was incredibly trusting. He actually said, ‘What I do is alone in a room on a page. What you do is a different art form. Do your thing for your form. I already did my thing for mine.’
All The Light We Cannot See is streaming on Netflix.