by James Mottram

A late addition to this year’s Panorama strand at the Berlin Film Festival, Casey Affleck’s second film as director, Light of My Life is a world away from his first, 2010’s Joaquin Phoenix mock-doc, I’m Still Here.

Initially reminiscent of last year’s superb Leave No Trace, which starred Affleck’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints co-star Ben Foster, this Affleck-scripted/produced drama sees him play a father living out in the woods with his daughter Rag (Anna Pniowsky). It soon emerges that a plague has struck, decimating the world’s female population, and Affleck’s unnamed patriarch is desperate to protect his offspring at any cost.

It’s been a long time since you directed. Did Light of My Life take a long time to get going or were you doing other things?

Mostly doing other things. Once I decided I was going to direct it, it just happened immediately. It’s not the story that you usually hear about people trying to get their movies made. I was just very lucky. I sent it to a few people personally, sent them the script, and the first person said, ‘Look, we’d love to make it’, a few hours later after they’d read it. So, the longest part was the writing of it, which took almost a decade, off and on, while writing other things and acting in other movies.

Can you remember what the seed of the story was?

The initial seed was really about…I had kids [Indiana August and Atticus], who were at a period in their life where it was very much a struggle for independence. They wanted to pull away from their parents and be more independent. I was a single parent and going through that on my own and wanting to strike a balance between letting them be independent and still guiding them and protecting them. That is the one thread that runs throughout the movie, trying to maintain that sense of balance – how much do you protect your kid and how much do you prepare them to protect themselves?

Is your character based on you? Would you react in the way he does in those situations?

No, not always. It was based on me and other people I would see parenting. It was my own ideas of ‘What is it like to raise your kid?’ I don’t think I’m quite as paranoid and vigilant. But the situation in this movie and the circumstances of the world justify an extreme vigilance and so I don’t think he was doing a bad job as a parent. Initially, I set about writing a story about a boy – because I have boys – but then my kids ask if I not do that. They felt because he was a boy it was about them and they did not want me to write a story about them. They probably thought it would be embarrassing! So, I changed it to be about a girl, and I based it mostly on my nieces who were the young girls I knew the best at that age. And once I did that, because it was foreign to me, I learned a lot, and so the movie changed and the conversations between the parent and the child changed. Some of them are different to the ones I would have with my own boys.

Were there film inspirations that fed into Light of my Life?

There are definitely movies that are important to me that found their way into this movie, such as…it sounds silly, but I like these post-apocalypse movies like Mad Max and World War Z! Things that are much bigger and have bigger budgets and they can show you zombies and aliens and things running around. I’m a sucker for those things, I’m not sure why, but this is my version of that, I guess. I wanted to see what a movie would be like if you didn’t see the zombies or the aliens or the nuclear bombs going off. And you just saw what two people living in the woods, what their life would be like after all this happened. There were times when the movie fit more into one of those genres; it was more a horror movie or more a science fiction movie. And then every time I would sit down to write it, it ended up just being a drama and I realised, ‘Oh this is really just a drama about a parent and a child.’ As much as I want to make it some awesome science fiction movie, it’s never going to happen.

How did you and Anna work together on set? You have so many scenes together…

It was critical that there be somebody who was capable of handling all that and playing Rag. Anna was so professional. She could memorise pages and pages of dialogue and then be able to make adjustments. She didn’t come to work with one prepared performance. She came there prepared to do the scene and to adjust to whatever the demands of the scene were. We rehearsed but not too much, not overly so. There was a lot of rehearsing on camera. There were many times we’d just roll and roll until the camera could roll no more. And we would do the scene and start over without breaking and not interrupt and go back to the beginning. We just wore away any artifice or tension until you’re just fatigued, and it all feels organic.

How much does the film have to do with the current fight for gender equality?

This was written and filmed before a lot of those issues became so much a part of the culture. We finished shooting in early 2017, so it was before a lot of these ideas became so much a part of the public discourse.

What was your kids’ reaction to the film?

They’re so funny, man! They don’t care a whole lot about seeing my movies! I did a big read-through of it, early on, before it was cast, and my son came. He was in eighth grade and afterward he gave me a bunch of notes he’d written down – like this is believable, this I didn’t buy. And he described the characters. And they were really great and very helpful. I actually scanned them on a computer – as parents do because everything their kids do, they think is so precious! And I saved it and I put it on the back of a T-shirt that I just gave as a wrap gift. It was the first set of notes that I got. I never got studio notes. Just notes from my kids, which are probably more critical! So, they haven’t seen the movie. They came and saw a little bit of it when I was mixing it. And I had to force my youngest one and his friends to sit through it. They watched some of it, and then they just started talking to each other and then they left the room. I was like, ‘Well, I guess that’s not my audience – 9 year-olds!’

Photo Credit: Main photo courtesy of Berlinale


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