EXCLUSIVE: Here’s the first clip from Oscar winner Casey Affleck’s passion project — Light of My Life — which screened today at the Berlin International Film Festival. Affleck wrote, produced, directed and starred in this film. It is an incredible accomplishment for any filmmaker and one that is hard to do well, but Affleck’s father/daughter drama set against a dark, dystopian world is beautifully crafted in every way.
From its opening scene of a father’s imaginative bedtime story to his daughter — which instantly captures the heart of both characters (see exclusive clip above) — to the ongoing suspense born out of hypervigilance as the two escape across a bitterly cold landscape, the story takes its audience on an uncertain, and at the same time, thoughtful journey.
Through the assiduous camera work of Affleck and cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, Light of My Life reveals an intimate, enigmatic story that unfolds slowly and shines a light on a parent’s innate need to protect – maybe even overprotect – their child in a world that no one recognizes anymore. The story is as much about the father as it is the little girl, deftly played by newcomer Anna Pniowsky, who is coming to realize the power of her own choices. The result is an emotionally charged film that delves into the true spirit of unconditional love.
The film also stars the Emmy-award winning Elisabeth Moss who is the mother lost in this post-pandemic world where the presence of women are rare. Although the scenes with Moss presents as flashback, her character is ever present as the father continues to carry her spirit forth with stories and reminders to his daughter.
While Light of My Life is screening, there are two other films in which Affleck also stars and are being sold in Berlin — The Friend with Jason Segel and Dakota Johnson and the Mona Fastvold-directed The World To Come that Affleck is producing with Killer Films and Sailor Bear and stars in with Katherine Waterston. It’s co-written by Ron Hansen (author of The Assassination of Jesse James by The Coward Robert Ford).
Prior to Light of My Life screening in Berlin, Deadline spoke with Affleck to talk about this powerful piece of filmmaking. We also asked Moss a few questions which she answered separately:
Casey, when did you start writing this film?
AFFLECK: I wrote the bedtime story that opens the movie when my oldest kid was five — he’s 14 now — so I guess I began writing nine years ago. I had finished it around 2014, maybe. Then I was shooting it during the publicity I had to do for Manchester by the Sea. I hadn’t expected that we would be at all the awards shows with that movie — although everything Kenny (Lonergan) does winds up there — so filming was scheduled for that winter. There were a few weeks there when I would crawl out of the cold, and wet, woods in Canada with a scraggly beard and tangled hair, and I would fly to LA and put on a suit and go do a red carpet for an award show, then fly back for Monday morning. It was pretty bad timing. I was thoroughly unprepared to be doing interviews on red carpets. I probably looked and sounded pretty stupid.
Luckily, Liz Tan was my first AD. She is the very best in the business and had done gigantic productions, like Lord of The Rings and The Hobbit, wrangling thousands of orc extras and hobbits and horses and helicopters and stuff. So she kept the train on the track easily – she could have done it in her sleep – despite all the conflicts I had with awards shows and publicity and stuff. She was amazing.
How did that bedtime story — which draws the audience in immediately — how did that story come about?
AFFLECK: That whole story was a script unto itself. It was one of five thousand bedtime stories I have told. I just made it up one night and liked it. Then, I wrote an outline for an animated movie and set it up at Warner Bros. It was after Iron Giant, and they weren’t making animated movies much anymore. It was called Aardvark Art’s Ark. The character was an aardvark. It was about all these animals who Noah hadn’t considered worthy of saving so they worked together to save themselves. An executive at the studio was very patient with me but, ultimately, I had no idea how to write a script for an animated studio movie. Anyway, the executive since has seen an early screening of Light of My Life and (he laughs) said, ‘Well, you found a way to get Art’s Ark on screen after all.’
Why this particular story?
AFFLECK: I wrote this script from the parts of me that were available inside. I am not a good enough writer to set out and write something with the kind of deliberateness that some writers can do. I usually just make dinner with whatever is in the cupboards. The last 14 years of my life have been primarily about being a parent. So when I started writing I found myself putting that experience down. I have done so little but it seems like writing and filmmaking is a way of understanding what is inside you and processing it. I’m single parent. I think about my kids and how to raise them all the time. I like apocalypse stories. I like realism. I love the woods. Out came this script. You know what I mean? Then the rewriting begins.
I began writing about a parent and two boys, and my kids vehemently objected. So I concocted a story that is different on the surface but essentially my story. I was writing about my own experience as a parent, in particular about a parent learning that they can’t protect their children from everything but maybe they can prepare them to protect themselves. Learning to let go.
Why is it set against a dystopian backdrop?
AFFLECK: The dystopian backdrop is used to raise the stakes in a specific way, to make the world not only a dangerous place but a place especially dangerous for my child. As a parent, it’s sometimes easy to see the world as a place of danger instead of beauty. And as a parent you have to protect your kid. And sometimes it is at the expense of their healthy emotional development. The story is also about a young person who is feeling a natural and age appropriate desire to be independent. The parent is trying to balance their child’s physical safety with their emotional and psychological well being. He finds that his kid is perfectly capable of being her own savior.
Looking back, it’s clear I was writing about raising a kid after divorce. Mom was gone so in movie language that means: All Moms are gone, if you know what I mean.
I also love sci-fiction. Like I said, I love apocalyptic movies – like World War Z, La Jetée, Mad Max, City of Men. Those are all much, much better science fiction than this is, but I wanted to emulate some of the realism in how those movies look at a world after some global devastation. I mean this movie is a lot of things: This is a father and daughter story, a post-pandemic story, a human versus nature story, a home invasion story, a coming of age story, and a fairytale. But most of all this is a story of parental love.
However, being a little bit all of those types of movies, there are so many tropes that I had to either avoid or embrace. Horror movie. House in the woods. Parent child: Tough love vs. tender love. Apocalypse: Person versus nature. So I tried to come up with an idea about the apocalypse that was directly connected to the theme/central relationship. This is more like the world has gone to hell in such a specific way that now my child is in grave danger all the time. I did not avoid all the cliches or overlap with ten different movies. But as they say, being original is not saying something nobody else has said, it is saying exactly the thing you wanted to say. I think.
You know, my girlfriend and I were going to travel somewhere but there was a Zika outbreak and it was strange because it was much riskier for her than for me. I hadn’t heard of any illness like that so I incorporated something similar into the story.
Elisabeth, what drew you to this role?
MOSS: The idea of a world without women, and how precious, protected, and sought after they would be, was a very fascinating idea for me and also, obviously, subject matter with which I’ve dealt closely with the fertility crisis on The Handmaid’s Tale. It was a different take on it which I thought was really interesting. Also the idea of how you would protect your daughter in those circumstances is something I’ve also explored as an actor and am familiar with and attracted to as a challenge. Then I got to see the film – Casey screened it for me because I came in and shot all my stuff in one day after the film was done – so I was able to see not only the world I was fitting into but what role my character very specifically was serving in the story and to help bring that to life.
Did you write it with the idea of also directing and starring in it?
It is an enormous task to write, produce, direct, and act in a film …
AFFLECK: I know. It is. I was naive enough to think that this would be easy because it was a smaller scale. It was hard but I would do it over and over again.
MOSS: I’m a tremendous fan of his as an actor so it’s really cool to be directed by someone like that because, basically, you just want to do whatever they tell you so you can try to be as good as they are. He was extremely collaborative and generous in letting me create the role, give any script notes or ideas, and really contribute to my part of the story. As an actor, it’s so helpful to be a part of a process like that and to be able to really make something your own, which he gave to me as a director. There was a lot of trust because he knew the material so well and knew exactly what he wanted. I just followed his lead and tried to help tell his story.
How did you find Anna Pniowsky, who plays your daughter in the film?
AFFLECK: Through our awesome casting director Avy Kaufman. We had to cast a pretty wide net to find a kid who could do all the dialogue — there is a lot of dialogue — and who was in that small window between being a young adult capable of taking care of themselves and others, but also believably young enough to need emotional caretaking on the level that takes place in the story. Bottom line: When we found Anna, we looked no more. We cast her and then we cast the Elisabeth (Moss, the Mom) which was a Godsend because she is way, way, way overqualified for this movie. It is a small part and she is a giant star, but I wanted someone I knew would be great no matter what and was blessed with Lizzy. She came in near the end of shooting, stepped on the court and dunked on everyone like she was Candace Parker and we were school kids.
Elisabeth, this was as Casey noted, a smaller part, but it was a very pertinent role as the character loomed large throughout the film …
MOSS: Well, just by virtue of her being, I believe, the only other female in the movie (besides the daughter), you really get the impact of what’s happened in the world the film creates. Because his relationship with his wife and the girl’s relationship with her mother would be so present, with regard to the people they’ve become and the journey they go on, even though there wasn’t a lot, it felt very rich and like there was a lot to work and play with. Also, because there weren’t a lot, every scene had to be really mined for all they were worth to get as much as possible out of them to help tell the larger story. We were flexible but also very specific as to the purpose of each scene for the larger picture.
And you shot everything in one day.
MOSS: Everything in one day which was incredibly tense. Because the scenes are so challenging and so much has to be told with each one, it felt like we were shooting an entire movie in one day which, as far as the arc of my character goes, we actually were. We did the scenes mostly in order, I think, which was really helpful. It was also very contained and we moved fast and put as much on camera as we could. I was bummed when we were finished because I wanted to do more — I felt like I just got started. But in those circumstances you just have to kind of leave it all out on the dance floor because all you get is that one day and you don’t have time to ease into it. You start at 100 MPH and just speed up from there.
Casey, how did you go about collecting your crew? Are these people you worked with in the past?
AFFLECK: Some are and some aren’t. Liz Tan was my five-star general. Dody Dorn, my editor, I worked with her before on I’m Still Here. She also reads things I write sometimes and gives helpful feedback. She is great and always in demand, and didn’t have to do this but was happy to come teach me and help me. My production designer (Sara K. White) was a woman who I didn’t know, I just met and she seemed to get it right away. She had a tough job selling the world in the few glimpses we get of it, and making the houses look abandoned but livable, and all feel real. She did a great job. On the production side, I got to reunite with Jill Christensen and Nicole Oguchi, a couple Canadians, I knew from Jesse James (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). Malgosia Tarzanksa was costume designer on Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. Adam Arkapaw (Macbeth, True Detective) I met for this. I had seen his work and I liked talking to him and somehow talked him into shooting this for me.
The director of photography was fantastic.
AFFLECK: Yeah. Adam did a great job.
There is a lot of suspense. Is there any movie that influenced you?
AFFLECK: A movie called Jeanne Dielman, creates great tension with a static camera and sustained shots. Ida (the film from Pawel Pawlikowski which won Best Foreign Film from the Academy in 2015) was another inspiration for this, the way it was shot. There are lots of movies that have done this. It’s almost classical. But it was the choice that seemed to fit this story. It’s both rigid and dispassionate and makes the audience a little tense. I camp a lot with my kids and you begin to feel like you are in a static sustained shot when you are out in the woods. You settle. So it felt right.
How did you come up with the title?
AFFLECK: It is a term that has been around forever and used in lots of stuff. In Euripede’s play (Andromache), a mother thinks she is sacrificing herself so that her son can live. In that moment, the mom calls her son ‘the light of her life.’ This movie is about parental devotion and grief and surrender and … it felt right. I know it has been used a lot, but trying to do something nobody has ever done seems like silly hubris. Might as well embrace my role in the bigger picture. I just ignored all that other associations and the cliche of it, and called it what felt right.
Is there any one film or filmmaker that inspired you to become a filmmaker?
AFFLECK: There are four movies that I think had the biggest impact on me: Elephant Man, I remember watching on my Dad’s tiny TV with him sleeping behind me and I sobbed and sobbed. I was so young it made an indelible impression. Another was The Harder They Come. My friend’s mom took the two of us. I remember the theater being just full of smoke and everyone was talking and shouting at the screen. It was just like the scene in the movie when Jimmy Cliff goes to the movie theater. The movie came out before I was born but they were showing it at a little one screen theater in Boston called Off The Wall. I was 7 years old, I think. It’s definitely one of my all-time favorites and when Jimmy Cliff performs at the recording studio has to be one of the best musical performances on screen.
The Good, The Bad and the Ugly was a movie I watched a lot as teenager. And 2001. And also Burn! in my early twenties. It’s so, so good in its own strange way. Those were the first big ones for me. Of course, I was also watching like Teen Wolf and The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller like everyone else.
Is this the direction you want to head with your career – as a writer/director, actor, producer?
AFFLECK: I would like to be able to tell stories that originate with me — that feel important to me, close to me. But acting is something I have done a long time and feel like I am starting to get good at, and it helps me stay sane, and it’s how I pay bills and feed the kids and meet people and see new places, and I love it. And when I work with other directors, I learn a lot from them. So I would like to act some and try to tell a few stories of my own as well. Sometimes you find a story that someone else is telling and you want to be a part of it. Jasmine McGlade wrote a story (Fencer) that is very autobiographical in certain ways and it feels authentic and I love it and I will play a part in that. I want to work with Andrew Dominik again. There are so many directors I admire and want to work for, and directors who I can learn from, and I want to continue to work with them.
Light of My Life was produced by Black Bear Pictures’ Teddy Schwarzman and Sea Change Media’s Casey Affleck. Executive producers were Black Bear’s Michael Heimler and Ben Stillman and Sea Change’s Whitaker Lader.