Shawn Levy, ‘All the Light We Cannot See’ Team on Using Ukrainian Refugees to Play Extras Escaping WWII Nazi Invasion

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Director Shawn Levy and the creative team behind Netflix limited series All the Light We Cannot See took part in a panel conversation on Tuesday, where they discussed how the project became more timely than they ever imagined.

The show is adapted from the Pulitzer-winning World War II novel by Anthony Doerr, which follows a blind French girl who takes refuge in Saint-Malo after Paris is invaded by Nazi Germany and a German boy who is recruited to join the Nazi army because of his skills in radio technology, also leading him to Saint-Malo.

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Levy told the crowd at a Los Angeles special screening that he first read and fell in the love with the book as a fan and had no plans of working on an adaptation, especially because the novel’s rights belonged to someone else at the time, who planned to make it into a film rather than a series. After those rights lapsed, the producers began a long courtship with the author, as Levy explained, “The whole pitch was we don’t want to shrink it, we want to do justice to it” as a four-part limited series.

Levy, joined on the post-screening panel by executive producer Dan Levine, writer and EP Steven Knight, production designer Simon Elliott, cinematographer Tobias Schliessler, editor Dean Zimmerman and casting director Lucy Bevan, also discussed how they launched a global casting search to find a blind actress to play their lead (eventually landing on newcomer Aria Mia Loberti) and how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine impacted the project as they shot in Budapest. The director said they were watching the invasion in real time and making changes to the script because “we couldn’t ignore the topicality.”

“It was quite extraordinary because you sort of realize that this isn’t history, this is human beings, this is what humanity does to itself,” Knight added. “We all felt it was important that that was reflected somehow within the scripts and within the performances, but it’s horrible how a story like this can become relevant almost overnight and topical almost overnight. … A generation is coming through now for whom the second World War feels like ancient history, and something like the invasion of Ukraine, I think, points out the fact that this is what human beings do to each other sometimes.”

He continued, “It’s very important that, as writers and artists, we reflect the fact that human beings also respond with magnificence and with beauty and love and tenderness. That’s what for me, personally, I hope this thing — all of the hardships that everyone went through to make this, everyone did such a fantastic job to make this real — is the message, hopefully self evident, that in the end human beings will prevail. And nothing made that more poignant than exactly those events in Ukraine.”

Levy also noted a scene where Loberti’s character and her father, played by Mark Ruffalo, join a group leaving Paris by foot after the Nazi invasion, and “as we were filming that scene, that exodus scene, and we had Ukrainian refugees who had come west to Hungary to escape an invading neighbor from the east, just like Germany into Paris, who were playing Parisian refugees walking west to escape an invader from the east. True story. And so in that sequence where Daniel (Ruffalo) and Marie (Loberti) talk, we had Ukrainian refugees as extras amongst our Parisian refugees.”

On a lighter note, the panel also joked about Ruffalo, playing a father who constructs models of the city to teach his daughter how to navigate on her own, while being a craftsman himself.

“It’s your worst fear when an actor knows the names of tools,” teased Elliott. “He came and saw the model and had a session with our prop master so that when it came to shooting the scene, we had the tools there and he knew how to handle them. Obviously, is the scene is all the better for it,” noting Ruffalo himself worked on a few roofs that made the final model.

All the Light We Cannot See starts streaming Nov. 2 on Netflix.

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