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All the Light We Cannot See, the new, four-part series streaming now on Netflix, is based on Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, but that doesn’t mean it exists in a world that’s devoid of reality. In fact, the way that the story—about a young, blind girl in Nazi-occupied France who flees Paris (precious jewel in tow) for the walled city of Saint-Malo and finds herself unexpectedly involved with a German soldier—is told relies on the fact that many of the places and events it depicts are all too true.
“I read and adored this book long before I knew I'd get to make it,” says Shawn Levy, who directed, wrote, and produced the series. “When I had a chance to pursue the rights, I was driven largely by the way the book captivated me by being both epic and super intimate; the backdrop of World War II was rich and cinematic in scope and there was an opportunity to build a world that is no more, but which did once exist.”
So, in order to make the series, Levy—who’s previously directed projects ranging from Stranger Things to Night at the Museum—had to find a way to tell a fictional story that felt as real as the world in which it needed to exist.
“Many of the events portrayed in both the book and the show are historic and real: The bombing of Saint-Malo to liberate that part of France from the German occupation, the invasion of Paris by the Nazis, and the mass exodus that took place as a result, these are real events and I needed to honor them with similitude in the design of this show,” Levy, who filmed the series in Budapest and France, says. That meant working with a team of creatives in production design, cinematography, costumes, hair, and makeup who did more than just create a world for the screen but researched the one that existed off it as well.
“On everything I've ever directed, my first move is to surround myself with people who make me better,” Levy says. “In the case of All the Light We Cannot See, that meant a team who educated me and gave me more fluency in history than I had going in. It also involved me watching hours of documentary footage and reviewing photography of that time, all of which showed me the scale of this war, these invasions, and assaults.”
All of this research impacted the art direction of the series, the director says, informing everything from costumes to the faded wallpaper on the wall of a French apartment and the sound of metal-topped German military boots on pavement. “All of these little details were so revelatory and inspiring to me,” Levy says. “I tried to fill our show with as many of those granular little details as possible.”
Authenticity didn’t only matter to Levy when it came to the details of décor and uniforms, however. “I wanted the representation of that world in that time to be authentic just as I wanted the representation of this protagonist who is blind to be authentic,” he says. “And that means including details that might surprise people.” That meant that almost every day, Aria Mia Loberti, who stars in the series as Marie-Laure LeBlanc, would explain something to her colleagues about living without eyesight.
“That was surprising and often different than the tropes and cliches of how sighted actors have portrayed blindness,” Levy says. “I am really proud of the fact that in this portrayal of Marie-Laure, a character that I fell in love with on the page and had the privilege of bringing onto the screen, the details of her behavior are the result of the real thing, whether it's how she walks through a cobblestone street with a cane, or how she navigates an interior domestic space. I would never know that if I wasn't on set every day with these performers who were themselves blind. That’s the aspect of the show's authenticity that I'm most proud of.”
Though, Loberti notes that she and her character are not the same person. “We are different based on circumstance,” she said in an interview conducted prior to the SAG-AFTRA strike. “Marie’s father told her she could achieve anything she wanted to achieve. My parents have always told me that, too. It is more of a reality today than it was for Marie. I have a phone in my pocket that does what I need it to do in a way that works for me. I have spent a lot of time learning how to make eye contact, which Marie wouldn’t have deemed important, but I deem important in my world. It was a pleasure to figure out how to play the character and how to bring it to the screen in a way that the audience would interpret and take from the story.”
It's an idea that can apply across all of All the Light. So much of the story has important elements of truth to it—places, events, sounds, textures, even people—and while it’s important not to mistake it for non-fiction, perhaps the most truthful thing of all has nothing to do with historical photographs or the sound of German boots.
“This is a story of two young people on either sides of a war and who both in their own ways fight to preserve their goodness, their hopefulness, and an ability to see the other as human,” Levy says. “And even as I say that last sentence, it occurs to me that the timeliness of those themes is as intense right now in 2023 as it has ever been. In a time that feels so dark, I'm certainly clinging to the title of this show, and staying hopeful that there is light out there we cannot see.”
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