"Stranger Things" to "All the Light We Cannot See": Shawn Levy doesn't need a "signature aesthetic"

The versatile director discusses his Netflix WWII drama, his wide-ranging career and working with Taylor Swift

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published November 8, 2023 12:00PM (EST)

Aria Mia Loberti as Marie-Laure, Mark Ruffalo as Daniel LeBlanc, Director/Executive Producer Shawn Levy behind the scenes in episode 103 of All the Light We Cannot See. (Doane Gregory/Netflix)
Aria Mia Loberti as Marie-Laure, Mark Ruffalo as Daniel LeBlanc, Director/Executive Producer Shawn Levy behind the scenes in episode 103 of All the Light We Cannot See. (Doane Gregory/Netflix)

Shawn Levy is a producer, writer, actor, and director. You know his work, including the "Night at the Museum" movies, "Stranger Things," "Free Guy," "The Adam Project" and so much more. He'll soon be reuniting with Ryan Reynolds for the latest installment of the "Deadpool" series and directing a "Star Wars" film, but first, his latest project is the Netflix adaptation of the bestselling, Pulitzer-winning "All the Light We Cannot See."

On this episode of "Salon Talks," Levy discusses translating the beloved novel into a limited series, conducting a nationwide casting search for a blind actress to play the lead and his approach to directing such a varied body of work. "I've always known that I'm never going to be one of these filmmakers whose work has a signature aesthetic," he said. "I'm not Wes Anderson, I'm not Baz Luhrman. Certain directors, their movies always look like their movies. I take my aesthetics and my style from the tone of the story."

You can watch my full "Salon Talks" interview with Levy here, or read the full transcript of our conversation below to find out why he's drawn to stories of hope, and what he learned from working with Taylor Swift.

The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Let's start with “All the Light We Cannot See.” This was a passion project for you.

You read the book as well, I know, and I read the book as a reader. I didn't read it looking for a film or television show that might be made out of it. I read it, and by the time I came back to work having read it on some new year vacation, I was crestfallen to find out that the rights were already unavailable and that people were trying to adapt it into a feature film. 

I kind of licked my disappointment wounds and instructed everyone that I work with, I have a production company called 21 Laps, and I said, "Let's just keep our ear to the ground." Sure enough, several years later, maybe three years later, we heard that they had been unable to basically condense this epic sweeping story into a two-hour movie, and the rights were reverting to the novelist Anthony Doerr. 

My producing partner Dan Levine and I got on the phone with Tony and basically started with the pitch that let's not try to shrink the story. Let's do justice to the story, and let's use the limited series as a form that is effectively long form cinematic storytelling. That was the beginning of this process, and we are off to the races.

In that adapting it and being true to it is the casting. This casting, that central character of Marie, the two actresses that you cast wrote, especially the older Marie, was really centrally important. It's centrally important to the story, and it was important to the production that you get the right person. Tell me about the search for her. 

"Let's not try to shrink the story. Let's do justice to the story."

I decided in pre-production that if it were possible to find someone who was low vision or legally blind to play a character who is blind, that it would not only be the right thing to do, but be the better thing to do, better by virtue of being more authentic. We put out a global casting search because the truth is that finding a girl and a young woman who are blind, who are represented by acting agents — there's very, very few. We needed to just reach people wherever they were. We got hundreds of auditions, people who had filmed things on their cell phones or had a relative do so. 

In the midst of these hundreds of auditions, I came across this one by this young woman named Aria Mia Loberti, who was a Fulbright scholar, was a PhD candidate in rhetoric who had not only never acted before, had never auditioned before, but there was something fierce and intelligent and luminous about her that multiple callbacks and conversations revealed to be powerful. Even though she literally at that point did not know what she was doing having never acted before, I saw, or at least I bet on the fact that she had the innate jewels that I could work with, and indeed she was the bet that paid off.

It's a stunning performance, and knowing that it's a debut performance makes it all the more.

It's interesting watching the show, I've had some people say it took me a while to even understand or believe that she was blind, and I think part of that is because for a hundred years of cinema and X number of decades of television, we have always seen blindness represented by sighted actors who use a certain kind of toolkit of tropes. The way they feel their environments, the way they feel other people's faces, many of which are just wrong. So every day, Aria and I would talk about the scene and she would educate me. She would frankly illuminate, pun intended, for me, the cliches of representation. I was pretty committed to going against those, resisting them, rejecting them, is a better word. The result is a performance that is indeed the real thing.

When you are working on an adaptation of something that is as loved, won a Pulitzer Prize and is an international bestseller, there's got to be a different kind of sensitivity to that material. Working with the writers, working with the actors, how did you come together to create this singular vision knowing that of course it's going to diverge. Of course, it's also going to be different, and it's not going to necessarily be the book that everybody carries in their heads.

The truth is, nothing can manifest what's in our heads because the book in your head is different from the book in my head. Recognizing that, frankly, I am immensely lucky that Anthony Doerr, the novelist, from the get-go said to myself and to Steven Knight, the writer who wrote all of the episodes – his background is “Peaky Blinders” – “Guys, I recognize this is a different format. I'm going to trust you in navigating and adapting to your format because I created this in mine.” 

A lot of it was trusting our own instincts as fans of the book, to not mess with the stuff that to me felt sacrosanct. Those include major traits like the themes, the father-daughter story, the kind of cross-cutting of a German young boy and a French young girl. The model of the town that Daniel makes for his daughter, the fact that these two characters are destined to meet if only to spend an hour together eating a can of peaches towards the end of the war.

Some of it was untouchable, some of it felt like there was a way to dramatize the story in a way that would be different from the novel. Hopefully where we have diverged is successful and all feeds towards the most important thing, which is the epic sweep of the story, but also the intimacy of the storytelling.

That is a recurring motif that I see in everything that you do. You are kind of known as this family-friendly, light and bouncy kind of a director, and yet I always see so much depth and so much heart and humanity in the work that you do. I read an interview that you did almost 10 years ago, where you said, “Everything comes back to family for me.” Why is that the key component? This was before “Stranger Things” when you said that.

"I've always known that I'm never going to be one of these filmmakers whose work has a signature aesthetic."

Well, what's so interesting, I had never connected the dots across my films and shows. It was oddly Darren Aronofsky who said to me at some event, he's like, “So what's with you and dads and forgiveness of fathers and connections and family?” And I was like, “What are you talking about, man? I make movies about museums coming to life and robots punching each other.” But it was Darren who pointed out that there's certain themes I do keep returning to, and it made me more conscious of it. 

I guess certainly it's become maybe even more overt in my later work. Certainly “Adam Project,” certainly “All the Light we Cannot See” where my own childhood, I grew up in Montreal. My parents were divorced by the time I was three. My mom struggled with alcoholism and depression, and so family was fraught. I wanted to build in my adult life a family that was solid and enriching, and I wanted to create work that maybe put out an aspirational theme about what family can be and how redemptive those connections can be. It's not always based in our experience where we create from. It's sometimes based in what we dream of being that informs our creative work. And I guess for me, it was largely the latter.

Particularly watching “All the Light We Cannot See,” it is so different because it is so cinematic. I'm curious about who you used as maybe touchpoints or references. 

The first one I'll mention is probably the most obvious. Certainly I did a rewatch on “Private Ryan.” I got to know Steven a little bit because he produced my movie “Real Steel” and so his work has always been inspiring, but frankly, so has the work of Peter Weir who did “Dead Poets” and “Gallipoli” and “Fearless” and “Master and Commander.” 

I've always known that I'm never going to be one of these filmmakers whose work has a signature aesthetic. I'm not Wes Anderson, I'm not Baz Luhrman. Certain directors, their movies always look like their movies. I take my aesthetics and my style from the tone of the story, so “Free Guy” is poppy and primary and video game inspired, whereas “All the Light We Cannot See” is frankly more inspired by photography of the '30s and '40s, the way that light has a certain softness to it, the way that certainly in the history of French design and French aesthetics, you see a collision of pattern and color, but all with the patina of age, of a history.

My production designer, Simon Elliott and my cinematographer Tobais Schliessler, one of whom is British, the other of whom is German, we really looked at the aesthetics of the time more than we looked at films representing that time. What I love about the job is that every story requires different stimuli. You take your inspiration from different places. On “All the Light,” to find an aesthetic that was more lyrical and often more muted, more with that patina of history, that was very inspiring to me.

I want to come back to “Stranger Things” because there are different directors. There's a consistency of tone, but then everyone has their own stamp on it. The episode, “Dear Billy,” I mean, it was a watershed moment. 

I appreciate that. I just told a friend, I'm like, people ask me what was my favorite movie? What's the movie you're going to be remembered for? Guess what? Up there is “Dear Billy.” That's a one-hour episode of TV, but indeed, it became not only culturally so sticky, but it was so creatively inspiring. 

But again, I read the Duffer Brothers script and it told me what it wanted to be. It told me it wanted to be epic, and it wanted to have imagery that felt iconic. I tried to read the words. Sometimes I write the words, sometimes I rewrite the words, but the words tell me the visuals, and The Duffers, one of their many genius traits is their screenwriting is so clear to me in its visual suggestions.

It's epic, it's iconic. It has one of the biggest needle drops in pop culture history with “Running Up That Hill.” But it's also this very small interior story about grief, and I think that's a big part of what hits so hard.

That's really interesting because when I think back to “Dear Billy,” the two scenes that were clearly going to be the pillars of that episode. Yes, it's Max in the Mindscape and then running away from Vecna towards a vision of her friends. But it's also that monologue at Billy's grave. That monologue we knew for months, and again, it was deferred. The filming was deferred because the pandemic shut us down. 

I always knew that one couldn't land without the other. Her desperation to get out of the Mindscape is as powerful as it is because of the grief and the self-loathing that the great side monologue expresses. For finale movements, for climax in storytelling to work, the building blocks along the way need to work. In “All the Light We Cannot See,” for instance, the father-daughter love story in episode one is necessary to pay off the hope that Marie clings to for her father's return. All of the storytelling building blocks, they're critical to the payoff.

Right. You can't just get to point Z before you do all that other work. Also in that episode of "Stranger Things," so much of it hinges on that beautiful performance by Sadie Sink. You've also worked with her under the direction of Taylor Swift. I want to ask about what it was like working with Taylor Swift because like you, she's someone who has a lot of different plates spinning, who is not just known for one thing, who is not just one kind of artist. You are not just one kind of artist. When you're working with someone like a Taylor Swift or you're working with someone who has all this kind of multidisciplinary career, what do you learn from how they do it and watching how they're balancing it all?

Taylor is so multifaceted in her creativity, and I find that she's one in a long line of collaborators. My cameo in the “All Too Well” video, it would be an overstatement to call it a collaboration. I showed up and did what Taylor Swift told me. Very simple gig. But if you look at my films, I constantly collaborate with people who are more than one thing. Started early on two movies with Steve Martin: writer, performer. Three movies with Ben Stiller: writer, producer, director, performer. Then two movies with Tina Fey: writer, producer, performer. Most recently Ryan Reynolds: writer, producer, performer. 

"I showed up and did what Taylor Swift told me."

I guess I like people who are creatively voracious, and that tends to mean you're not going to only do one genre. You're not going to tell only one kind of story, and you might not only do one kind of creative endeavor. That's always been my aspiration. It's how I've ended up becoming as much of a producer as I'm a director, and certainly on the last “Deadpool” movie, being one of the writers with Ryan, it's all scratching itches that never go away, and those itches are, I guess, just a yearning for creative experiences that feel new and challenging.

I want to ask you one last thing, which is about Ryan Reynolds and about “Deadpool.” Now, as we know, everything has come to a halt. This is now your third collaboration with Ryan Reynolds. Everything is now shut down. The impact of that on hundreds of people who you work with. How are you and he and everyone else involved in “Deadpool” dealing with this unique challenge?

Ryan and I are fortunate in that our careers have given us, I mean, we're losing our minds creatively stifled, but we're not losing our homes. We're not needing, as some of our crew members on “Deadpool” and “Stranger Things” have had to do, to become Uber drivers or food delivery drivers. The impact of this strike is brutal, and it's brutal, not just on the guild members who are on strike, but the ecosystem of our industry, many of whom don't have a fallback gig. 

As the weeks and now months have dragged on, boy, the fallout is really upsetting, really painful to a lot of families. I pray still because I'm an inherent optimist, that by the time people watch our conversation, that we will have come to a fair and equitable resolution to this strike, and that our industry, certainly that “Deadpool 3” is back to filming because we paused halfway through, but that our industry at large is back to work.

I feel like we're going for the wrap-up, but I do want to add that the [All The Light We Cannot See] is a work of fiction. It's based on a beloved book set in World War II, but boy, these themes of somehow in the midst of dark times and we find ourselves living yet again in truly dark times, in the midst of that darkness to somehow tenaciously believe in the light that we cannot see, I know we're all praying for that light right now.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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