In 2019, Netflix and Shawn Levy’s production company 21 Laps Entertainment acquired the rights to adapt Anthony Doerr’s 2014 war novel All the light we can’t see for television. The Pulitzer Prize-winning bestseller tells the story of two teenagers whose paths cross during the height of World War II in occupied France: Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a blind French girl, and Werner Pfennig, a German boy who is kidnapped and forced into Nazi soldier.
The four-part drama, which also stars Mark Ruffalo and Hugh Laurie, was developed by British screenwriter Steven Knight, who also serves as executive producer of the limited series (out Thursday).
“What I learned is that the story is the story, and it doesn’t necessarily fit into the conventional box,” Knight says of the adaptation of Doerr’s novel. “I wanted the story to be as long as the story is, and it was perfect for four hours.
“I hope that a trend will emerge where people will have the freedom to say, ‘This is the story I want to tell.’ It’s going to be three hours, it’s going to be four hours, it’s going to be five hours,” Knight added. “That would be a more authentic way of telling stories.”
Authenticity is a cornerstone of the project, which introduces two new actresses in the lead role of Marie-Laure. Aria Mia Loberti plays the teenage version of the girl whose radio broadcasts during the war connect listeners across France in unexpected ways in the series and serve as the common thread between past and present for viewers. Nell Sutton plays the younger version of Marie in flashbacks.
“We collectively decided that we needed actors who were blind or had poor visibility,” Knight says The Hollywood Reporter in the chat below. “Then it was Shawn’s faith and Netflix’s faith to say, ‘Okay, never acted before, main character.’ The second miracle is that it worked.”
Location also played a large role in placing the audience in the world Doerr and Knight describe in the text, Saint-Malo, France, as it was a city central to the original novel. Filming took place there, but also in Budapest, Paris and Villefranche-de-Rouergue in southern France, just as Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Knight explains. While noting that the underlying message of the book and series is one of hope, Knight says the imagery of the historic French port helps convey that feeling, which is of particular importance to those affected by the current war.
“Hopefully people will continue to watch the end credits where we see Saint-Malo being destroyed in archive footage, and then see what it looks like now,” says Knight. “It’s a symbol of hope.”
It feels like this project has been a long time coming since Netflix first acquired the rights to the story in 2019. How does it feel to be ready to finally show it to the world?
There were bumps along the way. COVID came along and all that, and so not much was made. The adaptation itself, I loved it. It was a labor of love. I loved the book. I’ve read the book before, when I was invited to adapt it, and I loved it. So that process is painless and enjoyable for me. And then Shawn (Levy) did such an incredible job of making it happen and executing it on such a scale. The performances are great. Aria is incredible, Nell is incredible, these are two actresses who have never acted before, never even auditioned before, taking center stage and carrying this thing. It’s actually kind of a miracle.
Can you talk about finding your Marie-Laure LeBlancs?
Shawn was the driving force behind that. We collectively decided that we needed actors who were either blind or visually impaired, but since agents don’t normally have many people living without sight, it just became a general internet call for someone to play these roles. Aria had never acted before. She was in college and sent in a tape that was just amazingly good, and Nell suddenly shined too. Then it was Shawn’s faith and Netflix’s faith to say, “Okay, never acted before, main character.” The second miracle is that it worked.
The role of Etienne also feels like a completely different role for Hugh Laurie. Can you talk about casting him?
Yeah, it was kind of thinking that there’s a damaged character living inside himself, a war hero in a metal box. And something about the Englishness, even though the character is French, there’s something about the limited Englishness of some of the characters Hugh has played (that made him a good fit for the role). We were lucky enough that he responded to the scripts and sent a picture of someone with a very long beard in response to the script and said, “What if I look like this?” which was brilliant. It was fantastic and I think he plays the role so beautifully.
Anthony Doerr’s novel was particularly praised for its sensory details. How did you bring that aspect to life on screen?
We especially wanted it to also be an audio experience, so that, for example, if a leaflet falls, you hear it flapping. So that’s a very rich environment for obvious reasons. But I also think the appearance of the thing is so special. Its scale is extraordinary. And what I think is important in a lot of different things that I’ve done, and I’m sure Shawn has done, is that even the hardest, darkest, bad experience can be seen with beauty. It can look beautiful. And that there is almost hope in the texture on the screen, even when people do bad things. So I hope we’ve come close to the same sensory experience as people who read the novel.
Hope is a very palpable feeling, even as you watch the devastation unfold throughout the series. Can you talk about the elements that make that sensation possible, one of which I think is James Newton Howard’s score?
The score is great. My opinion has always been that it’s the music that gives you permission to cry when you watch something. Often, very, very often, the moment is there, you feel it, it builds, and then the score comes in and you’re away. That is it. I think this score, more than any score I’ve ever been involved with, is so powerful and so emotional. I went to the recording with the full orchestra in London, and if you just watched the scene I’m sure you know the process, but the scene is shown on the screen, the orchestra is all there and the conductor is conducting so that the music follows the scene. And just to see those two things together in that studio environment breaks your heart, so that it’s even more so when you’re in the darkened room and watching it on the screen.
You said it was “painless” for you to adapt, but were there any particular challenges in developing? All the light we can’t see for television?
It’s always very, very, terribly intense. You give months of your life thinking about nothing but these characters. But what I mean by that is that the quality of the material is so good that you don’t end up stubbing your toe on something all the time or hitting your head on something that isn’t the right size. It’s very open and smooth. The obvious challenge is that this is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, so you better be good. And then the time jumps, the spinning plates of the different time periods, just to make sure of that, but the most important thing is that you stay true to the characters and that you have the characters in your mind well enough that they can do what they need to doing.
How closely did you work with Anthony Doerr and did he provide feedback on the final product?
I’ve been saying all day during the interviews that you’re writing this, and you have a certain sense of dread. That’s true of any project, but without a doubt the opinion that matters more to me than 98 percent of what is said is Anthony’s opinion. And the weight lifted from your shoulders when he says he absolutely loves it. He loves it to the extent that he puts pressure on it. And for me that is a total justification.
Shawn Levy, as you mentioned, is the director and executive producer of this series. What was the creative process like working with him?
Shawn is one of the most positive people on the planet, and that’s fantastic. He has incredible drive, he has incredible energy and vision, and in writing it’s great to be able to do what you do, and then deliver when you can deliver. And to be honest, that’s also to Netflix’s credit, because you can work on projects where you’re on the phone with twenty people talking about different parts of the script. What happened in this case, Netflix pretty much left Shawn and I alone, and we just did what we had to do. And I think this shows because there is a certain freedom in the way the story is told.
This project and its release date took place long before the events currently happening in the world. Can you comment on the importance of this work being published at this time?
It’s very sad. Of course, when I started writing this, I had no way of knowing that. This story is about a nation invading another nation from the east, and the destruction and death that follows. And then that happens. And it happened just as we started shooting. And some of the extras in the scenes where the refugees leave Paris are real refugees from Ukraine. So that’s not just life imitating art, it’s art becoming life. And the fact that these things are still happening, that this darkness is still there, that people are still coveting each other’s countries and their own invasions, and all of these things just make the very basic message of the book even more important. What Anthony’s book suggests is that there is light, there is hope, that two individuals from opposite sides, Marie and Werner, meet and peace breaks out for an hour and they dance to some music. That’s the great thing about the book, and hopefully the series as well.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
All four parts of All the light we can’t see streaming now on Netflix.