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Five Minutes With: M.L Stedman

Five Minutes With: M.L Stedman

We speak to author M. L. Stedman on her magnificent debut novel, A Light Between Oceans, and its equally as impressive film adaptation.

Five Minutes With: M.L Stedman

M.L. STEDMAN (Author) was born and raised in Western Australia and now lives in London. “The Light Between Oceans” is her first novel.  An international best-seller, the book has already sold over two million copies in around 40 languages.

What do you think it is about your story that caused it to resonate with so many readers around the world?

Actually, that’s exactly what I asked my various publishers when the book came out, as it’s been translated into around 40 languages (which, as you can imagine, amazed me). They said that the story is universal; that the themes it deals with – such as how we determine right and wrong, the tension between love and duty, what ‘family’ means – are relevant to people in every walk of life, wherever they live. I think there’s another reason, too, and that is that the readers have a lot of freedom. The book doesn’t tell them what to think, so they have to explore things for themselves. As I was writing, I just tried to see the situation from each character’s point of view and convey their position truly and convincingly, without judging. The great result is that readers usually have their own (often fervently held) ideas about who is “right” and “wrong.”

How did you feel when you first learned that someone was interested in adapting your book for the big screen? Did you always feel the story had cinematic potential?

Quite frankly, the whole process of publication was pretty surreal, and hearing that people wanted to adapt the book for film was an extension of that. Early readers had told me they found the story very visual and could imagine it on screen. So I suppose I understood it was theoretically possible, but given that the percentage of books that actually make it to film is minuscule (apparently on average it takes about a decade), I wasn’t holding my breath.

Talk about your initial meeting with Derek Cianfrance. He was quite nervous about meeting you, as he wanted to make a good impression. Was there any discussion as to possible changes to the story and/or the characters, and if so, did they make sense to you from a narrative standpoint? Did you feel his vision was in synch with yours?

To answer the second part first, I’d had approaches from various filmmakers about a possible screen version, but it was because the exceptionally impressive team of David Heyman and Rosie Alison at Heyday Films and Stacey Snider (then co-chair) at DreamWorks really seemed to “get” the story the same way I did, that the project was born. We came up with certain parameters – things we all agreed needed to stay the same in a film – and it went from there, with Derek then coming on board as director. I felt the project was in excellent hands, with people who knew all there was to know about making a movie. I saw my job as to get out of their way, but be available to help if called upon.

I actually met Derek “on the page” a while before I met him face to face, when he emailed me the draft of his screenplay. It was with some trepidation that I clicked on the document, and I still remember the wonderful sense of relief that washed over me as I read the first page of the script – a sense of, “Oh, this is all going to be ok.” He clearly saw the story the same way I did; he was interested in the same themes I was; but he was also taking it into a new realm. I knew that a lot would have to fall by the wayside (unless they were making a twelve hour film…), but Derek showed such skill, like a micro-surgeon, in how he cut and stitched and added tiny touches here and there, so that you couldn’t see the joins between what I’d written and what he’d written.

Of course there were one or two things about his version of Tom that were different from mine, but I could understand why he had made the changes. The engineering structure of a novel is very different from a film – it’s like the difference between carrying freight on a cargo ship and an aeroplane – you have to choose even more carefully what goes on board, and spread the load differently. I had the luxury of time and space (a reader might spend days or weeks with the book), whereas Derek had to fit things into a tighter, lighter craft, that would carry viewers through the whole experience in a couple of hours.

I eventually met Derek in Australia. (It makes me laugh to hear that he was nervous – I had no idea! He’d already completely won me over with his screenplay.) He is a thoroughly delightful human being – kind, sensitive, hugely smart, and mischievously funny – but the thing about him that really stopped me in my tracks was how well he knew my book. It had come into existence in my brain cells, so I was used to being the only person who knew every minute detail, who could pretty much recite it word for word. And then suddenly there was Derek next to me, able to quote chunks of it, or mention tiny points that I thought nobody would even notice. He had considered every single aspect, and knew practically every comma and full stop. I realised there could be no greater proof of his commitment to and care for the story.

After that, from time to time he would email me a question which I would answer as best I could, but I always worked on the basis that it was his film, and that he knew exactly what he was doing. To get a glimpse of a creative genius of that calibre at work is a precious privilege. It is very much his script, but the process of collaborating with him on it was quite simply one of the happiest and most rewarding things I’ve ever done.

How did you feel about the casting of Michael Fassbender as Tom Sherbourne, Alicia Vikander as Isabel Graysmark and Rachel Weisz as Hannah Roennfeldt? What did you think when you saw them on the big screen?

I thought it was fabulous casting. All three actors share the knack of disappearing into their roles, so that you see not the actor but the character. When I first saw a rough cut of the film, I was in awe: the raw vulnerability and tenderness they convey is very rare. Each time I’ve seen the film since, I’ve been even more impressed by their performances, largely because they don’t feel like ‘performances’ at all: they so fully inhabit their roles. My “own” Tom and Isabel and Hannah still live on in a separate part of my brain, but the actors’ portrayals definitely share their DNA: they are utterly convincing and compelling in their own right.

What would you tell fans of the book to expect in the movie? 

I would encourage people who loved the book to do what I did: watch the film with fresh eyes, on its own terms. I imagine that no two readers have an identical picture of, say, what Tom “should” look like, and the film can’t and doesn’t try to replicate each person’s private experience. It is its own thing: the world of Janus as lived by Derek and his actors. I find it visually extraordinarily beautiful, and very moving. It goes on resonating deep inside you long after you leave the cinema, and people may feel they want a little time to reflect on it. It’s been made with great love and integrity. So let it sink in. Let it be what it is.

Available on Digital, DVD & Blu-Ray from 8 Feb.

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