“Would you like me to tell you a story?” a father (Casey Affleck) asks his daughter Rag (Anna Pniowsky) in the opening moments of “Light of My Life,” with the two snugly ensconced in sleeping bags preparing for bedtime. She insists that the tale not be about her, so suspiciously you begin to hear about another 11-year-old girl named Jodie finding her way towards an ark that sounds an awful lot like Noah’s when it becomes clear that her father hasn’t completely thought this through. Still, there’s wisdom in the nonsense as he clearly keeps her entertained — as he later confides, “Stories are good because they connect people — and they’re fun to tell.”
In Affleck’s second feature as a director, and (arguably) his first narrative, stories serve a variety of purposes, but chief among them is survival as the unnamed dad uses them to protect Rag from knowing too much about the cruel world that awaits her, though the fact that they scramble around for shelter is bound to pierce any illusions he can create sooner or later. A virus has wiped out half the population including her mother (Elisabeth Moss), and as a young woman, her father believes she’s particularly vulnerable to the desperate types they encounter in the wilderness, fashioning her like a boy with short hair and a nondescript nickname, but with the stories, he can take her mind off things, as well as his own, imagining a safe place for them to retreat when practically every other moment they have to stay alert and fearful.
Of course, that means all the time for Rag when she might have to be concerned her father is being overprotective and Affleck, who spent the better part of a decade working on “Light of My Life,” during which time he and the mother of his own children got divorced, devises a uniquely tender and obviously personal drama that grapples with how a parent’s desire to shield their kids from the worst can have its own repercussions. Like films he’s acted in such as Gus Van Sant’s “Gerry” and David Lowery’s “A Ghost Story,” the writer/director is able to tell of great consequence with just two people taking in the lay of the land and after enlisting casting legend Avy Kaufman to find the ideal Rag from hundreds of actresses, Affleck has a formidable scene partner in Pniowsky, who imbues the character with a growing self-awareness and confidence that’s a marvel to behold. With the film arriving in theaters this week following its premiere earlier this year at the Berlin Film Festival, the two spoke about building their engaging on-screen rapport, forgetting that they were making a movie and surviving the bitter cold of a 34-day shoot in the dead of winter in British Columbia.
Casey Affleck: It’s a good question and if you’re paying attention, things just have their own life. They tell you when they’re ready to be made. That said, there were many drafts of the script that were written and then once other people get involved, like a producer or a DP or a cast member, then it gathers momentum and that momentum carries it through to production. It’s very hard to get something going all by yourself. You have to bring in one person and then bring in another person and then you start to feel like, “Oh this is real. We’re really making this now.”
Anna, how did you get interested in this?
Anna Pniowsky: Obviously, it’s Casey Affleck, so that’s pretty cool. And at the time, I just got super excited when I had any offer because I had only done a few movies, but this was a really cool role for me.
Was there anything you could do at the start of shooting to bond?
Anna Pniowsky: There was a bit. I remember Casey made me read three books – one of them was “Little House on the Prairie” and even before that, during the audition process, he made me untangle Christmas lights while saying the lines, so I think that was him seeing how good I am at doing two things at once.
Casey Affleck: Yeah, it’s like doing the scene while not thinking about the scene. You’ve got to think about the tangled stuff in front of you. She was great at all that stuff. And we spent a bit of time together, but honestly not as much as would’ve been nice because I was in pre-production [as a director]. Ordinarily as an actor, you hang out with the actors a bit before the movie starts. You get to know each other because you’re rehearsing, but we didn’t have that luxury, so there were a lot of things that would’ve made it easier for someone on their first movie or second movie that I wish I could’ve done for Anna, but we didn’t have the time or the money, and thank God she was able to do this performance without any of that.
Because of the nature of the story, how much of the world did you want Anna to know from the script versus perhaps having some discovery during filming?
Casey Affleck: It would’ve been a neat thing to try, but I found that to be impossible because we weren’t able to shoot in order and I also felt that Anna was such a self-aware, thoughtful person that I knew she could handle understanding what was happening in the script and with her character and not tipping her hand or doing things that wouldn’t be right for the scenes.
Anna Pniowsky: I try to put a bit of myself into the character and also take the circumstances and act [with the idea], “What would be my thoughts [in this situation]? And you would have those thoughts going on in your head and then you’d say your lines, so you become the person.
Casey Affleck: Yeah, I never felt like I had to disguise what was happening in the movie or to her character to manipulate her performance. She was doing plenty on her own. There are countless little moments that I had never really anticipated that Anna did in her performance, just a way of saying a line or a little laugh or some little gesture that really meant a lot even though it was small. Those are treasures that you find in the editing process and you would protect them and put them in the movie.
Aesthetically, it makes a lot of sense, but I couldn’t help but notice the way you could use distance with the camera and wondered if there were ways in which you could let the apparatus of filmmaking fall away so you could feel more in the moment.
Casey Affleck: One of reasons Anna was so perfect for this was she has a very naturalistic style and I did want it to feel like “we’re not making a movie.” There isn’t a bunch of edits, there aren’t a bunch of closeups. There aren’t a bunch of movie moments where the scenes between two people aren’t punctuated by certain camera moves and inserts. It unfolds in a more naturalistic way, which might put some people to sleep, but I was hoping that it would make people feel more attached to the characters, bonded to their relationship and then were worried about them at the end. And it was a small production – that helps. But we never used any lights. We didn’t use any dolly tracks. We didn’t use any cranes. We didn’t use any of that because we wanted it to just be a patient, static, observational look at the characters.
Anna Pniowsky: I don’t know if you kept the scene in, but when I’m feeding the chickens, I got really cold, and I was too scared to say anything. [laughs] So I just kept feeding the chickens.
Casey Affleck: I didn’t know that!
Anna Pniowsky: [laughs] Yeah, that was at the beginning of the film, then after that, I got chill.
Casey Affleck: Ahh, poor thing. We didn’t even use the chickens. [Anna laughs] We didn’t actually plan on having any animals, but we showed up at this farm where we were going to shoot and it was getting close to the camping season, so they had lots of animals. What animals were there?
Anna Pniowsky: At the farm? Sheep. There was a llama. There was also chickens…
Was it pretty crazy shooting this? I understand it was a pretty brutal winter in Vancouver.
Casey Affleck: It was, but that was good because we were delayed making this movie a little bit and we were really worried that we were going to lose the snow in the mountains. We got a lot of snow, which was important at the beginning of the movie, and as the movie went on, we had a ton of rain, which was also great. So it may have been brutal for people living in Vancouver, but for us shooting a rainy, cold movie, it was perfect.
“Light of My Life” opens on August 9th in Los Angeles at the Monica Film Center and New York at the Village East Cinemas. It is also available on digital and on demand.