Adapting 'All the Light We Cannot See' for TV, and the blind

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Adapting 'All the Light We Cannot See' for TV, and the blind
The director Shawn Levy, right, with the author Anthony Doerr in Toronto, Sept. 9, 2023. In Levy’s new Netflix mini-series, the two actresses playing the protagonist from Doerr’s 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel are blind, just like the character. (Chloe Ellingson/The New York Times)

by Imogen West-Knights

BUDAPEST.- On a set on the outskirts of Budapest, as the crew reset cameras for the next take, Nell Sutton, 7, sat up in bed and asked her director, Shawn Levy, a question:

“How will you make it look like night?”

Levy explained that the blue lights, set up around the room, would convey nighttime on-screen. Sutton was satisfied, and settled back into position, headphones on, to start a scene in which her character, Marie-Laure, is listening to the radio way past her bedtime. Her father, played by Mark Ruffalo, comes in and catches her. She tells him that she is learning about the magic of radio waves. “The most important light is the light you cannot see,” she says.

Sutton, cast as the young Marie-Laure in “All the Light We Cannot See,” Netflix’s four-episode adaptation of Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, is blind. The actress playing the character 10 years later, Aria Mia Loberti, is also blind.

In some ways the set, which took over a site next to an abandoned brewery last year for a few weeks over the summer, seemed like any other: People with walkie-talkies strode past equipment and craft services. But this production was the first time that blind lead characters in a major television show were being played by actors who were themselves blind, and the attention that went into accommodating those actors, and making the show as true as possible to the experiences of people who are blind, was significant.

“All the Light We Cannot See” is set in occupied France during World War II and follows Marie-Laure, an amateur radio enthusiast and the daughter of a master locksmith at Paris’ Museum of Natural History, and Werner (Louis Hofmann), a young German radio engineer who is drafted into a Nazi Wehrmacht squad to trace a radio signal that is broadcasting resistance messages. Marie-Laure is behind the signal, which she sends from Saint-Malo, a town on the northern coast of France, where she and her father moved while Paris was occupied.

The book’s title refers to radio signals, and its protagonist’s sightlessness, but also to moral blindness, Doerr said in an interview on set. “In many ways, Marie-Laure is a much more capable-sighted character than Werner for much of the book,” he added.

The adaptation was directed and produced by Levy (“Stranger Things”), and coproduced by Dan Levine (“Arrival.”) When the book came out in 2014, the producer Scott Rudin snapped up the adaptation rights to develop a feature film. Years later, when Levy learned that Rudin intended to let the rights lapse, he approached Doerr and proposed making a limited TV series instead. “That was much more exciting to me,” Doerr said. “The novel is like 500 pages; it would be hard to go for 120 minutes.”

Levy said that he and Levine agreed early on that Marie-Laure, both as a child and as an adult, should be played by blind actors. It was a risk for several reasons, Levine said, not least because studios like to cast big names in lead roles. The show has big names — Ruffalo as Marie-Laure’s father, and Hugh Laurie as her uncle, Etienne — but the actors playing Marie-Laure would have to be unknowns.

The bigger issue was how to find them, since there are very few working blind actors. The producers and the casting directors did a global, open casting call, contacting schools and communities for the blind. “I thought, once we go down this road, we can’t go back,” Levine said. “We couldn’t say, ‘Well, we can’t find anyone.’”

First, they cast Sutton, who was from a small town in Wales and who had starred in a campaign for a British charity, but had no other acting experience. Finding the older Marie-Laure took more time, and the production team saw hundreds of auditions before a tape from Loberti, a Ph.D. student at Penn State University who had no acting experience.

The production’s secret weapon, Levy said, was their blindness consultant, Joe Strechay. Strechay has been legally blind since he was 19, and described himself in an interview in his trailer as now being “totally blind.” He previously worked with Netflix on the “Daredevil” series, and with Steven Knight, the writer of “All the Light,” on the Apple TV+ series “See.” “Having a lead character played by a person who’s legally blind, this is what we’ve been working for for a long time,” Strechay said.

Strechay consulted on all of the adjustments the production made to the set, including adding tactile marks to the floor that Loberti and Sutton could feel to establish their positioning, giving the actors time on set ahead of shooting to acclimate, and writing the series title in Braille on the directors’ chairs and trailers.

He was also involved in a directorial capacity. Strechay watched all of the rushes with his seeing assistant, Cara Lee Hrdlitschka, who described the scenes to him in minute detail so that he could give feedback on how Marie-Laure’s blindness was being conveyed on-screen. “If someone who’s blind or low-vision does something over and over again, it becomes easy,” Strechay said. “So if it’s supposed to be them arriving in a place they’ve never been before, we look at all those little movements to make sure they’re accurate for that moment, for that character, in the story.”

This led to frequent alterations, including to a scene in which Daniel teaches young Marie-Laure how to use a cane while walking down a busy street. Levine thought Daniel ought to be standing next to the curb, for Marie-Laure’s safety, but on set Strechay corrected him. Daniel would want it the other way around, he said, so Marie-Laure could orient herself by the sound of the traffic and feel the curb with her cane.

These details mattered to Strechay, he said, because he has been generally unimpressed by media representations of blind people. Ruffalo played a blind person in the 2008 film “Blindness,” and remembered mentioning this to Strechay when they first met. “He said, ‘Oh yeah, I saw that. Nice try,’” Ruffalo said in an interview between takes.

Strechay has also helped the sighted actors understand how to interact with a blind person respectfully. In the scene in which Marie-Laure listens to late-night radio, Ruffalo, as Daniel, removed a pair of headphones from Sutton’s ears. Because of the headphones, she couldn’t hear Ruffalo when he entered the room.

“I know not to startle her, to just give her a little touch to tell her I’m there,” he said, adding that onscreen, Daniel alerting Marie-Laure to his presence this way is also more authentic to the relationship between a blind child and her father. “It was important to me that we approach it this way,” Levy said, not only because it seemed right, but because it ultimately made for a better show.

Working on this production has made the producers think differently about the primacy of sight in their work. One of the novel’s strengths is how it immerses the reader in Marie-Laure’s experience of the world: through smell, sound and touch. TV is a visual medium, but there are ways it can bring those other senses to the fore.

“It’s so easy as a director to get image obsessed, shot by shot,” Levy said. “And there’s still that, because this is ultimately a television series that people will watch. Creating beautiful images is important to me, but my awareness of the tools that I have as a director is more 360.”

He gave the example of the objects Marie-Laure has on her bedroom windowsill. “They wouldn’t be items chosen for prettiness, they’d be chosen for the sound they make in a breeze, or the texture against the fingertips,” Levy said. In several episodes, shots of Marie-Laure focus on her feet — walking over broken glass, navigating the streets of Saint-Malo with her cane — and so heightening the viewer’s sense of how she perceives the world through senses other than sight.

Strechay said he hoped Sutton’s and Loberti’s performances would open the door for more blind actors. Sutton shared this hope, she said in an interview on set, adding that she was excited for other blind children to watch the series.

“Sometimes I say your gift is your blindness,” she said. “And I say, even if you’re blind, you can still do anything.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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