Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by US authour Anthony Doerr, All The Light We Cannot See is a critically acclaimed four-episode series that follows the story of Marie-Laure, a blind French girl and her father, Daniel LeBlanc, who flee German-occupied Paris with a legendary diamond to keep it from falling into the hands of the Nazis.
What’s the plot of All The Light We Cannot See? Is it based on a true story? When will it premiere on Netflix? Are the two actresses who play Marie-Laure blind or visually impaired? Did the blind girl and the Nazi diamond hunter really exist? In which cities was the series shot? Are Marie-Laure and her father Jewish? Discover 19 Facts About All The Light We Cannot See.
Directed by Shawn Levy and written by Steven Knight, the four-part limited series, which will premiere on Netflix on 2 November 2023, introduces newcomers Aria Mia Loberti and Nell Sutton as the older and younger Marie-Laure respectively, and stars Mark Ruffalo as Daniel LeBlanc, Hugh Laurie as Uncle Etienne, Louis Hofmann as Werner, Lars Eidinger as Von Rumpel, and Marion Bailey as Madame Manec.
For award-winning director and executive producer Shawn Levy, All The Things We Cannot See presented a once-in-a-lifetime creative experience and artistic gratification. “I remember reading the book over the Christmas-New Year holiday break and I just devoured it. I was struck by not only the propulsive narrative tension of these intersecting fates, but the story about the persistence of hope against a backdrop of darkness and war, and a world in which evil exists, yet innocence somehow survives.”
Relentlessly pursued by a cruel Gestapo officer (Lars Eidinger) who seeks to possess the stone for his own selfish means, Marie-Laure (Aria Mia Loberti) and Daniel (Mark Ruffalo) soon find refuge in St. Malo (Brittany, Northern France), where they take up residence with a reclusive uncle (Hugh Laurie) who transmits clandestine radio broadcasts as part of the Resistance. In this once-idyllic seaside city, Marie-Laure’s path also collides with the unlikeliest of kindred spirits: Werner (Louis Hofmann), a brilliant German teenager enlisted by Hitler’s regime to track down illegal broadcasts, who instead shares a secret connection to Marie-Laure as well as her faith in humanity and the possibility of hope.
Nell Sutton, who plays the younger Marie-Laure, is a blind girl from North Wales (UK) who was born in 2015. She inherited her father’s blindness.
“I had found Nell before I found Aria,” says director Shawn Levy. “At the time, I was already thinking of casting actresses who were blind or low vision to play Marie-Laure, but it wasn’t until I zoomed with Nell that I realized I just couldn’t have an actress come in and fake it. It was wrong on every level. So, she was the catalyst. There was such an innate sweetness and hilarity to Nell that just knocked me out.”
When it came to finding teenage Marie-Laure, the production company decided to put out a global casting call for blind and low vision actresses. “We got thousands of iPhone videos”, says Shawn Levy. “Some people had acted professionally or were aspiring actors. Others had never even thought about acting and one of those people was a Ph.D. and Fulbright scholar at Penn State named Aria Mia Loberti. She sent in an audition, and we knew there was something there, but after zooming with her a couple times, increasingly the realization was: I think this is a moonshot. A unicorn of a discovery.”
Shawn Levy is full of praise for his two leading actresses. He says: “Aria was someone who loved the book with a passion and understood it with her entire soul. She brought such a lovely soulfulness to Marie-Laure along with a fierce intelligence, which is critical. Imagine learning a brand new job, and having to do that job in front of 200 people knowing that your attempt in doing that job was going to be seen eventually by a hundred million strangers. It’s unfathomable! But that’s what Aria and Nell did.”
“I get chills talking about meeting Aria because as soon as we saw her, we knew,” recalls executive producer Dan Levine. “She was wearing her grandmother’s vintage sweater and had this timeless look. She did an incredible British accent. We almost didn’t realize she was American. She was phenomenal.”
The four-episode series was shot in Paris, Saint-Malo (Brittany, Northern France) and Hungary.
Filming for the series was already underway in Hungary when neighboring Ukraine was invaded by Russia on 24 February 2022. “I wish to god the story of All The Light We Cannot See wasn’t as timely as it is,” says film director Shawn Levy. “You watch a story of an invading aggressor laying claim to the land of its sovereign neighbors, and you see the impact of that on innocent civilians. Intolerance and aggression are still all around us in ways that are heartbreaking. It made me realize that this story is both timeless and timely.”
Marie-Laure, her father Daniel and her uncle Etienne are not Jewish. Since the Germans invaded Paris in June 1940, everyone in France is at risk. The Nazi treasure hunter Von Rumpel is obsessed with finding the Sea of Flames, a mysterious diamond that used to be hidden in the Natural History Museum in Paris where Daniel LeBlanc used to work.
“This story isn’t about being blind — it’s about humanity coming together in a time of hardship,” says leading actress Aria. “Blindness is the last thing on Marie-Laure’s mind and it’s probably the least relevant part of her identity, but it is the way she explores and feels the world around her. So, I hope people will start asking questions when they want to include a character with a disability or any character from a marginalized community. Why do you want to tell the story?”
Aria performed many of her own stunts for the series. She learnt how to shoot a gun and how to check the rounds inside the barrel by touch. She also insisted on performing her own fight scenes with Lars Eidinger.
“To me, All the Light We Cannot See is about goodness, love, hope, and innocence – all of which are things you can’t see, but you can transmit and pass on to someone else,” says German actor Louis Hofmann who plays Werner. “One of the reasons why I wanted to do this so badly was my character’s premise. Werner is very sensitive, but also very broken. He’s got this beautiful gift of being a genius, and I always find it interesting when something so positive brings about something so negative. He’s a genius with radios, but it becomes a burden when the Nazis make use of his skill, and he sort of suffers under the regime. He keeps on trying to hold onto what’s good and that eventually leads him to Marie.”
The script called for Werner to build a radio in under a minute, so Louis Hofmann worked with the prop master, Marton Szalay, in learning how to build a radio in real time. After a week of practicing for 3 to 5 hours a day, Hofmann was able to build a 1940s-style radio in 56 seconds.
“I had the book as a reference, which was generally really helpful, and I knew a lot about the history, the music, and what was happening in Paris during World War II already, so for me, getting acquainted with gemology was a big thing,” says Mark Ruffalo who plays Daniel LeBlanc. “We found a museum about an hour outside of Budapest that allowed me to spend several hours there with a curator who let me handle some semi-precious stones and dinosaur bones. I was able to pick his brain and speak with a few other curators, people who really loved the sciences and were thrilled to share that love with someone else.”
Mark Ruffalo gave Aria Mia Loberti a polaroid camera as a start-of-production gift. “It’s customary to buy a gift when you start shooting. So when I asked her what she wanted, she said she wanted a Polaroid camera. She did take some great shots.”
Etienne LeBlanc, an agoraphobic World War I hero who records clandestine radio broadcasts from his attic as part of the French Resistance, is played by Hugh Laurie. “Etienne is a damaged character,” explains the Golden Globe winner. “The source of the damage is something of a mystery. He had a traumatic experience in the first World War, he became terrified of the outside world, and developed a neurosis, which prevented him from ever leaving the house. And it is partly his relationship with Marie that encourages him to begin anew and to actually physically step outside his house, but also emotionally step outside of the trap that he’s built for himself. That’s a very touching element of the story; a slight Beauty and the Beast aspect where he’s trapped in this castle and she’s the one who lures him out into the light, so to speak.”
Specialized darkened contact lenses were made for Aria so that bright lights wouldn’t affect her light-sensitive residual vision as much during scenes when she was outside in direct sunlight.
Aria’s wonderful (and incredibly cute) guide dog, Ingrid, accompanied her everywhere. Whenever Ingrid wore her harness, it meant that she was working and was not to be disturbed. Whenever she was not wearing her harness, hugs, kisses, and extra treats were allowed. Ingrid accompanied Aria to set often, except during some emotionally sensitive scenes.
Photos: Courtesy of Netflix © 2023; Timea Saghy / Netflix © 2023; Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix © 2023
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