Light Of My Life – A meditation on parental love in broken times

Light Of My Life, Casey Affleck’s narrative feature filmmaking debut, based on his own script, mixes a survivalist drama, a coming-of-age story, and a powerful metaphor of parenting, letting concern for a single child serve as both eulogy and hope for a species facing its greatest challenges.

In the desperate atmosphere of a post-pandemic, dystopian landscape following a plague that killed nearly all the world’s females, a father (Casey Affleck) and daughter (newcomer Anna Pniowsky) survive on rations in American Midwestern towns while they forage in the woods, far from the danger men present.

This beautiful dramatic thriller is also a meditation on parental love in broken times, a dissection of the precariousness of society…and a complex, compelling parable of letting go.

“It is a father and daughter story, a post-pandemic story, a human versus nature story, a home invasion story, a coming of age story, and a fairytale. But most of all it is a story of parental love,” says Affleck, who received a Best Actor Oscar for his performance in Manchester By The Sea.

The origins of Light Of My Life go back a dozen years or more, sparked by one of the simplest and most special rituals of parenthood: Telling stories to your children.

For Affleck, the bedtime tales he told his two sons illuminated many things. “I wrote them down and thought I might want to make a film about parenting and storytelling, and the role storytelling plays in raising kids,” says Affleck. “Over the years, the idea evolved, and I started working on a script.”

In 2015, producer Teddy Schwarzman’s company, Black Bear Pictures, was developing a project that Affleck had written when he showed them this new script. “We knew Casey as an incredibly talented writer, artist and actor already, of course, and we could sense how visual and empathetic and powerful a storyteller he was — it was on the page. And I immediately fell in love with Light Of My Life; I hadn’t ever read anything as sincere or as lyrical. It was a beautiful tale that had immense stakes surrounding its characters. As parents, we all do our best to instill in our children the knowledge and values and skill sets we have, and yet every day our children surprise and teach us. There was something so highly relatable to it, yet it was also incredibly high concept and intriguing.”

“As a filmmaker, I’m drawn to stories that highlight our shared humanity. The timeless story of a parent dedicated to his child above all else is one I hope everyone can relate to in a personal way. As a father of two children, I have told many bedtime stories. Each one, though sometimes inspired by the one before, had to be invented whole cloth or I risked withering criticism. To keep things interesting I would begin with a new character in a new impossible situation and see if I could find for them a believable path to a triumphant conclusion. Light Of My Life is such a story. “

Light Of My Life is an extremely personal movie for Affleck.

“I began writing this story a decade ago. As my children aged, the experience of being a parent changed. The story I was telling changed. After going through a divorce, the story took its final shape. Despite all the science fiction, this is a story about being a single parent grieving the loss of a nuclear family.

At the center of this movie is an 11-year-old, a child on the cusp of becoming a young adult. The other main character is the father known only as ”Dad.” The cataclysmic event that precipitates our story, a science-fiction conceit, is intended to raise the stakes of a common and ancient conflict between parent and child: A parent wants to protect and teach a child, but a child wants to fend and learn for his or herself. In the world our film presents, where the threat to the child is so grave, this universal drama becomes a life or death decision. In creating this world, I was grappling with all the myriad, complex concerns that all parents share. How does a parent learn that he cannot protect his child from every danger in the world, but that his job is to prepare her to protect herself? How can a parent have the courage to let go of their child when danger is so constant and horrific.

“While the title of the film is borrowed from a line spoken by a mother to a son in Euripides’ play Andromache, many of my favorite films of today influenced me tonally and stylistically.”

“Without drawing on any one source for inspiration, I reveal how much my narrative process depends upon the stories I have been told my entire life, from The Elephant Man to Witness to CHILDREN OF MEN. For this reason, the story the father tells his child at the beginning is also the story upon which the child bases her own narrative independence later in the film. Movies are not made by just one person. This film was made by 124 people, and it is, to varying degrees, their stories too. “

A father and his young daughter left their home nearly ten years ago. She was an infant when a global pandemic hit, and as society spun into chaos with rioting and fear — followed by a breakdown in infrastructure, technology, communication, and morality — Dad cared for his child after his wife, the girl’s Mom, became a victim of what was termed “the female plague.”

When we meet them, “Rag,” as Dad calls her — because of her fondness for Raggedy Ann — is 11, and they’ve been living in the woods, mostly off the land, and staying to themselves. Rag must disguise herself as a boy when they go to towns to get supplies, and when around others, Dad refers to her as his “son”…because there is no distinguishing the bad men from the good.

The two practice “red alerts”‘; they establish safe spots to get to if the need arises; they cover their tracks. But even more important are the life lessons they discuss, the memories Dad relives from before the world became what it is, the love between them, and the stories they share.

Those stories are the beating heart of Light Of My Life, and they were the scenes that writer-director Casey Affleck first put down on paper when he began crafting the outline of his script in 2014. Its meanings have grown, and yet continue to evolve for him, from the time he first began thinking of the film a dozen years ago.

“One of the things I liked about the experience of making this film is, once the movie was made, I have still continued to figure out what it was about and why it was important to me,” says Affleck. “Not all of those things were clear all along the way. There’s often a subconscious at play when you’re doing anything artistic, and sometimes it takes years to understand what was going on in it.”

Dad and Rag live out of an orange camping tent, and as they talk at night, the interior of the tent is womb-like, lit by small lamps that accentuate the intimacy and rapport the father and daughter have. These scenes punctuate Light Of My Life, re-orienting us to what’s most important
to these characters: The parent-child bond and the sense of shelter they’ve created. The first such moment is an extraordinary 12-minute scene — almost a short film in and of itself — that opens the movie: Dad is improvising a tale about two ingenious foxes to Rag’s insistent specifications. Then their talk becomes more serious, reflecting young Rag’s worries about the time and place she grew up in. It establishes immediately who these characters are, and how much they mean to each other.

“Dad and Rag are in a world where there isn’t much to look forward to outside of that tent, so they’ve created a world that is beautiful and protected, with a level of innocence and normalcy in it,” says producer Teddy Schwarzman. “One constant in Light Of My Life is the power of stories and shared experiences — and being able to dream a vision of the future together.”

From Page To Screen

Filming on Light Of My Life began in January 2017 for 34 days in and around Vancouver, British Columbia, in wild weather that a massive snowstorm would turn epic. In bringing his vision of the film from his children’s bedside to the big screen, Affleck found that the themes remained
elusive — even to himself. Yet several issues reverberate with the era we live in now: A time when the natural world is out of sync and as endangered as humanity; when women’s freedom is under
attack; when decency is becoming more tenuous as society splinters.

But none of that consciously went into the DNA of the film, Affleck says. “I wish I could take credit for wanting to comment on things or depicting a world that parallels, in some ways, the point we’re at now. In truth, I didn’t have any social commentary in mind when I was making it. But one
reason I love the arts is it’s a way of talking about our world in a not-so-literal way; those things may have found their way into the movie, but what I was making was a story about learning to find a balance between both keeping the world out and letting the world in, keeping your kids protected and letting them go, protecting them while preparing them to protect themselves. Yet other issues that are brewing in the world shape anything that’s being made, almost by osmosis.”

Says Schwarzman, “At Black Bear Pictures, we’re genre-agnostic, but when we look at material, we do ask, ‘What does this add to its genre?’ There was something beautiful about looking at a near-future dystopian world and asking, how does this effect the relationships that are most important to us? How does this change who we are? And I think there was something
important in examining how as a parent, there’s only so far you can take your children, and only so far that a father can take a daughter. The notion of hope among hopelessness.”

Light Of My Life First Assistant Director Liz Tan (The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Hobbit trilogy, Spider-Man: Homecoming) connected to the themes and emotions in the script immediately. “I had worked with Casey previously, and I think he’s quite a singular talent, and a very interesting person. So when he approached me to do this, I thought it was a really intriguing story,” Tan says. “I’m drawn to that notion of family and a world crumbling around them — what you do for the people you love and how do you protect them?”

The lack of technology in the remnants of society Dad and Rag inhabit also has an echo that Affleck says reflects — again, almost inadvertently — how we live our lives today.

“Not having any of the ‘tech noise’ we currently have is definitely an idea I do secretly love and wish was the case,” says Affleck, “but you know, you have to be careful about getting what you wish for. It’s a double-edged sword, because suddenly you’d have a world that’s not as connected,
not as safe. In fact, it extends out in this film — while it would be very easy for Dad to carry a weapon, it’s clear that’s not who he was or is. He doesn’t succumb to the madness that’s out there. He maintains a sense of decency to protect his own values.”

“This movie was hard to make, and I want to give a shout out to everyone who worked on it. I wouldn’t have been able to make it without them. My first AD, Liz Tan, who’s worked on some incredibly difficult movies in her career, was a rock-steady pillar of support and kept everything moving through all of the weather changes and difficult production challenges. I fully realized on this movie that the crew is everything. It doesn’t matter what ideas the director may have — 100 people have to make them happen.”

As for what Light Of My Life — an intimate but epic-feeling, and emotional yet clear-eyed movie about parents and children, life and hard lessons, good and bad, the world and our family — finally means, Affleck is characteristically thoughtful about it. As Dad does with Rag, Affleck wants
to make sure what’s said doesn’t get in the way of what’s heard … and that the storyteller doesn’t obscure the story itself.

“I asked Gus Van Sant one time about what a movie meant that we were making — ‘What is it about? What does it mean? What are the themes?’ — and Gus replied, not being a smartass but very nicely, ‘Why don’t we just see if we can let the themes reveal themselves?’” recalls Affleck.

“I try and remember that when I’m making something, even just as an actor. To tell the story, and be truthful, and rather than try and orchestrate it, just let what the movie is all about present itself to you.”