This week marked the arrival of Netflix’s “All the Light We Cannot See,” a four-part adaptation of Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel set in Nazi-occupied France during World War II.
Directed by Shawn Levy, the series follows Marie-Laure (played as a child by Nell Sutton and as a teenager by Aria Mia Loberti), a blind French girl who flees occupied Paris with her father, Daniel LeBlanc (Mark Ruffalo), to live with her uncle Etienne (Hugh Laurie) in the coastal town of Saint-Malo. In between a constant barrage of American bombs, she conducts illegal radio broadcasts that entrance Werner Pfennig (Louis Hofmann), a young Nazi soldier tasked with tracking down exactly these kinds of illicit transmissions.
Although Hollywood has a long history of casting sighted actors to play blind characters — Al Pacino in “Scent of a Woman” and Audrey Hepburn in “Wait Until Dark” are just a couple among countless examples — “All the Light We Cannot See” is a breakthrough in representation for blind and low-vision performers. Both actors who play Marie-Laure are legally blind, making it the first project of this scope to cast such performers in leading roles as blind characters.
Key to creating an authentic depiction of blindness was Joe Strechay, an associate producer and a blindness and accessibility consultant who worked closely with Levy throughout production in France and Hungary. Strechay, who became legally blind at 19 and says he is now totally blind, is a film and TV lover who first got his start in the business on the USA series “Royal Pains,” where he gave feedback to the writers about language and slang used by a blind character. He then started working with sighted actors who were portraying blindness on “Marvel’s Daredevil” and “The OA,” both on Netflix.
“I was teaching them the skills that people who are blind use in everyday life. I’ve always been critical of how blindness has been portrayed in media,” said Strechay in a video chat with Levy. He also worked on “See” for Apple TV+, which employed some actors who were blind or low-vision in smaller roles.
The Times recently spoke with Levy and Strechay about their collaboration on “All the Light We Cannot See” and how the industry can continue to become more accessible to blind and visually impaired people. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Was it always a priority for you to cast blind and visually impacted actors as Marie-Laure?
Levy: [At first,] I was thinking about Marie purely as a character on the page. But when I pivoted towards pre-production, I started questioning how to approach it. I had this hunch that if I could find a girl and a young woman to play this character who were themselves low vision or blind, that it wouldn’t just be the right thing to do, it would, in fact, be the better thing to do by virtue of authenticity. I didn’t yet have a sense of how challenging it would be to find these candidates, simply because this is not the way it’s normally done. This is a community that is largely unrepresented at agencies. So we put out this global open casting call. And that was really the beginning of a process that has ultimately changed not just the way I direct, but me — it’s changed me.
I started getting these auditions sent in. And one of them was this 7-year-old Nell Sutton, who lived in a small town in Wales. And there was something so winning and effervescent about Nell and the nuance of the way she handled the stone [the Sea of Flames] in her palm as she was playing a scene. It was so different from my assumptions and my experience with how blindness is portrayed. Like most people, I’ve not spent a lot of time around blind people. My understanding of that experience was based largely on shows and movies that represent blindness using largely sighted actors. So you get shaped by this accumulation of cliches and tropes.
Joe, from your perspective, what is the biggest misconception or inaccurate trope about blindness in TV shows and movies?
Strechay: We don’t go around feeling people’s faces. I don’t want to feel your face. I have people at bars come up to me and grab my hand and start pulling it toward their face. I’m like, I don’t know you and I don’t want to touch your face.
Levy: Something that’s slightly mortifying for me — Aria and I were in Budapest, staying at the same hotel. We’re in an elevator, just the two of us with Ingrid, her guide dog. I was like, “I don’t know if this is weird, but do you want to feel my face?” She’s like, “Why would I want to do that? I’m like, “I feel like that’s a thing that I’ve seen. Do you want to connect with me by feeling my face?” She goes, “No, I don’t need to feel your face. In fact, I don’t go around feeling anyone’s face.”
You realize how much the sighted world’s understanding of blindness is based on Hollywood contrivances.
Levy: Every single day while we were filming, either Joe, Nell or Aria would point something out that was just not the way things happen. Maybe the script said, “Marie uses her cane to cross to her bed.” And Aria and Joe would be there to say, “If this is where I live, and I’m alone, I won’t need my cane inside my home. I’m leaving it by the door. I can navigate my intimate spaces.” Aria maps things with her hearing very quickly and she’s able to memorize space using audio mapping and echolocation. She uses her feet extensively — the edge of a rug, the shift in an uneven floorboard, telling her the steps are two more steps away — all these details that are contrary to most of what I knew.
Strechay: After I’m done on a production or Aria’s worked on a production, everyone who works on that production is going to go on to another and it’s going to open up opportunities for other persons with disabilities and other people who are blind or low-vision. I would say we’re even less represented than most persons with disabilities in television and film, being a visual medium.
Once Joe came on board, how did your process work?
Levy: The first step was sending Joe all of the scripts. Joe would give us notes about language, historic accuracy because frankly, the resources available to a person who is blind were very different in the late ‘30s than they are now. He would point out behavior that is inaccurate. Joe was [on set] before the actors [to] modify the work environment so that it was accessible, safe and sensitive to our cast members who were arriving shortly thereafter who would be navigating a movie set without sight. Every day, every take, Joe was there with a seeing assistant, Cara Lee Hrdlitschka. Joe would have earphones and we’d be listening to every take and Cara would be in Joe’s other ear.
Strechay: She audio describes every take. She’s looking at the monitor and every scene we have actions listed out. We have notes by scene that we’re going through and little details we’re looking at. She’s whispering in my ear, “Marie walks in the room, uses her left hand, places her cane against the corner of the wall.” She has a choreography background so she looks for the little details that most people don’t pick up on.
Levy: After a take, Joe would often come up to me and say, “It sounds like Aria put her cane down by the door and then laid her hand on top of the desk. It would be better if she locates the desk with the back of her hand first, and then transition to the front of the fingers.” And he would often remind Aria, “You are comfortable in this situation, but your character is younger than you, existing in 1941 and has not had any experience with reading other than Braille.” So Joe would keep the process honest. He was a critical resource for me as a director.
This was also new to Aria, who is a first-time actor.
Levy: That’s a massive element. Honestly, Aria’s newness to acting was maybe a more radical fact of our shoot than Aria’s legal blindness. We were teaching her every day but certainly every day, Aria was teaching me.
There was a scene where Marie says to a character, “Would you like to see the radio?” The other character nods. Joe had the audio description from Cara. He comes up to me and goes, “Shawn, this sighted character doesn’t realize [this] because he has never been around a blind person. If he’s going to nod, you should add a beat where he realizes his ‘no’ is invisible to Marie, and then he should say, ‘yes.’ ” That’s something that I wouldn’t have noticed. I gave the actor Joe’s note and I looked like a genius. [Laughs]
Were there ways you altered elements of the production, like the costume design, production design or sound?
Levy: They were informed by touch and texture, separate from sight. Marie would pick objects, let’s say for her desktop, not based on how pretty they are, but by how varied they feel. The pamphlets that flood in through an open window — she can’t read them because it’s not Braille. So we heightened the sound of fluttering paper. Then what does Marie do? She picks up a pamphlet and she smells the fresh ink because of course these pamphlets from the American allies [were] printed recently to get a message to the residents of Saint-Malo. I heightened the tactile and textured aspects of those things. I approached [my sound designer] and said, “You need to design as if the objects making the sounds are unseen, because they are unseen by our protagonist. So we’re going to dial up the detail and the depth of the sound design, because that’s how Marie would be experiencing those sounds.”
A basic question for Joe. How do you read the scripts?
Strechay: [He takes out his iPhone, and starts reading his email using a screen-reading app that speeds up the text so dramatically it’s incomprehensible to an average person] So that was my email. I listen to stuff at a minimum of 500 to 900 words per minute.
Levy: We talk a lot about “Oh, well, when you don’t have one sense, your others become superpowers.” That’s a frickin’ superpower, what you just saw.
Strechay: On my computer, I have something called a refreshable Braille screen with pins that pop up and form the words that are on the screen. There’s a brand new one I’m playing with. There are only like 100 in the U.S. right now, it’s called the Monarch. It’s a game-changer.
I watched a few scenes from the series with the audio descriptions on. Are there ways to improve that experience and make it better for blind or visually impaired audiences?
Strechay: I’m a filmmaker who’s blind. I want different information than just the general viewer. Most of the rules that have been created around audio description have been created by sighted folks. I would like the ability to turn up the amount of audio description because I want all kinds of information that they don’t typically give you, about the shots, what they’re wearing in the scene. We got to provide input to the audio describers for our show about what we wanted in there. Most productions don’t have the opportunity to work with the audio description.
How does it change the process for both of you working with actors who are excited versus who are low-vision or blind?
Levy: It changed everything for me. Your readers will need to take your word for it when you describe the level of my facial expressiveness and gesticulations. [Levy is extremely animated] What I gleaned from Joe and Aria was that that’s useless. Your words matter and the way you say them matters extra. What I found is, figure out what I want. Find the fewest words possible to express it. Get up, go to my actor Aria or now take it right to their ear and give the note concisely and expressively. The other thing I realized: Energy is palpable. I would get in the space of Aria and Nell and I trusted that they could feel my energy. That combined with more rigorous use of my words was a new way of directing for me. It really was such a useful disrupter of my go-to moves.
Is it different for you, Joe?
Strechay: Totally different. I’ve worked with a number of actors who are blind or low vision but never as the lead role. Aria is a strong young woman. I might go in with a suggestion, and be like, “You’re doing it this way? What would you think of this?”
Levy: Sometimes there would be pushback. Then it was on Joe and I to remind Aria that Marie is not Aria. She grew up in a different time, [and she] has a different depth of blindness. Her blindness in the story is absolute. It was all new to Aria, and she’s fiercely smart, very strong-willed. But collectively, we built this character, Marie, a hero who is blind in a way that we haven’t seen in a TV show or movie.
The Nazis targeted not only Jews but anyone they deemed physically inferior, including disabled people. I wonder how that real-life history might have informed your storytelling?
Levy: Before they were purging Jewish people, they were purging the weak and the deemed imperfect. In Episode 2, the Nazis are invading Paris. It’s a two-shot of Marie and her father, Daniel, standing on the curb while the soldiers walk by. There’s no dialogue to this effect. But Marie — this was Aria’s idea — takes her cane, and slides it under her jacket to hide it because she’s heard that the Nazis have no use for anyone who is different. It’s a very subtle thing. But it is based on the research that we did. Without a word of dialogue, it gets you in the mind set of feeling different during the Nazi regime that persecuted these people. That’s very much part of our story.
This story originally appeared on LATimes