Like many people who read the 2014 novel All the Light We Cannot See, Shawn Levy fell hard. “I loved this story and the way it is about the endurance of hope in the midst of the darkest of circumstances, and that it had this universal and broadly resonant theme, but with characters that were super specific,” the director tells Vanity Fair.
Set during World War II, the Pulitzer Prize–winning story follows the lives of two unforgettable characters: Marie-Laure, a blind French girl who takes refuge in her uncle’s house in Saint-Malo, and Werner, a boy recruited by the German military because of his skills in radio technology.
Levy, a prolific producer whose projects include the hit Netflix series Stranger Things, was disappointed to learn that Anthony Doerr’s book had already been acquired to be adapted into a feature film. But a few years later, he got wind of the fact that development had stalled. “I wasn’t surprised because the story is so sweeping, and it’s an interesting combination of intimate storytelling and epic backdrop,” he says. “I had a feeling that two hours was never going to service such a beautiful, dense novel.”
So he proposed to Netflix and Doerr that he and his team at 21 Laps could adapt it into a limited series, giving them enough time and space to tell the story in full. The Netflix limited series, which will hit the streamer on November 2, stars Louis Hofmann, Mark Ruffalo, and Hugh Laurie, and will introduce audiences to Aria Mia Loberti as Marie-Laure. In his first interview on the project, Levy explains how this passion project pushed him as a filmmaker, from casting authentically with blind actors to committing to direct the entire series himself.
“I’ve made a lot of movies, but I’ve never made something on this grand cinematic scale and historic setting [that is also] a straight-up character-rooted drama,” says Levy, whose directing credits include the Night at the Museum franchise, Free Guy, and the upcoming Deadpool 3. “I’ve always wanted to, and I always felt that I had something to say in that genre and tone. Frankly, it was worth the multiyear wait to do it.”
All the Light We Cannot See introduces us to Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a young French woman who is living all alone in Saint-Malo, using her radio every night to communicate to her father and uncle, whom she hopes are out there somewhere listening. The town is being bombed by the Allied forces, but the Nazi soldiers have closed the gates to the city, trapping the residents inside. As the series progresses, we learn about how Marie-Laure came to be alone in Saint-Malo after escaping Paris with her father. We also discover that a Nazi gemologist is hunting down Marie-Laure, convinced that her father gave her an incredibly valuable—and perhaps magical—diamond called the Sea of Flames.
For the adaptation to work, Levy had to find the right actor to play Marie-Laure, who became blind at the age of six. He worked with Netflix for a worldwide casting search, auditioning both sighted and vision-impaired or legally blind actors. He received hundreds of submissions, but when he saw a self-tape from a PhD student at Penn State named Aria Mia Loberti, he knew he had found his Marie.
“Aria has never acted before, she has never auditioned before. She had assumed, long ago, that this was just not ever a path that was available to her,” says Levy of Loberti. “It just became clear to me that even though she was literally figuring out how to do it while she did it, there was something luminous about Aria, and unsurprisingly, fiercely intelligent.”
Loberti earned her Masters in 2021 from Royal Holloway, University of London as a Fulbright Scholar and is currently pursuing her doctoral studies in rhetoric at Penn State. As a fierce advocate for those, like her, who are blind or visually impaired, she was able to inform the portrayal of Marie in a way that a sighted actor could not, says Levy.