The Man in the Ring: With Derek Cianfrance in Venice for the Premiere of The Light Between Oceans

Shannon Plumb on red carpets, press embargoes, critical slapdowns, standing ovations and more, as her husband's new movie premieres on the Lido.
main_shannon-plumb_derek-cianfrance-venice-talkhouse-film

I went to a Brooklyn Nets game one time. The lady behind me wore a Nets cap and waved a Nets flag. When a player from her team missed a shot, she booed at him. She insulted him from the bleachers. I wanted to turn to her and say, “Why aren’t you out there? You seem to know how to play.” She didn’t care how he got there, she wanted him to perform, and perform for her. There are critics everywhere. I’ve heard grown men hurl nasty comments during children’s soccer games, I made it through Roberta Smith’s criticism in the art world, and I’ve gotten battered by a Slant critic in the dog-eat-dog world of movies. Critics can be like horseflies sucking blood from thoroughbreds. If they want your blood, they’re going to cling on no matter how fast you run.

Derek Cianfrance’s movie The Light Between Oceans had its premiere last week at the Venice Film Festival. (Derek is my husband.) I’d always wanted to go to Venice with him. Now we were invited to go as guests. We were on our way to a world with no cars, where short bridges connected 119 islands together, where cuttlefish and black ink stain al dente macaroni, where you contemplate life on the Bridge of Sighs. I heard Derek sigh quite deeply on this trip.

The day we got to Venice, Gene Wilder died. I read the Willy Wonka quote and thought how much Derek deserved this adventure: “We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.” The airplane doors opened, we hopped onto a boat and into the waves. Derek had an amazing movie to show in an amazing place. What a dream! But in any magical kingdom, there is a price to pay.

On our first day, we got lost in nine concentric miles of stone, brick and Adriatic air. It was a labyrinth of shops, palazzos, tourists and theatre masks. Derek seemed to enjoy the sound of his heels hitting the stone under our feet. The echo ricocheted through narrow passageways. I kept thinking there was a horse nearby. (Little did I know the flies were getting ready to swarm.) We ate melon and prosciutto, gelato in the afternoon.

02_shannon-plumb_derek-cianfrance-venice-talkhouse-film

The next day, a blister on his toe, Derek looks at Rotten Tomatoes. I don’t use it, but Derek seems to get the “fresh” and “rotten” thing. He said there were some bad reviews of The Light Between Oceans. There was an embargo on reviewing the movie. No one was supposed to post a review until a few hours before its premiere. But there were five reviews up, one by Variety, and it was two more days till the premiere. The critics had broken the embargo. They were testing their words like North Korea testing atomic bombs. “Look what I can do,” they seemed to say. As with every bit of news today, bad stuff gets attention. The bad reviews were up. The movie hadn’t even opened yet.

The critics are not a voice for the people, yet they can affect the reputation and success of the movie. By writing early and with vehemence against The Light Between Oceans, it probably lost a couple million dollars in its first weekend. The first weekend is still the most important weekend for the movie. It determines the life a movie will have in theaters.

Derek doesn’t sleep. “I feel like someone stomped on my brain,” he says. He won’t read any more reviews. A man who interviewed him, who said he loved the movie, goes on Twitter and snickers about the film. Why? Why didn’t he tell Derek face to face he didn’t like the movie?

03_shannon-plumb_derek-cianfrance-venice-talkhouse-film

We travel on water to get to the tech rehearsal. The Italian driver of the speedboat was muscle-clad and masculine-clad. He turned around in his tight shirt to reprimand our companion who was standing on a boat cushion. “It’s the time of the slapdowns,” Derek said. Yeah, but at least this slapdown was face to face.

Of the reviews that came out that first weekend, 78 percent were by men. Many of these were giving Derek the slapdown. He always says it’s about spankings and rubs. And you can’t let either one of them affect you. I truly wondered what was going on. Did these critics have an allergy to vulnerability? Maybe hankies are out of fashion, but what about an emotional cleanse? Some of us long to sit in a theater and eat our popcorn and feel all that we can feel, like a sponge in a protected reef. This is our last sanctuary for vulnerability. Women who see the film love it. When they did the weekend Cinemascore survey of the audience, they found that 72 percent of the audience was female – and gave the film an A- score. 28 percent was male and gave it a B+ score. If a romance film like this doesn’t do well, the chances of making other films like it will die. The critics are killing off genres like hunters with the dodo bird. A lot of us love dodos.

Beware, our Gone With the Winds might be gone with the wind. The romance genre is in danger of becoming extinct. People are losing their ability to be romantic. They barely notice each other anymore as they say “I love you” with an emoticon and hold phones instead of hands. And the critics, like lemmings, are jumping off the cliff with all the other unsentimental rodents.

There are common words in these reviews with the little “rotten” tomato before them. Words like “weepie,” “chick flick” and “melodrama.” Can we get over this “chick flick” thing? Are they saying only “chicks” have feelings? Women are writing, women are directing and men will be adapting women’s stories. Please don’t veto viewing the film with these words. The Variety review by Owen Gleiberman said the film “has the operatic manipulativeness of a deeply solemn chick flick posing as art.” Great, now the fireman, the garbage man and my Uncle Rocky won’t go see it.

07_shannon-plumb_derek-cianfrance-venice-talkhouse-film

Anthony Lane from The New Yorker criticized the choice of costumes: “The movie is rather prim, too, shying from sexual heat, and its devotion to correct attire is both touching and telling; with Isabel swathed in beach-friendly knitwear and hats, and Tom rarely devoid of a collar and tie, they must be the first lovers on record to greet their blessed seclusion by adding more clothes rather than ripping them off.” I think he wants some flesh. Perhaps torn blouses and thong bikinis, the clothes they would wear in the 1920s. The Blue Lagoon? I thought this comment telling of the gender of the person writing the review. Most critics are men, aren’t they?

The critics judge the costume, the closeups, the twitches on the skin. Derek says, “They don’t get to choose the music I use, the story I tell, the actors I choose, the camera position or pace of my edit … this is cinema! It’s not Burger King – they can’t have it their way.”

As filmmakers in the public arena, Derek and I have reasonable instincts about when a review is fair. We can take the bad with the good. M.L. Stedman, who wrote the book The Light Between Oceans is based on, quoted Kipling one night during dinner (risotto with pesto). She said you have to “meet with Triumph and Disaster / And treat those two impostors just the same.” Derek can be humbled by truth and failure. But getting crucified by critics who refuse to feel is something different. Lane, like so many other critics, seems to be watching movies with his head, not his heart.

“Stand back from this fable and examine it for logic, and you see how nonsensical it is.”

What happened to suspending disbelief in movies? Isn’t that why some of us watch cinema?

“If the directing ever dries up, Cianfrance could run a dating agency. He’s got the knack.”

Low blow. Is Lane writing a movie review or a gossip column?

While we were at the festival and reviews of this nature were coming in, Derek got a message from a close actor friend. The message quoted Theodore Roosevelt:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

At first, I told him he was lucky. He was lucky to be in the ring, in the arena. Then, I thought truthfully. Derek was never lucky. He got where he is because he was, and is, persistent. Derek is talented. Derek earned this. And these critics can’t take that away.

05_shannon-plumb_derek-cianfrance-venice-talkhouse-film

We went to the premiere. The car ride to the red carpet can seem like a funeral at times. This would be the test. Finally, real people were watching. Someone told us that sometimes, when the movie is finished, the audience will pause before applauding. This means they’re taking it in and thinking. We watch the movie. My armpits sweat profusely and stain the Ralph Lauren suit I borrowed. The end gets close. The end is here. The audience applauds right away! Then, the audience stands up and faces Derek. They continue applauding. I started sobbing.

I tried to fight it. Just like the Godfather-looking man from Capri tried to fight his tears. But they just started falling, first one eye, then the other. I was hoping they’d stop before Derek saw me, but my nose was floating in tears like a log on a flooded street. I think the movie and the moment triggered the memories of the two years just past. I cried remembering all the hard work and sacrifices made by Derek and his comrades. The movie lived with so many people before it left his hands. It stayed a while with me and our boys. It stayed a long time with the editors in dark rooms growing mushrooms on their foreheads. It visited agents and their wives and husbands, and actors and their families, it got acquainted with a P.A. chasing down ripe breakfast bananas, and it introduced my children to a Kiwi assistant who became a dear friend. It touched a lot of people. Before and now. It didn’t matter what the critics said. This room was moved. The audience openly accepted the movie. They experienced it with tears in their eyes, Alexandre Desplat’s music in their soul, and yes, love in their hearts.

Our last stop was Paris for more press. By now the critics who had respected the embargo had released their reviews. The Rotten Tomatoes score was getting “fresher.” The movie had opened in theaters. The people were now watching. Everyone was sending Derek words of appreciation, and stories of audiences sobbing all across America. We allowed ourselves one last night to be enchanted. This time by duck confit and delicious French wine. Derek told me a while ago that this moviemaking, once a dream, now reality, was not worth all its sacrifices. I thought for a couple years that he might stop. I thought it a shame that he could give up so easily the only thing he was meant to do. But that night at dinner, I saw the lights go back on. The few critical words that burned him the first night now set sparks to his eyes. He was lit up like the Christmas tree he strangles with lights every season. He wanted to make movies again. And bad! “I feel like the Terminator. I have liquid steel in my veins.”

Shannon Plumb has shot over 200 short films, which have been exhibited in museums, galleries, and on international screens. She started by shooting herself as various characters, acting out three-minute situations using humor and silence as her vehicles for storytelling. In 2013, her first feature film, Towheads, premiered at MoMA as part of New Directors / New Films. You can see her short films at shannonplumb.com and Towheads is available on Netflix and iTunes. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, director Derek Cianfrance, and their two sons.