Director Brett Haley is a master of warmth. His films penetrate, pushing past intellectual darkness, cradling the heart when we need it most. When you feel yourself sinking after staring too long into the void of nightly news or your tangled Twitter stream, look to I’ll See You In My Dreams or Hearts Beat Loud. They’ll pull you out and allow space for necessary, compassionate contemplation. The world is not a cesspool. Decency exists.
His latest film, All the Bright Places, is currently streaming on Netflix, and it offers the same refueling humanitarian energy as his past efforts. Based on the bestselling novel by Jennifer Niven, the story details the union of two teenagers grappling with a life that seems ruthlessly cruel. Violet (Elle Fanning) and Theodore (Justice Smith) gravitate toward dark thoughts, suffering from past trauma, but when they are forced to explore their hometown together as part of a school project, they uncover the tiny beauties hidden within the mundane.
Haley was instantly drawn to the project once it drove across his desk. He knew these kids. He wanted others to know them as well. While not identical to past projects, All the Bright Places fit perfectly into his creative ethos. No question.
“What’s driving me is emotion!” exclaims Haley. “There are so many things that I want to do with my career. There are so many different genres I’m still working on, and I’m still trying to expand. All the Bright Places just spoke to me in such a pure, organic, emotional way.”
The director prefers not to get caught up in the ifs, buts, and whys of storytelling. He fell into Niven’s book and found himself inside. How that occurred is less interesting than the fact that it did occur. The connection he felt to these characters was everything. The demand to bring them to the screen was extraordinary.
“I’m driven by my gut and my heart,” says Haley. “I’m a very knee-jerk filmmaker. I love work; it’s my passion. Filmmaking is addictive, and I adore it. When something comes along that moves me, I have a hard time letting go of it. When I read this, I was incredibly moved, and I saw something in it. I never expected to make a movie like this, and I didn’t expect it to come along, but it emotionally spoke to me in such a way that I couldn’t say no. I fought really hard to get this job, and I’m pleased that they hired me.”
Elle Fanning served as a producer on the project as well. She was attached to the film for the last six years, and Haley is extremely grateful that she came to him. Here was Haley’s chance to expand his palate as a filmmaker. His previous movies proved his stance as an emotional creator, but All the Bright Places offered an opportunity to embrace and sell the melodrama of teenage existence.
“All of my films are about human connectivity,” he says. “Most of them are understated, like Hearts Beat Loud — I think that film is beautifully understated. While I think All the Bright Places is a swing for the fences, big, emotional, romantic drama. It goes big, and I had a lot of fun challenging myself in that department.”
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“You can easily describe this movie as a YA romance,” he says. “And that’s probably how it should be described, frankly. The goal was to ground the story in humanity and this connection between Violet and Finch, and that you bought it at every turn. So, the filmmaking, the look of the film, the design of the film, the music in the film, everything I did came from that approach. And the movies that inspired this film were Badlands and Bright Star and Say Anything.”
Haley and his cinematographer, Rob Givens, have been making movies together since they were 18 years old. They know each other in and out. They’re connected. Through that hive mind, they move quickly and arrive on a visual language for the film sooner rather than later. Selling the reality of the emotional high school experience requires a change-up from what is expected from the YA product.
“We shot on anamorphic glass,” Haley explains. “It’s a departure from these types of movies. We also didn’t overlight it. When the film is dark, it’s dark. We let it be real.”
With Badlands as a template, going full-Terrence Mallick was the only option. “We knew there were certain sequences that would have to be shot at a certain type of day,” he continues. “We had to fight for this; we had to fight for that. I think the film feels very slick and very put together and professional and big like a Hollywood film, but it also feels real and not overdone or overcooked. That also has to do with the texture and quality of the costume design and the production design, as well as the cinematography. A lot of these kinds of movies go too far, and they make it look like a soap commercial or something.”
Haley recognizes that the world outside your window often looks like an unbearable terrain. Trapped indoors, the walls can close in as isolation intensifies. Cinema is the gateway to relief. It’s not an escape; it’s survival. All the Bright Places is designed as an aid to processing the torment that often takes over our senses. Movies offer perspective.
“At the end of the day,” he explains, “it’s about how we get through this thing called life, right? We get through it with the help of others, with the love of others. As cheesy as that sounds, I don’t care because it’s true, and everyone needs that kind of support system around them and those connections. Whether I’m making an action movie or a musical, I’m still going to make films that are about connection.”
All the Bright Places is now streaming on Netflix.