Director Shawn Levy opens up about creating the four-part period-piece based on the bestselling book
"When I read the first draft of the first episode of the adaptation, my plan was to produce the show, maybe direct an episode," Levy, 56, tells PEOPLE. (His production company, 21 Laps, also produces Stranger Things and movies like Arrival and the Night at the Museum franchise.) "But after I read it, I knew I needed to do it all myself."
He explains, "I loved the book, I loved the adaptation. And it connected to my prior work in that it is fundamentally — and unabashedly — emotional."
Levy, who has recently made headlines for being in Taylor Swift's inner circle, says he never expected to do a sweeping epic period piece like All the Light We Cannot See.
"It was just a very different kind of storytelling for me," he says.
Levy got his start directing big family-friendly films like Night at the Museum and Cheaper by the Dozen, and then he turned to producing Stranger Things and directing decidedly un-family friendly fare like Deadpool, as well as Free Guy and The Adam Project with his good friend Ryan Reynolds.
But he adds that even though his projects seem vastly different from one another, they have one thing in common: Heart.
"All of my things tend to have a pretty warm heart at its center," he says "Which is how I like to live. My emotions, they're on my sleeve, they're on my skin, my face, my voice." The dad to four girls jokes, "In the history of guys, there hasn't been anyone better suited to having four daughters."
All the Light We Cannot See stars Mark Ruffalo, Hugh Laurie, Louis Hofmann and Aria Mia Loberti, and it adheres closely to the book, which was published in 2014 and spent 200 weeks on the NYT Bestseller list, selling 15 million copies.
It tells the story of a blind French girl (Loberti) who takes refuge from WWII in her uncle's seaside town in France after Paris is invaded by Nazi Germany. She eventually forms an unlikely relationship with a reluctant German soldier named Werner (Hofmann.)
"I wanted to approach it like a long movie, in this case, a four-hour movie," Levy says, of shooting in Saint-Malo, France, and Budapest.
He continues, "It looks unlike anything I've ever made. The performances have a very different tone than anything I've made. It's a straight-up period drama."
Levy notes that he never meant to be a big comedy director in the first place — not that he's ungrateful for where his career has taken him.
"Obviously I liked Back to the Future and Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark growing up. But you know what? I loved Kramer Vs. Kramer. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Rainman. Dead Poet's Society, Good Will Hunting. I love character-based storytelling. I just got successful at comedy."
He adds, "The fact that any of this has happened is a dream come true."
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And how does he feel about being recognized more and more, now that he's frequently seen walking around New York with his friends Hugh Jackman and Ryan Reynolds — and yes, in the private box with Taylor Swift at the now infamous Chiefs-Jets game on Oct. 1?
"This ever-increasing recognizability thing is new," he says with a laugh. "I think it gives my kids a small thrill though."
All the Light We Cannot See is streaming on Netflix.
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