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“A Black and White Movie in a Stupid Aspect Ratio”: Robert Eggers on The Lighthouse

Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in The Lighthouse

Eulogized debuts draw ravenous, patient cynics, who stalk the scent of a fledgling’s success to their second movie, hoping their foe might slip. Robert Eggers, a name of contention after headlines announced he would remake Nosferatu (TBD) before his Sundance debut The Witch was released theatrically for audiences to decide if he were worthy themselves, has made his second move. 

The Lighthouse, a sophomore effort especially susceptible to readied blows, has made it back with critics on the festival circuit and will now see appraisal from the mainstream on its theatrical bout. But the film expels farts and sailor vulgarity, an impenetrable raunch and silliness that upsets its cinephilic self consciousness and the cynics’ fight to declare it one big affectation. 

An unkempt pro (Willem Dafoe) and his handsome flunky (Robert Pattinson) keep a lighthouse on a naked island prone to mad winds and naughty “seabirds.” As the men hail their lunacy, the island hails the horrors of their escape fantasies. Tentacles, mermaids and old traumas emerge from the ocean, desperately embellishing the bare rock they hate and love to call home. 

The Lighthouse called for specific period, location and visual effects necessities. Commiting to a specific place and time and to Eggers’ extensive storyboards helped clarify those requirements between departments. So The Lighthouse pulled away from nature’s  instinct and fell back into its preconceived design, perhaps more or less out of want, but certainly out of need.

Filmmaker: Do you like doing interviews?

Eggers: I am incredibly grateful that anybody cares about what I’m doing, and it’s a very important part of the process. So I feel privileged to be doing it. But no. [laughs] Also, to be this annoying person, everything I have to say is in the movie already. But here we are!

Filmmaker: Maybe you get to articulate some ideas in the film that you hadn’t made in it?

Eggers: Oh, for sure. And there’s a difference between [doing interviews] on this [The Lighthouse] and The Witch, because The Witch took so many years to get financed that I became quite practiced at finding ways to talk about it. Obviously, the final film was a bit different from some of my intentions, so that shifted some of my thoughts. Some of the studio movies I wrote and was developing I had to find a way of talking about. But this thing I had to develop very quickly with A24 and Regency, who both offered me a lot of freedom, so I haven’t found a lot of good ways to talk about this. [laughs] It’s been a learning process. 

Filmmaker: How’s that accelerated process read in the film?

Eggers: Funnily enough, I feel The Lighthouse is more finely tuned than The Witch, even though I had much longer to think about The Witch. That comes with experience. Even though I had directed some short films and a good amount of theater, I hadn’t directed a feature before. The Lighthouse was of similar scope and scale to The Witch by design, but with more money, so that I could have more control. And I had more intention going into it. We didn’t have any historians on set, but the couple of lighthouse experts I talked to who have seen the movie are pleased. 

Filmmaker: How important is it that The Lighthouse belongs to a specific period and not something stretchy and anachronistic? 

Eggers: Obviously there are many different approaches to period films, and I have an approach that works for me. When this topic comes up I often bring up Guillermo Del Toro, who’s happy to invent his [period] worlds, and he does that very successfully. But I’m more Franco Zeffirelli, Visconti, Kubrick: “This is exactly what it is. Copy it. Do it.” We’ve made a choice, even though we didn’t really have to make a choice—we’ve just done what the research told us to do. I find that it’s a satisfying way to work because all of my collaborators know where we stand. In the end we have a clear bar, we know what it is. I also feel like, for my movies, the atmosphere can be an accumulation of details. There’re a lot of details. If you have that specific reference and you’re not spending time trying to invent it, you can get to that atmosphere efficiently. I also think it makes something that feels credible, so you can believe in mermaids and sea monsters a little more easily, perhaps. 

Filmmaker: Does that authenticity imply that any of the more fantastical elements in The Lighthouse, and, actually, The Witch as well, are more psychological—or at least extensions of their characters real world issues?

Eggers: You tell me. [laughs] 

Filmmaker: You mentioned the film is saying everything you don’t need to say here .

Eggers: Oh, but I can still talk a lot don’t worry. [laughs] 

Filmmaker: But then there’s this idea that every remotely obscure film is open to interpretation. Isn’t that a cop out? Certainly there are films designed with openness, that don’t intend to answer things themselves, but I’d say most leave a bread trail to a singular interpretation.

Eggers: Look, I generally start out with an atmosphere I’m interested in capturing and try to find a story that captures that atmosphere and visuals that are inspiring to me. So I don’t come in with an intention. I’m very pleased that The Witch is perceived as a feminist movie, and if I were to stand back and be very objective I’d probably agree. It wasn’t my intention to make a feminist movie, I wanted to make a film about witches and puritans in the woods, but that’s sort of what happened. The Lighthouse has been called—apparently by myself, though I think I was walked into saying it—a phallic companion piece to The Witch. Again, that wasn’t my intention, but clearly that’s what happened.

I don’t think there’s a whole lot left up to interpretation in The Witch. This one’s open. My brother [Max Eggers, co-writer] and I have ideas about what the light is, what’s in the light, what Rob sees, what Rob’s path is, what Willem’s path is, what’s real, what’s not real. We had to have our ideas about that solid as we were writing it. But it was certainly our intention to create ambiguities for the audience. Rob Pattinson would ask if this or that happened in his past and I’d say: “Any of those will work. But we still need you to say the line in such a way that the audience won’t know any of those answers to those questions.” At least that’s my hope. I like movies where I have to work at it a bit. I read some extremely good explanations of Lost Highway that made me sad, because I miss not having the answers to those questions. [laughs] So there you go.

Filmmaker: I know it’s early, but have you read anything about The Lighthouse that’s been spot on? 

Eggers: People seems to get my intentions, and better than I expected. It’s been in the festival realm and the world of cinephiles who can warmly greet a black and white movie in a stupid aspect ratio with too much talking and the same scene over and over again just slightly different. Once we release this to the throngs of normalcy we’ll see what people have to say about it. It’s too early for in-depth YouTube crazy explanations of this and that. So far, even with the first reviews out of Cannes, I was pleasantly surprised that people got what I was up to, more or less.

Filmmaker: This is a funny film. What comedy did Willem Dafoe and Pattinson bring to it?

Eggers: My brother and I always thought it was funny and always intended for it to be funny. I think my wife, at one point, was like “I don’t think this is as funny as you think it is.” But we thought it was hysterical. When we were shooting it, Willem is very funny, and Rob is much funnier than anyone would expect. I think people who pay a lot of attention to him in interviews probably notice he likes to make stuff up after a while when he gets bored and he has a weird sense of humor like that. He’s also a very good physical comedian, surprisingly so. 

I actually thought the movie was going to be too funny when we wrapped. But Louise Ford, the editor, and Mark Korven, the composer, Damian Volpe, the sound designer, and myself sorted it out so it was funny but not too funny. I can’t watch this movie anymore, I can’t stand it. But when I ask how the screenings are going, sometimes the humor really lands and sometimes people don’t get it. If people don’t laugh at Dafoe’s first fart, the laughs won’t continue. When they do, you know they’re in.

Filmmaker: I’ve talked to people who laughed throughout and enjoyed it, and people who didn’t laugh at all, had a miserable time, yet still enjoyed it. 

Eggers: It is miserable, but hopefully you’re able to laugh at misery. The whole Werner Herzog, Burden Of Dreams misery in the rainforest monologue, I think in the moment he felt that, but I know his tongue was in his cheek too, you know? [laughs] 

Filmmaker: So how the heck did this work? Did you have a hidden production office on the island? 

Eggers: To give my secrets away, we shot on a peninsula that we made look like like an island. For this movie, we would have had to have helicopters bringing us in everyday. We couldn’t do that. It was very remote, though. It was a small fishing village on the southern tip of Nova Scotia, and it was a down home kind of movie. I wanted to build every building in the movie because I wanted control. Because this is extensive for a black and white movie, I did have to be responsible and see if we could find a lighthouse that would work for us. But there was no lighthouse that had the right geographic surroundings and the right atmosphere, so we found the most inhospitable spit of rock we could find that had good road access. We built everything, including the 70-foot lighthouse tower. Cape Forchu, that peninsula, delivered all the bad weather and misery that we needed.

Filmmaker: You had to have expected the film would surrender to those elements and somehow be affected by them.

Eggers: I knew it would be more difficult than I thought it would be, because it always is, but it was more difficult than that. But that’s okay. We knew what we signed up for, but there were many days where you’d go “Man. I can’t believe it’s this cold. What the fuck.” [laughs] Certainly Rob did a lot of scenes being sprayed in the face with a firehose because the rain wouldn’t read in a close up. Even though you’re reading the script and you know what you signed up for, that doesn’t feel good. It’s a fact.

Filmmaker: Did those elements lead to compromise, or were you already prepared for that compromise?

Eggers: Jarin [Blaschke, cinematographer] and I plan all of the camera movements before the actors come in, for the most part. There are a few scenes we need actor positions for, but we already have a basic idea of the camera position. So we’re working with them on their blocking so that it can feel naturalistic and not like puppets hitting marks. That’s the purpose of that. Obviously, real life, mother nature, the sea, it’s going to change stuff to some degree no matter how much you plan. But planning it out the amount that we did made it so we could be flexible if we needed to. But there wasn’t a whole lot of things that were drastically different from what we planned. 

The movie was shot listed and storyboarded very carefully. We storyboarded very little of The Witch and storyboarded a lot of this because the marines department, the special effects department, the stunts department, and the animal wranglers—there was a lot of people coming together that needed clarity to know how to do things safely and efficiently. So, we had to do more storyboarding than I maybe would have wanted to, because otherwise there’s no other way of communicating to these departments. How do you shoot Robert Pattinson walking into the Atlantic Ocean with a log drive, that should be in a river but is in fact in an ocean, coming towards him? How do you communicate that in a way that everyone knows what’s happening and knows where they need to be and so on and so forth? I don’t know why I’m bringing up Herzog so much, he has a lot of bad things to say about storyboards, and that when you’re premeditating shots like that it leads to kitsch and you can’t create new images. And I think that can be a problem, but you just have to work harder. [laughs] 

Filmmaker: It came out of necessity.

Eggers: Yeah, and the movie I’m working on right now—I don’t know if it’ll ever get made, but we’re having to storyboard most of the movie, again, to communicate between departments. 

Filmmaker: It’s hard to just throw that out.

Eggers: I’m flattered and offended when people ask me if the dialogue was improvised, if the dancing was improvised. I’m flattered because they believed it was a real thing that happened in the moment. Pattinson loves to be spontaneous and likes to surprise me and Dafoe and himself. He took his performance as far as he could, knowing exactly where the camera was beforehand and seeing how far he could push those expectations. Dafoe and I come from theater and know that there can also be spontaneity in things that you planned to do and play it out. If it isn’t spontaneous even though you planned it, it falls completely flat. So obviously, do I love Terrence Malick at his best? Hell yes. But do I love something as scrupulously planned as Kubrick, or Bergman, or Tarkovsky, that has the same essential feeling? At their best, yeah! 

Filmmaker: How did you approach directing your two very different actors? 

Eggers: Every actor works differently. The only thing I have training in is acting and thankfully my training was eclectic, so I have a lot of different tools in my tool box. Getting into cinema and learning new techniques on The Witch, Ralph Ineson was super technical. Kate Dickie on the other hand hated having a lot of marks, and some of the kids I could treat just like puppets. It was not about acting at all. It was about saying breathe, breathe faster, look this way, look that way, tilt your head. You get a performance from that. Everyone needs different things. Rob and Willem needed different things. I think that there’s this kind of narrative being spun that Rob was method and Dafoe isn’t, which isn’t entirely true. They’re both combinations of inside out, outside in, and there was a tension in their different performance styles that was very helpful for the movie. It was nothing I needed to indulge in because it was already there. It was helpful. There was no need to pit them against each other and make things more tense. I’ll leave that to Kubrick. 

Filmmaker: So where are you on the gamut of Herzog’s instinct and Kubrick’s control? 

Eggers: You’re always in the act of becoming yourself as a human being. I have my preconceived notions. Sometimes they’re correct, sometimes they’re not. One of the major parts of being a director is surrounding yourself with people that know more than you do, and unless you’re Ridley Scott, you’re the least experienced person on set. Let’s say you’ve made five films—that’s formidable as a director, but let me tell you, your script supervisor has made 50. The job of the director is, When do you listen to the guidance of the people you hired because they know more than you, and when do you say: “Actually, this is where we reinvent the wheel”? That’s what creates a director with a distinct voice, those moments they decide to reinvent the wheel.

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