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'It's not subtle - there's mermaid genitals, and tentacles...': Making the weird and wonderful The Lighthouse

We talked to director Robert Eggers, whose second feature film stars Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe.

Image: Eric Chakeen

“I WON THE Best Director at Sundance, and within 10 minutes, my agent was getting calls from Hollywood about franchise stuff.

“And that was incredibly helpful and illuminating because I realised that this is what you’re always told: that this industry is fickle, and like, full of shit.

“Because no one had even seen the movie.”

When New Hampshire-raised director Robert Eggers’ 2015 debut feature The Witch won him an award at Sundance, it gave him quite the insight into the world of Hollywood. That insight was a valuable one to get at such an early stage – because The Witch ended up being a breakout success, enabling the now 36-year-old to attract high-profile stars to his future films, and even dip his toe into the world of franchises (which ultimately he didn’t go for). 

As he prepares for the release of his sophomore film The Lighthouse, which reaches Irish cinemas on 31 January – having had international critics frothing at the mouth since last summer, when it won best movie at Cannes’ Critics Week – it’s clear that his early experiences have resulted in him having a solid head on his shoulders.

As he tells TheJournal.ie, he makes his decisions these days on what feels good in his gut, not based on the vagaries of what Hollywood producers think will make them some cash.

“That was very helpful in immediately keeping me somewhat grounded going into this. Because you’re kind of like, wow, it’s that bad,” he says of those mystery Hollywood phone calls. 

His next film, a Viking revenge tale, is set to star Nicole Kidman, the brothers Skarsgaard (Alexander and Bill), and Anya Taylor Joy. But as Eggers himself says, until he’s behind the camera shouting ‘action’, he won’t feel smug about it all happening.

So back to why he’s in Ireland: The Lighthouse. In the film, which is set in the 19th century, actors Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe are truly put through their paces. Shot in gloriously atmospheric 35mm monochrome, The Lighthouse is as beautiful looking as it is weird.

Like last year’s Bait by Mark Jenkin, it takes elements of early cinema and uses them to make something thoroughly contemporary.

The first question that one could ask about The Lighthouse is – hey, what genre is this anyway? Because one moment it’s thriller, another it’s horror, another it’s a buddy movie. It’s always, always dark, and always mysterious. 

Wickies

Pattinson and Dafoe play lighthouse keepers, or wickies, sent to a lighthouse on a remote rock in the middle of an active, churning Maine sea. The first few minutes of the film feature a booming foghorn, crashing waves, and stoke up a lingering feeling of anxiety in the viewer. 

There’s an age and experience difference to the two men: Thomas Wake (Dafoe) is the older, gnarly seahand who’s seen it all before. He speaks in the sort of English dialect that’s beloved of pirates, but is actually inspired by writers like Herman Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson. Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson) is surly, with a furrowed brow and an air of mystery about him. You suspect he keeps a metaphorical secret in the pocket of his heavy overcoat.

As they get stuck into their tasks on the rock, Pattinson is given the heavier load. We witness the pair’s relationship with the natural landscape and with each other evolve. Safe to say that neither goes well, particularly when a massive storm flings itself onto the rock. 

the-lighthouse Robert Pattinson Source: A24 Films

‘A misshapen beast’

When we meet in a Dublin hotel, Robert Eggers is in the middle of hours of being grilled by Irish journalists about this strange, beguiling beast of a film.

Clad in all black and wearing a sprinkling of rings on both hands, he’s an engaging fellow.

TheJournal.ie puts the genre question to him first. What would he call it himself? “I don’t really know,” he says thoughtfully, going on to say that the plot is “closest to the literary genre of a weird tale”, written by the likes of HP Lovecraft.  But there’s theatre influences too: “It makes it a misshapen beast of genre for sure.”

“But I don’t really care what people call it,” says Eggers. “If people call it a horror movie it’s fine, if people call it a psychological thriller, suspense, whatever… cosmic horror, whatever, it’s all par for the course. I think all these terms are just helpful for people to talk about things that they like.”

The movie is not subtle in its form or intention, something which Eggers acknowledges. “It’s really over the top. It’s quite ham-fisted. I mean, it’s subtle, only in the way that the storytelling is obscure. I mean, look, there’s practically no story. The plot is thin as hell, it’s the same scene over and over and over and over and over again, slightly different. There’s mermaid genitals and tentacles. And the camera seems to say ‘look at me’, and the performances seem to be over the top, potentially.” 

And yet therein lies exactly what makes The Lighthouse such a riveting watch.

“I mean, it seems like a bad idea,” he says. “I definitely did not know if this was going to go over well. I wasn’t intending to make something divisive or something for people to be offended by, or just be sensationalist.”

The reason for all the choices he made was “the film, the camera, the audience – we are Rob [Pattinson's character] going crazy and not knowing what the hell’s going on. So that’s what this experience needs to be.”

It’s been “shocking” for him “how many people have understood my intentions”, says Eggers. “Like, it’s really quite shocking. It’s awesome.”

The film is shot in the 1.19:1 aspect ratio, which is essentially a square ratio that audiences will immediately connect with the silent movie era. (Shooting in different ratios is becoming less of an unusual thing in the US movie industry these days.) 

The ratio helped to convey the claustrophobic interiors, and is “excellent” for close-ups, which you get plenty of in this two-hander. “It does on the very surface level say: old,” says Eggers. Both Pattinson and Dafoe’s faces are perfect for black-and-white close ups. Dafoe’s cragginess is at home in chiaroscuro; while the set of Pattinson’s jawline betrays his anger. No surprise that the cinematographer Jarin Blaschke has been nominated for an Oscar.

the-lighthouse Source: A24 Films

‘They knew what they signed up for’

The film looks like it must have required an intense shoot, something which Pattinson and Dafoe have both mentioned in interviews. I put to Eggers that Pattinson said he spent his first day on set naked, but he corrects me – it was actually half-naked. An important distinction indeed.

There’s also talk that Pattinson wanted to punch Eggers for spraying him in the face with a water hose (in lieu of rain).

“You know, look at the movies that these gentlemen choose to do. I mean, they knew what they signed up for,” he says. “That didn’t mean they weren’t occasionally uncomfortable… but it’s, you know, it’s all in a day’s work and that’s what it requires to tell this story properly.” 

Watch out for one scene, which we won’t spoil, involving Dafoe and a lot of muddy earth. Was it real mud? “Willem Dafoe is one of the greatest actors who ever lived. He deserves the real thing,” says Eggers.

A fair amount of the action involves Pattinson’s character having to carry out potentially back-breaking, and often disgusting, tasks. He’s tormented during some of these by a seagull. The repetitive nature of the scenes hasn’t appealed to everyone who’s watched it.

“There was a point when we realised that the film has to be the same beat over and over again to work,” says Eggers. “But… how do you convey that Rob is going mad from the repetition, and trying to keep the audience members feeling like it’s a little bit tedious without making the audience just want to leave the theatre? And I think for some audience members we did not succeed.”

“Not everyone is gonna like what you’re going to do.”

Eggers has learned not to worry too much about others’ opinions – he was proved wrong with The Witch’s success, after all. “[Its success] was very, very shocking because I thought The Witch was good enough to get distribution, in some small way,” he says of his early minor hopes. “And I hoped that it would get enough good reviews that someone would let me make another movie again.”

He was 31 when he made his debut feature, but he didn’t just decide to make the movie on a whim. “I had experienced many years of people saying no, no, no. Many years of set carpentry or painting offices or waiting tables or whatever.”

“There were times when it was really tough, but I also have a lot of fond memories. Most movies that I worked on in the art department were dreadful, very few of them I’m proud of. I’m not even proud of my own work on most of them because often the budget was so miniscule. I rarely said no to a job because I needed to pay bills.”

In his late 20s, he started working with a set designer who did print work. “And he paid a living wage and through that I started to get some more print work where I could also be the designer or the stylist myself because there’s no union in that world,” says Eggers.

This allowed him the freedom to work on his own projects too. Though sometimes, he would have to call his mentor and tell him: “I literally have no money – can I clean the fucking storage closet?”

Eggers says he’s not playing a small violin for himself here – it was a necessary thing to get to this point. Working on so many sets also meant that he could be confident as a director that he knew what went into actually getting films made. 

“I also knew if I say ‘put down eight feet of dolly track in the woods’, I understand what that means.”

This also must have helped him turn down those bigger projects and franchises. He’s well known now as a director who is meticulous about what goes into his films – the actual lighthouse in the film was specially constructed, and the period detail in both it and The Witch is exquisite.

the-lighthouse Source: A24 Films

“I have a very clear sense of what I’m trying to do and if I can’t do that I’m not going to be happy,” says Eggers. “There were things I wrote that didn’t get made and it was quite painful.”

He worked with one major studio, but “we were both… [we] couldn’t compromise enough to find the middle ,to find the movie that we both felt comfortable with and I had to walk away”.

“It’s really painful to spend years on something and to find locations and start casting and then realise – we can’t do this.”

He has to give me some information on his next film, the Viking revenge saga, because the day we speak it has already been leaked. It’s filming in Iceland and Northern Ireland, and Eggers has been based in Belfast for a time. But he’s cautious about saying that it’s definitely happening.

“Until I’m on set saying ‘action’ I don’t ever… I’ve been hurt too many times,” he says. “So as my Icelandic co-writer would say, 7913 knock knock knock [the equivalent of saying 'knock on wood'].” 

Dafoe is on board to work with him again, so it’s interesting to note that when they first met before The Lighthouse, Eggers “was terrified that Willem Dafoe wanted to meet with me”.

“I was like, ‘Oh my god it’s Willem Dafoe, one of the greatest actors who ever lived, it might hurt his career’.” But the pair talked and realised “we could work together, we’re on the same page”. Their subsequent working relationship is illustrative of both Eggers’ creativity and where his career is headed.

“I think part of this is I’ve been drinking from the well of Willem Dafoe since I was a kid, and part of him influenced how I think about storytelling and performance and stuff.

“But you do realise that it isn’t abnormal, it’s the work that I’ve been trying to do my whole life and I’m just doing it now.”

“I hope I don’t mess up the next one. ”

The Lighthouse is in Irish cinemas from Friday 31 January.

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