THE LIGHTHOUSE – Interview with director Robert Eggers

Director Robert Eggers’ follow-up to ‘The Witch’ is a psychological tale of supernatural horror. Shot in black & white Kodak film stock, in academy ratio, the film stars Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson as two lighthouse keepers who start to lose their sanity when a storm strands them on the remote island where they are stationed.

The Lighthouse opens in Irish cinemas on January 31st

This is a unique and visceral film. What made you decide to make a two-hander about lighthouse keepers?
My brother was working on a ghost story set in a lighthouse. I was very envious of that idea because it conjured up the visual atmosphere of this movie. The first dinner scene where they’re eating over that single light source of the kerosene lamps I very clearly saw. From the outset, I saw something quite close to the finished film when he said what he was working on. A few months went by and he felt that he wasn’t really getting anywhere with his lighthouse movie. I started to try to find a story that could accompany the imagery that I imagined. I did some research and found a story from 1801 in Wales about two lighthouse keepers. One older, one younger. Both named Thomas. The older one dies. The young one goes mad during a storm. That isn’t the story of this film, but It was a jumping-off point. It seemed to me that this could be an interesting two-hander about identity that could devolve into something obscure, which was my intention all along. To make a long story short, my brother and I decided finally to write together.

These are two extreme characters in extreme circumstances. How did you know that Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson were right for the parts?
Who else could possibly do it? Both Willem and Rob had both reached out to me about finding something. Willem quite aggressively pursued me, much to my joy and appreciation and shock. Rob and I had been meeting occasionally trying to find something. So, when all those things on my slate, this strange black and white movie seemed to be the thing that could actually get financed. I knew who to call.

You found a real island which had a lighthouse on it, but you built your own lighthouse – was that to be able to control how you filmed in it?
We never found a lighthouse with a tower that could tell the story we wanted. We needed one that had access to shoot a movie. There are great lighthouses off the coast of Maine, but we’d have to helicopter in there and that would have been so expensive so we had to build our lighthouse to have a lighthouse look how I imagined it to be, but also to have control to shoot in it. Had we have found something with the right look? I would’ve tried to find a way to make it work. The nearest lighthouse to where we filmed was not very picturesque and it would have been hard to shoot in.

You faced extreme weather conditions. Logistically how did you manage?
When it came to the weather the wind often was just so powerful that, you couldn’t hear the person you were talking to who was just a metre away. So, it was difficult and we were moving very slowly. You cannot, as a human, move quickly when it’s zero degrees with gale-force winds and salt spray coming at you. But that was what was required to make this movie. So it wasn’t easy, but it was also fun and satisfying to get through it, you know, and you go to your hotel room at the end of the day and you get warm and you cry and have a little whisky and you go to sleep and you do it all over again.

Did you have any fear putting actors into those conditions?
It was always done very safely. Everything was done by a stunt performer first and figured out. There are very little visual effects in the movie, but one thing that there is a lot of is safety harnesses to keep them tethered and safe.

Willem’s characters a very particular dialect and turn of phrase. Was it hard for him to literally get his tongue around that?
I think that I  was much stricter with him than any other director he’s worked with on the accent that would accompany the dialect. I think he prefers to be a little bit freer. And I was like asking for it to be quite rigid. And he was up for it. I’m sure he would say it was challenging. But I mean, he’s one of the greatest actors that ever lived. So, you know, it’s going to be alright.

The characters have very particular quirks, like Willem’s character smoking an upside-down pipe, are these things that were scripted?
They came up with like little things that were very specific to them, but many of them were in the script like the upside-down pipe.  I kept seeing it over and over again in pictures of ritual smokers so I wanted it in there. Things like one wearing glasses that sit at an angle were scripted to give a visual. Defoe was constantly cursing me over lighting his pipe. There are many 19th century paintings of people lighting their pipes using tongs and a piece of wood. I really like that detail, but it’s not easy to do.

Robert Pattinson has a lot of physically demanding work to do. Was it hard for him to carry out these hard lighthouse labours, particularly on the weather conditions?
Rob’s a big, strong guy. And actually, a lot of that stuff wasn’t that hard for him. He would ask for things to be made heavier or weighted down to make it harder for him. And sometimes he would spin himself around to make himself dizzy before he would go do things to make it harder for himself.

You have some well-trained seagulls in the movie who played quite a significant part. How did you manage to train seagulls?Chris Columbus, who directed the first two Harry Potter movies and produced the rest, was an executive producer on this. He and his daughter Eleanor have a company Maiden Voyage. They saw my last movie, ‘The Witch’, in post-production. We ran out of money and they gave us the money to finish the movie and Chris became a friend and collaborator since then. Because of Harry Potter, he knew some good bird trainers and knew the only seagull trainer in the world. Maybe there’s someone else out there, but if there is, we haven’t heard of him. There is a gentleman in the UK who had three trained seagulls. They were rescue birds and can’t survive in the wild any longer. They were incredibly smart and enjoyed being trained to do things.

It can be hard to work with family. Do you and your brother get on well together when you are writing a script?
It’s great, actually. I’m working on a thing now with another writer, but he’s not my brother. Our emails are incredibly long and detailed. To be clear, to communicate what we’re trying to communicate. My brother and I can ramble half-finished sentences, fragments of nothing. And that’s great. And he’s a lovely guy. I mean, he makes me seem like a huge jerk. And so, he’s quite a lot of fun to be around.

The film raises a lot of questions, what do you want audiences to take from it?
With this particular film. I’m hoping to provoke questions rather than provide answers. They can take whatever they want from it. But I guess I will say sometimes ardent Witch fans don’t like this movie because they don’t understand that it’s supposed to be funny. So, I would just say, if you like The Witch, it is okay to laugh at this one.


Words – Cara O’Doherty

The Lighthouse opens in Irish cinemas on January 31st