Arriving in theaters this Friday, A24 and Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse — the highly-anticipated follow-up to his 2015 horror movie, The Witch — premiered to great critical fanfare at both Cannes and TIFF. A hypnotic horror-fantasy set in 1890, Eggers’ latest is a two-hander starring Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe: A pair of barnacled lighthouse keepers isolated on a rock, slowly losing their minds. NFS interviewed Eggers and his two salty cohorts at TIFF ‘19.
The Lighthouse is a singular work of art: a stylistically precise mood-piece that builds from simmer to boil with Jarin Blaschke’s chiaroscuro visuals. Shot in B&W 35mm, it’s heavily inspired by German Expressionism. Wild eyes peer out of shadowed faces. Surfaces glimmer with grime and muck. Mist hangs over sea-battered landscapes.
It’s All in the Details
For Eggers, mood is everything. And that starts with the "look."
“Before I wrote anything, I knew I wanted to shoot on black and white negative," Eggers revealed. "Atmosphere and mood came before story. My brother had the idea: A ghost story set in a lighthouse — which we liked because a lighthouse has a specific look, it takes us back to the past, it hasn’t changed for centuries.”
His first step was to plan the cinematography. “We decided to use a filter that makes it look like orthochromatic film,” he explained. For those not yet fluent in "filter speak," an orthochromatic light spectrum is devoid of red light. As a result, the film’s emulsion — or suspension of silver halide particles in gelatin — is sensitive to only blues and greens, making blue objects in the frame appear lighter and red ones darker. And why did Eggers want that look?
“Because it shows all the pores and blemishes in these men’s faces, makes it richer.”
Eggers blames his near-fanatic attention to detail on his background in theater and production design. “I’m very interested in the smallest details because they help transport audiences into the world we’re creating. But that’s not just about visuals. I’m after a very specific cinematic language, so I need to rehearse the actors a lot to get the correct blocking. Which also feels like theater, so — for me, anyway — it’s kind of second nature.”
Robert Pattinson wished that more film sets were like Eggers’.
“We had five full days of rehearsal,” Pattinson said. “But it was easy because Robert set up the set so perfectly. Literally everything besides the camera was real and period-appropriate. Every building you see was fully built for the film.”
Dafoe added: “The visual language of this film is so incredibly precise. For us, in rehearsal, this meant that enormous effort went into planning where camera would be … and how we, the actors, would match it. This was good because it became a discipline. We had to conform to certain confines of the film’s visual language.”
Language Builds Character
Beyond precise mood and blocking, there’s the literal language of the film: The very carefully written rough-and-tumble salty-sailor dialect spoken by Pattison and Dafoe. Like The Witch, The Lighthouse uses dialect to deeply immersive effect.
“A ton of research went into the dialogue,” Eggers admitted. “You can never do enough. I read Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson, dictionaries of sailor’s words. Plus Sarah Orne Jewett -- She wrote her stories in a dialect based on interviews she’d had with local Mainers, and that was a great source for us. Language is fun. When you really get it right, it’s transportive.”
For Pattinson, simply seeing Dafoe’s face was enough to get him in character.
“Dafoe’s face is so indelible in my mind. He’s one of those actors where you’re filming and you look at him across from you during a scene, and you’re like, ‘Oh shit!’ It feels like you’re already watching a movie.” “Jokes aside, it was really a pleasure to work with Willem. We really hit it off.”
The Rest Will Follow
“Hit it off” is an understatement. The onscreen chemistry between these two actors is riveting — no small feat given the fact that they’re stuck in the same setting for the entire length of the film with no one but each other. So how did they do it? All that research and rehearsal time led to spontaneous interaction.
“We only met once briefly before filming,” Dafoe recalled. “We barely talked the entire movie. Later, we did an interview for Interview Magazine, and I thought, ‘God, we went through the same experience.’ But I had no sense of that during production: When we were inside the scene, we were simply two strangers, each of us trying to get something from the other. There was always this distance between Robert’s mystery and my aggression. We each had desires to realize, we each were searching for happiness, but we were on separate wavelengths. We just worked on it as actors … and it’s only after the fact that we sort of got to know each other.”
Work With People Who Inspire You
Most critics agree that The Lighthouse ranks among Dafoe’s and Pattinson’s most vivid performances — and that the end result is hilarious.
"The Witch takes itself so seriously, this time -- I wanted one where we could laugh at misery.”
Dafoe rejected Eggers’ humility. “This is a special movie. It’s a two-hander. A great young director who has a really unique voice. Listen, I’m an actor — and on some level, every movie is special. But I have a special affection for this one. It’s a movie I really love — and there’s a reason for that.”
Dafoe continued: “Look, I’m bad with advice, because everybody learns their lessons their own way. But here’s what I do know: You do your best when you work with people who turn you on. Work with people that inspire you. And don’t think about the result. Think about the pleasure of the work, and the result will take care of itself."
Embrace Your Mistakes
“I don’t have a lot of regrets," Eggers said. "I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but I’ve learned from all of them. This may sound silly, but I wouldn’t change anything, because the worst mistakes I’ve made, I’ve learned a lot from them.”
“Give yourself permission to fail.”
The Lighthouse is now playing in select theaters.