The Lighthouse director on the ghostly origins of the film and working with Robert Pattinson.
Thunder and fog horns are at the heart of Robert Eggers latest folklore instalment, which sees Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe struggle against the wrath of the sea (and each other) whilst incubated in a claustrophobic, mythical lighthouse. The director himself has a Poseidon-like grasp of his sets – controlling all and obsessing over the most intricate of details – which results in a Melville-esque masterpiece, brimmed with frenzy and crammed into a tight aspect ratio. It’s no surprise Eggers banked on an archaic filming method to achieve the heavily stylised, orthochromatic effect that gives the film such depth and authenticity. He is a man with a clear transfixion on the stories of old and has built upon his already stellar reputation forged from his debut feature The Witch.
Eggers may sound like a handful, but he assures us he is not Kubrickian in his style. The relatively fresh-faced director is still new to the scene and is incredibly humble in his awareness of this. It’s shocking to think of the well-oiled machine that is The Lighthouse as only his second feature, ensuring an exciting career to follow. An A24 darling in the making, the director is sure to be drawn to more mind- bending projects in the future. Hold on to yer lobsters.
With a very stripped-down production, how important did sound become and what was your approach to it?
Sound definitely became maximalist, but at the same time its very challenging because you have a storm going throughout the film which you have to be aware of. But you need to create dynamics even if they’re not realistic. You don’t want to wear the audience down, but at the same time that is actually partially what I was trying to achieve.
Like with the foghorn?
Yeah, exactly like the foghorn. In reality that foghorn would be incredibly loud even when they are inside the cottage, like in reality they’d probably have to pause the dialogue every single time. But obviously that wouldn’t be practical.
With the weather being as brutal as it felt on screen, did you use much of the field recording?
We definitely used a lot of the field recording, but the heart of it was stuff we did in post for maximum effect. If you record the sound of the storm it’s a bit abstract and white noise, so we needed more specifics like rain on glass, or rain on wood or whatever.
Similarly, as you did for The Witch, you used real life journals. Did your idea spawn from the journals or did you have the idea first then seek them out?
My brother had an idea to make a ghost story in a lighthouse. Then from that idea, I saw the atmosphere of this movie and then began the research that would accompany the atmosphere and put it in motion. I mean finally its obviously not a ghost story but you can see how it could have arrived from one.
A lighthouse is obviously at the crux of the film, what draws you to these insular settings?
Part of it is that it is much cheaper to get financed and part of it is that I have absolute control as a filmmaker to make a complete world.
You guys built the set right?
Yeah, totally. When it’s this small I can really be fanatical about every detail, every doorknob and panel. Whereas if you’re making Lord of the Rings you have to let go a lot of the control.
Were there any direct film inspirations you drew for the setting in particular?
Yeah, definitely. So much is from the literature, but a lot from movies as well. They are often symbiotic, you read a piece of literature and it draws you to a film. I was very influenced by Bergman’s films and the Joseph Losey collaborations with Harold Pinter and of course the novel films of Jon Epstein – it could go on forever!
When you have that much control, it evokes the movement and precision of a stage play, which is enriched by your theatre background. Did that help you massively for this?
Absolutely, it’s just what I know. It’s helpful because it’s what I know and it’s what I’m equipped with and my collaborators know even more than me!
Willem Dafoe has a similar background in experimental theatre, was that a good collaborative energy to have?
Yeah, it was incredibly fun for me. You’re working with one of your idols and it somehow feels comfortable like you’re rehearsing a play in downtown New York or whatever with your buddies.
Dafoe and Robert Pattinson are both obviously very talented actors, but with different styles. How did you harness their opposing methods and ideas?
I don’t know! You put that harness and ride that horse until it’s all over! I really don’t know.
Do you think it helped aid the friction on-screen?
Yeah, of course. I’m not like a Kubrickian director who’s manipulating the actors to create unhealthy social dynamics! But I think their different ways of working and personalities, and them taking on some of what the characters are… the camera just sees that y’know?
Another stand out feature of your work so far seems to be your use of animals as motifs, what is it that draws you to these images?
I think it’s just when you’re talking about fairy-tales and folklore, you’re not gonna find many that don’t feature animals prominently. I don’t know you, but I assume given your job that you’re part of the urban intelligentsia and there’s dogs and cats and a pet gecko and you can’t help but ignore the pigeons and rats. But y’know like a 100 years ago you would’ve been really into it.
When you have small casts, does it help you to have these big images you can draw on?
Oh yeah, it’s definitely fun for me, I enjoy it. I think this movie wouldn’t have gotten financed without mermaids and sea monsters, but it’s cool I love mermaids and sea monsters!
What is gained by having such a small cast?
You really get to dig into the psychology of a few people which is perhaps more extreme and exposed than in other films. Certainly, master filmmakers can be more moving with a larger cast, but y’know I’m trying my best!
Is it part of that control you were talking about earlier?
Haha, yeah I do like that, yeah.
Did you have any concerns about using a dialect that many struggle to pull off without it being hammy and insincere?
Yeah, definitely. The dialect is based on a lot of research of sea-fairing folk in the North East in that period, but it was impossible to hear it without the Robert Newton Long John Silver, y’know [Makes pirate noises]. It’s scary to go anywhere near the Sea Captain from The Simpsons. Luckily, you have Willem Dafoe, so it is too much but in a good way!
A lot has been said about the physicality of the roles, is that something you actively encourage or is it just because of the type of actors they are?
Its because of the story we were telling I think. But like on every movie I’ve made and the next thing I’m doing I’m like: it’s gonna be cold, it’s gonna be wet and miserable, it’s gonna be real. It’s not gonna be fun in the traditional sense so know what you’re signing up for.
More broadly, what do you think about the horror genre at the moment? Has the cursed phrase “elevated horror” entered your psyche yet?
Any nomenclature anyone wants to use is fine with me. We’re all just trying to find a way to talk about things we care about, and it’s fine. I might use different words, but it’s fine. What’s happened is that financiers on a budgetary level are giving filmmakers more freedom to make personal, risky stories if it’s under the umbrella of genre, because there is safety there. That’s awesome, because we’re getting great films from it.
Is there a specific genre you’d fancy exploring or doing a take on?
I’m sticking with the past and folklore for now.
It must really fascinate you then, is there a particular reason why?
I think my psychiatrist would be able to tell you more about that.
The Lighthouse is out in UK cinemas on 31 January.