Robert Eggers’s followup to his beloved 2015 hit The Witch is a descent into madness of the most unorthodox kind. For one thing, reaching the apex of the narrative’s madness involves literally going up stairs of the titular structure of The Lighthouse. Before you get to that, though, two lighthouse keepers (“wickies”) stuck on an island for a month during the late 19th century, played by Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, battle boredom and each other in what amounts to a pissing contest as psychodrama. The Lighthouse is simply, breathtakingly bizarre—a nightmare that makes room for fart jokes, and a tropey genre exercise whose parts sum is like nothing you’ve ever seen before. It’s unpredictable, teeming with haunting imagery (including murderous seagulls), and to my eye, alive in a way few movies ever manage to be. This, along with Portrait of a Lady on Fire, is my favorite movie of 2019 so far.
Last week, I talked to Eggers about this controlled chaos of his. Shot for about a month in spring of 2018 in and around the Southern tip of Nova Scotia, The Lighthouse was a tempestuous shoot, both as a result of the weather and the tension on set. In a chat for Interview, Pattinson said to Dafoe that a scene in which Eggers sprayed him directly in the face with a hose was “the closest I’ve come to punching a director.” “On one hungover morning, the [director of photography] Jarin Blaschke said to me, ‘I’ve never had the making of the film so closely echo the story of the film,’” recalled Eggers. We also discussed the film’s portrayal of masculine aggression, working with trained gulls, and using farts for effect. An edited and condensed transcript of our chat is below.
JEZEBEL: From what I have read, so much of this movie was orchestrated, though it has a chaotic effect. Is calling this controlled chaos a fair assessment?
ROBERT EGGERS: Yeah. It should be controlled chaos. The intention—I don’t know if there’s success here—was to make some really big, vulgar, stupid choices and stick to them. There are certain things that are flagrantly on the nose in a way that’s extremely juvenile, and that’s intended. There’s ham-fisted genre trope moments that are hopefully something for people to grab onto and give them some orientation. But then there are other lines that are just as important that we deliberately breeze right by hoping the audience is thrown off by that and is needing to play catch-up a little bit. I don’t know if we walked that tightrope right, but that’s certainly the idea: You have enough things that keep you grounded and stable, including the atmosphere and the world-building, but then we’re left with questions rather than answers.
It sounds like the exercise was fun in theory—you were playing, right?
But the reality has been portrayed as less than fun. Pattinson said he wanted to hit you at one point. How contentious was the set?
It wasn’t that contentious. It was tense. It’s like, look, Rob and Willem aren’t mean or nasty to each other. A lot of people feel like reading between the lines, like that’s the truth of it, but they were not. They were incredibly professional, and they could laugh at each other or with each other between takes, when it was necessary. But they weren’t palling around, and there was some bit of them inhabiting the roles and playing out the story. Willem is the lighthouse keeper, and Rob is Rob, and I’m the lighthouse or the seagull or something. That’s just how it is.
On one hungover morning, the DP Jarin Blaschke said to me, “I’ve never had the making of the film so closely echo the story of the film.” We were all out there in this terrible weather. We signed up for it, and the fact is that there’s all this Rob wanted to punch me because of the water hose, but here’s the thing: We were out there, it was raining already, but the rain wasn’t reading in his closeup. So you gotta see the rain in the close-up. Because of the nature of the shot, it was really hard to keep focus, so we had to do a lot of takes, and plus the real rain and the extra rain was fogging the lens and making the rain deflector, which is a device to blow rain off the lens, was breaking down. We had to do a lot of takes. It was like, “You don’t have it. You technically do not have it. You have to do it again.” I didn’t know Rob wished me physical harm.
At no point?
He’s professional, you know? I learned from whisperings of the wardrobe trailer a couple of weeks ago that after we did that scene, he said to the AD, “If Rob needs me to do it again, I’ll do it again.” They were there to work, and they were there to do something unique, so they wanted to go 110 percent even if sometimes that meant that Rob wanted to punch me. Occasionally, Willem had to have his peace too. But if you say, “Willem, you need to cut your arm off for this scene?” he would: “[Stammers] What are you out of your fucking mind?…Where’s the saw?”
There’s a long history of directors terrorizing their actors—not caring if they’re doing so, or intentionally doing so for effect.
That’s not me.
How do you know?
Well, I guess I don’t. But certainly that’s never my intention. But the sadistic, Kubrickian, deliberately trying to traumatize actors, I think, is just inhuman. It’s not a good thing to do. There was tension on set that I didn’t need to create or stoke any fires [of]. The camera sees truth. This movie just couldn’t have been made any other way. But with The Witch, the cast and I talked about how we were best fucking friends and skipping down the lane like holding hands. That was the truth with that movie. That was a case where, especially because we were working with kids, I sought out great actors but also great actors who were really, really kind—not that Willem and Rob aren’t—but that were parents and could protect the kids. So we were trying to create a super trusting environment where we were supporting each other to get ourselves through the intensity of the scene work. The way that we got through the intensity of the scene work in this film was going back to our hotel rooms and getting some fucking sleep.
You have a vision, you script it pretty heavily, right? The monologues were all written?
Yeah, I’m sort of flattered that people wonder if any of this was improvised, but how in the hell are Robert and Willem supposed to improvise 19th century dialect? They can’t do it unless they’ve been studying it.
What about the wild jigs or the more physical stuff?
No. The thing is, Jarin and I are trying to have a level of craft that we don’t have the experience level to have. So we’re preparing, preparing, preparing…preparing, preparing, preparing, so before the actors get there, pretty much all the shots are entirely designed, so then we’re rehearsing so that they know where they need to be in relation to the camera so that when we get onto set, they don’t seem like awkward puppets. Did Rob and Willem bring things that were spontaneous and not in the script with their acting choices? Yeah. But a lot of stuff that you would think…
How much does the finished product match your vision then, percentage wise?
I don’t know about a percentage, but I would say that I’m much more pleased—I don’t know if it’s a better movie—but I’m much more pleased with this than The Witch, because it’s a similar scope but we had more money and I was more experienced. Developing large studio movies that fell apart, I also learned a ton. So I came in here with an ability to control things much more heavily. It’s quite close to what I envisioned. The Witch really is hard for me to stomach.
A lot of the conversation about this movie has focused on masculinity and the interrogation of it. Was any of that your intention?
No, but obviously that’s what’s happening here. I didn’t intend The Witch to be a feminist movie. I personally, objectively see it that way, and I’m glad that’s the general reception, although I’ve read people who don’t think it’s a feminist movie and I think they argue it very well, but I just wanted to make a movie about witches and that’s what happened. If you want to make a movie, to use my line, which I’m sure you’ve read before, nothing good happens when two men are trapped in a giant phallus. It’s going to be about masculinity and it’s going to be about mainly, because you’re in this pressure-cooker situation where you have pent-up anger, pent-up aggression, pent-up erotic energy with nowhere to go, it’s probably going to be about the negative sides of masculinity. Certainly, that’s something that’s in the cultural zeitgeist right now.
Along with gaslighting, which is also portrayed here. In terms of that aspect, was there broader socio-political commentary intended?
No. I never have political commentary on my mind when I’m doing it; it’s just, I don’t live in a vacuum. If The Witch only works for people who are alive in 1630 and The Lighthouse only works for people who are alive in 1890, I’ve got a real, serious problem. It has to speak to the zeitgeist for anyone to be interested.
It’s funny that a homoerotic moment in the film when Pattinson and Dafoe are dancing leads to a fistfight that is in fact even more homoerotic.
Totally. And there’s a difference between homoeroticism and homosexuality. That’s not to say they aren’t both aspects of what’s going on in this movie. Some people have said, “It would have gone a lot better if the two of them could have just gotten on with it.” But the tension in all of that is much more satisfying, I think.
You and your brother worked on this script together about two men working together. Did the script reflect your process? Was there tension or a power struggle there?
From the beginning, I was like, “Let’s do this, but I’m in charge, motherfucker.” [Laughs] I’m seven years older than him, and he’s used to it. But it was a joy working with Max, and the thing I’m working with now is with a novelist. I’m really, really enjoying collaborating with other writers. Joy is the word for it. It’s not a competition; it’s something better than that. When we’re passing the scene back and forth, it’s not that I want to show I’m better or smarter; it’s just lifting it and lifting it and lifting it. There’s a lot of joy in that kind of collaboration.
Of all your bold choices here, one that announces itself particularly early is having Dafoe’s character fart before he says any lines. Can you describe the thinking behind that?
A couple of things. In the script it reads, “Thomas Wake farts. A deliberate display of power.” But also, The Witch takes itself really seriously, and it kind of needs to in order to work, but there’s also something a little juvenile in self-seriousness, maybe. You gotta be able to laugh at misery. Sorry for the preciousness, but reading Dostoyevsky really made me be like, “Man, this shit’s so funny that I can’t be a snob.” I wanted this idea that you get into the movie theater and you’re like, “Oh no, why did I come to this black and white arthouse thing? It’s going to be so miserable.” And then Dafoe farts and you’re like, “Okay, maybe there’s something to this.”
Pattinson said some of the farts were real. Can you confirm that?
Half and half. But you know… I mean, the sets didn’t smell good, and not just because of flatulence. Those wool costumes, and there was a food fight that was cut from the movie and salt cod worked its way into all parts of that galley kitchen. By the end, when the set’s flooded and Rob’s vomit was clam chowder that he had in his mouth, take after take after take, that was rank.
How was it working with the seagulls? I didn’t know seagulls could be trained, but these seemed awfully well-behaved.
Yeah. It was great. It was foolish because I didn’t research it. I didn’t research the animals for The Witch. Now, whenever I’m committing an animal to paper, I do a lot of research about what they’re capable of and the legalities of the countries I might be shooting in. We really didn’t know what we were doing till the last minute, and I was really terrified. We found three seagulls in the U.K. named Lady, Tramp, and Johnny, and they were incredibly well-trained. I didn’t know what to expect and I found that when animal wranglers or trainers are really skeptical, then they’re good at their job. When they’re saying, “Oh yeah, they can do anything!” you’re in trouble. But Guillaume [Grange], the French seagull trainer just kept saying, “I do not know. They are very sensitive birds, so I do not know…” I was like, “Oh my God.” The first thing we did was the gull jumping on the windowsill, pecking three times, and then flying away. Take after take after take, the gulls were doing it. I was like, “What the fuck was he telling me that the gulls might not be able to perform?” Also they were rescue birds, so they’d been saved by humans. So they weren’t like herring gulls in nature, like evil to their core. So that was nice.
The Lighthouse is in select theaters Friday.