Anticipation ran high for the next film by writer-director Robert Eggers following The Witch (2015), and four years later he delivered another intense, claustrophobic period piece: The Lighthouse. Featuring only two speaking roles for Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, the film takes place in the 1890s as two lighthouse keepers on a desolate New England island find their sanity being dashed by forces real or possibly imaginary.
The director and stars were on hand at the Academy to talk about the sometimes arduous process of making the film along with cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, who shot the film in the now-rare, narrow 1.19:1 aspect ratio — and in black-and-white.
Inspired by his brother’s unsuccessful attempts to write a ghost story in a lighthouse, Eggers asked to run with the idea. As he explains, “I began researching and very quickly I came across what’s generally called the Smalls Lighthouse tragedy that took place in Wales around 1800 and the ending is somewhat folk tale-like, so one doesn’t know how true the story is, but supposedly it’s true. And two lighthouse keepers, both named Thomas, one older, one younger, a big storm comes, they’re marooned on their lighthouse station… And because they were both named Thomas, I thought this could be an interesting two-hander about identity… We need to have a mystery in the light and a Fresnel lens; that beautiful art deco spaceship was going to place us in the second half of the 19th century with this story. And because I wanted the foghorn with that certain sound, and I wanted the lighthouse station to be a certain level of dilapidated that was going to place us probably in the 1890s. So basically after many years of doing other things, I called my brother up and said, ‘You know that lighthouse movie, let’s do it together.’ And so in the past couple of years leading up to this, that’s what we did.”
Blaschke had to come up with a distinctive look for this film, a familiar challenge: “I remember for The Witch I asked Rob, how much does vanity matter when I go in to shoot this thing? He’s like ‘Not at all.’ And I can see that pattern going forward and I hope I have forgiveness, but I worked really hard to make them look as bad as possible. And a lot of the inspiration was just early photography. People think of black and white, but there are a lot of ways to do it. Like what colors do you extract to make your black-white image? And early photography — there’s no red light. It’s sensitive to blue and UV, and you know how everyone looks under a black light. So I was trying to find a filter that could just eliminate all the red light and as much of the green… Ultimately Schneider [the German lens company] made a custom filter that emulated what’s called orthochromatic film. It just sees blue and some green, and that’s it. So anything that’s red, like skin tone, it darkens that immensely.”
“How does Willem approach rehearsal?” Pattinson mused about the process from his co-star’s perspective. “With an enormous amount of enthusiasm, haste, like a human dynamo. I mean right from the very first day, he just was really, really relishing it. I interpreted his relish for rehearsal as being total comfort with the script and knowing exactly where he would want to go with the pods, which terrified me — because I didn’t know what I was going to do at all in that period. But then I realized afterwards that the second time we ran through the entire movie in rehearsal, Willem did it in an entirely different way, like effortlessly, which then was the only leg I had to stand on and it terrified me even more. But, it was fun, even though it was a vaguely traumatizing experience, like it was actually really fun to do it!”
“I want to live in that world,” Dafoe adds about the daunting production. “So the horrible weather is part of it; it tells you what to do, it informs what you’re doing. So I can’t complain about it. The film language is so beautiful in this… This rehearsal was to see where the camera was so we could fit into the frame to find out how to block things that were best for the photography. But you know what? That was a beautiful discipline, and it was a beautiful structure.”
Recreating the period was a goal for everyone involved, with Eggers noting that accuracy was a chief concern down to the smallest detail. “If you are doing your best to recreate rather than create, then it’s not wondering what pair of shoes or what lapel style is best for that character,” he notes. “It’s this is what a lighthouse keeper wore, make it. Do it. The end. And I find that a very satisfying way to work. And all of my collaborators, we know that our bar is accuracy… And it was very easy to find tons of material about lighthouses because people like lighthouses. Much more difficult to find material about the agricultural lifestyle of goat farmers in the 1630s. And also photography had been invented, so we have many photographs of lighthouse stations and lighthouse keepers and sailors and lumberjacks or shanty boys as they called themselves in the period.”
Even more painstaking was nailing down the appropriate accents for the characters, which had far less documentation. “My brother and I explored Melville, and journals and interviews with lumberjacks and what have you,” says Eggers. “And we began writing in dialects even though we couldn’t, we hadn’t mastered it at all. Then we came across the work of Sarah Orne Jewett, who is from the good old state of Maine and was writing in this period. She was interviewing sea captains and sailors and farmers and writing her main stories in dialect, so she was incredibly helpful. And then my wife found someone who wrote their thesis on dialect work in Jewett. And Evelyn Starr Cutler, she broke them down and provided rules, so we could make sure that these seven things were always consistent about Rob’s dialect and these 12 things were always consistent about Willem’s dialect.”
Being English, Pattinson was surprised to find such a remarkably different way of speaking for his New England character. As he explains, his director “sent me this documentary about various different little pockets of Maine where these antiquated accents had just survived for I guess a hundred, two hundred years or something. I had no idea that in areas of America there were these completely independent accents that almost sound like English accents, but amalgams of, I guess the sailors who were landing in Maine. There’s little elements of Liverpudlians and stuff, I mean, it’s really strange. But then I was working with a dialect coach and Evan Robert was very, very particular on every single vowel sound. But it was kind of fun. There was a couple of vowels which I just really enjoyed pronouncing and you had to sort of pick, your mouth ended up in a strange place. But then kind of change your facial expressions. And then on top of that, having a heavy mustache, it just informed your body movements. There’s something about that accent which feels very sort of twisted!”
Watch the full discussion: