Robert Eggers was a little pissed off. The young filmmaker from New Hampshire had been trying to get his debut feature, a period piece called The Witch about a family banished into the woods of 17th century New England, made for close to three years and he wasn’t getting anywhere. “For some reason, no one wanted to give me money to make a movie written in early modern English that involved a lot of puritans praying,” he says, “even if it did involve a witch.” Looking back now, the director can joke about it; he knows how this story ends and that his luck is about to change. But at the time, Eggers was getting increasingly frustrated and depressed over his inability to get this project going. So he met up with his younger brother, Max, for dinner, in an effort to cheer himself up. And then his sibling, an actor, told him about this screenplay he was working on. It was a ghost story set in a lighthouse. “I was like, ‘That’s a great idea’ — and I was extremely envious. I was angry that I had not thought of it first.”
Specifically, his brother was trying to adapt “The Lighthouse,” a famously unfinished short story by Edgar Allan Poe that, Max sheepishly admits, “I was delusional enough to think that I could finish for him.” He steals a glance at Robert and the two laugh. When the two Eggers met up a few months after that conversation, Robert asked how the script — now called Burnt Island — was coming along. Not well, Max said. Well, let me take a crack at it, Robert suggested. He had been mulling over what he might have done had the concept initially occurred to him. Something “musty, dusty, atmospheric.” It would have to be in black and white, of course. Maybe shot in a narrow, vintage aspect ratio to boot. His head, Robert says, was already filled with visions of “cable-knit sweaters, salt cod, clay pipes, hand-rolled cigarettes…for months, I’d thought of mermaids and foghorns and Fresnel lenses and mysteries.”
Several years, numerous collaborative drafts, endless days of research, one critically acclaimed hit and one extremely physically draining location shoot later, The Lighthouse hits theaters and proves that yes, if you wish hard enough, nightmares can indeed come true. A two-hander about a veteran lighthouse keeper named Thomas (Willem Dafoe) and his younger apprentice, Ephraim (Robert Pattinson), it bears no resemblance to the Poe story other than the shared title. Instead, the Eggers deliver a delirious, surreal tale of madness, masculinity, identity, binge-drinking and what happens when you anger the gods of the sea by messing with seabirds. (Answer: It isn’t pretty.) After a successful run on the festival circuit and a limited release in New York and Los Angeles, it opens nationally on October 25th and threatens to put a collective dent in audiences’ frontal lobes. It will definitely change how you view both actors and confirm that the filmmaker behind The Witch is indeed a major, singular talent.
It was a true story, Eggers says, that was the key. Or, if we’re being perfectly accurate — and the director is a bit of a stickler when it comes to accuracy — a true-ish story. Given the go-ahead by his brother, Robert began to research as much about lighthouses, seafaring types and maritime mythology as he could. He came across what is now commonly referred to as “the Smalls Lighthouse Tragedy,” in which two lighthouse keepers, both named Thomas, find themselves marooned at their outpost when a major storm hits. “It’s one of the most famous lighthouse stories there is,” Robert says. “You can find it on the internet; there’s an opera about it. It takes place in Wales, early part of the 19th century, one older man and one younger. The younger of the two has a shady past. The older man dies and his coworker thinks he’ll be blamed for it. The ending is pretty similar to The Telltale Heart — it’s a realistic tale with a folkloric bent.”
Eggers had discovered the foundation for what he wanted to do. Then, suddenly, he also found financing for his long-gestating project about the puritans. “At which point my life changed drastically,” he says wryly. Made for a modest budget and with no marquee-name actors, The Witch quickly became one of the most buzzed-about movies at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, and a bona fide hit for the distribution company A24. The bearded, thirtysomething director now had industry clout. He was being touted as one of the hot new horror filmmakers. It was a notion that both excited him and scared him to death.
“Basically, I found myself in the process of trying to get some bigger things that I’d written greenlit, and negotiating the studio system in a way that made me feel … let’s say ‘fearful,'” Eggers says. “I was a filmmaker with one movie under his belt and I could feel how precarious that situation was. So I called my brother and said, look, let’s work on this together. You had the original idea. Here’s the first 10 mins: A mermaid is found washed up onshore. At the midpoint, there’s a storm that comes after one of them kills a seabird. And there’s a mystery in the light. Now we just have to figure out everything else.”
The two Eggers started trading drafts back and forth, reworking acts and revamping as they went along. Robert began tracking down as many pictures of New England circa the 1890s, as well as looking at everything from “the great lighthouse cinema coming out of France in the 1930s by the two Jeans” (Grémillon and Epstein) to Symbolist paintings. He pored through the lighthouse keeper’s code-of-conduct manual and become slightly obsessed with finding the perfect Fresnel lens, a spherical device designed specifically for lighthouses that resembles, in Eggers’ words, “an Art Deco spaceship.” Both threw themselves headfirst into literature of the period, with a heavy emphasis on texts about the sea and/or the surreal: Coleridge, Melville, some Robert Louis Stevenson. H.P. Lovecraft’s “weird tales” were a fertile source of material as well. (Yes, there will be tentacles.) Once they discovered the work of Sarah Orne Jewett, a Maine-based writer from the period who was writing in a region-specific dialect, they’d found the voices for their characters. The older keeper’s cadences were based on the sailors in her stories; the younger man would adopt the accent of local farmers she’d interviewed. A scholar doing a dissertation on Jewett’s use of dialects provided them with a “set of rules” that they consulted whenever they sat down to tackle dialogue-heavy scenes.
They also started going back to the playwrights that had influenced them when they had started out in theater as teens, especially those that dealt with existential ennui, psychological disintegration and volatile males. “We grew up on Harold Pinter, Sam Shepard, Samuel Beckett,” Robert says. “You’re making something about men on the verge of a nervous breakdown, you’re going to look to those guys.”
“You could easily do Waiting for Godot in a lighthouse,” Max suggests.
“I think we kind of did?” Robert says. “The point was, we wanted to do something as authentic to the period as possible, the same way The Witch really drew from the 1600s. But we also wanted something with two characters, one location. Basically, I had a lot of stuff going on, but I figured I should have something small and easy to make in my back pocket, just in case.”
Something small and easy. The brothers exchange another glance, before Max puts his head in his hands. Robert merely smiles and slowly shakes his head.
“You do not expect to open up your Inbox and see an email from Willem Dafoe,” Robert says, the next time we meet up. He’s by himself now, getting ready to do a Q&A for the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. And he’s remembering getting a fan note from the Oscar-nominated actor, asking to meet up for coffee. “He told me he loved The Witch, and y’know, whatever I was doing next, he was in. Nothing I had going at the time seemed like a good fit, but when this project — of all things — suddenly got a go-ahead, I immediately went, ‘Oh, I have something for him!'”
Eggers leans forward. ” I mean, look,” he admits, “his character, especially in the early drafts, is a kind of hodgepodge of Captain Ahab, Long John Silver and the sea captain from The Simpsons. It’s this close to ‘Shiver me timbers!’ We researched things to the point where it felt like something authentic. But we needed an actor like Willem to make that character feel real. The only hitch was that I’d sent him a photoshopped picture of him as the lighthouse captain, and he was initially turned off by it. ‘I’m not that old, Robert!’ Thankfully, he came back around.”
As for Robert Pattinson, Eggers and the Good Time actor had originally met up to talk about another project the director had him in mind for. “I’d asked him to consider a role in something else I was developing, this sherry-drinking, cigar-smoking Victorian gentleman, and he politely declined,” Eggers says. “It was, ‘I’d essentially be playing me. I’m only interested in stuff right now that’s really weird and challenging. Best of luck.’ When I’d finished The Lighthouse script, I sent it to him with a note attached: ‘So is this weird and challenging enough for you?!’
“After he read it, we met up again,” he continues, “Rob showed me a YouTube clip of some bro-y guy in a J. Crew shirt who was completely obliterated … just drunkenly screaming into his friend’s phone, ‘I am a demon! I am a demon!!!’ And he was like, ‘This is the movie, right?’ I just thought, yeah, ok, he gets it.”
By the time Eggers brought both of the actors together, he’d already found his location: Cape Forchu, home to a Nova Scotia fishing community and “the most punishing, inhospitable piece of land we could find … but with good road access!” He had basically begun constructing the film’s lighthouse from scratch. “Well, not basically,” Eggers notes. “More like actually constructed from the ground up. We couldn’t find any lighthouses that fit our needs so, yes, we, um … we just built a 70 foot working lighthouse. It could support the one-ton lens we brought in and apparently shine up to 16 miles out — that’s what the locals told us, at least.” He then had to contend with two leads who had slightly different creative processes.
“I’m not looking for performances in my rehearsals,” Egger says. “I’m like, let’s just indicate where we’re going here and then save it. Dafoe comes from the theater, and has more energy than my one-year-old son. He can bring it all fucking day long in rehearsals and then go 25-percent more when we’re shooting. I come from theater as well, so I was completely indulging it: ‘Oh man, it’s like back in the downtown theater days of the ’80s!’ And Rob, I think, felt like, ‘What the fuck is this shit?’
“But his character is coming in to a space that isn’t his,” he adds, “It’s Dafoe’s lighthouse. So in a way, it fits. I am not trying to be one of those sadistic, Kubrickian directors who is trying to make these tensions any worse or exploit them, but … the camera sees what the camera sees. They are great actors. These are four of the finest cheekbones to ever grace the screen! And when you’re doing an extremely complicated one-shot scene with two actors who work differently — it’s got its challenges, but when you get it, it’s great!”
“Challenges” is a word that comes up a lot over the three times we talk. So does the adjective “miserable.” The Lighthouse has already gained a reputation for being a particularly tough shoot, thanks to the remote location, the complexity of the shots Eggers and his cinematographer Jarin Blaschke had designed (some of which involved using lens crafted in 1905), and dealing with the worst weather imaginable for weeks on end. It apparently took a toll on all involved. Nerves were frayed, especially during some of the long, single-shot sequences of the men drunkenly ripping into each other. In one published interview between Dafoe and Pattinson, the latter suggests that in the process of making the movie, it’s the only time he’s ever come close to punching a director.
“Ah, well, Monsieur Pattinson may be playing up the mythology for the press,” Eggers says, laughing. Then he lets out a long sigh. “Miserable and challenging — I mean, that’s what’s on the page. There’s no way to really fake it. There’s a shot of the two of them staring out at the sea, waiting for a ship to come in and it’s just this massive gale all around them — that was just the weather that day.”
There’s a pause that might be described as eight-and-a-half-months pregnant. Then Eggers says, “Look, some days, you have to film a sequence in which the rain is pounding down on someone and you’re just turning the camera on what’s happening. And other days, you occasionally have to spray Robert Pattinson in the face with a firehose. You know, ‘What the fuck is happening here, I feel like I’m getting sprayed in the face with a firehose!’ ‘Well, yes, because you are.‘ It was tough. There were days when I wanted to die, and I love the cold. Even the Nova Scotia crew we used … all they do is work on European adaptations of Moby Dick and The Sea Wolf, so this is their specialty. And by the end, they were saying, ‘Yeah, this is the hardest shoot we’ve done by far.’
“But this was what we signed up for,” he adds. And given the end result, which plays like both a lost documentary of the era and an immersive historical experience that happens to venture into the mouth of madness, Eggers isn’t sure he’d change anything about the production. “I like researching things to the point where I get to step into my own personal Disneyland — or maybe ‘Miseryland’ is a better term,” he says. “It’s not just an indulgence, though. It really is make you feel as closely rooted in the times as possible. Both Willem and Rob said to me at different points, ‘If you remove the cameras, we are in the 1890s right now.’ They did not have to imagine what is was like to be running a lighthouse and feel isolated and cold. And once you get that reality down … that’s when you can bring in the weird shit.”