We speak to Pattinson, Willem Dafoe, and Robert Eggers about the making of ‘The Lighthouse’, a beautifully-shot film about sexually frustrated seamen
Robert Eggers has a saying: nothing good happens when two men are trapped inside a giant phallus. In the director’s new film, The Lighthouse, a testosterone-fuelled duo, played by Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, are stranded on the coast of Maine, in 1890, with only a lighthouse and each other for company. It’s the ultimate “why won’t you fuck already?” movie. In these claustrophobic quarters, the pair fist-fight and bicker non-stop, but do so passionately, with homoerotic tension, hard gazes, and wrestling moves that, if slowed down, could be mistaken for foreplay. As the two sexually frustrated guys stare each other down, the very erect, penis-shaped building behind them starts to resemble a thought bubble.
Of the two men, Thomas Wake (Dafoe) is the older, dominant figure, yet also a bearded, flatulent pastiche who mutters phrases like “yer fond of me lobster, ain’t ye?” and “yer fastly a true blue wickie in the making, you is”. Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson), in contrast, is more unhinged and manic; in the script, the apprentice is described as “like a dog that’s been beaten and caged too many times”. With nowhere to go at night, these two opposing energies clash in drunken arguments that unfold like chess matches: will somebody end up dead by morning? Or is it about attempting to penetrate the other’s personal space?
Eggers first established himself as a genre extraordinaire with his 2015 debut, The Witch, a supernatural folk horror starring Anya Taylor-Joy. But whereas The Witch was feminine, deeply serious and widescreen, The Lighthouse is unbearably masculine, knowingly ridiculous and squeezed into a square-shaped frame. “The Lighthouse wasn’t intended to be a phallic companion piece to The Witch,” Eggers tells Dazed, visiting the UK for the London Film Festival. “But that’s clearly what it is.”
Shot in black and white, in grainy 16mm, with a 1.19:1 aspect ratio, The Lighthouse seems to mimic a lost film from a bygone era, but Eggers insists otherwise. “There are nods to the past that an uneducated cinema viewer will perceive as just ‘an old movie’ in its look. But the way we light it is not from the early sound period.” The 36-year-old director gives a technical explanation about exposure, kerosene lamps, and how he used practical lighting fixtures for each scene. “We’re trying to create our own thing.”
Although A24 heavily pushed Uncut Gems and The Farewell during awards season, their sole Oscar nomination was for Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography on The Lighthouse. Eggers notes, “The Witch was intended to be restrained and subtle, and to not draw too much attention to the camera. But The Lighthouse screams, ‘Look how cool this shot is!’ in a way that’s vulgar and juvenile. The whole movie is over the top.”
“I definitely see it as a really strangely toxic love story” – Robert Pattinson
That said, The Lighthouse is more than just a technical exercise. There is a pensive, percolating humanity to the two tragic figures and their Beckettian existence – it’s like Waiting for Godot with mermaids and decaying seagulls. Or, rather, it’s like a toxic male version of Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of Lady on Fire. In Sciamma’s period-drama, two women fall in love on a desolate island; Adèle Haenel gazes into Noémie Merlant’s eyes and affectionately details how the latter touches her forehead when lost for words, and how she breathes through her mouth when troubled, and so on.
That same scene unfolds in The Lighthouse but with Winslow specifying, at length, about why he despises his colleague’s physicality, stench (“you smell like jism, like rotten dick, like curdled foreskin”), and everyday behaviour. “And if you hate someone, you can’t stop noticing their farts,” Pattinson adds, giggling in agreement. “I definitely see it as a really strangely toxic love story.”
Pattinson, 33, dressed like his character from Good Time, tells me of a torturous shoot. Some of it was the location, the weather, and the gallons of cold water hosed onto his face. The rest came from the actor mentally preparing himself – this includes self-imposed retching – in between takes. In fact, on the first day of filming, Pattinson had a masturbation scene.
As Eggers is a stickler for details, were there comprehensive instructions for how people pleasured themselves in the 19th century? “It came with a diagram,” Pattinson jokes. “Like period-accurate wanking? There was a stage direction saying that when he has an orgasm, he lets out this guttural scream. It’s nice having something like that, because you get to set the precedent of how crazy you can go in other scenes. The first take was way more than what it was in the movie. I was throwing up on myself as I was orgasming at the same time!” He laughs. “People wouldn’t have realised what was going on.”
I offer the Portrait of a Lady on Fire comparison to Dafoe, too. “It’s not just about male toxicity,” the 64-year-old actor says. “It has a lot to do with identity and belief systems and the mysteriousness of the light, and what that signifies. Some people see a father/son relationship. Some people find it very erotic. Some people think it’s a romance. Some people think it’s a master and a slave.”
“I was throwing up on myself as I was orgasming at the same time!” – Robert Pattinson
Last year, Dafoe told Dazed his main aim was to be perceived as a non-actor. But Wake is comically over the top and delivers lengthy, tongue-twister monologues; when the two men scream “what?!” at each other, it’s like a Meisner training exercise. "I still stand by that!” Dafoe says. “I’m interested in disappearing into a role, but the challenge with this is to embrace the theatricality, and to mute it, and to make the poetic prosaic. When you’re in the middle of it, you don’t feel like an actor.”
The script, written by Robert with his brother, Max Eggers, was initially about “a guy and his dog repairing and restoring a lighthouse to be a museum, and there’s a ghost in it”. But when the director plunged into the research, the story shifted and the esoteric world naturally developed. “You’re looking at photographs of old lighthouse stations, sailors, and sea captains,” Eggers explains. “They inspire you. The atmosphere becomes cumulative, from the facial hair that the actors grow themselves, to the dirt under their fingernails.”
Eggers sighs when I ask about Pattinson’s on-set rituals (“I was not encouraging Rob to piss himself and vomit…”) but perks up when it comes to production design. For instance, Eggers excitedly sets up what he promises will be an exclusive nugget of info, and it’s about the period-accurate floorboards, and how they were deliberately uneven and constructed so that certain areas would puddle with water when the house was flooded. “But they weren’t distressed right. We had to act fast and change our schedule to do more work on the floorboards. That might seem insignificant, but these details accumulate into a credible world where you can believe in mermaids.”
When Pattinson jerks off to a miniature mermaid figurine, was that also inspired by historical materials? “I didn’t read about lighthouse keepers masturbating, but I have a hunch they probably did,” Eggers says, chuckling. “I found ivory scrimshaw mermaids and naked women in the research that seemed like, you know, primitive pornography. Without the internet, what else are you going to do?”
“I didn’t read about lighthouse keepers masturbating, but I have a hunch they probably did” – Robert Eggers
At one point, Pattinson tells me, there was a match cut between the lighthouse and an erect penis. “That was in the movie for ages,” Pattinson says. “When I saw it, I didn’t even know it was a penis. I thought it was the lighthouse. But it was a penis getting hard, and then the lighthouse kind of tilting. It was so subtle. I don’t know why they couldn’t have left it in.”
However, the film is still full of ambiguities, especially when Winslow is driven mad through loneliness, horniness, and paranoia that he’s being gaslit by Wake. “I relate to any story implying that there’s something hidden behind a door,” Pattinson explains. “If someone says, ‘I can’t tell you that’ – I cannot progress past that point in the conversation until they tell me what they were going to say. It’s a universal emotion. My character’s a little crazy anyway, but it’s that fixation. I’m thinking: I need, I need, I need – it heightens everything.”
When Pattinson asked Eggers what was real and imaginary, the director told him it could be anything he wanted. “You can’t really play that,” says Pattinson. “But if you’re having passionate emotions about something, the ambiguity comes quite naturally. My character wants to be recognised and validated. I always thought that he’s looking for a daddy in Willem’s character. He doesn’t realise it, but he gets pleasure out of being a submissive – which you wouldn’t necessarily get when you watch it, but I thought that was there.”
The Lighthouse was partially inspired by a real incident known as the Smalls Lighthouse Tragedy. In 1801, Thomas Griffith and Thomas Howell, the latter decades older than the other, manned a lighthouse together in Wales. When Howell died in an accident, Griffith continued living with the corpse and slowly lost his mind. Following the incident, it became mandatory for British lighthouses to be helmed by a minimum of three people.
Fittingly, Dafoe considers the lighthouse to be a symbol of isolation. “It’s reaching out and serving other people,” he says. “But the lives of these people are solitary and turned inward. There’s a world out there that they’re reaching out to but aren’t quite contacting.” The lighthouse’s Fresnel lens – period-accurate, if you were wondering – is almost sci-fi in its blinding brightness. “The light is mysterious because it leads the way. It’s filled with all kinds of fraught meaning, and will mean different things to different people.”
To top it off is an incessant foghorn – imagine the beeping door of Uncut Gems, but it never stops – and an immersive, hypnotic sound design. During the writing, Eggers would play MP3s of the sea, the winds, and, yes, the foghorn. “It’s a delicate line,” the director explains. “That foghorn needs to be something that you can understand would drive the characters crazy, without having the audience leave.”
Has anyone told Eggers that The Witch, particularly the whispery “wouldst thou like to live deliciously?” climax, is prime ASMR material? He shakes his head. Well, is he conscious of the pleasurable side of soundscapes? “I generally try to make it unpleasurable! But even if you’re telling a ‘terrible, horrible, no good, very bad’ story, you’re trying to find harmony in the chaos that is life, and the beauty in the ugliness.”
Moreover, the rhythm of the dialogue is metronomic, and the cadence certainly goes against Dafoe’s non-actor claim. Still, many of the quotes could be incorporated into your daily life. Feeling hungry? “If I had a steak, I could fuck it.” Need a holiday? “The sea, she’s the only situation wantin’ fer me.” Somebody won’t respond to your Facebook message? “O what Protean forms swim up from men’s minds and melt in hot Promethean plunder scorching eyes with divine shames and horrors.”
“Improvisation is held up as this wonderful, creative thing, but it isn’t necessarily. No matter how clever some people are, you can subconsciously feel them standing outside of themselves” – Willem Dafoe
“You can’t improvise,” Dafoe says. “It’s too constructed. Improvisation is held up as this wonderful, creative thing, but it isn’t necessarily. No matter how clever some people are, you can subconsciously feel them standing outside of themselves.” Given the amount of preparation, including the dialect training, would Dafoe consider a prequel or sequel? “You’d have to bring in Netflix to scrub us up – we’d have to be 30 years younger.”
A big two years for Pattinson awaits as he will star in Matt Reeves’ The Batman and Christopher Nolan’s $205 million-budgeted Tenet. Among Dafoe’s upcoming projects is Eggers’ third film, The Northman. (“It’s a nice role,” Dafoe teases.) The Northman, a Viking revenge-thriller set in the 10th century, will also feature Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Anya Taylor-Joy, Bill Skarsgård and Alexander Skarsgård. According to rumours, it will also mark Björk’s first acting gig since Dancer in the Dark.
“I would be very bored making a contemporary movie,” Eggers says. “I love researching as a means to an end, and as a means to be able to build a complete 19th century lighthouse station with a 70ft tower.” Does that affect the scripts he gets offered? “I get sent everything. I don’t read most of them, because I’m interested in my own stuff. Certainly, I get a lot of horror stuff. It’s rare that larger franchises are sending me scripts, but they will call me for a meeting to see if I’d be interested.”
What about a 19th century Batman? “I think Batman belongs to no earlier than the 1930s,” Eggers says. “Imagine Fritz Lang doing Batman as an actual detective noir. That’d be cool.”
For now, though, there’s The Lighthouse, a psychosexual comedy-horror that’s arguably a celebration of the cinema experience – the characters themselves are mesmerised by the spectacle of a bright, projected light. “The effect of having the compressed aspect ratio on a huge screen really does something,” Pattinson says. “I would love to watch it on IMAX. It’s such an alien, experiential movie. If you’re sitting in a dark room, you feel completely overwhelmed and disoriented.”
And, at the very least, you get to witness Dafoe being buried alive. In the actor’s impeccable filmography, it’s one of his finest scenes, and it typifies the cruel, absurd humour of The Lighthouse. “It’s the purest kind of performing,” Dafoe says. “It’s a horrible feeling. I used to say after I did The Last Temptation of Christ that everybody should go up on the cross, because regardless of your background, you’re going to feel something.
“It’s similar. It’s very close to what would happen if I was buried alive in real life.” He laughs. “It’s about breathing. It’s about tasting that sand. It’s about keeping that speech going. It’s about having that last word. It’s about feeling miserable and feeling so elementally dejected.”
The Lighthouse is out in UK cinemas on January 31