Robert Eggers, the mind behind horror hit The Witch and now The Lighthouse, is bummed about the long summer. “My favorite season in New York, destroyed,” he says of the fall, as he settles in to talk about his new film. “I don’t like that I’m not wearing long pants.”
It’s not the kind of jest you might immediately expect from the director — even in shorts, Eggers cuts a striking figure, dressed entirely in black — but that contrast between appearance and what’s underneath is a common thread in his work. The Witch, a story about “a bunch of Puritans praying,” as he puts it, turned out to be a dissection of the time in which it is set and female liberation. The Lighthouse, which centers on two lighthouse keepers played by Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, is sold as less a horror movie than a “literary” tale. The film is at once enormously funny and deeply unsettling.
In the lead up to release, Eggers sat down with Polygon to discuss the inspiration for the movie, digging into everything from exactly what goes on in its finale, figuring out the anatomy of certain creatures, working with seagulls, and flipping the bird.
[Ed. note: Spoilers for The Lighthouse follow.]
Where did the story of these two men come from?
The germ of this was my brother had just said, “I want to make a ghost story in a lighthouse.” And that inspired the atmosphere of the film for me, black and white, crusty, dusty, rusty, musty. The two-shot of them at the table with the single lantern at the first dinner scene, that image popped into my head when he said, “Ghost story in a lighthouse.” You know, go figure.
I worked on some research, myself, and The Witch ended up being financed, and so I made The Witch. The Witch came first. I had written The Witch, but no one wanted to make it. Then, I was like, “Maybe I should try something else.” But I only got so far with it. So then, years later, when I was post-Witch, trying to get some bigger studio movies greenlit, and, in navigating studio waters, found that they were choppy indeed. I called my brother and said — just in case I needed a life raft, so to speak, I didn’t mean to carry that metaphor on for so long — “Let’s work on this lighthouse movie together.”
I found a true story about two light housekeepers in Wales, Thomas and Thomas, and a storm comes, and I was like, “A storm comes because ... here’s the first 10 pages. There’s Thomas and Thomas, a mermaid has washed up on shore at the midpoint. The bad weather comes when he kills a sea bird, and there’s a mystery in the Fresnel lens, and there’s a foghorn, and now we have to figure out everything else.” My approach is entirely researched-based, and so my brother took that on as his approach for this as well.
You start reading lighthouse keepers’ journals, and you start reading the manual that is in the movie, and when you’re reading the tasks that they have to do, that inspires things. When you’re looking at pictures of period lighthouse stations to research the look of the thing, that boathouse with the runners — “When are we going to launch a boat out of that? We have to do something with that.” Then there comes a point where we’ve found that we have a story of some sort, and now we say, “Okay, well, what myth or folktale or fairytale or combination does this most closely resemble, and then how do we feed what we learned from that proto-story back into what we accidentally came up with?”
You introduce aspects of mythology so early in the film, but it’s not immediately clear if these things are really happening or if they’re the results of these men’s overactive imaginations as they’re cooped up.
I’m glad that you’re saying it seems like it could be either of those things, because it was certainly my and my brother’s intention to keep it ambiguous. We have a few really over-the-top, in-your-face signposts to grab onto; bad luck to kill a sea bird couldn’t have been photographed in a more over-the-top way to get the point across. But then there’s other lines of dialogue that are as important that you might miss, and are also deliberately photographed and blocked in that way to hope the audience is like, “Wait! Oh!” And to throw them off kilter. I hope it works. It does need to be ambiguous.
At a Q&A last night, someone asked me, “What does Rob see at the end of the movie?” I said, “Well, if I photographed that, you would have the same fate befall you and I can’t do that to the audience.” But also, for Rob, he said, “I don’t want to make a movie about a magical lighthouse, I want to make a movie about someone who’s fucking crazy.” That’s what he brought into his performance.
So how did you go about shooting that end scene? I’m assuming you also didn’t tell him explicitly what’s in the lamp.
Rob, interestingly, can take silent film directing. You can be like, [affects voice] “It’s a happy, pleasant day. The birds are chirping.” You can do that, and he will really respond to it very well. So yeah, I was kind of narrating what I wanted to see out of his experience. Some of that was visual, some of that was emotional. But it wasn’t exactly like, you know, “There’s a giant kitten in there!”
And in general with Rob, often he would want to know about his character’s past. Me and my brother have our own ideas about what his past was, but our intention is for the audience to ask questions. So, with Rob, I would often say, “Any of those work. Pick whichever one works best for you, but we need the line delivered a little bit more like A or B in order for the audience to keep guessing, because you make the choice and you follow it, but I don’t want that to be so clear that the audience knows exactly what your relationship with that blond lumberjack is. I want them to wonder what that relationship was all about.”
In terms of the research, mermaid genitalia is always a source of some contention. How did you settle on the look that’s in the film?
Well, in earlier mermaid incarnations, like in Renaissance and medieval art, and on the Starbucks cup, you’ll notice that the mermaid has two tails so that she can perform her function in the male fantasy that is then inflicted upon her. But then, in the Victorian era, no surprise [laughs], no surprise that the Victorians buttoned things up.
But because it is a 19th century story, having it be an iconically single-tail mermaid was important to me. But we did have to solve the problem about how you, you know, engage with a mermaid physically. So shark genitals became the main reference point. We looked at other things, just more abstract, like shellfish that look labial, but shark genitalia worked very well. And many fish have pelvic fins that help them navigate, and so the larger outer labia, those are actually fins. When she’s in the water, they would be like this [demonstrates closing], engaged in swimming.
Slightly less blue: what were the inspirations behind the two mythical iterations of Willem Dafoe’s character?
The Proteus figure that is more clearly nautical is somewhat based on a sea monster by [Albrecht] Dürer, who carries a tortoise shell shield. But Dürer has a staghorn growing out of his head like a crown, which is cool, but we decided to have it be a horn of coral, which made a little more sense. But Dafoe’s face tends to look like Dürer and Martin Schongauer, and all those kinds of Northern European engravings, which is nice.
The other image that you describe, I’m quite ashamed to say, is fairly mercilessly stolen from a work by a symbolist artist, Sasha Schneider. It’s not the exact composition, there are some things that are reversed and upside down and so forth. But that image was so very striking to me, and was also one of the pieces to the puzzle that I sent to my brother, like, “This also needs to be in there somehow.” I don’t like to be so merciless in being derivative of someone else’s work, but I sure was, there. But it’s cool.
In terms of derivation, how do you feel about these movies becoming memes and part of remix culture?
To some degree, I’m keeping track of trends, but also, as far as most of the media that I consume, it’s all painted, composed, written, and performed by dead people. That’s my favorite stuff. [Laughs] I do try to like lock myself in my little alchemical dungeon and stay in the past, but you don’t live in a vacuum, and you are affected by the zeitgeist. Obviously, if The Witch only works for people who were alive in 1630, and The Lighthouse only works for people who were alive in 1890, I’ve got a serious problem on my hands.
But by being interested in these things that are on the edge of our cultural consciousness and half forgotten, things like Black Phillip can resonate because it’s not so obscure. It’s sort of like, “Oh, I didn’t know I needed that goat.” We’re trying to shape things that are in your semi-consciousness back into the front of your head. It’s crazy. I mean, it’s crazy when I go to a bar or a cafe and someone with a Black Phillip tattoo hands me my drink. I can’t believe it happened, especially because no one wanted to make The Witch because of a million reasons why it seems like something that no one would want to watch. A lot of people do feel like it’s a boring movie about a bunch of Puritans praying, and fair enough. But yeah, it’s crazy.
Also, I’m quite happy and proud that most people tend to interpret The Witch as a feminist movie. I’ve read some arguments that it’s not that are very well considered. I see it in that light, but I didn’t sit down to do that. I was just like, “I want to make a witch movie,” and then this is what happens. So this thing, “I want to make a lighthouse movie.” But as I’ve said many times before, nothing good comes when two men are left alone in a giant phallus. If this starts a conversation about toxic masculinity, good.
You said you’ve read a few things about The Witch; do you seek those things out about your work?
A24 sends me everything, and I try not to read it, but if you’re having a bad night, the bottle of bourbon and the reviews call to you. [Laughs]
Quando falam que o Robert Pattinson não é uma boa escolha para o Batman. Com o apoio do Duende Verde ainda. pic.twitter.com/7nJ4fxiHRT— Lucas Salgado (@lucas_salgado) May 20, 2019
There’s a picture of you, Willem, and Rob at Cannes where you’re all flipping the double bird. What’s the story behind that picture?
I really regret that because it looks so full of ourselves. But also, because the movie is so dumb and so flagrantly vulgar and over-the-top and making huge, bad choices and sticking to them wholeheartedly, I’m shocked that the movie hasn’t been more overwhelmingly divisive. When you’re swinging for the fences and just hoping that it works, it’s a scary thing to do. So I don’t like that we’re giving the middle finger there.
That’s not why we’re doing it, but it must be said that Valeriia Karaman, who plays the mermaid, that was her thing. She was always doing that. That was her hello, her goodbye, her dance move, [she’d do it] jaywalking in Halifax at police officers. [Cringing] “No, don’t do it!”
To speak of one other co-star, what was it like working with seagulls?
Great, actually. Totally great. Now, I’m always going to really, really research what it takes to work with a certain animal before writing a script. [Laughs] But you couldn’t not have seagulls in this movie, I just don’t see how to do it without them. So we kind of went into it blindly and when we were so close to shooting, we still had no clue how it was going to come together. It was very, very scary, and very stressful. But Christopher Columbus, who is an executive producer on the movie, contacted his owls from Harry Potter, who knew about three English seagulls named Lady, Tramp, and Johnny, that were incredibly well-trained.
My understanding is that they were rescued and sort of fostered up by human beings, and couldn’t survive in the wild any longer. Training them and giving them activities to do is kind of gives them a will to live. [Laughs] They weren’t these mean, nasty, horrible seagulls that we all know and fear. They were really lovely and so smart.
When the gull lands on the windowsill, pecks three times, then flies away, I thought we were going to have to stitch together three plates, but it was just done. One was better at flapping, one was better at pecking; they all had their specific skills, so that they, together, play that one gull. But they also played every gull in the movie except for the flying gulls. Well, the gulls that fly past Robert Pattinson in close proximity are those trained gulls, but all the gulls in the sky were the gulls of Cape Forchu, who quickly realized that our film crew was a source of food. They were always around. But yeah, it’s a pleasure to work with seagulls. Who knew?