I saw the new and wonderfully weird period chiller The Lighthouse at the Toronto International Film Festival last month amid a scrum of aggro festivalgoers. The line to get a seat was as long and rowdy as anything I encountered that week. What is it about the work of Brooklyn-based, 36-year-old filmmaker Robert Eggers that inspires such mania? His 2015 debut film, The Witch, won him the prestigious directing award at Sundance and launched him as a kind of horror auteur—one whose movies aren’t scary, exactly, but excruciatingly ominous and rich with mood.
The Witch concerned itself with 17th-century New England settlers encountering a malignant force in the woods (and featured a memorably demonic goat). The Lighthouse advances things few centuries but remains squarely in that same New England Gothic mode (this time there’s a seagull up to no good). This is a head trip of a movie, a salty, spooky, claustrophobic two-hander. Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe play a pair of 19th-century misfits manning a remote lighthouse off the coast of Maine, and they squabble and rile each other up in period dialect, work in horrendous weather, and slowly go mad. Eggers, a perfectionist through and through, shot his rigorously detailed film in black and white, at an old-fashioned one-to-one ratio (meaning it looks like a silent film), and it all amounts to a cinematic experience as gripping and bizarro as anything you’ll see this year.
I spoke to Eggers recently about his influences and the arduous experience shooting The Lighthouse.
You’ve made two period movies set in New England, and you yourself grew up in rural New Hampshire. What were you into as a child?
Movies, obviously. But of course it was Spielberg and Disney and Star Wars and Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood and Dick Tracy. When I saw the making of Return of the Jedi, I was like, Oh wow, this is something you can do. I grew up doing a lot of theater—acting and making sets and costumes. I had these fashion history books that I really enjoyed looking at. I liked costumes and used to wear them to school until I got beat up for it. But also my dad was a Shakespeare professor, so yes, I lived in rural New Hampshire, and there were certain things that were not around, but because of my parents we would go to, like, Boston and see The Nutcracker at Christmas, so I had exposure to culture.
I think of directing films as a series of compromises. But your films are so rigorously authentic that I wonder if you ever make compromises.
There are always compromises. You’re never going to get exactly what you want, but I’m always going to choose something smaller with more control than something big that I don’t have control over. I’ve talked about this a lot, but The Witch took four years to finance because there were certain compromises I wouldn’t make. We needed to build the set correctly and make the costumes correctly and cast children from the north of England and bring their families over—we couldn’t compromise on that.
With The Lighthouse, the compromises came from things that were just impractical. Like footwear. There are no period rubber Wellington boots that are intact because they disintegrated over time. So we knew we had to build those, and they were very expensive. I wanted to build all the footwear from scratch, but we couldn’t afford to do it. The shoes that [Willem] Dafoe wears are the most commonly used Victorian/Edwardian shoes in motion picture and theater. Every large theater company has 1,000 pairs of these shoes made by Stacy Adams. It totally doesn’t matter for the movie—they are period correct—but it kind of frustrates me that I had to use them.
The film is entirely set at this remote lighthouse station, which I read you built from scratch. Tell me about that.
I wanted to build the lighthouse station because I wanted to have the most control possible on where I put my camera and how everything looked, yada yada yada. But this is an expensive black-and-white movie, and I need to be responsible, so I needed to see if there was a lighthouse station or a lighthouse tower we could use. We were looking all over the place. We started scouting in Nova Scotia, but things were really moving quickly, and we didn’t really find anything. Up there people have mailboxes shaped like lighthouses and buoys and lobster traps in their front yard, and I was like, We gotta find it here. I finally found a spot where we could build our tower. Of course people didn’t think we were going to go through with it. They were like, Oh, you’ll build part of it and extend it with C.G., but there’s no fun in that.
I also read you had terrible conditions during your shoot. How bad did it get?
The shot where they’re waiting for the relief boat and just standing in the wind—that was real weather. So that’s not comfortable, right? The set wasn’t very jovial. The scenes were really, really difficult and demanding, and the conditions were punishing, but we all signed up for it. I know there’s talk about how Rob Pattinson wanted to punch me for spraying him in the face with a water hose, but the rain wasn’t reading in his close-up so we had to spray him in the face with a water hose. On the day he was cool with it. I didn’t know he wanted to cause me physical harm. But I also found out later that actually after the shot he was like, ‘Let him know if he needs one more...I’ll do it.’ So they were up for it all. Dafoe occasionally had to have his peace, but if you said, ‘Dafoe, you have to cut your arm off, he’d be like, ‘Argh, argh, argh, argh...Okay, where’s the saw?’”
Originally Appeared on Vogue