Focus Features

The Lighthouse’s Robert Eggers: "I think of the shoot and want to vomit"

The director of the year’s most fucked up horror film unpacks his masterpiece and working with Robert Pattinson

by Douglas Greenwood
23 January 2020, 10:00am

Focus Features

Every so often, a film comes along that feels like a genre classic within five minutes of the opening credits. The Lighthouse is one of them. The latest film from The Witch director Robert Eggers, it’s a bone-chilling psycho-horror that -- while channelling so much of scary movies past -- feels like something you’ve never seen before.

Its recipe is irresistible: a lighthouse keeper and his newly enlisted trainee, played by Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson respectively, arrive on the rocky, weathered coastline of 19th century New England. Together, they spend a windy, violent season trapped inside the phallic structure, spiralling further and further into a psychotic episode. If that doesn’t sound sinister enough, there are sexy, if sometimes monstrous, mermaids and stalker seagulls thrown in for good measure.

The vision for the film had been lingering in the mind of Robert and his brother Max, who co-wrote the screenplay, for some time before they eventually brought it into fruition, born from a one line concept: ‘A ghost story set in a lighthouse’. And while the film has contorted ever so slightly since then, their dedication to its striking aesthetic -- it’s shot on a bleak 35mm black and white negative to resemble haggard stock footage -- has remained. It earned the film’s cinematographer, Jarin Blaschke, an Oscar nomination.

The Lighthouse debuted in Cannes to rapturous reviews and standing ovations all round, before heading to Toronto Film Festival where it was met with similar acclaim. And now, Robert Eggers has arrived in London ahead of its UK premiere. Jetlagged and at the end of a long day of press, his fatigue is a conspicuous presence in the hotel room where he’s conducting interviews. Still, he’s mastered the art of them. Here, he tells us about dissecting his horror masterpiece, creating its harrowing atmosphere, and being a key part of the Robert Pattinson renaissance.

This has been quite a long press run. Are you still enjoying talking about the film?
No. I’m happy and privileged that anyone cares about my movie, so I know that what I’m doing is important, and, you know, but… I don’t enjoy it.

Do you think it’s necessary to dissect your work in this way?
It is important because I think... I mean, look. [There are a few seconds of palpable silence.] I don’t care too much to read about directors breaking down their work dramaturgically. I prefer to see the film and experience it how I wish and come to my own conclusions about that stuff. I don’t think that’s necessary, [but] the world does. So okay, I’m here and I’ll participate with it as much as I can without betraying my values.

I do find directors talking about craft interesting and helpful, and I love it. And on the other hand, I guess I’ve read a lot of interviews with Bergman and Tarkovsky and a lot of my other heroes getting into the dramaturgical stuff. I’m a filmmaker and not just an audience member.

And you do realise that there’s a younger generation of filmmakers, or future filmmakers, who are intrigued as to how you’ve done things.
Yeah, absolutely.

Robert Pattinson in Robert Eggers' The Lighthouse A24 2019

I was at the Toronto International Film Festival screening when a boy stood up after it finished and proclaimed the film was a masterpiece. Is that ever your intention? To make a masterpiece?
I mean, obviously it feels good. I can take a compliment, but of course I didn’t know how this film was going to be received, and I was utterly terrified at Cannes. People liked The Witch. I thought it was good enough to get some kind of distribution: straight to VOD, a weekend in a New York and LA arthouse theatre and then goodbye forever. I hoped that it would do something, and that someone might let me make another movie again. But instead it was quite successful, and changed my life.

Four years between a debut and sophomore feature is not long whatsoever. But in a time when filmmakers are used to churning out films every year or two, how much time did you take to actually consider your next steps after The Witch?
I didn’t take any time. I was working on the next thing while I was at Sundance [with The Witch]. The thing is, fate weaves a confusing thread in this industry. I’ve been working constantly, every single motherfucking day in the five years it’s been since The Witch premiered. I’m in prep on something right now, burning the candle at both ends, but until I’m on set saying ‘Action’, I don’t know if that’s going to be the next thing. It might be another five years that pass before I make my next contained, New England folk semi-horror thingamajig, because I can’t get any of my other things off the ground. Who knows?

Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe in the lighthouse 2019 2020 cinematography

You had a real purist’s approach to making this film. I wonder how vivid the image was in your head before you made it, and how much that original image now resembles the end result?
The atmosphere comes first for me. The look and feel and smell and texture. Black and white, 35mm negative was always tagged, ever since my brother said, ‘a ghost story set in a lighthouse’. I’m more proud of this than The Witch because it’s much closer to matching my original intentions.

The shoot is discussed as being a fairly arduous process in terms of the horrible weather. Did it feel like this was a blessing in establishing the mood of this film?
It’s more than a blessing – it’s a necessity. You can’t shoot this movie any other way. We chose our location of Cape Forchu, on the southern tip of Novia Scotia, precisely because it was going to destroy us everyday. That’s what we signed up for. You gotta do it.

Robert Pattinson said, before he started shooting this, that he was only interested in shooting weird stuff. Are you flattered by that judgement?
Yeah! Sure, I’m flattered by that. I could tell Rob was into this when I met him in LA and he was really fired up, which was cool.

Did you have any preconceived notions of what he, and his work, was like?
Basically, I didn’t watch the Twilight movies until a few years ago and they’re fucking terrible. But I always liked him and thought he was interesting. There was something mysterious there, and there’s something mysterious in his character in the movie too. But over the years, I saw him become a great actor, and I approached him for a role in a more conventional movie and he didn’t wanna do it, even though we wanted to find something together. After that, I saw The Lost City of Z and Good Time. And not that I needed convincing, but he’s incredible in those films.

Did you ever fear animosity on the set? It must’ve been an incredibly hostile environment to make a film.
I thought everyone would come in holding hands and being best friends because that’s what I created on The Witch. It wasn’t jovial, but it wasn’t… Rob and Willem didn’t have animosity between each other but there wasn’t much in the way of joking around. Every so often there was a scene where they joked around in between takes, but generally, people were focussed.

Was it a relief when everything had wrapped?
Yeah. In doing all this press you rewrite history a bit, and I have all sorts of fond memories of the shoot. But I remember in post, whenever I’d think of the shoot I’d want to vomit. I’d get sick to my stomach thinking about how stressful and difficult it was.

You made a scrapbook for this film. Was there any sort of linearity between that and the film?
There was some linearity but not a lot. [When making films], you make a big mess and then light it all up, smash it all up to pieces and light it all up again.

If you had the opportunity, would you do it all again?
Yeah. And I wouldn’t change any of it, even the stuff that makes me want to puke. Because you learn from the hard stuff, and the mistakes.

The Lighthouse will hit UK cinemas on 31 January

Robert Pattinson
the witch
Willem Dafoe
Robert Eggers