The Lighthouse Director Wades Through the Mysterious Ending of His Nautical Nightmare
Robert Eggers guides us through what's real and what's hallucination in the soggy new Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson movie.
There’s madness in the salty air, the crashing waves and the seagull squawks of The Lighthouse, Robert Eggers’ nautical nightmare about a pair of 19th-century New England lighthouse keepers – veteran Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and wet-behind-the-ears Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) – charged with manning their illuminated tower on a barren, isolated Atlantic Ocean rock. Soggy, creaky and oppressively downcast, it’s a film of briny menace and flatulent humor, charting its two protagonists’ attempts to complete their isolated job while coping with the resentment, distrust and psychosis that soon threatens to subsume them. Scripted with ornate old-English dialogue (with his brother Max) and shot in a constricting 4:3 aspect ratio and in weathered black and white, it feels like a gnarly artifact from another era (or world). It also confirms that Eggers – whose debut, 2015’s The Witch, was cut from a similarly haunting period-piece cloth – is one of America’s most unique and daring auteurs.
During the course of Thomas and Ephraim’s odyssey, a mystery arises as to what the former might be hiding from the latter at the top of the lighthouse, and Ephraim’s hunger to attain that which he’s been denied is eventually complicated by visions of a mermaid siren and slithering sea beasts. The Lighthouse details its duo’s sloshed, spiraling descent into insanity via a ceaseless string of malevolent images, most accompanied by Mark Korven’s bellowing-from-the-bowels-of-hell score. Culminating with an ending that’s bound to baffle, it’s a moviegoing experience unlike any other – and, to our mind, the film of the year. Thus, shortly before its theatrical release (today), we spoke with the 36-year-old filmmaker about his crazed maritime saga’s open-to-interpretation finale, the historical research that went into crafting its amazingly detailed words and images, and the different artistic approaches taken by its illustrious headliners.
Let’s begin at the ambiguous end – did you have The Lighthouse’s conclusion in mind from the start?
It was always the idea to have this film be a bit obscure and ambiguous and, for lack of a better word, weird. That was definitely something I wanted from the beginning. That it would be, maybe not scary, but tense and hallucinatory and strange and provoke more questions than it would provide answers. However, the ending, and the final image, took some time. My brother and I had an act one and two that we really liked, but every time we tried to outline the whole movie, we didn’t have an act three. We finally just said, okay, act one and act two are in good shape; let’s just write those. Once those were actually written in screenplay form, it provoked clear answers for how the movie had to end.
Were the film’s final moments inspired by anything specific – say, Kiss Me Deadly?
I’m really embarrassed to say that when I screened this movie for some close friends, including [Hereditary and Midsommar director] Ari Aster when we were still finishing it, Ari said, “I love that Kiss Me Deadly ending.” And I was like, Ari, you know, I hate to tell you this, and I know everyone’s been telling me to, but I’ve never seen Kiss Me Deadly. He was like, “Watch it on YouTube when you get home tonight.” And yeah, we totally have a Kiss Me Deadly ending, that’s for damn sure! [laughs]
I knew there was a mystery in the lights, and that that could not be disclosed. There are Lovecraftian influences to this movie, but if this were properly Lovecraftian, when Rob finds Willem’s journal, it would have been filled with occult Dagon stuff that would explain that Dafoe is part of a Dagon cult and that there’s a slimy god that lives inside the tentacles and so on, you know what I mean? [laughs] That’s definitely what we did not want to do.
Both of your films conclude memorably, but The Lighthouse’s climax is far more open-ended than that of The Witch. Was that contrast deliberate?
I would definitely agree that The Witch doesn’t leave much of anything to the imagination. There are some ambiguities about The Witch, for sure, but all in all, it’s pretty clear what’s going on. I think I had my answers to the questions in The Witch, and I had my answers to the questions in The Lighthouse; I need those in order to write and direct them. But was I deliberately saying that the ending of The Witch is clear so I want the ending of this to be unclear? No. It wasn’t about that. It’s just that I wanted this movie to be a more hallucinatory movie than The Witch, and for us to not know what’s real and what’s not real – not as a conscious contrast to The Witch, but just as something I was interested in doing. And my brother also thought it was the way to go.
Obviously, there are some similarities between the films. But I think most authors have a primal narrative, even very good ones, like Charles Dickens – he wrote A Christmas Carol, but for the most part, he wrote the same book over and over and over again.
The film is steeped in mystery, whether it’s the mermaid, the sea creature, the gulls, or what’s going on in both men’s minds. Is suggestion more unnerving than literalism?
Absolutely. For me, there’s tension in not knowing. I read a very, very beautifully succinct explanation of David Lynch’s Lost Highway which sort of broke my heart, because I liked not knowing [laughs]. That was more satisfying to me than knowing. By the way, Kiss Me Deadly certainly put Lost Highway, among other things, into perspective.
With this film, there are certainly some over-the-top, in-your-face genre tropes that help move the story forward and give the audience something they can hold onto. Like, bad luck to kill a seabird. It’s very clear when that’s said – twice – and photographed the way it’s photographed, that we’re setting that up and we’re going to deliver on it, and Rob is going to kill a seabird. But then there are other expository lines of dialogue that are very important that are photographed in a way where things are moving along and you could miss it – and that’s very much on purpose, so the audience has to play catch up in the same way that Rob’s character is trying to play catch-up and decipher what’s going on.
I don’t know if we succeeded in walking this tightrope of continuing to push the audience around, and lead them astray, and then reel them in, and then lead them astray again, but that was our intention. Because if you’re going mad and literally being confused the way Rob is, you’re going to be there with his character, and the story – or lack of story – will come through. There isn’t a lot of plot; it’s kind of the same scene over and over again, just slightly different, so we do have to find ways to keep tension and keep people engaged, and we’re trying to do that through confusion and ambiguity.
You grew up in New Hampshire, and both of your films are set in New England. From a creative standpoint, what’s so attractive to you about the region?
New England is where white European culture has been around for the longest, so if you’re going to be exploring these kinds of old-timey stories, you want a place that’s been around long enough to have ghosts, so to speak. I think, clearly, both of these movies are me trying to commune with the European non-indigenous folk culture of my region. My brother and I grew up in a setting in the woods very much like The Witch in southern New Hampshire, and then we would drive up north to Maine to settings like The Lighthouse for vacations.
Furthermore, the lighthouse is in my film in a mysterious and creepy way, but it’s also there in a romantic and powerful way too.
Where did the idea for The Lighthouse come from, and why pursue it—instead of other projects—for your sophomore feature?
Before The Witch was financed, my brother was working on a script called Burnt Island that was a ghost story in a lighthouse, and that’s all I knew about it at the time. I thought it was such a good idea, and a couple of months later, he said it wasn’t really working out, and I asked if I could take a crack at the concept. My version, of course, became a period movie and I called it The Lighthouse. When he said “ghost story in a lighthouse,” I pictured this crusty, rusty, musty, black-and-white atmosphere, boxy aspect ratio, and really the imagery from the dinner scenes, and I set out to find a story that would match that atmosphere.
But The Witch got financed, so I left this on the back-burner. Yes, many titles were announced post-Witch that I was working on and developing, but I also called up my brother and said, let’s do the lighthouse movie together—it was your concept in the first place, and I’d like to have something smaller in my back pocket just in case. Then, four or five years after The Witch, for whatever reason, The Lighthouse was the thing that people wanted to greenlight, so that’s why now!
There’s a richness to The Lighthouse’s old-world dialogue, highlighted by Dafoe’s extended curse in which he invokes King Triton. How much research was necessary to create that authentic language?
It was a tremendous amount of research. Being that we’re setting the film in New England, [Herman] Melville seems like the first place to go take a look. [Samuel Taylor] Coleridge and [Robert Louis] Stevenson, on the other side of the pond, are some other usual suspects. We began trying to write both characters in dialect from the beginning, even though we didn’t know how to do the dialect yet. But we both find that thinking in dialect, even if you’re still trying to sort it out, keeps you better in line with the thought process of the character. Anyone who speaks more than one language would understand what I’m talking about, I’m sure.
We were looking for those things, and lighthouse keepers’ journals, and interviews with lumberjacks for Rob’s character. And then we came across an author who was writing in the same period as our film, from the good ol’ state of Maine: Sarah Orne Jewett. She was interviewing farmers and fishermen and sea captains in Maine and then writing her stories in dialect phonetically. That was just a goldmine, and her work really shaped the dialect for these two characters: Willem speaking with a more nautical dialect, and Rob with more of a farmer’s dialect, even though most of Jewett’s stuff is generally coastal.
Then my wife Ally found at the library a thesis by a woman, Evelyn Starr Cutler, that was on dialect in the work of Sarah Orne Jewett. She was breaking down the dialects, and showing the syntax, which then allowed us to comb through the script and say, these seven things need to be consistent for Rob’s dialect, and these twelve things have to be consistent for Willem’s dialect. That was basically how we did it. The more heightened, faux-Miltonian, faux-Shakespearean stuff that echoes Ahab that Dafoe goes into, that I just wrote. Thanks to The Witch and some of the other things that didn’t get made, I can kind of just do that. Not a particularly useful skill to have, but it was nice to have it in this case [laughs].
Willem speaking with the hard pirate Rs is hypothetical. We know that accent existed in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia in that period. One critic who didn’t like my movie falsely calls it a “bad Irish accent,” but it’s not Irish at all; the origins come from the west country of England. You can’t read the maritime characters that Sarah Orne Jewett wrote without hearing that voice. So whether or not it existed, we felt like it had to be that.
Do you establish the film’s visual style after you’ve written the script, or do they develop on a parallel track?
It’s parallel. To some degree, I need a dollhouse and my doll and their doll clothes in my head when I’m writing or I can’t move forward. Sometimes it can feel like, I don’t know what shoes he’s wearing, I can’t write this scene! It can feel that fussy. Obviously, the detail becomes richer as you learn more, and things change as you continue to research. But yes, it’s all happening parallel. The photographs of period lighthouse stations that are needed for production design can also inspire scenes. We’d always see these boathouses with these long runners, these boat launches into the sea, in all these lighthouse stations during our research, so my brother and I said we have to do something with that. Even symbolist painting from the period becomes helpful in creating moments in the writing process.
I have to ask about the characters’ farting. Was it necessary to have some humor to alleviate the bleak, harrowing mood?
Here’s a place where I was deliberately trying to be reactionary against The Witch. I think The Witch takes itself very seriously, it’s utterly humorless, and I think it needs to be to work. Although there is something that feels a little bit immature or film student-y about how serious it takes itself. I thought that if I was going to explore misery again, I would do so in a way that I could laugh at the misery.
Certainly, if you’ve got two guys living in close quarters, scatological humor is going to be part of it. So the farts were in the script from the very beginning. And Dafoe’s first fart in the screenplay is described as a “deliberate display of power.” Which it is. But it’s also just a fart joke [laughs].
Every actor needs different things. But having worked with a lot of auteur filmmakers—and wannabe-auteur filmmakers like myself—Rob and Willem both know that part of the success of a film requires that you submit somewhat to how the filmmaker works. Still, I do need to adjust my general approach to give them what they need.
I think there’s sometimes a misconception that Rob is very method and Willem is very technical, when they’re both a mixture of outside-in and inside-out. The cinematic language of the film is very specific, and [cinematographer] Jarin Blaschke and I planned the camera positions and movements before the actors arrived. So, they’re learning their blocking in the rehearsal period so they can seem natural when we get to the set. Willem is using all the information that he’s honed in that rehearsal process to then create spontaneity that has already been planned. Whereas Rob wants to see how far can he stretch and change what we were doing in the rehearsal process, while still knowing that he has to submit to the camera. Both things work well.
Sometimes I think Willem and I approached things a little more similarly, but that was good, because it’s Willem Dafoe’s lighthouse and he’s supposed to feel comfortable and at home, and Robert Pattinson is supposed to feel precarious.
How much do you normally rehearse?
For me, rehearsal is only about blocking and pacing; it’s not about performance. We had a week for The Witch, and The Witch also had a kind of puritan farmer bootcamp so people could learn how to milk goats and stuff [laughs]. In The Lighthouse, Willem isn’t seen doing any work, really, and Rob isn’t supposed to know how to do his work – plus, frankly, it’s like pushing a wheelbarrow and shoveling coal, so that doesn’t take a lot of training [laughs]. There’s a week to learn the blocking and get a sense of pace, but again, Dafoe comes from theater, so even though I’m not looking for performance in these rehearsals, he was giving it anyway.
Did you explain the ending to either of your stars? Or did they ultimately not want to know?
I didn’t tell them any more than they needed to know. In that last moment, I directed Rob by saying some things, and giving him emotional cues – a bunch of garbage, I’m sure, that he probably thought was annoying and wished I’d shut up about [laughs]. But I guess the short answer is no, I didn’t tell them.