Stormy Waters
Empire Australasia|December 2019
EARLY LAST YEAR, ROBERT PATTINSON, WILLEM DAFOE AND DIRECTOR ROBERT EGGERS ARRIVED ON A PIECE OF VOLCANIC ROCK TO SHOOT THEIR CRAZED PSYCHODRAMA THE LIGHTHOUSE. . . . THEY’RE STILL RECOVERING. EMPIRE SPEAKS TO THEM TO FIND OUT ABOUT THE GRUELLING SHOOT BEHIND ONE OF THE MOST STARTLING FILMS IN YEARS
ALEX GODFREY
IT WAS SUPPOSED to be a small film. Some vindictive seagulls and a mermaid aside, it was primarily two men in a lighthouse, toiling, squabbling, drinking, mentally unravelling. After the success of his debut film The Witch, director Robert Eggers was juggling ideas for a follow-up and threw this into the mix: a cheaper, contained little drama. Or so he thought. Nothing about this startling slice of lunacy was small, at all. And nothing was easy.

“It was a little bit more challenging than I expected,” says Eggers, meeting Empire in London. “I knew that it was going to be challenging, and I also knew that it was going to be more challenging than I could understand. And it was even a little bit more challenging than that.” He laughs, looking back at a production that was almost as demented off-screen as it is on. This, then, is the story of The Lighthouse, where, off-camera, the puking was kind of intentional and the crying wasn’t at all.

“IT’S JUST THE rats,” the director comments as we sit down, some ominous creaking going on beneath the floor. Eggers may be right — we’re in a posh hotel, but this is London where, they say, you’re never more than six feet away from a rat. Ye olde London is still here, if you look for it, which Eggers has been doing during his stay, particularly enthusing about his candle-lit visit to Dennis Severs’ House, the East End’s immersive recreation of an 18th century dwelling. “It’s one of my favourite places I’ve ever been to,” he says. “Things just recede into the shadows and you have to use your imagination.”

He may as well be talking about The Lighthouse. Eggers is fascinated with the past; the dead, he says, speak to him more loudly than the future. He grew up in New England, where The Witch and The Lighthouse are both set, and where folklore is strong. “The lighthouses out there have a mystery and a romance to them,” he explains. “I thought about that as a kid.” In 2012, frustrated at the lack of funding coming through for The Witch, he vented to his writer brother Max, who was writing a screenplay about a ghost running a lighthouse.

Excited by his brother’s idea, images flooded Eggers’ mind. “I pictured the two-shot of them at the first dinner scene, that’s quite close to what it is in the film,” he says. “I thought of the crusty, dusty, rusty, musty atmosphere and the facial hair and the cable-knit sweaters and the pipe smoke and the salt cod. It was just clear.” Max had been having trouble with his screenplay, so Eggers asked him if he could try writing it himself, and wrote a title-page: ‘The Lighthouse. This movie must be photographed on black-and-white 35mm negative.’

Steeping himself in research, Eggers ditched his brother’s ghost idea and discovered the true story of two 19th-century lighthouse keepers, both named Tom, stuck in a lighthouse in a storm. Using this as a morsel of inspiration, he realised his film “could be a story about identity that could devolve into something obscure and mad”. He wrote a 15-page treatment, then shelved it when The Witch’s funding came through, going offto make his extraordinary horror film about religion, sorcery and a nasty little goat named Black Phillip.

The Witch announced Eggers as an outstanding new talent, and he had further scripts ready to go. The allure of the light, though, was strong, and he and his brother went back to The Lighthouse, writing a claustrophobic story of masculinity and madness, lightly sprinkled with supernatural rumblings, but grubbily human.

Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson were both blown away by The Witch, and contacted Eggers, eager to work with him. He sent them both The Lighthouse’s screenplay; they both loved it. “‘Whoa, how is this gonna work?’” recalls Pattinson of reading it. He couldn’t wait to play Efraim Winslow, the assistant who, in Maine, 1890, is driven to wits’ end by Dafoe’s lighthouse keeper Thomas Wake, a sadistic seadog. “There was plenty of anticipated pleasure in doing this movie,” says Dafoe. He’s on the phone, but you can hear him grinning.

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