Meeting Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in the luxury surroundings of London’s Soho Hotel is something of a jarring experience having seen their work together in The Lighthouse. There, they play grizzled 19th Century old-timer ‘wickie’ Thomas Wake (Dafoe) and chippy newbie Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson), who descend into booze-fuelled madness in a filthy lighthouse when a storm strands them on an unforgiving island in Maine. Filmed in a stifling 1.19.1 aspect ratio and lensed in monochrome with a custom orthochromatic filter – and often in queasy close-up – the duo are laid bare on-screen. Every fleck of spittle glints during rageful monologues about lobster and beans; circles under sleep-ravaged eyes bloom darkly; the rain, the bodily fluids, the oil glistens slickly. Combined with an insistent sound design (foghorns, bird screams, farts), the experience is so visceral it feels like you can almost smell the damp wool, taste the kerosene, feel the bone-clattering chill. And two famous actors disappear to leave only pirate-sounding bearded bully Thomas and resentful, secret-keeping Ephraim.
Dafoe, clean-shaven, dressed in an expensive-looking jumper and jeans can understand the disconnect when we sit down. “Usually when you see a movie, you have such strong associations with the making of it. You’re watching this scene, and you’re like, ‘Oh, they used that shot’ or, ‘It was terribly cold that day.’ But this one, I felt like I didn’t recognise myself [on screen]. It’s like, ‘Who are those guys out there?’” Pattinson, in crisp navy bomber jacket and nursing a latte instead of lamp oil, agrees. “No one’s making movies like [director] Robert [Eggers] is making – which are so specific, so odd and interesting – and clever. They’re really clever movies.”
Filmed over 34 days in April 2018 at a purpose-built lighthouse at Leif Erikson Park in remote Cape Forchu, Nova Scotia, The Lighthouse stranded Pattinson and Dafoe in real-life in a small fishing community and production was battered by storms, making it something of an immersive experience for the two men. Eggers, who had achieved recognition with the similarly singular The Witch, brought the duo together on a story he and his brother, Max, had been playing with, inspired by the gothic works of Coleridge, Poe and Sarah Orne Jewett. He challenged them with physically taxing scenes as well as mental gymnastics to wrestle with ideas of insanity, guilt, sexuality, folklore and curses. Oh, and mermaid sex, bird-murder, sea monsters, wanking, farting and nudity. Here Pattinson and Dafoe ‘spill their beans’ on the making of a modern classic...
What did you think when you got the script?
Robert Pattinson: I met Robert [Eggers] maybe a year before and I really wanted to do something with him. I kind of said at the end of the meeting, just pretty flippantly, ‘I only want to do really crazy, weird stuff’. And then three days later, he was like, ‘I was working on this thing with my brother [co-writer, Max Eggers]. I think if this isn’t weird enough, then I don’t know what is.’ And I’m reading it and thinking, ‘Yeah, this is almost excessively weird’. [laughs] But then I was thinking, ‘It’s definitely up in my wheelhouse.’ I’ve never read a script like it, and I don’t think I probably will again.
Willem Dafoe: All [Robert Eggers] had to tell me was: 1890s, Maine, a lighthouse. What I read [in the script], I just thought, ‘I want to do those things. I want to be in that world.’ And the language was so beautiful. From an actor’s standpoint, it was the challenge of trying to root or tether that poetic language in the scenes, and to not make it a show, but to really make it come alive like it’s normal language. And of course, it’s always fun to find things, to try to surprise yourself, or having an adventure that you’ve never had before. It felt special.
What did you think when you knew each other were doing it?
RP: I love everything that Willem does. And also, he does have the best taste in stuff. But I think what I really liked was, on the page there’s so much physical domination all the time – and there’s something so sort of naughty about Willem. It kind of makes things more fun. Even when he’s playing a horrible character, there’s a mischievousness to him. And as soon as he put on that outfit, had that beard, had his fake teeth on and was sucking the pipe… it’s funny to see it. It’s like, why does that suit you so much?
WD: I trust Robert Eggers, and he was like, ‘This is who I want’. It almost felt like, if we didn’t do it, he’d say, ‘OK, we’re not doing this’. I did know Rob’s work – some. I didn’t know it extensively. I’d never seen the Twilight movies. Maybe I will – now! But I knew he was adventurous.
Eggers gave you a lot of homework to do to get into character. Was there anything in particular you latched on to that was the key to your performance?
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