From Robert Eggers, the visionary filmmaker behind modern horror masterpiece THE WITCH, comes the hypnotic and hallucinatory tale of two lighthouse keepers on a remote and mysterious New England island in the 1890s. THE LIGHTHOUSE examines the dark impulses of hardscrabble men embroiled in a complex game of power dynamics. Trapped and isolated due to a seemingly never-ending storm, the two keepers [Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson] engage in an escalating battle of wills, as tensions boil over and mysterious forces which may or may not be real loom all around them.
Steeped in darkness and atmosphere...Eggers’ electrifying two-hander examines what happens when the most terrible truths about ourselves, and who we think we are, come percolating up from the depths. –A24
The terrible truths here include brutality, both physical and psychological, and it should be known that the film is equally horrific and beautiful. Exquisitely rendered, Eggers chose to shoot on black and white film and use the aspect ratio of silent movies, a square instead of the wide scope of today, which gives the film an immediate time reference and emphasizes the increasing claustrophobia.
Ah, but it also adds a painterliness and a breathtakingly immersive realism, only one of innumerable juxtapositions throughout the film, which the director says is purposely ambiguous. Awash in metaphor and symbolism, and, certainly, mythological motifs, we see the director’s artistic influences here, which he notes as Andrew Wyeth, as archetypal New England, and the esoteric symbolists from that period: Arnold Böcklin, Jean Delville and Sasha Schneider.
To anchor the film’s ambiguity, the sets are rigidly authentic to the actual lighthouses of northern Maine of that time. Much has been discussed about the feat of building the lighthouse, keepers’ house and fog signal house on a volcanic spit of land in Nova Scotia, but SET DECOR also wanted to know about the details that conveyed the actual living and work conditions for the keepers...and then much beyond!
I asked Gene Cane, SDSA ExecDirector to once again join in the conversation [Talk about juxtapostions! See DOWNTON ABBEY article in Film Decor], this time with THE LIGHTHOUSE Writer/Director Robert Eggers, who was wonderfully open and engaging.
Our chat was as full of laughter as his film is dark.
So enjoy the conversation!
--Karen Burg, Editor
KB/SET DECOR: We wanted to talk with you about what we love about your film-making, the absolute attention to detail...including, and especially, the details of the sets...that every single piece in there has a reason for being there. Can you tell us about that?
Robert Eggers, Director: Well, Jack Fisk talked about working on Malick’s movies, that the budget is tight enough that you only can choose exactly what needs to be there! *
So that’s part of it, but I love research...researching is a means to an end. I try to give my best interpretation of an authentic world, but I also just enjoy the act of researching. People like lighthouses, so there’s a lot of information about lighthouses out there. You can get the Lighthouse Keeper’s manuals very easily, so you know how many rations of cod, how many rations of beans, what they were using to clean the cistern with, and how much kerosene...
KB: What was in that bag that he poured into the cistern?
RE & GC: [Simultaneously!] Chalk.
RE: A little bit later, they used chlorine, but in our period, it was chalk.
So all of the information for what needed to be in the lighthouse, my brother and I had found it. Also, thankfully, photography existed in the 19th century. It didn’t for the time period of THE WITCH. So it was very easy to find photographs of these lighthouse stations...much more the exteriors, though, there are not as many photographs of the interiors. So there’s maybe a little bit more invention there.
And then, once in a while, story takes precedent over reality, so there’s a scene where Rob [as lumberjack turned assistant light house keeper] carries this vat of kerosene up the lighthouse stairs. Now, that is a perfect re-creation of a Lighthouse Establishment kerosene barrel that would have been on a lighthouse, on the mainland. A lighthouse station that remote would never have one that large, because moving it from the lighthouse tender, the boat that takes them there, up to the station would be too hard. But, like that Sisyphean image, you’ve just got to have it.
KB: Exactly! We were talking about that imagery.
GC/SDSA: The whole look of the film...amazing.
When I first read about it and we saw some early photos, I thought,
“Well, it’s going to be a lot of barren areas that are metaphors for their minds and souls. How many times can we put that into question?”
And then upon seeing it, I was going, “Oh wow, there’s a lot of terrific stuff in here!”
And I have to say, I loved the movie.
RE: Thank you.
GC: And with the kerosene and the rations, it also gives the opportunity for that small-space lighting, because you see other lamps, like the sconces, but they’re not using them. They have that little, small light with that part illumination that’s so effective.
RE: Well, Jarin Blaschke, the DP, and I were constantly arguing about sconces. We wanted to have depth in lighting. So we were kind of back and forth on that in this movie. Sometimes, for story reasons, for psychological story reasons, you want to just have the single light source in the middle of the table because it’s so powerful.
But then, we’re saying, “But there’s all these sconces all over the place.” And, yes, they would be rationing the kerosene...
KB: That’s the rationale...
RE: And that’s what we told ourselves!
Occasionally, there’s a scene where things are going a little better for them, and we’re thinking, “Well, they’re in a better mood. Let’s do more lamps....”
KB: This was on film, right, not digital?
KB: So was this truly practical light???
RE: No, no.
KB: We didn’t think so.
GC: Clever DP!
RE: Yeah. So basically, we’re shooting black and white negatives. Double-X hasn’t changed since the 1950s, so that requires a lot more light than if we were shooting on color film or digital format. And, obviously, if this were an old movie, you would see the kerosene flame in focus, and it wouldn’t be overexposed, it actually would be underexposed, and then you’d have a movie light lighting the scene. But we wanted to still have it look like we were using these sources, so all of the kerosene lamps were wired and fitted with 600 watt halogen bulbs...on flicker dimmers.
GC: Another aspect of taking liberties with the interiors, there was basically no upholstery. Because, it’s damp...
RE: Yeah. Except, there was one small sofa that has like a tiny bit of an upholstered horsehair seat that’s like black waxed. Ian Grieg, the set decorator...please don’t be angry with me Ian...but he presented this beautiful chair for the lighthouse keeper’s desk.
And I was like, “That looks like Abraham Lincoln’s wife’s chair. It’s far too fussy.”
I mean, it had upholstery and fringe. “We just need, like, another captain’s chair.”
So, it is quite an uncomfortable setting, but I like that.
In fact, I kind of have a penchant for collecting uncomfortable antique chairs. My wife told me I can’t do another chair.
GC: And his chair at the table has a higher back than the other.
RE: Yeah, authority, you know. Also those chairs were kind of small. Dafoe is a little bit smaller than I am, and so we wanted it to be like the perfect size for Dafoe, and for Rob to feel a little bit too big in this lighthouse.
KB: Perfect. Nice little bit.
GC: Yeah...and the aging of things.
I know it’s not set decoration, but the peeling, chipping walls...they’re just so realistic, not like the arts and crafts crackles.
RE: We’ve seen that kind of poor work in lots of horror movies, even things with big budgets. Craig [Production Designer Craig Lathrop] and I were very careful about patina. I think a lot of times, even the best scenic painters are conditioned to that kind of horror movie logic where you’re aging every crack and corner, which isn’t really how things work, you know.
KB: We love that it’s at the tops of the doors where damp would have seeped down to the doorposts.
RE: Exactly!!! Exactly. And that’s what we were studying.
Craig was showing me examples of the grass, and my response was, “NO, not DR. CALIGARI!” [Spiked like knives] Not a fan of DR. CALIGARI.
GC: Yeah. Maybe because I was enjoying this so much and reading more things into it, but it seemed as if there were a lot of linear things like the ladder, or the stand for the foghorn, a lot of straight lines. And when we come to rounded stuff, that was where bad things happen: the swirling of the chalk, or the bottle, or the light. I don’t know if that was something that you consciously did?
RE: No, but there is a spiral effect to the movie, and to the storytelling and certain images. It’s obvious that we have the helix, the lighthouse tower, the spinning light and all of this. There’s a way in which the movie is in cyclical time and it’s the same scene over and over and over again. But hopefully, spiraling tighter and tighter and tighter as we move through the story.
KB: And you see spirals: the mermaid’s hair, the octopus, the seaweed...all of this is spiraling and closing in.
GC: And the twigs outside...the branches dead and twisted look like coral.
RE: Yeah. I mean, well funnily enough, all of that...all of those pricker bushes that are expressing, again, like an interior landscape...those are wild rosebushes, and in the summer it’s quite beautiful.
GC: They were there? Oh wow, I thought that was brought in.
RE: Well, we were moving it to where we needed it to be, and then we had to restore the island to how it was. Yeah, that stuff was there. So, you know, we took our inspiration from what was there.
[Editor’s note: The buildings/sets were built at the end of winter and the shoot was in March – no lovely blossoms then!]
GC: Another thing is that the level of the booze in the bottle never seems to go down. It always seems like it’s just at the neck.
RE: Yeah, yeah, it’s pretty true.
KB: Of course, that’s something you always work for the opposite in props, so we assumed it was intentional.
RE: Yeah, no. I mean, partially, because of this cyclical time business. The bottles are always half-full, and Robert Pattinson’s stubble is always the same stubble length.
GC: I assume a lot of this went in sequence?
RE: No. I think if I were shooting a film where a kid or a non-actor was the lead, I would probably want to shoot in sequence. But because it was so demanding, we really couldn’t shoot in sequence. Plus, it’s so weather-dependent.
So we have to tie the schedule in knots to make sure that we have our terrible weather that we need. Or, at least, it’s very gloomy, so we can pull out the rain machines, at the very least.
GC: It’s a fever-dream, but not as disjointed. It almost seems linear until you get two-thirds into it and you go, “No! That’s just...it’s just a big jumble, actually.”
KB: Yes. It’s as if you’re looking at the mirror and it’s suddenly 4 mirrors, or 5 mirrors and you didn’t even realize...
RE: Yes, thank you!
GC: [Drolly] But I was assuming the destruction was probably filmed last. Because you’ve built all of this stuff, “And now we need to destroy it.”
RE: [Laughs] Yes, indeed. “And now we need to destroy it.”
Yeah. I mean, we were shockingly crashing waves over the keeper’s cottage and it didn’t do as much as we expected.
KB: Well done construction crew!
RE: [Laughs] Yes, but the wave cannons, where you have the iconic shot of the waves crashing against the lighthouse tower, did a bit of damage. The set up for that was so massive, which is kind of funny, because in some of the shots of the lighthouse tower at night, it looks like a scale model to me, even though we built it...it wasn’t a model!
So when it was the day of the shoot, it took a while to set up the lighting gear, and Gary Coates, our Practical Effects guy, says,
“There’s too much pressure in these tanks. There’s really too much pressure in these tanks, we’ve got to shoot! We’ve GOT to shoot!”
We finally shot it, and the waves were so much bigger than we were expecting. So, Gary was like, “Well, that was ...now you don’t need any CG!”
GC: That’s terrific. We had a panel discussion of some set decorators recently, and one of the questions someone asked was, “If you build a set and it’s destroyed, do you harbor any animosity towards that destruction? Do you feel badly?”
And for all of them, the response was, “Maybe initially, when I first started. But after a while, after you do a few things, you just let it go. I mean, you stand there and watch it be destroyed, but you just have to let it go.”
So I assume that’s the same thing here. You’ve put all this stuff together, crafted and made it...you know, a lot of blood, sweat and tears, and research and thought goes into this, and...whoosh.
RE: Yeah, it is sad. Also, we’ve captured it on screen, so yes, it’s ephemeral, but we have proof, you know.
KB: Yes, and somewhat of the Burning Man cathartic...
RE: Yeah, absolutely. And I am looking forward to doing something where I get to burn it to the ground!
KB: Can we talk about some of the set pieces?
We saw somewhere a reference that they are actually...the furniture...are made not only for the actors’ effect, but also to scale for your camera, your aspect ratio. Is that so???
RE: Some furniture needed to be made because, you know, if Robert Pattinson is going to be throwing Willem Dafoe against the cupboard...
KB: Yes, breakaway...
RE: You should have a couple of those, yeah.
And so we did need to build the table.
I had a certain table size in my head, and Jarin said, “We can’t shoot a 2-shot on a 30-milimeter lens if you want a table that big.”
And I was like, “That’s ridiculous! It’s gonna look like a f*#king bistro table!”
But it works well, you know.
KB: Oh, it does. And the only big, real piece in there, other than the cabinet, is that desk, the folding cupboard desk.
RE: Yeah! Isn’t that great?!!
So I had written, “a rolltop desk”.
And Ian was like, “Well that’s ridiculous. It’s just going to feel like a Western.”
And I was like, “Ian, they had rolltop desks in the East Coast.”
And he was adamant, “I don’t care. Like...it’s ridiculous.”
And I said, “Okay, you’re right. You’re right. A barrel-top is what we want. That’s what we want.”
And then he came back later, “I can’t find one. I cannot find even one in Nova Scotia.”
And then he found this desk...a beautiful pine desk that that opens completely...it was just so stunning.
So I thought, “You know what? A desk this beautiful...this beautiful, beautiful pine desk that he found, we have to find a way to make it work.” And, if it hadn’t cost a fortune to ship it and if I had room for it, I would have that in my home, it’s so beautiful. It’s so memorable.
[See photos above]
Ian’s great. And, you know, they kind of...their bread and butter, for better and for worse, in Nova Scotia, is like European TV, everybody’s doing MOBY DICK and THE SEA WOLF.
So they know...
KB: They have this stuff down!
RE: This is so much fun for me...
KB: And for us!
[Laughter] But, oh no, we are being told our time is up!
GC: Well then, I have to say again, before seeing the film, my initial thought was, “Oh, two characters, small space, black and white, one of those arty, pretentious...”
But afterwards, I said, “Well, this flick f*#kd me up!”
And somebody responded, “Oh, it was bad?”
And I said, “No! Love it. It’s a fantastic film.”
RE: Thank you. The hope was that when the movie begins, you are thinking like, “Oh f*#k, I’m in a boring Hungarian art house movie, and I can’t leave.” And then, Dafoe farts. And you think, “Maybe there is something....”
GC: Oh I think it’s actually that first shot, where it materializes from the fog, and you’re like, “Jesus, that’s beautiful. This might be worth it.”
RE: Great! You know, we took a period-correct steamship out into the ocean. And coming through the fog, there’s a lobster boat with a giant Dina-fogger, fogging up the ocean...
KB: Oh, how cool. And again, it’s beautiful and horrible at the same time.
KB: How much better can you get?
RE: Thank you, thank you!
That was fun, thanks.