The Witch director Robert Eggers spills his beans about The Lighthouse

Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in The Lighthouse.
A24

Robert Eggers busted onto the indie movie scene with The Witch, a weird, wild horror movie set in pre-colonial America that premiered at Sundance in 2015 and hit theaters a year later. His newest film, The Lighthouse, is equally strange: The tale of two grizzled lighthouse keepers, played by Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, who both have a lot of secrets to keep. The film is unruly and difficult to parse — there’s a screaming mermaid, a mysteriously hypnotic light, some exceptionally pesky seagulls, and a very explosive ending.

Eggers loves this stuff. He thrives on intricate research and period detail, and for The Lighthouse, he worked with his brother, co-writer Max Eggers, to concoct a seafaring tale that feels as though it’s ripped straight from some forgotten myth. (As it turns out, it’s partly based on a true story.) And his actors were on board for the whole ride, just from reading the script. Dafoe told me that Eggers “gave me the script and said, ‘See, this thing, it’s going to be in black and white, we’re going to shoot it in Nova Scotia, we’re going to build the lighthouse, we’re going to be out in the weather, and it’s going to be you and Rob Pattinson. Yes or no?’” He was in.

I recently met Eggers in New York, a few weeks before the film’s release. We talked about mermaids, research, myths, paganism, symbolist art, Moby-Dick, and why he likes ambiguous endings.

Our interview, which has been edited and condensed, follows.

Alissa Wilkinson

This movie is hard to categorize, but to me it feels like a fable, and maybe a fable about damned souls trying to make themselves clean. Was any of that in your mind while you were writing it?

Robert Eggers

The idea of a fable or a myth is definitely at the forefront of our process. I start with atmosphere. My brother had an idea — a ghost running the lighthouse — that created a look and a feeling of a world in my head. Then we got the very basic strokes of a story based on a real story, about two lighthouse keepers, both named Thomas, who get stranded on their lighthouse station and one of them dies.

Alissa Wilkinson

A real story in that it really happened?

Robert Eggers

In that it really happened, in Wales, in the early part of the 19th century. The way the story is told and ends is like a folk tale, so how much truth there is to this “true” story, who knows. Very little of that story aside from the fact they’re both named Thomas came into The Lighthouse, but the idea that they were both named Thomas struck a chord. I was like, “Okay, this is a movie about identity, and can devolve into some weird, obscure places.”

Then we started researching all about period lighthouses and the maritime community. What are these people eating? What are they wearing? And where are they living? And how are they living? Reading [Herman] Melville and [Robert Louis] Stevenson and other stuff — mostly, frankly, for learning how people talk.

Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in The Lighthouse.
A24

As we’re doing all this work, we start to see a story take place. And then we’re saying, “Okay, what fairy tales or folktales or myths is this starting to line up with?”

Then we realized, “Well, Prometheus and Proteus never hung out in any Greek myths before, but that seems to be what is kind of happening here,” and Prometheus might be taking on some characteristics that he hasn’t in the past. But you know what? The classical authors did that all the time.

Alissa Wilkinson

I feel like I’ve seen a bunch of movies recently, like Downton Abbey and Parasite, where the different levels of a house have different meanings for its inhabitants — the levels denote someone’s place in the world, the power they have, even their state of mind. In designing the lighthouse and conceiving of where the characters would be in different parts of the story, were you thinking about that at all? The levels of the lighthouse seem pretty meaningful.

Robert Eggers

That’s how a lighthouse is built! But my brother and I were always like unpacking and amplifying images and art and architects. And so ... all of a sudden you come across, like, a ... Mircea Eliade paper about light and seed and you start thinking, “Oh yeah, like the phallus, and the light shooting out of it ... ” — whatever, you know what I’m saying. This puts you on a road to things that are in the movie.

Alissa Wilkinson

That line, “make [those floors] sparkle like a whale’s pecker!” sure reminded me of Moby-Dick, though that book has lots of inaccuracies in it about whale anatomy and so on. How concerned are you with historical accuracy in a movie like this?

Robert Eggers

That’s how I grounded my stuff. There are some things that we stretch, but my entire process is research-based. With the creation of the physical world, the material world, I’m trying for it to be as accurate as possible. Not that that is better or worse than another approach, but it’s the approach that works for me. All of my collaborators are on the same page and we know what we’re after. There’s no discussion of like, “Would a peak lapel be better? What says more about the character?” It’s just like, “There’s a fucking lapel, so, execute it.” There are so many choices to be made that it’s nice to have choices being made for you by research.

Alissa Wilkinson

Were there a lot of images and photographs you were drawing on?

Robert Eggers

Yeah — it was a great joy, compared to The Witch [which was set in an era before photography]. There’s tons of photos, so in recreating the material world, it was much easier because we had so much photographic evidence. Also, in story beats and mythological motifs — I’m into art history in general and I am fond of symbolist art. Of course Robert Pattinson’s and Willem Dafoe’s characters wouldn’t be aware of the symbolist movement that was happening at the same time that they were living in this obscure lighthouse. But the work of [symbolist artists] Jean Delville and Sasha Schneider and Arnold Böcklin and others influenced the mermaid [in the film] and how we deal with the final image of the film.

Willem Dafoe in The Lighthouse.
A24

Alissa Wilkinson

How did your research drive how you designed the mermaid?

Robert Eggers

Well, the most notable part about the mermaid was not from any symbolist painting. But in earlier mermaid art — you might recognize it from the Starbucks cup — the mermaid had a split tail. So it was quite clear how she could function with mortals. But the Victorian mermaids don’t have that, so we needed to find a solution, and shark genitals were helpful in the research there.

Alissa Wilkinson

Also the mermaid is pretty scary. Most of us are used to Ariel.

Robert Eggers

Yeah. Right, of course. And she’s the anti-Ariel. She and the sea are the two female characters in the movie. And they’re the most powerful, one could say.

Alissa Wilkinson

Okay, so that’s interesting — the two men actually talk about the light in the lighthouse as if it’s a female character. They fight over her. Willem Dafoe’s character says something like, “No man will touch her but me.” That made me realize this is a movie, like The Witch, in which the difference between feminine and masculine energy is a big part of the story.

Robert Eggers

Willem’s character, in his paradigm, can only see the light as a “she,” but I think that the lens is actually dual-gendered. It’s cosmic egg, right?

Alissa Wilkinson

Sometimes as part of my job I write spoiler-filled analyses of films that we call “ending explainers” so that people know what they’re getting when they click on it. But with this movie, I don’t even know if I’ll be able to do it. When my editor asked, I was like, “It’s a movie that resists every explanation.”

Robert Eggers

Last night at a screening, someone asked me, “Why didn’t you photograph what Rob [Pattinson] sees at the end of the movie?” And I said, “Because if you saw it, that same fate would befall you.”

Alissa Wilkinson

It’s like The Ring or something.

Robert Eggers

Yeah, exactly.

Alissa Wilkinson

The Lighthouse is very much the opposite of a puzzle box movie, where the aim is to “figure it out.”

Robert Eggers

I personally think so. It’s so funny, because I feel like so many people felt like The Witch wasn’t satisfying. But now all of a sudden everyone’s saying “The Witch had such a satisfying ending, and now this is unsatisfying.” Okay, fine. But, though my brother and I have answers about Robert Pattinson’s character’s past, it’s important for us to leave the questions open to the audience.

Rob would ask me all the time to tell him the character’s backstory. And I’d say, “Look, any of those things work. You need to decide for yourself or you can’t play the scene.”

If we’ve succeeded in our efforts, the ambiguity should be keeping you engaged as an audience. We put in these big, stupid, over-obvious signposts to grab onto — “Bad luck to kill a seabird.” Alfred Hitchcock would say, “You shot that with too much clarity.” We get it. And that’s intentionally way over the top. But then there are other lines of exposition that are just as important that are said in passing. And the intention there is for the audience to be like, “Wait? What?” Hopefully we pulled it off.

Alissa Wilkinson

Which means you end up with a movie where people want to watch it again as soon as it’s over.

Robert Eggers

Well, that’s always good, because we’re not going to sell that many tickets to a black-and-white movie otherwise.

Alissa Wilkinson

You might be okay.

Robert Eggers

We’ll see.

Dafoe and Pattinson in The Lighthouse.
A24

Alissa Wilkinson

I’m interested in the fact that both The Witch and The Lighthouse are kind of about paganism, or pagan things, in an early American context.

Robert Eggers

That’s fair.

Alissa Wilkinson

Does that interest you?

Robert Eggers

Folklore, mythology, fairy tales, religion, at times the occult — these are the things that I’m the most interested in. So, yes. I developed and wrote three things that didn’t get greenlit that didn’t have anything to do with New England. This did get greenlit. But yes, both of these films are very much me deliberately trying to explore the folk culture of my region. And obviously, when I travel to other countries, it strikes me how much American society, as much as we are a melting pot, is Anglo-Protestant culturally.

But the thing is, certainly the Puritans brought with them many things that were superstitions and folklore that was pagan, even if they weren’t allowing themselves to see that. And of course, the sea being as powerful as she is, there’s a lot of lore and superstition around that. Part of all belief systems, from superstition to canonical religion, is trying to make sense of all this chaos, you know? So sailors have a lot of superstitions.

Alissa Wilkinson

I once took a whole class on Moby-Dick and we talked about a lot of religions in the book — Calvinism, obviously, but also Zoroastrianism, and ...

Robert Eggers

Yeah. Like I said, if you don’t know about the occult to some degree, it’s hard to decipher a lot of 19th century literature. It’s hard to decipher a lot of Renaissance painting. You need to know the Catholic symbolism, and then you need to know the inverse of that symbolism, because all these people were into it.

But I never wanted [The Lighthouse] — as much as I have a fondness for [H.P.] Lovecraft — to be like, Willem Dafoe is part of a Dagon cult and Pattinson finds the Codex with the fucking sea runes. No. No. Question marks. Question marks.

The Lighthouse opens in theaters on October 18.

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