The Lighthouse is being hailed as one of the best — and strangest — films of the year. Its director tellsabout casting Robert Pattinson, and why he used 100-year-old lenses
SHOT on black and white film and framed in a screen size not commonly used in movies since the 1930s, The Lighthouse is being acclaimed as one of 2020s best — and strangest — films.
Almost entirely a two-hander between Robert Pattinson and Willem Defoe, the film is set in a remote, storm-blasted New England lighthouse in the 19th century. They play two very different lighthouse keepers whose tempers start to fray during a lengthy stint on the isolated rock.
The movie is co-written and directed by Robert Eggers, who was courted by many of the major studios following the huge success of his last horror, The Witch. Instead of churning out a comic-book blockbuster, the maverick filmmaker created this salty, eccentric, Beckett-like tale.
“I didn’t expect The Witch to do very well,” he said of the film, which became a sensation, making about $40 million from a $3.5m budget. “I thought it was good enough to get some kind of distribution. I hoped that it would be received critically enough that someone might let me make another movie. Instead it was a whole different thing.
“Because I’m an American filmmaker, the doors to Hollywood open and there’s lots of offers to take meetings for franchise movies and all this kind of stuff. I didn’t want to do that, but I did think, let me try to make some larger movies that are my own because I have an opportunity to do that. I still didn’t have the control that I wanted at that scale, so me and the studio that I was working with on two films, neither of us was able to compromise enough to meet the other one in a place where we felt like we were making the same movie that we all wanted to make.
“The fortunate thing, and again I acknowledge what a lucky position it is to be in, is that A24 and RT Features wanted to work with me again, and they were kind of waiting for these big movies to fall apart.
“When The Lighthouse became something that could happen, they greeted me with open arms, even though I think they thought: ‘This is the movie he wants to make?!’” he laughed.
“They couldn’t have been more supportive in allowing me and my collaborators to make a film where the compromises were basically due to Mother Nature, physics, time.”
Directed by Eggers and co-written with his brother Max, the project gave him the opportunity to work closely with his sibling, and a family shorthand when it came to developing ideas.
“I’m seven years older than him; he has a twin brother, Sal and they were sometimes my props for theatrical endeavours that I was doing. There’s lots of photographs of me dressing them in costumes that they were forced to wear. It was great. There’s trust there and we know each other well. Either of us can babble incoherent sentence fragments and we understand what the other is saying.”
Technically, The Lighthouse is a stunning achievement in filmmaking, and a worthy cinematography nominee for the Oscars.
It’s shot on black and white 35mm film — almost unheard of in modern filmmaking where black and white films are originally shot in colour and then converted. Eggers used one camera lens from 1912 and others from the 1930s. The film even has a square, Movietone aspect ratio (1.19:1). Was this ratio in keeping with a style and period he wanted to pay homage to?
“Yes and no. It wasn’t used a whole lot, it was used in the early sound era. Certainly this film was inspired by a lot of films that were made in the early sound era like Man of Aran among others. It’s even more square than 133 or Academy 137. But also it’s a great tool format for our story because you’re photographing and framing a vertical object, a lighthouse tower. With Cinemascope, that’s not a great aspect ratio for a lighthouse tower. It’s better at conveying the cramped interior spaces of the lighthouse. It’s also a fantastic aspect ratio for closeups of two of the finest faces and four of the greatest cheekbones.”
Both Pattinson, who has been forging a fascinating indie film career for himself since Twilight, and Defoe embraced the tough shoot, which involved harsh weather, being submerged in water, eating mud and many other indignities.
“Willem and Rob knew what they signed up for. I mean, Rob’s a little bit of a masochist, so it’s worked out well. I think he always wanted to do this kind of stuff. That’s the impression that I get. If I were an actor at his age and I was offered Edward in Twilight, even if I wanted to be making Claire Denis [French director] movies, I would say yes.”
It’s an exciting time for the horror genre, with filmmakers like Eggers, Ari Aster (Hereditary), Jordan Peele (Get Out) and Jennifer Kent (The Nightingale) broadening their own approaches to the genre and using it to tell powerful stories. It comes as a surprise, then, to learn that Eggers was not an entrenched horror fan before he made his debut.
“Horror felt like a genre that given my interests, I could have a good time with. Before The Witch, I didn’t really watch very many horror movies. If I had the flu, I would watch Hammer Horror movies, because they were comforting.
“These genre movies allow filmmakers to make personal films that are interesting and unique with the financial insurance for a distributor or a financier,” he added. “That’s the lovely thing about genre. And they are also fun — it’s fun to give yourself the challenge to work in a genre and play by the rules and break the rules.
“The Witch I do see as a horror movie. The Lighthouse, I don’t know what I see it as. I’m happy to call it a horror movie. I’m happy people call it a horror movie. I don’t really care. I think it’s closer to the literary genre of a weird tale like M.R James, Arthur Machen, Blackwood, Lovecraft.”
He feels that using labels simply helps people have conversations about cinema and storytelling. “What frustrates me and I understand because it comes from an earnest place, because I’m a nerd and I have my passions.
“But I do get frustrated with my fellow nerds, who are upset when someone calls something horror, psychological horror, thriller and they feel like they’ve used the term wrong because it’s ticked the wrong boxes. We’re just trying to talk about stuff we like. I don’t see why we have to argue about things like that.”