The Lighthouse: Robert Eggers’ Phallic Answer to The Witch

Robert Eggers talks The Lighthouse's influences, its relationship with The Witch, and why it's the rare movie that needed a square frame.

By his own admission, director Robert Eggers wanted to achieve a level of craft on his second film that was beyond his years in experience. While already considered a budding auteur for his work on The Witch, the masterful chiller that won him the Directing Award at the Sundance Film Festival, he and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke chose to escalate the challenge of The Lighthouse by shooting the new movie on black and white film stock and in a 1.19:1 aspect ratio—an almost perfectly square frame not widely seen since German talkies in the early 1930s.

As Eggers explains to us, “I remember saying to Craig Lathrop, the production designer of The Witch, when we were kind of finishing up that movie, ‘I want to make this lighthouse movie, which will be very, very contained, but we’re going to have more money, so we can really have a lot more control and just plan, plan, and plan.”

The plan has paid off. When we meet Eggers at the A24 offices, he seems genuinely relieved and maybe a little shocked at the reception of The Lighthouse. Everywhere the film has played on its festival circuit—including Cannes, TIFF, and more—it has been met with critical acclaim, which is all the more intriguing when one considers the esoteric and Lovecraftian horror coursing throughout the movie.

“We’re just making big choices,” Eggers says. “I don’t know if the film’s good, I don’t know if the film’s bad. I’m super, super shocked that so far it has not been more divisive, because The Witch was endeavoring to be very subtle and restrained, and this movie is quite grotesque, and we make a lot of big, stupid, ill-advised choices and stick to them for better and for worse.”

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The Lighthouse, which stars  Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, is a movie Eggers began writing and rewriting with his brother Max Eggers before he even had financing on The Witch. And in many ways they appear to be companion pieces, hence why he considers it a bit a “phallic answer” to what came before. We discuss that echo in the below interview, as well as Eggers’ fascination with stories consisting of only two or three characters, his thoughts on the Fritz Lang and G.W. Pabst films shot in the same aspect ratio as The Lighthouse, and his fascination with “half-forgotten” terror.

You’ve talked in the past about how you were fascinated as a child by stories involving witches, so I was curious what are your memories about lore surrounding the sea?

Robert Eggers: To be honest with you, the forest resonates with me more, like instinctually, than the sea does. I certainly grew up in coastal New Hampshire, but I prefer to play in the woods than go to Hampton Beach or whatever. We went to Maine a lot, and there is a romance and a mystery around lighthouses that I certainly experienced as a kid, but it was my brother who said, “I’m working on a screenplay about a ghost story in a lighthouse.” And I thought that’s a great idea.

So then we worked on it together, and I became more enamored with the lore of the sea as we dove into researching and creating this piece. Then living in Nova Scotia, and being in that fishing community and being on that rock, I have a whole new respect and love and fear of the sea and the maritime world.

I know that this was partially developed concurrently with The Witch. Does it feel like one project influenced the other?

We had written very little [of The Lighthouse] by the time it looked like The Witch was actually going to happen. I remember saying to Craig Lathrop, the production designer of The Witch, when we were kind of finishing up that movie, “I want to make this lighthouse movie, which will be very, very contained, but we’re going to have more money, so we can really have a lot more control and just plan, plan, plan, plan.”

The Witch was very well planned, but The Lighthouse was so much more so. I mean, Jarin Blaschke, the DP and I, are trying to execute a level of craft that’s beyond our experience level in years, so we’re really trying to cram a whole a lot of prep into our prep time.

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It’s striking though that you had one story that’s about superstitions surrounding women, and it’s about a family, and now you have a story about two men alone in a lighthouse and what comes with that.

Yeah, this is the phallic answer to The Witch, I suppose. That wasn’t my intention, but that’s just what it is, you know? [Laughs] Both of these films are absolutely about me trying to commune with the folk culture of my region, whatever that means, but they’re isolated locations partially for financial, practical reasons. But in doing these boiler pot, contained pressure cooker situations, it creates emotionally heightened experiences for people, and that is interesting to explore. But I did write and develop several other things that did not take place in New England, had more than one location, but they just didn’t get greenlit.

As it’s a pressure cooker, what are some of your favorite two-hander stories and what makes them so compelling?

Wow… African Queen is pretty darn great. Treasure of the Sierra Madre is like a three-hander and there’s a lot of early [Harold] Pinter that’s like two or three-handers that are all quite excellent. The Servant, the Pinter and [Joseph] Losey film, is very much clearly a big influence on this movie. I saw that in my early 20s at the suggestion of my stepfather, and that movie’s been a staple movie for me like the way The Shining is. I mean, True West by Sam Shepard I did in acting school and that stuck with me, and it’s also clearly an influence on this.

You’ve mentioned in the past Melville, Stevenson, and Lovecraft as influences on The Lighthouse. Could you talk specifically what you wanted to draw from them?

It wasn’t like I’m saying, “I’ll take this from Stevenson, and this from that.” You’re just kind of reading and researching and looking for inspiration, and a photograph of an angry fisherman can inspire a scene, a photograph of a lighthouse station. They all had these boathouses with runners out into the sea, and so that sequence where Pattinson’s pulling the boat out the boat launch, and Willem’s chasing him, it’s because it was like “we got to use that somehow.”

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I think with Stevenson or Melville, there are thematic things that just feel like Melville and weren’t so intentional, but they just are there. But then you are combing through the text, being like, “That’s a turn of phrase that I can use.” Also being like, “Oh, look at this kind of consistent sentence structure. We need to think about that sentence structure.”

The language is so rich in this, how do you thread the needle when you have these wonderfully trenchant soliloquies for Willem, but you want to make sure the audience keeps up?

We’re just making big choices. I don’t know if the film’s good, I don’t know if the film’s bad. I’m super, super shocked that so far it has not been more divisive, because The Witch was endeavoring to be very subtle and restrained, and this movie is quite grotesque, and we make a lot of big, stupid, ill-advised choices and stick to them for better and for worse.

When my producers kind of say, “I don’t understand this,” I try to listen to them. With The Witch, I remember going through it with Lars [Knudsen] and Jay [Van Hoy] and them circling everything that they were like, “I just have zero fucking clue what this means.” And so I changed those lines, but there’s still a lot of people who feel like The Witch is a foreign language film. And if you saw the TIFF screening at the Ryerson [Theatre], which is a great, exciting room, but the sound is quite bouncy, it was hard to understand what they’re saying for this movie. [Laughs] I don’t want to say that I don’t think about the audience—I think about the audience all the time—but I’m trying to do my interpretation of accurate.

read more: The Lighthouse Review

Did you have a historian at all on set to verify the lighthouse you built for example?

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I must admit that I did not. We talked with a ton of historical consultants in many different phases on The Witch and were working closely with museums; we talked with some specialists during this production, but much less heavily with this film, partially because we got the go-ahead very quickly. But we still did our research and we did talk to some consultants, but there are a few things—that gigantic barrel of kerosene that Rob foolishly brings up the stairs, those were not used in such remote lighthouse stations because bringing that oil from the lighthouse tender, the ship, up to where it needed to go would be such a problem. They had smaller containers to begin with, and one of the historians pointed that out, but sometimes you’re telling a story.

This story has a bit of an unreliable narrator, so who’s to say he really carried a barrel that size up those stairs?

Exactly, but that is a historically accurate reproduction of an oil canister from a more easily accessible lighthouse station from the period.

I read that the lighthouse structure you built for this actually withstood several nor’easters, so you built a real 19th century-styled lighthouse that could withstand the weather?

I mean, it would’ve disintegrated eventually, because… aspects of the farm for The Witch were built like a set, but the lighthouse [is not fully] brick and is a temporary structure. Inside that tower, it’s just scaffolding, so the interior tower was built somewhere else.

It still withstood nor’easters.

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It sure did, it sure did. The lens inside the lighthouse weighs a ton, and we needed to have actors up there, so it needed to be quite secure.

read more: Robbert Eggers on Status of Nosferatu Remake

Authenticity is very important to you, but there’s a wonderful unreality to this movie. Were you specifically drawing on German Expressionists like Fritz Lang? Because not only is it black and white, but you have this almost perfect square aspect ratio.

I wasn’t thinking a lot about German Expressionism, although I was sort of fed on it in my late teens and early 20s, so it’s a huge part of images that are bouncing around in my consciousness and unconsciousness, because I watched so many of those films. But there are some other late silent and early sound films that were on the mind. Certainly Fritz Lang’s early sound films in this aspect ratio, like the sort of camera moves that are too ambitious compared to the equipment he has to execute his vision, was something that was quite inspiring to me and Jarin.

When I saw a close-up of Rob in one of the trailers, I immediately went, “Oh, that looks like Peter Lorre in M.”

Oh, sure, yeah. [Laughs] So that kind of specificity, it’s so funny. Like 99 percent of the time when people take an image of your movie, like in an article, and place it next to some other movie, it’s like, “Huh, I can see that.” But it wasn’t on my mind. The one time where I’m guilty as charged is the young witch in The Witch and Jack Torrance in the bathtub.

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But generally… I saw this comparison of a shot of Caleb [in The Witch] and a shot of a woman who I think is going to be burned for witchcraft in The Seventh Seal, and I was like, “Oh, wow, yeah, they look like the same shot.” But I was never thinking about that. But what part of that’s unconscious, and what part of that is just like, well, they’ve got delicate facial features and they’re center-framed?

Why did you feel this story specifically needed to be in black and white?

Because I just felt there was no way to convey this very specific bleak atmosphere any other way, and I feel like color would’ve somehow taken us out of the world. I don’t know. Obviously by using these antiquated lenses and film stock and everything, we also take the audience into the past more easily.

Fritz Lang frames in this aspect ratio masterfully because he’s Fritz Lang, but I’m positive that he would’ve chosen a wider aspect ratio to shoot those early sound films if he had it on hand. But [G.W.] Pabst did a movie, Kameradschaft, that is about a mine. So he’s filming vertical objects like smokestacks and cramped interior spaces like mine shafts. That movie and this movie are maybe the only two films that actually should be shot in this aspect ratio. [Laughs]

read more: Midsommar: How Ari Aster Takes Folk Horror to a New Level

I appreciate that in both of your films, you excavate what some would call ancient anxieties. What do you think draws us to these older ghost stories or superstitions, even centuries later?

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They’re part of our cultural baggage and some of these things remain intact, and some of them evolve. I like finding things that are on the fringes and sort of half-forgotten, and to kind of remind us of those things. For better or for worse, my brother and I both have some Jungian leanings, so we’re tempted to think that these bits and bobs of the past are knocking around in everyone’s heads somehow to some degree, and they just need to be jiggled into the front of their head in their mind again.

The Lighthouse is in theaters on Friday, Oct. 18.

David Crow is the Film Section Editor at Den of Geek. He’s also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. Read more of his work here. You can follow him on Twitter @DCrowsNest.