Willem Dafoe is comfortable going into a movie as contained and isolated as The Lighthouse. While it’s rare to star in a film where there are only two characters, such pressure cookers are part and parcel for the stage, which is where Dafoe got his start by participating in experimental theater groups for 30 years. In his mind, joining a two-hander where it’s just him and Robert Pattinson parrying for two hours comes down to good casting and open, non-competitive cooperation.
“And you know what?” Dafoe says with a wide grin. “I’ve been wildly lucky in that I’ve known very few assholes in the 40 years I’ve been working.”
Perhaps that’s why everyone now wants to work with him. At 64 years of age, Dafoe has appeared in nearly every genre from comedy to horror, high drama to a superhero movie or two. And after earning four Academy Award nominations, his reputation precedes him. As Robert Eggers, director and co-writer of The Lighthouse, says, “He’s a master. The end.” He’s also a master that Eggers has been trying to work with since his breakout debut film, The Witch.
“It was very direct,” Dafoe says about how he was approached for The Lighthouse. “We talked about working together after I saw The Witch, and we talked about other things, and it’s curious that Rob Pattinson did the same thing. But then one day Rob Eggers called me up and says, ‘Listen, I think I have the thing that we’re going to do together.’ And he presented me with the script and said, ‘It’s you and Rob Pattinson, and this is it, yes or no.’” After reading the script, it was an absolute yes.
In The Lighthouse, Dafoe plays Thomas Wake, a former sailor who after “twelve Christmases at sea” settled down to become a remote lighthouse’s perennial keeper. He’s the old guard who is confronted with an undisciplined youthful counterpoint when Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson) becomes his “second”—an assistant who does not take kindly to Wake’s berating nature, nocturnal drunkenness, or constant flatulence. Starring a pair of characters who have an aggressive verbal give-and-take that would be ripe for theater, The Lighthouse required meticulous rehearsal for both men, as well as Eggers who had already mapped out the film’s intricate camera moves for this barren, sea-soaked hell.
“The actions were very much made for the frame of the camera,” Dafoe explains, “which is kind of backwards in how people usually work, conventionally, but for me it was the only way to do it with a harsh climate, with harsh weather, and with how difficult some of the cinematic things, some of the film language they were doing. It was necessary for us to plan it out.” Of course the challenge is when you so meticulously “submit to film language” as an actor that you then must recapture the spontaneity of a character’s headspace during the shoot. Retrieve the “recklessness,” as Dafoe puts it.
Says the actor, “When we’re rehearsing, we’re rehearsing in a meeting room in a cheap hotel with masking tape on the floor. We’re just getting some tricks up our sleeves so when we get out there and we’re pacing and we’ve got to work fast, we can concentrate on inhabiting the scene… Rob [Pattinson] very much didn’t want to rehearse. He always felt like if he brought too much into rehearsal, it would take away from when we’re shooting. And that’s fine, but for me, I’m happy to do rehearsal and then forget rehearsal if you have to.”
The different sensibilities might’ve also been apropos for their characters. Whereas Pattinson’s Winslow is hotheaded and despondent about life leading him to this rock in the ocean, Dafoe’s Wake refers to the same structure as “my beauty.” Believing it to have a supernatural quality, Wake nearly worships the light’s power, and belittles Winslow for his lack of the kind of faith needed for a wickie’s lifestyle. And the way Dafoe sees it would make Wake proud: he’s just a guy trying to bring a sense of awe to the youngin’s duty, and if that means getting blackout drunk or having an axe swung in your direction, then take your lumps and build your character.
“He’s initiating him,” Dafoe insists. “[Winslow’s] a newbie, and immediately he’s not coming along. He’s not getting with the program, so that becomes a threat. It’s like so many things; the initiation is kind of not going so smoothly, and it frustrates [Thomas] and he tries all kinds of strategies to get him on board. Then when they don’t get relieved, and he’s got to deal with this guy, he tries to be positive. But [Winslow] resists him. He won’t get knocked down with the drinking; he’s not into the devotion to keeping the lighthouse clean; that’s a struggle.” One could call that devotion fanatical, but Dafoe simply says the lighthouse is a “symbol of some kind of faith.” Winslow simply needs to find his, although that might be a threat unto itself.
These elements are infused with a Shakespearean love of monologue and soliloquy, and Wake waxes with the grandeur of Henry V about his lighthouse.
“It’s nice to have elevated language in a film,” Dafoe says, “and I think [Robert] and his brother Max did beautifully with these speeches. It’s fun to play with music and rhythms, and sometimes the sentences even reveal to a rhythm. It elevates everything.” He even goes on to compare the words to paints, which are used in poetic flourishes to “color” the black and white film.
“You can only get so far with two guys criticizing each other or confronting each other. Well, this takes it to a whole other level, because it invites a whole world and a whole mythology into that argument, that judgment of each other, being competitive with each other, the struggle for power.” Without the arcane nautical jargon that Dafoe and Pattinson wield like sabers, The Lighthouse might be a “flatter, more prosaic movie.”
It will be anything but that for anyone who dares enter Thomas Wake’s church this weekend.
The Lighthouse opens on Friday, Oct. 18.