In The Lighthouse, Robert Eggers’ delirious follow-up to The Witch, two lighthouse keepers (Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson) in the late 19th century contend with seagulls, enormous crates of alcohol, screaming mermaids, and the extremely worrisome recesses of their own minds on an island off Maine. The movie has so far been noted for its surreal beauty, its performances, its farts, and also for the fact that you may have zero immediate idea what you just watched when you get to the gruesome final image. I called Eggers and asked him about all of this, and he very nearly answered a couple of my questions. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity, and alludes to several plot points in the movie.
Jeffrey Bloomer: When the movie was over, I had almost no idea how much time had passed, or how much of what I had just seen is “real” and how much is imagined. Did you or the actors have a kind of internal clock, or a sense of what was real and what wasn’t?
Robert Eggers: I’m going to be such an annoying little wannabe auteur kind of person and be evasive. Dafoe didn’t ask any questions about things like that. Rob [Pattinson] would. Me and my brother [co-writer Max Eggers] had to have answers to all these questions to write this thing.
If this movie can work for any audience members, it’s because we’ve done the work to answer those questions for ourselves. But when Rob’s asking, “Did this happen in my past? Did this happen, did that happen? Was this my relationship with that lumberjack?” I would tend to say, “Any of those things work. Pick one, because you need one.”
But then I was working to direct him so that even if he needed to know those answers for himself, it could be presented in a way that was still ambiguous, so people aren’t saying, “I know from the way Pattinson delivered that line that he killed the lumberjack deliberately, or the lumberjack slipped and fell, and he just watched him die, or that they hated each other, or that they were lovers, or that they were brothers, or that they are the same person, or that” whatever, you know?
I imagine you do not want to share any of your own internal logic.
Didn’t I do a really good job of being evasive for three paragraphs?
Yes. It’s true that it doesn’t matter what your logic was now that the movie’s finished. But it can be fun to know what it was, versus what I saw or another person saw.
I’m not going to tell you, but for example, we made sure to just keep Robert Pattinson’s stubble more or less the same length every day, so that you know that obviously he would be shaving, and not shaving, or his beard would be growing out linearly. We make those kinds of choices partially just because it’s easier for continuity, and second of all so that you can’t know as an audience member.
Do they fall into cyclical time? Maybe. I mean, the season doesn’t change, so how long could they be out there unless they’re falling into time without time? Look, some movies, you want to know everything, and it’s very clear. This isn’t that kind of movie. And I’ve read some incredibly well-done dissections of Lynch’s Lost Highway, and it’s like I don’t want to read that—I don’t want to know all the answers. I like having to wonder. That’s what’s fun about a movie like this. And even with a movie like Mary Poppins that tells you what to think, it’s still fun to wonder what her and Bert’s relationship is all about.
OK, let’s talk about the mermaid sex. I was impressed. The gills looked very natural.
Thanks. Glad you liked them. Mermaids from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance tended to have two tails, like the mermaid on the Starbucks cup, so there’s an entry point for these anima figures of male fantasy. But unsurprisingly, the Victorians closed all that up and gave the mermaid one tail and no way to make more mermaids. So we wanted to acknowledge that this is a Victorian-era mermaid, but not be as prudish as a Victorian illustrator of children’s books might have been.
And so, we studied shark genitals, because they looked kind of human but also not. What appears to be outer labia when she’s lying on her back are actually pelvic fins, which most fish have. Then the gills where her lungs are makes sense? I don’t know, maybe they should have behind her cheekbone like in The Shape of Water.
To stay on sea beasts, please tell me about your seagull actors.
The seagulls come from the U.K. Their names are Lady, Tramp, and Johnny. They’re incredibly intelligent. My understanding is that they were rescue birds that were injured and rehabilitated, and after that rehabilitation couldn’t really survive back in the wild again. So giving them things to do makes them happy. So they were very eager to learn how to fly on a windowsill, peck a windowpane three times, and jump off, and then get a little food reward. Actually the seagulls were incredibly easy to work with, unlike a certain black goat that, I mean, I have no fond memories of working with.
How about the murdered seagull?
There’s a couple brief times where the gull gets really close to Rob, where we use a puppet, and then of course, the gull that’s murdered is a puppet. But otherwise, all the gulls are three seagulls, or were gulls that were just at Cape Forchu [in Nova Scotia], where we were filming. They realized very quickly that our crew was a food source, and not being polite British rehabilitated gulls and being feral monstrous seagulls, just rats with wings, only they’re a million times meaner than any rat—anyway, they were around all the time. And it got to the point where I was concerned that we were going to have to paint seagulls out of the movie digitally because there were too many gulls. But yeah, killing the gull, you’re just whacking a well-designed puppet against the cistern. Nothing more to it.
I know that you usually get deep into historical research for your movies. Can you walk me through where we are in this movie, what the context for these guys is, and what you were reading to get us there?
This is an “artsy fartsy” movie, as I think some other Slate people have announced, and therefore there’s no supertitle or title card telling us, “1890, Off the Coast of Maine.” But that’s more or less what’s going on here. It’s the end of the 19th century where a Fresnel lens is commonplace in the top of a lighthouse beacon and you can have a bellowing foghorn. That steamship is a bit dilapidated. We happily say that it’s Maine, but it is somewhat “once upon a time,” and certainly “the most remote lighthouse station at the end of the earth” is also very much the intention.
It’s pretty easy to learn about lighthouses because there’s a lot of lighthouse enthusiasts. Really, there’s lots of books about it, and it’s fairly easy to find lighthouse keepers’ journals and logbooks. Something that we found early on is the manual that Robert Pattinson refers to, which I believe was written in 1881 but wasn’t revised until sometime after the beginning of the 20th century, so that’s the version that Rob’s using in the movie. That was super helpful. They tell you how much rations of food, and the wicks and candles and lampshades. I mean, really, that alone is a great resource. And thank goodness photography was around, because with The Witch, we were very limited in visual materials from the 17th century that showed us anything about people living an agricultural lifestyle in an English setting. But we have tons of photographs of these lighthouse stations from the period, so that was incredibly helpful.
How did you settle on the lightkeepers’ … let’s say, distinct dialects?
Being 19th century in New England, the first we’re going to open up is Moby-Dick and spend time with Melville. But along with the lightkeepers’ journals and the usual suspects like Stevenson and Coleridge, and looking at interviews with lumberjacks from the period, we came across the work of Sarah Orne Jewett. She was from the good old state of Maine, writing in our period, and she was writing in dialects. She would interview farmers and sea captains and fishermen, and then write her Maine stories in phonetic dialect. And that was really how these two dialects of these two different characters took shape, through studying her work and through my wife finding a thesis by Evelyn Starr Cutler. She wrote about dialect and Jewett, and she provided rules for the dialects. So thank you, Ms. Cutler.
This movie is also very committed to its fart and masturbation sounds.
Damien Volpe, the sound designer, is incredibly uncompromising, and he lugged a period lobster trap up a bluff in Long Island to get that sound. He went to lighthouse towers with cast-iron staircases to get that sound. So how did he get the masturbation sound? I don’t want to know. I do know that the temp sound was made by Katrina Pastore, our assistant editor, who was jamming some ramen noodles with a chopstick.
Lovely. The final image of the movie is … something. It’s clearly a Prometheus reference, but it’s brutal, and my audience seemed stunned. Did you always know it would end there?
My brother really thought that the final image was stupid. And when I had revised the third draft and sent him that, he said, “We can’t possibly do that. That’s really over the top and ridiculous.”
Look, the mythological imagery in this movie, where it is, is very on the nose, and I acknowledge that, but I’ll still try my best to be elusive in answering your question. So basically, my brother found Act One and Act Two fairly easily, but Act Three was a continuing challenge. And once we had finally found it, we understood, because of aspects that were influenced by Melville, that there were going to be allusions to classical mythology. We thought rather than saying “What folk tale or fairy tale narrative did we accidentally stumble upon?” we’d say, “What classical mythology story or stories did we stumble upon?” Once we figured what we were doing, where those parallels existed, that’s when the final shot came into existence.
And was what you figured out “Prometheus, with farts”?
I like that. No, it was really just a ghost story in a lighthouse. That was what my brother said, and that really excited me. And it conjured up this black-and-white, crusty, dusty, musty atmosphere, the cable-knit sweaters, the stubby clay pipe, rolled cigarettes, steam engine, and farts. Truly, the farts were there so early on. And I think that as much as I’ve never been a 19th-century lighthouse keeper, you have to have some autobiographical elements in the stuff that you’re writing for it to work and have truth. And certainly, working in the dregs of the New York City indie world, I had to share some tight temporary housing spaces with flatulent co-workers.