By Iain Blair
Writer/director Robert Eggers burst onto the scene when his feature film debut, The Witch, won the Directing Award in the US Dramatic category at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. He followed up that success by co-writing and directing another supernatural, hallucinatory horror film, The Lighthouse, which is set in the maritime world of the late 19th century.
The story begins when two lighthouse keepers (Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson) arrive on a remote island off the coast of New England for their month-long stay. But that stay gets extended as they’re trapped and isolated due to a seemingly never-ending storm. Soon, the two men engage in an escalating battle of wills, as tensions boil over and mysterious forces (which may or may not be real) loom all around them.
The Lighthouse has the power of an ancient myth. To tell this tale, which was shot in black and white, Eggers called on many of those who helped him create The Witch, including cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, production designer Craig Lathrop, composer Mark Korven and editor Louise Ford.
I recently talked to Eggers, who got his professional start directing and designing experimental and classical theater in New York City, about making the film, his love of horror and the post workflow.
Why does horror have such an enduring appeal?
My best argument is that there’s darkness in humanity, and we need to explore that. And horror is great at doing that, from the Gothic to a bad slasher movie. While I may prefer authors who explore the complexities in humanity, others may prefer schlocky films with jump scares that make you spill your popcorn, which still give them that dose of darkness. Those films may not be seriously probing the darkness, but they can relate to it.
This film seems more psychological than simple horror.
We’re talking about horror, but I’m not even sure that this is a horror film. I don’t mind the label, even though most wannabe auteurs are like, “I don’t like labels!” It started with an idea my brother Max had for a ghost story set in a lighthouse, which is not what this movie became. But I loved the idea, which was based on a true story. It immediately evoked a black and white movie on 35mm negative with a boxy aspect ratio of 1.19:1, like the old movies, and a fusty, dusty, rusty, musty atmosphere — the pipe smoke and all the facial hair — so I just needed a story that went along with all of that. (Laughs) We were also thinking a lot about influences and writers from the time — like Poe, Melville and Stevenson — and soaking up the jargon of the day. There were also influences like Prometheus and Proteus and God knows what else.
Casting the two leads was obviously crucial. What did Willem and Robert bring to their roles?
Absolute passion and commitment to the project and their roles. Who else but Willem can speak like a North Atlantic pirate stereotype and make it totally believable? Robert has this incredible intensity, and together they play so well against each other and are so well suited to this world. And they both have two of the best faces ever in cinema.
What were the main technical challenges in pulling it all together, and is it true you actually built the lighthouse?
We did. We built everything, including the 70-foot tower — a full-scale working lighthouse, along with its house and outbuildings — on Cape Forchu in Nova Scotia, which is this very dramatic outcropping of volcanic rock. Production designer Craig Lathrop and his team did an amazing job, and the reason we did that was because it gave us far more control than if we’d used a real lighthouse.
We scouted a lot but just couldn’t find one that suited us, and the few that did were far too remote to access. We needed road access and a place with the right weather, so in the end it was better to build it all. We also shot some of the interiors there as well, but most of them were built on soundstages and warehouses in Halifax since we knew it’d be very hard to shoot interiors and move the camera inside the lighthouse tower itself.
Your go-to DP, Jarin Blaschke, shot it. Talk about how you collaborated on the look and why you used black and white.
I love the look of black and white, because it’s both dreamlike and also more realistic than color in a way. It really suited both the story and the way we shot it, with the harsh landscape and a lot of close-ups of Willem and Robert. Jarin shot the film on the Panavision Millennium XL2, and we also used vintage Baltar lenses from the 1930s, which gave the film a great look, as they make the sea, water and sky all glow and shimmer more. He also used a custom cyan filter by Schneider Filters that gave us that really old-fashioned look. Then by using black and white, it kept the overall look very bleak at all times.
How tough was the shoot?
It was pretty tough, and all the rain and pounding wind you see onscreen is pretty much real. Even on the few sunny days we had, the wind was just relentless. The shoot was about 32 days, and we were out in the elements in March and April of last year, so it was freezing cold and very tough for the actors. It was very physically demanding.
Where did you post?
We did it all in New York at Harbor Post, with some additional ADR work at Goldcrest in London with Robert.
Do you like the post process?
I love post, and after the very challenging shoot, it was such a relief to just get in a warm, dry, dark room and start cutting and pulling it all together.
Talk about editing with Louise Ford, who also cut The Witch. How did that work?
She was with us on the shoot at a bed and breakfast, so I could check in with her at the end of the day. But it was so tough shooting that I usually waited until the weekends to get together and go over stuff. Then when we did the stage work at Halifax, she had an edit room set up there, and that was much easier.
What were the big editing challenges?
The DP and I developed such a specific and detailed cinema language without a ton of coverage and with little room for error that we painted ourselves into a corner. So that became the big challenge… when something didn’t work. It was also about getting the running time down but keeping the right pace since the performances dictate the pace of the edit. You can’t just shorten stuff arbitrarily. But we didn’t leave a lot of stuff on the cutting room floor. The assembly was just over two hours and the final film isn’t much shorter.
All the sound effects play a big role. Talk about the importance of sound and working on them with sound designer Damian Volpe, whose credits include Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Leave No Trace, Mudbound, Drive, Winter’s Bone and Margin Call.
It’s hugely important in this film, and Louise and I did a lot of work in the picture edit to create temps for Damian to inspire him. And he was so relentless in building up the sound design, and even creating weird sounds to go with the actual light, and to go with the score by Mark Korven, who did The Witch, and all the brass and unusual instrumentation he used on this. So the result is both experimental and also quite traditional, I think.
There are quite a few VFX shots. Who did them, and what was involved?
We had MELS and Oblique in Quebec and Brainstorm Digital in New York also did some. The big one was that the movie’s set on an island but we shot on a peninsula, which also had a lighthouse further north, which unfortunately didn’t look at all correct, so we framed it out a lot but we had to erase it for some of the time. And our period-correct sea ship broke down and had to be towed around by other ships, so there was a lot of clean up. Also with all the safety cables we had to use for cliff shots with the actors.
Where did you do the DI, and how important is it to you?
We did it at Harbor with colorist Joe Gawler, and it was hugely important although it was fairly simple because there’s very little latitude on the Double-X film stock we used. We did a lot of fine detail work to finesse it, but it was a lot quicker than if it’d been in color.
Did the film turn out the way you hoped?
No, they always change and surprise you, but I’m very proud of what we did.
I’m prepping another period piece, but it’s not a horror film. That’s all I can say.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.