With Robert Eggers film THE WITCH, fans of the horror genre took notice as he created one of the most polarizing horror films in recent years. While I had personally loved the film, many argued the validity of it being “horror”, not realizing that religious fanaticism is horrific in and of itself. The deep exploration of a cult of thought back in the early stages of New England colonization provided insight into the director’s mind and, with the arrival of his latest film THE LIGHTHOUSE, we got to see another side of New England history and folklore that has been seldom explored.
For the release of THE LIGHTHOUSE, I got to chat with co-writer and director Robert Eggers where we discussed everything from the constant inspiration of New England folklore to the Lovecraftian influences featured in the film and how difficult building the set was in the harsh Nova Scotian winter weather.
What is it about the horrors of New England that draw you to want to tell stories from these places, as opposed to anywhere else?
Robert Eggers: I want to tell stories, I want to make movies, that’s what I’m interested in and of course I’m from New England and any teacher would say write what you know. I’ve always been interested in New England’s past and both of these films that got green-lit are me trying to commune with the folk culture of my region. As you know, growing up there, it’s just around – my grandpa lived in a house from 1740 and I grew up in a clapboard house surrounded by a bunch of white pines with dilapidated stone walls from former centuries. Basically, Virginia aside, that’s where the white Anglo-Protestant culture has been around the longest, so there’s ghosts of that culture.
What I love about this film, and The Witch, is how period-centric they are. I can’t even imagine the amount of work that must have gone into researching for these films. Can you elaborate on that process?
Robert Eggers: It’s a lot of research but that’s one of my favorite things to do. It’s a lot of hard work but also it’s a whole lot of fun for me. With THE LIGHTHOUSE, I wrote it with my brother, Max Eggers, so it was the two of us. By the way, working with a collaborator makes it even more fun. Basically, it’s much easier to research 19th century lighthouses then 17th century New England agricultural lifestyles. There’s a lot of people who are really interested in lighthouses so there’s tons of books available. Also, thankfully, photography was around so we have photographs that show exactly what things look like so there’s less speculation. You can very easily find on Google Books The Keeper’s Manual that Rob [Pattinson] refers to during the film that we photographed a recreation of. That tells you all kinds of stuff about the kind of tasks that they had to do and how many rations of what kind of food they were allowed and how to work the machinery. That book was incredibly helpful.
For the language, being that it’s New England and this period and nautical, [Herman] Melville is the first place you’re going to to turn to. We looked at [Robert Louis] Stevenson and [Samuel Taylor] Coleridge, also. We also looked at lighthouse keeper’s journals and log books and interviews with lumberjacks, or shanty boys as they called themselves in that period, for Pattinson’s character. But the most helpful source was Sarah Orne Jewett, she was writing in Maine in the period that this film takes place She was interviewing laborers and fishermen in coastal Maine and then writing her Maine stories in phonetic dialect. That was incredibly helpful. Then my wife found a thesis by a woman named Evelyn Starr Cutler and her thesis was on dialect in Jewett, so she provided rules to the different dialects, such as when do you omit an ‘R’, when do you add an ‘R’, etc. Then we would say that these seven things always need to be consistent with Rob’s dialect whereas these twelve things need to be consistent with Willem [Dafoe]’s dialect. That’s a taste of the kind of work that we were doing.
I felt like there were a lot of nods to Lovecraft in the film, especially in regards to tentacles. Was he someone that you looked to for inspiration?
Robert Eggers: Absolutely. I checked out some Lovecraft very late and re-read some of his tales very late. There is some residence with some of the old salts in Lovecraft that are there to give the protagonist expository dialogue and help them along that is kind of similar to some of the stuff that Willem was doing as well. He was a New Englander from the period so he would have had his ear out for that even if he wasn’t necessarily recording interviews in Jewett. Other authors of weird fiction, [Algernon] Blackwood, M.R. James, Arthur Machen as well, but yeah, you have to have some Lovecraft tentacles.
I had read that Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe had very different approaches when it came to their performances. As a filmmaker, how was it watching them bring these characters to life, especially in regards to Pattinson’s huge arc?
Robert Eggers: It was very exciting. It was a difficult shoot and often very tense because the scene work was complicated and there wasn’t a lot of jovial palling around. It wasn’t on purpose but it just sort of was the case, people were trying to stay focused. Thomas Wake, Dafoe’s character, is so clear on the page that Dafoe pretty much always did what I was imagining, only a better version of my pre-conceived notions. Rob’s character doesn’t know who he is and it was a much more difficult character to write because of that. I think Rob often made choices that were different than my pre-conceived notions but were more in tune with my intentions than my pre-conceived notions were. Rob making different choices than I expected was actually getting me closer to what I wanted.
Lastly, I learned that you used to be involved with set design and had read that the set for this film was all practical and built specifically for the movie. What was the experience like building that set, especially during the harsh weather conditions you all faced?
Robert Eggers: Also very satisfying and also very difficult. Plus, there’s the movie schedule so you don’t have enough time to build all that stuff. Three days before [shooting] I’m looking at everything and wringing my hands, hoping it’s going to work. Of course, it worked splendidly. Craig Lathrop, the production designer, along with the Nova Scotia crew, were just incredible They were building in the middle of winter and there were three Nor’easter’s that blew over Cape Forchu while they were building that stuff, so it was tough. I remember the night before we were going to shoot the interior of the galley, which is the kitchen, and the floorboards weren’t right. There was a big crisis and everyone’s looking at the floorboards thinking: how are we going to get the patina on the floorboards? But, it’s important because we are in that galley so often that it needs to be just so.
THE LIGHTHOUSE is now in theaters and you can read more about the film in our review here.