“It was all written on the page,” he says from the sofa in a hotel room in London’s Soho. “The first time you hear that beautiful sound it says clearly [in the script] that Wake does it casually to show his dominance. So, of course it’s funny, but it’s also expressing something. It’s not just a throwaway sound. It’s part of the visceral nature of these men’s circumstances. They’re eating greasy food, drinking a lot and sitting around. You can almost feel how dirty their clothes are and how much they smell.”
Farts, faeces and body odour. Violent seagulls, a randy mermaid, industrial quantities of liquor and creeping insanity. The Lighthouse has all these ingredients and much, much more. To reveal further details would spoil its many surprises but suffice to say it is a finely-drawn maritime nightmare that haunted me for days after the credits rolled.
The architect of this beautiful madness is Robert Eggers. The Lighthouse is the 36-year-old Brooklyn-based director’s second feature film following his successful 2015 debut The Witch. That film, a supernatural horror about a Puritan family tormented by evil forces emanating from a forest, was also set in New England, the region where Eggers grew up. Imagine a more demented version of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible featuring cinema’s scariest goat, and you get some sense of a movie The New York Times described as a “finely calibrated shiver”.
The success of The Witch – the $US4 million ($A5.8 million) movie won the directing prize at the Sundance Film Festival and took $US40 million ($A58.3 million) at the box office – moved Eggers into the top tier of cinematic auteurs. People wanted to know what he would do next and whether they could be part of it.
Dafoe was one of them. He was so impressed by The Witch he contacted Eggers directly and discovered they had many shared interests. “We pledged to do something together,” says the actor. “He had some big projects that he was trying to get off the ground that never quite happened.”
One of them was Nosferatu, Eggers’ re-imagining of the celebrated 1922 German Expressionist film featuring Max Schreck as the vampire Count Orlok. Dafoe had played Schreck and his most famous creation in 2000’s Shadow of the Vampire, so his willingness to revisit the material seems to suggest the strength of his interest in Eggers’ singular vision.
When Nosferatu was put on the backburner Eggers went back to an idea he’d been working on before The Witch. Conceived by his screenwriter brother, Max, the ghost story set in a New England lighthouse in the late 19th century had the advantage of being a contained project both in terms of its cast – two lighthouse keepers or “wickies” as they’re known – and its location.
Dafoe was at home one day when the phone rang. “Robert calls me and says, ‘OK, I think we’ve got the project. It’s you and Robert Pattinson. I’m sending the script over. It’s yes or no’.”
That’s pretty ballsy for a director with only one feature film under his belt? “Yeah, it was very direct,” admits Dafoe. “But I read the script, loved the language and wanted to do those things and live in that world.”
A big part of the attraction was the language of The Lighthouse. Eggers, known for his meticulous attention to detail, had concocted a 19th century lighthouse keeper’s patois from extensive reading of Melville, Milton, Stevenson, Coleridge – The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, in particular – and nautical dictionaries. The result is a chewy blend of poetry and profanity. “Should pale death, with treble dread, make the ocean caves our bed,” intones Wake each time he takes a slug of firewater from a filthy tin cup. A floor that Winslow has failed to clean properly is “begrimed and bedabbled”.
“Speaking like that unlocks something in your imagination,” says Dafoe. “I get why someone could ridicule it – I’ve heard people joke that my character is like the Sea Captain in The Simpsons – but, hey, it’s a reductive, clickbait world.”
Speaking like that unlocks something in your imagination. I get why someone could ridicule it.
Pattinson, the English actor who found worldwide fame as vampire Edward Cullen in the film adaptations of the Twilight novels, was also drawn into Eggers’ orbit by his admiration for The Witch. Like Dafoe, he has made a habit of working with auteurs and seeking out more challenging material. The 33-year-old played a manipulative billionaire in David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, a bank robber in the Safdie Brothers’ Good Time and a criminal in Claire Denis’ sci-fi drama High Life.
“I almost did some stuff with him [Eggers] previously, but they were more traditional parts,” says the Londoner who retains the chiselled features and permanent bed hair that made him a favourite with Twilight’s legion of fans. “When I met him for the second or third time in New York I said, rather flippantly, ‘I only want to do completely crazy stuff’. A few days later he called and told me, ‘I’m working on this thing with my brother and if this isn’t crazy enough for you then I don’t know what is’.”
Eggers wasn’t joking: Pattinson and Dafoe were about to get as much crazy as they could handle.
Things started badly by all accounts. Eggers insisted his two leads take part in five days of rehearsals in Nova Scotia before shooting. Dafoe’s loquacious character had a lot of lines to deliver and the fact the movie was being shot on black-and-white film using vintage lenses and an aspect ratio of 1.19: 1 – a virtually square frame – presented technical hurdles that necessitated careful pre-shoot preparations. “The Lighthouse employs a formal cinematic language that I wanted to be consistent, so the actors needed to know their blocking ahead of time,” explains the director.
Dafoe, the theatre veteran, embraced the process. Pattinson, by his own admission, did not. He has described the enforced script read-throughs as “very, very frustrating” because his character is withdrawn and spends much of the film being lambasted by Dafoe’s officious lighthouse keeper. The younger man was left to brood in angry silence as Wake labels him a “lying dog” and a “dullard”.
“Willem has such a verbose part and I’m quiet and much more reactive at the beginning of the movie,” says Pattinson. “It’s weirdly shitty to do those early scenes where I’m being bullied. Even if you succeed you look like a loser. In any case, I find the more read throughs you do the more it deadens your reactions.”
It’s weirdly shitty to do those early scenes where I’m being bullied.
He runs a hand through his luxuriously matted hair. “I get more self-conscious the more I repeat something. That’s why I don’t really do theatre. If I had to do a play for two months, I’d have a nervous breakdown. I can’t stand repetition and I’d want to do the play totally differently every night.”
The rehearsals became so fraught that Pattinson feared he’d be sacked before the Lighthouse shoot even began. Eggers sees things differently. “I think the friction helped Rob create his intense and transformative performance,” he says. “It was incredible to see him twist himself into agonising places and then burst with fury.”
Ultimately, Pattinson came into his own when the cameras began to roll. The 32-day shoot took place in and around the Southern tip of Nova Scotia, with filming split between an indoor set and a full-scale lighthouse station built on Cape Forchu, an outcrop of volcanic rock.
Buffeted by wind and rain and smothered in mud, sweat and worse, the Englishman threw himself into the role. He dragged giant kerosene cans up the stairs of the ersatz lighthouse, shovelled coal into a furnace and found out what happens when you fling the contents of a bed pan into a brisk head wind. “I stank the whole time,” he says.
Embracing the drinking habits of his character, Pattinson imbibed so much alcohol before filming some of the most challenging scenes that he almost passed out. “You hardly ever get to see a performance when all logic is thrown out the window,” he says. “Even when you see a movie about someone going crazy you can see the progression. With this role he [Winslow] doesn’t know why he’s going crazy or what’s happening to him. One of my favourite moments is when Winslow sees the mermaid for the first time and runs back in to tell Wake because he thinks he’s going crazy. Willem turns around and says, ‘you smell of shit’.”
Ah yes, the mermaid. She’s in the movie’s trailer, so it seems fair to mention her. The Lighthouse is a film unafraid to answer the vexed question: what do a mermaid’s private parts look like? The answer – a shark’s sexual organs – is not exactly comforting, but neither is the rest of the movie.
“A lot of people who go to the cinema are a bit frightened to see something that looks really crazy,” suggests Pattinson. “But when they do see it, they’re like ‘this is great! This isn’t the kind of movie that you see and forget straight away. A lot of people who have watched it didn’t realise that this kind of thing is happening in cinema. And it’s not in a way – it’s unique. Which is why it’s great to be involved in it.”
The Lighthouse opens on February 6.