'The Lighthouse' Director Robert Eggers On The Horrors Of New England And Giving The Audience Permission To Laugh [Interview]

With The Lighthouse, director Robert Eggers has created one of the best, and weirdest, movies of 2019. His follow-up to The Witch is a tale of supernatural New England horror, a dizzying descent into paranoia and debauchery, and a filthy comedy about what it's like to share a small space with the roommate from hell. You've never seen anything quite like it and quite frankly, you probably aren't prepared for it.

I was able to speak with Eggers on the phone for an all-too-brief interview where we discussed his New England roots, directing the film's intense performances, and yes, crafting fart jokes.

Pardon the anecdote, but I grew up with a mother from Boston, and her bookshelves were full of ghost stories and tall tales and legends of New England. So I grew up with a vision of New England being a place where everything is terrifying. After The Witch and The Lighthouse and you being born in New Hampshire, I have to imagine you also have an interest in the dark corners of New England. Why does that appeal to you?

(laughs) There are plenty of people who grew up in New England who are interested in the Red Sox and the Bruins and look at lighthouses on the coast of Maine romantically and are quite normal. But if you are slightly interested in the dark side of life, it's impossible not to be affected by the New England surroundings. My grandpa lived in a house from 1740. I grew up in a clapboard house surrounded by giant white pines, and I was sure that when I was tromping around in the woods past random family graveyards that had been grown over and crumbling stone walls that were on the boundaries of former generations past, that there were ghosts of Puritans and witches and werewolves in the woods behind my house. It's a tangible feeling, and any time I'm doing press in New England, people come up to me and describe having similar feelings when they were kids growing up there.

So many of my favorite horror and genre writers are from New England – Stephen King, H.P. Lovecraft – at what point did you realize there was an entire genre of weirdness, horror, science fiction, fantasy, that grew out of this region of the United States? What do you think makes it different from the South, which has its own unique ghost stories and tall tales?

Well, the Anglo-Protestant culture that was brought over on the Mayflower gives a certain kind of austerity to New England folklore and New England horror. Southern gothic is something very different, much more romantic. I think that romanticism is what's different. Poe walked the line between both things, having spent time in the South and the North and having gone to boarding school in England. He gets to incorporate everything. But yeah, when you see Lovecraft become unhinged, you really see how that New England culture can repress people and turn them into real maniacs.

It took me a few minutes to realize how funny The Lighthouse is and that it was OK to laugh. A friend of mine had a compliment that The Lighthouse feels like Kubrick trying to make Step Brothers, so at what point did you realize this was a comedy? Because The Witch, which I love, is not funny at all, so I was expecting something similar. When did you realize, "Oh, this movie's funny"?

I wanted it to be funny from the beginning. The Witch takes itself very seriously, indeed. It is humorless, aside from a couple moments with the twins. I frankly don't think it would work without being so self-serious. But there's something about it that feels a little film school-y to me, in that seriousness. I felt if I was going to explore misery again, I wanted to be able to laugh at misery as well. So it was very early on, when I was taking notes and outlining things, before I was writing it together with my brother, that I was thinking about flatulence making sense in this tight, claustrophobic world of two men living in a giant phallus. And then I realized, OK, the first fart in the movie is the first fart joke in the movie.

I think anybody who has ever had a bad roommate can relate to this. I've never lived in a lighthouse, but I've had my fair share of really crummy roommates.

Absolutely. Working in the dregs of the New York indie film scene, I definitely had to share some close quarters with flatulent co-workers.

Pattinson and Dafoe look absolutely miserable in this movie. How much of that is performance and how much of that is location?

It's all location. I mean, Willem Dafoe says you can't act a red nose. Of course, in this movie you can't see a red nose, either. (laughs) But you don't have to act, but if you're – spoiler alert – actually being buried alive. You don't have to act if you're in gale force winds in the pouring rain and it's just above or below freezing on a rock in the Atlantic Ocean. You don't have to act that stuff.

One thing I really like about the filmmaking decisions you make here is that when I first saw footage of it, I was like, "Oh, he's shooting it like a 1930s film. That's a cool aesthetic choice." But when you see it, the narrower frame and amount of close-ups you use really emphasize the claustrophobia and how much these two don't have any personal space whatsoever. As a director, how do you map out making these aesthetic choices that not only give the film that unique look and feeling, but also really puts you in the shoes of your characters?

It's instinctual. Certainly it comes from studying other filmmakers and watching a ton of movies and trying to understand what works and what doesn't work, what turns you on, what excites you, what inspires you. How does it make you feel? How do you understand the perspectives of the character by watching these other movies? But Jarin Blaschke, the DP, and I make our choices having to do with who our protagonist is and whose perspective the scene is being told through. Nearly every moment in this movie, we experience it through Rob's eyes. Even that is subjective from audience member to audience member, I don't think they're always going to experience something through Rob's eyes. After the two shot of them looking into the camera and Willem walks into the house, we're basically with Rob for the rest of the movie, aside from a couple moments. Therefore, at that point, if you see a wide shot in the movie, it's because Rob is experiencing the grandness of the landscape or the power of nature or whatever. It doesn't turn into narrator mode necessarily. Will the audience perceive it like that? I don't know. But anytime we decide to make a cut from one shot to another, that's based on where we are with Rob. That means in the shots that Jarin and I design and the work that I do with Louise Ford, the editor. It all comes from how Rob's experiencing things.

I'm glad you mentioned that, because my favorite shot in the movie is Willem Dafoe cursing Robert Pattinson and turning and staring right into the camera, and if I remember correctly, it's in one mostly long, unbroken take that escalates with his performance. I want to know the origin of that speech and that shot, because weeks later I'm still thinking about it.

Thank you. Yeah, I will say that you say it's mostly unbroken, and the thing is, that the entire thing from beginning to end is one take from Willem. We needed to break it up because we needed to see Rob's reaction, because as I mentioned, the movie is from Rob's perspective. But if we omitted those shots of Rob, Dafoe – even as it is – for over two minutes, doesn't blink. The unbroken version, he never, ever, ever blinked. (laughs) The dialogue for this film was heavily researched except for that sort of faux-Shakespearean, faux-Miltonian stuff because of The Witch and some other things I've written, I just kind of do that now. But it was inspired by Ahab's more romantic language in Moby Dick. It was also inspired by, I saw a not particularly good stage production of Hamlet when I was early in the writing process on this movie where the only thing that struck me about that particular performance was the actor who played the lead player of the players who come into Elsinore, the lead player was incredible. Shakespeare has a speech about Hecuba that is written in sort of a clunky, old-fashioned style for Shakespeare's day. The actor who played the player just killed that speech. You really did picture Priam and Hecuba and everything with such clarity when he was giving this really old-fashioned, clunky speech. And I thought, "OK, we should have a sea spell that should do something like that."