Robert Eggers Is Ready to Do Worse Than The LighthousePhotos via Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images Movies Features Robert Eggers
Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse isn’t exactly a theme park ride, though he likes to think of his sets as his personal Disney-adjacent macabre funfair. The film is equally as delightful as it is delirious, a mindscrew built to turn isolation into revelry that ends with violence—offering a sight so apocalyptic that Eggers doesn’t fully reveal it to his audience, lest his audience go mad. Farts, fanaticism and fear: all the comforts of a home on the edge of the ocean.
Paste sat down with Eggers to talk about The Lighthouse’s ins and outs, the technical challenge of shooting in cramped, remote quarters, and why Willem Dafoe’s character won’t stop farting in Robert Pattinson’s face.
(Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Paste Magazine: I was going to ask you about New England and whether you’re going to keep making movies in New England, but I just heard you’re making a viking movie, so.
Robert Eggers: There should be a third New England horror-adjacent folk something. I would definitely want to do that, but you’ve gotta make a viking movie when you get the chance.
Paste: What do you look for in a setting? I know you’re only two films in, but I feel like people do associate you with New England by now, between The Witch and The Lighthouse.
Eggers: Sure, though I also wrote a screenplay that took place in a fictional, central European city, something in Biedermeier, Germany, and Transcarpathia, something in Siberia, something in medieval Britain. It’s just that the two New England things got greenlit, right. [laughs] I’d love to do a Western, but folklore, fairytales, mythology, religion, sometimes the occult: Those are the things that excite me. And the past.
Paste: “Never” is a strong word, but you won’t really think about the present when you make your movies. You’ll think about going to a period and really living in it.
Eggers: Yeah. I mean, I’m honestly exploring where we are and where we’re going by looking at where we come from, but obviously it has to be about today, right? … I’m trying, when I am doing these period pieces, to step into the minds of the people from that period. I try to lock myself away in the past as much as possible. But I don’t live in a vacuum and I am affected by the zeitgeist. You can’t not be. And that’s great again, cause otherwise movies wouldn’t work! But if anyone finds them to be unique, it’s just because I’m playing in a space that less people are in right now.
Paste: So if you’re looking at the past to look at where we are now, how does that apply to The Lighthouse? I walked out of this movie feeling like I hadn’t had this much fun going insane in a long time, but also thinking that it’s so wide open for interpretation that you could find meaning in it in all kinds of different directions.
Eggers: Yeah. My brother and I—he wrote this with me—we were striving for something archetypal. I always am. That’s hard to do. If it is archetypal, then it can exist for a while. Marie-Louise von Franz, a prominent Jungian, said that the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen are going to slowly disappear because they were too influenced by the Victorian era and the Victorians repressed everything. And I think that she’s not wrong. Some of his stuff is sticking around—The Little Mermaid blah, blah, blah—but a lot of those things don’t have the shelf life that Grimm fairy tales do. Now, I dunno how Robert Pattison masturbating in a lighthouse fits into that paradigm, but…
Paste: It sounds like this is almost, in its own way—its very unique, batshit way—an act of preservation. Is that going too far?
Eggers: That’s not going way too far. I mean, obviously this movie’s quite juvenile and grotesque and unapologetically…unapologetic? [laughs]
But yeah. There is a way in which in both of these films, I am trying to commune with the folk culture of my region. Obviously both films, in the way that the characters speak, is my interpretation of the past, but yeah… [I am] trying to understand and preserve something. That’s cool. I’m down with that.
I enjoy the act of research. I’m researching as a means to an end, but I literally just enjoy reading about how people lived in the past and understanding it better. How incredible is it that I had the opportunity to make this world? When I walked onto Cape Forchu [Nova Scotia, where The Lighthouse was filmed] and the sets are done…I mean, I’m seeing them as they’re being made, but when you’re finished, you walk in… I have my own little Disney World, or Misery Worlds. That’s very satisfying.
Paste: How does your research lead you to the flatulent crusty elder and the craven younger man, then?
Eggers: My brother had the idea of a ghost story in a lighthouse, and that, to me, conjured this black-and-white movie with the atmosphere that you see: The crusty, dusty, musty, rusty atmosphere, cable knit sweaters, the facial hair, the stumpy clay pipe, all the things you would picture if you’re doing a nautical movie. I needed to find a story that would work with that imagery, and very quickly I came across a true story often referred to as the Smalls Lighthouse Tragedy, from around 1800, 1801 in Wales. Both of my keepers were named Thomas; one was older, one was younger. A storm comes, they can’t get off the island. The old one dies, the young one goes crazy. That was the barest bones for this story. And because they were both named Thomas, I thought that this could be an interesting two-hander about identity that can get into something obscure. I always wanted it to be somewhat obscure. I hope I’ve succeeded in it with obscurity.
The flatulence came very early because, when I was working in the dregs of the New York indie film scene, I was often forced to share tight lodgings with flatulent coworkers.
Paste: It’s a good character detail.
Eggers: And, you know, The Witch takes itself incredibly seriously. I think it needs to. It needs to be this super serious humorless movie. But there is something about it that does seem a little bit like an immature student film. I felt like if I was gonna explore misery again, I should be able to laugh in the face of misery. So fart jokes help.
Paste: Everyone likes a fart joke.
Eggers: One other thing, speaking to today: The Witch is usually regarded as a feminist film, which I’m proud of. If I was going to be objective and stand back, I would probably perceive it that way. But that wasn’t my intention going in. I was just trying to write a movie about witches. In [The Lighthouse], clearly nothing good happens when two men are trapped in a giant phallus. Now this movie’s been talked about in terms of toxic masculinity, which suits the time that we’re in, but again, I was just trying to write a story, [one] that could be a black-and-white movie in a lighthouse.
Paste: Do you think horror has started to take itself too seriously since the middle of the decade happened and we got to this place of “elevated” horror? People approach it from hyper-analytical perspectives. It almost feels like people don’t really want horror to have fun. And this movie is serious, and beyond me in so many ways, but it’s also fucking hilarious.
Eggers: Well, first of all, gee, thanks! I mean, I don’t know. Honestly, I’m a snobby person. Since the release of The Witch, I’m actually much more warm towards bad horror movies than I was making The Witch. In my early 20s, I was such a crazy snob. I missed out on some good films because certain things I perceived as cheesy, and I would just stop the movie. You’d imagine with the old lady in the pointed red hood that I would have seen Don’t Look Now before I made The Witch. I didn’t because I didn’t see it as a kid. Schooling myself on cinema history, the slow motion, Donald Sutherland running to the pond—I perceived [that] as too cheesy and said, “I’m not watching this crap.” I’ve gotten over that.
I bow down to the altar of genre, because it allowed me to get The Witch financed. And this movie financed. I’m excited about what Jennifer Kent does next, even though she was kind of stepping away from genre in The Nightingale—but also genre enabled her to make The Nightingale. I think it’s nice to have a period where we’re taking horror seriously. My opinion, my reductive opinion, about maybe why people like horror is that we need to look at what’s dark in humanity to survive as human beings. I guess we’re going through a period where people, for whatever reasons, want to explore that more seriously and don’t want to explore it by just experiencing a jump scare and throwing their popcorn in the air. Which is fine too! …but honestly there’s The Curse of La Llorona for people who want crap.
Paste: I watched [The Lighthouse] and my mind, several times, went to Carnival of Souls, which might be one of those movies that you would have turned off part way through?
Eggers: I was into Carnival of Souls. I mean, the Don’t Look Now thing is just unforgivable. Really unforgivable. I’m just so ashamed about it. For whatever reason, Carnival of Souls…it’s not the same but Roger Corman and Hammer, that kind of stuff I’ve been a fan of since I was a kid. So that kind of bad horror movie, I have a real, like, warmth about it, a nostalgia, and Carnival of Souls fits right in there. There’s a also primitiveness to that movie, which works quite well. I was able to get on board.
Paste: There’s a primitiveness to this, too, which is complimentary. This is in a lot of ways a leap forward from The Witch, which I think is impressive craftwise. This isn’t a crude movie, but the actual characters in this are quite crude.
Eggers: Yeah. I do feel like the movie feels more handmade than, say, a David Fincher movie. We were only using sticks, dolly and crane. We didn’t have a technocrane large enough to do a lot of the shots that we wanted to do. So Stewie—Craig Stewart, a.k.a, Stewie [the film’s key grip]—created all kinds of crazy contraptions for us to pull off shots that we thought we wouldn’t be able to do. But the handmade-ness of those contraptions, along with the gale force winds, gives a bit of a creaky quality to the film.
Paste: There’s so much about this that feels inventive, but after The Witch, after this, do you feel pressure to continue that course of ingenuity with your filmmaking?
Eggers: Well, I always like a challenge. When we were scouting for The Northmen, now that we know what it is, I was with Sam Hanson from New Regency, and we were on the side of a volcano, and the winds were, you know, windy. And Sam was like,”OK, you’ve done it: It’s worse than The Lighthouse!”
Boston-based culture writer Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009 (and music since 2018). You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.