Robert Eggers’ ‘The Lighthouse’, starring Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe as turn-of-the-century lighthouse keepers, kicked up a storm Sunday at the Cannes Film Festival with a wave-making, madhouse period tale that seemingly washed ashore from another era.
‘The Lighthouse’, Eggers’ anticipated follow-up to the 2015 indie horror hit ‘The Witch’, premiered in the festival’s Directors’ Fortnight section.
While ‘The Witch’ adopted the psychological folktales and terrors of a 1630s New England family, ‘The Lighthouse’ is about a taciturn and weathered duo of 1890 seamen keeping the light on a remote Maine island. They gradually descend into the kind of isolation-induced maritime madness that Herman Melville would approve of.
Eggers shot it in black-and-white, on 35mm, in a nearly square format and through early 20th-century lenses. Filmed on a desolate spit of volcanic rock on the southern edge of Nova Scotia, ‘The Lighthouse’ has already developed the stuff of legend as an audacious and harsh on-location production. Eggers built a 20-metre lighthouse with a working beam that, he proudly said in an interview before the movie’s premiere, could shine for 25 kilometres.
“I had fun every day,” said Eggers. “But it was extremely miserable. Filmmakers and actors complaining about suffering, but, I mean, that’s part of what’s exciting about this. But it was very harsh and unforgiving. I’m from New England. I don’t mind the cold. I prefer to be cold than hot. But the wind on this rock was relentless. There’s no relief. At times, the wind was so loud that you can’t hear the person five feet away from you.”
Pattinson and Dafoe certainly agreed. When asked by an audience member after the movie’s first screening if any animals were hurt during the production (some seagulls have a rough go of it), Dafoe laughed and gestured at himself and his co-star.
“Yeah, these two animals,” Dafoe said.
The elements, both said, were gruelling. Pattinson recalled filming a scene in which he runs over jagged rock in period-appropriate shoes as “one of the more terrifying things I’ve ever done in my life.”
“Even the simplest things I was doing, like pushing a wheelbarrow around, it’s impossible,” Pattinson said. “Because of the nature of the story, you could really push the physicality. There’s not too many movies or parts where you can really let fly with your body without looking completely ridiculous and out of place.”
Feverish and funny, bleak and bone-chilling, ‘The Lighthouse’ is a unique and darkly comic gothic nightmare. Critics received it in Cannes as one of the festival’s certain highlights. A24 is expected to release it in theatres later this year.
After ‘The Witch’, Eggers spent a few years developing larger projects, including remake of 1922 ‘Nosferatu’. But when those stalled, he turned to a contemporary story that his brother, Max Eggers, had begun about a ghost in a lighthouse. Robert took it in a different direction that, given his deeply researched ‘The Witch’ (which was written in period dialect), inevitably turned toward the past.
“I started researching and decided that I would make mine a period story, unsurprisingly,” Eggers said. “I came across a real account of two lighthouse keepers that had the same name, one older and one young, and that inspired the idea of this two-hander about identity that could evolve into something mythological.”
While a bigger budget than ‘The Witch’, the scale was still small, allowing the 35-year-old New Hampshire-native filmmaker complete artistic control — a major factor for Eggers ultimately choosing ‘The Lighthouse’ as his second movie, he says.
So he plunged, again, into fiction and nonfiction period sources and dictionaries “of strange origins.”
“I like striving for the best interpretation of historical accuracy because I feel like that is a very high bar for all of my collaborators to reach,” Eggers said. “We know what it is. You’re not inventing things, you have clear goals. And I also like transporting an audience to another time and place. With this film, like everything that I’ve written or tried to write, the atmosphere comes first.”
The results astonished much of the cast and crew. The older lenses, for example, brought out new textures in the faces of Dafoe and Pattinson.
“I was doing ADR with Rob and he was like, ‘My god, I look like I’m 50 years old,’” recalls Eggers. “He was happy about that.”