With only two features under his belt, filmmaker Robert Eggers has quickly established himself as one of the most exciting and undeniable storytelling forces in modern genre cinema, with both The Witch and his latest, The Lighthouse, which is currently enjoying a limited theatrical release, and will be headed to more theaters this weekend, courtesy of A24.
Earlier this week, Daily Dead spoke with Eggers about The Lighthouse and during our conversation, he discussed reteaming with A24 for his second film, exploring the folk mythology of New England in his work, working with both Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson for his intimate tale of madness, and the classic aesthetic of The Lighthouse. This writer also couldn’t help but ask about Nosferatu, which is a film that Eggers previously had expressed interested in revisiting from a directorial standpoint in the future, and he talked about why he prefers the original version of the 1922 classic to the cleaned-up restored rendition.
I know A24 came in and became involved with The Witch. Was this a situation where they came to you and said, "Hey, what do you want to do next?" Or did you come to them and be like, "Oh, I've got this great idea. Would you guys want to get interested?" I'm just curious as to how the ball started rolling with The Lighthouse initially.
Robert Eggers: A24 always makes you know that they're there. They're not super aggressive. A lot of other studios are much, much more aggressive and A24 is not. But we all did want to work together. And RT Features, we wanted to work together again and they brought in New Regency. And I wanted to work with Regency. So, it was a good match for the three of us because it's a weird movie that's not very commercial on the page and it needed the right kind of partners to split up all the different risks to make everyone feel comfortable and safe and happy about doing it, so that everyone can be incredibly supportive of doing a movie that seems risky on the page.
Both of your films have used New England as a backdrop, which I think is fascinating because it really is this part of America that has this rich history to it in a way that we don't really get from stories set in maybe California or the Midwest. Is there something in particular about that region that speaks to you as a storyteller, beyond your own background?
Robert Eggers: I'm from New England, so both films are me trying to commune with the folk culture of my region. I think compared to other parts of the United States, White Anglo Protestant culture has been in New England longer than other parts of the country. So, therefore there are older White Protestant Anglo houses and field boundaries and family graveyards in the middle of the woods decaying, and ghosts. And when you grow up there, I know that there's some normal, well-adjusted people who just like the Red Sox and Bruins and a lobster roll, but I know many of us can't help but feel that the woods behind our house are haunted.
I'd love to talk about the approach to the story because as you mentioned, this isn't a very commercial type of movie. The story is very intimate. It's two men basically just slowly slipping into the abyss of insanity. Can you discuss that back and forth between the characters of Thomas and Ephraim and how you approached that as a visual storyteller?
Robert Eggers: When I understood that it was going to be a two-hander, then coming from theater and performing in Sam Shepard and Pinter in drama school, I know that that's all the movie is going to be. It's shifting power dynamics. This isn't a great sell to an audience, but there is a way in which it's the same scene over and over and over and over again with shifting power dynamics. But the intention is that it should increase in tension the whole way through.
Both Willem and Robert are fantastic here, of course. When you approached them for this project, did you have to pitch them a certain way to get them on board, or were they just immediately receptive to this material?
Robert Eggers: Luckily, they had both separately sought me out and wanted to find something to work on together. So when this was the movie that was on my plate that looked like it was going to be the one that was going to get green-lit, I picked up the phone very quickly and called them. There's definitely a way in which it's helpful for the theme of the film that they have some similar facial features. That's helpful for the movie. Obviously, they couldn't have started their careers more differently, but now they have very much established themselves, both as actors who like to make bold choices and are up for challenges and up for anything. And also, who else are you going to cast in this movie? It's impossible to think of anybody else but these two.
You just mentioned Willem and Robert being up for anything. Was everything that we see in their performances pretty much there already on the page, or did you allow them the room to breathe and improvise?
Robert Eggers: Overall, the movie was very well-planned. I think that Willem's character is very clearly defined on the page, and so Willem just did a 1000 percent better version of my preconceived notions of what the character was going to do. There were times where Rob, his character was more mysterious and had a little bit more room where Rob would make choices that were different than my preconceived notions. But they were in fact more aligned with my intentions than my preconceived notions were. But there was no improvisation.
What I think is really fantastic about this movie is if somebody came to me and said, "Oh, we found this old movie sitting in a Universal vault that was made 80 years ago and it's called The Lighthouse," I would believe that this movie was plucked out of another time. Can you talk about the visual style and the way you leaned into the natural elements, much like you did with The Witch?
Robert Eggers: Well, thank you. Yeah, I think the black and white and the aspect ratio on a very surface level, they make the film seem old and they take you back to the past and that's kind of easy. But the black and white also is there because it's an austere environment and an austere story, even though it has plenty of humor in it. But black and white is the only way to make this movie. There's nothing about color that's going to enhance the experience.
Rob Pattinson has said a lot that when you look at the lighthouse keeper’s cottage in person, it's a little dirty, like you want to paint the clapboards a bit, but it was kind of romantic, too. In black and white, you can feel the crusty, dusty, musty, rusty bleakness of that environment instead of having it be romantic. And then the boxy aspect ratio is a better shape for filming vertical objects like a lighthouse tower. It's a better-shaped canvas for evoking cramped interiors, and it's a better aspect ratio for shooting close-ups with two of the greatest faces that have ever been born. Why would you want a bunch of flab on either side of those faces?
And with The Witch, we could light the movie with candles and natural light, except for the night exteriors. But certainly we've seen candlelit movies since the ’70s that have actually used candles. On black and white film stock, which hasn't changed since the 1950s, you cannot get bossier with flames. And one thing where this is very different from the old movies that you know and enjoy is in the lighting. If this were an old movie, you would see the flame in focus in the kerosene lamp, which wouldn't be doing anything to light the scene. It would just be a flame so you could see one. Then, there'd be movie lights off-camera that would be lighting the scene. But because Jarin [Blaschke, the cinematographer] and I were after a more naturalistic lighting approach, Jarin had all of the kerosene lamps fitted with 600-watt halogen bulbs on flicker dimmers so that they could act like a flame, but we could get exposure.
I know we're getting really close on time, but I did want to ask about Nosferatu before we go, because I know there's been a lot of talk about you taking it on in the future. For me, it's a film I still watch every October because I'm an old fuddy-duddy. But I think it's interesting because this is a movie that has existed for nearly a hundred years now, and I love the fact that it's you that's going to revisit this world. Can you talk about what that fascination is on your end? Is there something about that story that really spoke to you as a director?
Robert Eggers: As much as [F.W.] Murnau is one of the greatest directors of the silent era or any era, and even though there were horror films before it, in many ways, it invented horror films. It's such an early film, there's many ways in which it's still helping to invent cinema. But as much as I appreciate Murnau and also Albin Grau, the producer and production designer who started the production company Prana Film to make occult-themed movies—he's very responsible for so much of that film, he really needs to get more credit—what kept me rapt to it the first time I saw it when I was a kid was Max Schreck's performance. Max Schreck's performance is really uncanny.
And I must admit that I prefer the bad 16mm black and white print on my VHS from when I was a kid to the beautifully restored, cleaned-up version with the color tinting that is available now. Because in the old horrible version that I had as a kid, Max Schreck was a vampire, and it was shrouded in mystery. In the cleaned-up version, you can see the grease paint, you can see where the bald cap is peeling off, and you can see that the tufts of hair on the side of his head are crepe wool. I missed that view I had as a kid, and that’s what made me fall in love with it in the first place.