Starring Oscar nominee Willem Dafoe (At Eternity’s Gate, The Florida Project, The Grand Budapest Hotel) and Robert Pattinson (High Life, Good Time, The Twilight Saga), The Lighthouse is a hypnotic and hallucinatory tale of two lighthouse keepers on a remote and mysterious New England island in the 1890s.
Co-written by brothers Robert Eggers and Max Eggers, The Lighthouse is the directorial follow-up to the 2016 award winning hit The Witch, which won the Best First Feature as well as Best First Screenplay from the Independent Spirit Awards.
Determined to make a period film, Eggers started researching old lighthouses, stumbling on a real-life tragedy from 1801, in which two Welsh lighthouse keepers, both named Thomas, became trapped on their lighthouse station during a storm; the elder Thomas perished in an accident, prompting the younger Thomas to go crazy, believing he
would be blamed and punished for his co-worker’s death.
“That’s not this story,” says Eggers. “But the idea of two lighthouse keepers named Thomas—one older, one younger—seemed like a good premise for a two-hander
about identity, that could devolve into something weird, and play with ambiguity in exciting ways.”
He wrote 15 pages, outlining the story and designing a blueprint for the film’s atmosphere—a crucial element in any Eggers project. “This would be a grimy, smelly, tactile movie shot in black and white,” he says. “One of the first things I wrote in the script was the stipulation that this movie must be photographed in 35mm film stock.”
As The Lighthouse opens, two “wickies” arrive at a remote outpost off the coast of Maine to man the beacon and perform maintenance on the island’s facilities. The strangers could not be more different; Thomas Wake (Dafoe) is a seasoned and spirited lighthouse keeper. He’s all-controlling and dresses down his enigmatic underling, Efraim Winslow (Pattinson), at every opportunity.
Winslow, a former lumberjack trying to start fresh after a troubled past, is a man of few words. Winslow mostly throws himself into his punishing duties: whitewashing brick walls, patching the leaky roof, hauling coal, scrubbing and polishing brass, servicing the cistern, and fueling the lighthouse beacon with kerosene. “Winslow is intentionally mysterious, his story unfolds slowly.
Wake, on the other hand, is a tough, archetypal old salt who just loves being a lighthouse keeper,” says Eggers. While Winslow toils in solitude during the daylight hours, working himself to the bone as he tries to reinvent himself, Wake retreats to the lantern room atop the lighthouse during his night shift, where he becomes transfixed by the beacon’s intoxicating glow. Winslow sees this as a strange, unearthly obsession, and he, too, begins finding himself drawn to the power of the light.
As weeks go by, the power struggle escalates and intensifies between the two men while a massive storm rages across the island. Focusing on the psychological and physical battle of wills between two souls who “spill their beans” during one unforgettable dark and stormy night, Eggers’ electrifying twohander examines what happens when the most terrible truths about our selves, and who we think we are, come percolating up from the depths.
During a rehearsal period in Nova Scotia, which Eggers was adamant about having, the two leads continued to hone their characters. “The Lighthouse employs a formal cinematic language that I wanted to be consistent, so the actors needed to know their blocking ahead of time,” he says. “Like The Witch, Jarin and I had very specific camera work in mind. And some of it needed to be found through the blocking.”
Additionally, since there was a lot of dialogue in the movie, Eggers required the two actors to rehearse together in order to build a sense of pace. “Pattinson was great in rehearsals, however he found the process frustrating,” says Eggers. Dafoe has had a long and substantial career on stage in addition to his cinematic achievements. “He felt very comfortable in this environment but Pattinson did not,” says Eggers. “But that’s the same with Rob’s character, he’s not comfortable in his environment—I think this friction helped Rob to create his intense and transformative performance. It was incredible to see him twist himself into agonizing places and then burst with fury. He works harder than anyone, and his brilliance comes from his deep commitment and his physical precision. Dafoe has this uncanny ability to take the most specific direction,” says Eggers. “When I would ask him to make the second word in the third line of the first sentence a little faster, and then drop the whole thing down a half tone, he would do exactly that. And of course, he truly inhabits every aspect of his role. He’s both terrifying and hilarious. He’s a master. The end.”
The Lighthouse premieres in Australian cinemas tonight.
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