Robert Eggers is the director of The Witch and the forthcoming feature The Lighthouse. He was in Dublin on a media day in late November. We sat down for an allotted half-hour to discuss his career to date and why he’ll be spending more time on our shores in 2020. He was meeting Björk for dinner later that evening. We didn’t bag an invite.
“I’ve said it many times but nothing good happens when two men are trapped in a giant phallus.”
The release of Robert Eggers debut feature The Witch in 2015 singled him out as a new directorial force to be reckoned with. Authentically re-creating New England before the 1692 trials in Salem, Eggers evoked superstition and dread in his chilling folk tale. Rich in historical realism, it marked an approach which is evident in The Lighthouse also, one which Eggers says likens him to becoming “fake expert on something for a certain period of time.”
The success of The Witch granted Eggers his calling card. Willem Dafoe, who stars in The Lighthouse, was a fan and called him for a meeting. “He basically said, ‘I want to do the next thing you do’… I sent him a photoshopped image of him as Old (Thomas Wake), he was wrapping Heaven’s Gate at the time and then he was on board after reading it.”
Tempting his fellow co-star Robert Pattinson proved a little trickier. “There was another film I was trying to make which was more traditional and the character was a posh Victorian gentleman who drinks sherry and smokes cigars and Pattinson said, ‘No! there’s no challenge, best of luck to you.’ At the time, he was interested in weird and challenging roles and The Lighthouse was the thing on my slate. I e-mailed him and said is this weird and challenging enough for you and when we met in L.A. at the Tower he was vaping away and really engaged by it all.”
And so, in The Lighthouse, we find Dafoe and Pattinson as two keepers marooned at a lighthouse outpost awaiting a storm. Set in New England in the 1890s, shot with black and white Double X film stock and with an almost-square framing, it evokes early era talkies by the likes of Fritz Lang and G.W. Pabst. It’s a “crusty, musty, dusty, well-jumpered movie” in which Eggers weaves hypnotic and hallucinatory sensations, drawing us into the claustrophobic crazy, making us question the blurred lines.
“I wanted to write a story about two lighthouse keepers going crazy in a lighthouse and I had the visual atmosphere in my head before anything was written. I was trying to find a story that matched the visuals that I had. We want the audience’s experience to be the same as that of Robert Pattinson’s character. It is our intention as authors (Eggers co-wrote it with his brother Max) for people to feel at sea and confused.
“I’ve said many times but nothing good happens when two men are trapped in a giant phallus. When I am writing I have my dollhouse and I have my dolls and then you are just kind of playing and seeing what are the different circumstances that can happen. You just try things. Because it is two men and the dollhouse is a phallus, it becomes this struggle about masculinity which wasn’t something I set out to write…”
And those dollhouses were built upon the solid foundations of his upbringing which lent support to a sense of creative destiny. “When you see The Witch and know that I am from a clapboard house in the woods in New England, and my dad is a Shakespeare professor and my mom runs a kids theatre company, like clearly…”
The Lighthouse which was shot over 35 days or so on a relatively modest budget of $4 million ended up being one from the back burner as bigger projects hit the skids. “I thought it would be wise to have something smaller in my back pocket. I definitely feel I made the right decisions. The fates weave a mysterious thread but I’m really happy. I’m surprised and pleased. There was tremendous pressure. It becomes the pressure I put upon myself and then when you are premiering at Cannes. (It won the International Federation of Film Critics award there)
“You need your movies to perform critically, or at the box office, and preferably both, for people to let you continue. That pressure is real. Sometimes, as someone who makes creative work, you take a risk and it doesn’t work and that’s ok. And one should be allowed to fall on their face but because there is so much money at stake with this career choice, you can’t fall on your face too many times.”
And so, Eggers’ next production The Northman sees him step up a notch in terms of scale and budget. The Viking revenge saga is in pre-production in Belfast and is scheduled to start shooting there and in Iceland at the end of March. It re-unites him with Dafoe and also stars Nicole Kidman as well as Alexander and Bill Skarsgård.
“I went to Iceland and thought I ought to make a Viking movie. I met Sjón (his co-writer) him at a dinner party and we got on. He had recently written a book about witchcraft in 17th century Iceland and then I bought a bunch of his books and thought ‘wow’. Sjón Sigurdsson has pedigree as a poet, novelist and lyricist who wrote the lyrics for Lars Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark as well as lyrics for Björk’s three hit singles Isobel, Jóga and Bachelorette.
And the comfort and vernacular of familiarity is something which puts Eggers at a slight ease before he faces into the next daunting challenge. “It is exciting to work on The Northman with same heads of department as The Lighthouse and The Witch. We have fallen into a rhythm that is really joyful, getting to do a recce with Jarin Blaschke (the D.O.P.) and Craig (Lathrop), the production designer). Linda (Muir), the costume designer handed me first round of drawings and I said, ‘looks good’.
“Everything I have written and made is too big for its britches. I enjoy that ‘I can’t believe we pulled it off’ feeling,” concludes Eggers. One gets the feeling he’s going to be stepping up to each new mark he sets himself for some time to come.
The Lighthouse is released on January 31. Read our review here.
Words: Michael McDermott
Photo: Aoife Herrity