To The Lighthouse With Director Robert Eggers
On superstition, isolation, and trained seagulls
By Richard Whittaker,
11:19AM, Wed. Oct. 30, 2019
There are those that think of the sea, and the memories wash over them of sandy beaches and umbrella drinks. Then there are them as think of the sea, and it evokes death and bitter cold, the fear of drowning, of oceans of flat isolation and briny treachery. Count Robert Eggers seemingly in the latter crew.
In his latest film, Eggers swaps the pilgrim vicissitudes of his breakout supernatural horror, 2016's The Witch, for a different kind of isolation. He remains in New Engalnd, but leaves the remote woods for the wave-crushed coast, placing two men – aging sailor Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and his new assistant, Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) – on a rocky where they serve as wickies, tending a lighthouse.
To emulate the remoteness, Eggers took his cast and crew to Cape Forchu, Nova Scotia, and built an entire replica lighthouse (the cape's original lighthouse, built in 1839, would have been perfect, but it was knocked down and replaced in 1960). That was one indicator of hid dedication to accuracy, and his furious, research-driven writing and filmmaking style.
It also meant that he had easy access to the film's other stars: the ubiquitous seagulls of the North Atlantic. After his experiences dealing with unwilling performer Black Phillip the goat (which he has referred to as "a nightmare") shooting The Witch, Eggers might have been shy of being so dependent on animal actors again. And how do you even find a trained seagull anyway?
Austin Chronicle: Aside from all the historical details of period sea life, one thing you catch beautifully is the sheer bastardry of seagulls.
Robert Eggers: Don't keep your chips out unprotected. They are scary, and the seagulls in Cape Forchu were quite vicious, but the seagulls in our movie are from the U.K. I believe that they were rescued and raised, and in order for them to occupy their mindspace and be happy, they trained them to do tasks. So they were actually quite lovely, because they were around humans.
AC: There are components of the script that are absolutely dependent on certain behaviors from the birds. After all the horror stories you shared about Black Philllip, why would you take the risk of relying on animals again - and how did you even find trained seagulls?
RE: I wrote the script with my brother [Max Eggers], and I said that I wanted the storm to come because I wanted the Pattinson character to kill a seabird, which is forbidden. So Max got this idea about a one-eyed seagull, and I went, "Dude, I've been through this with Phillip, and I do not want to go through this again. We're not doing this again." And he went, "Just read what I'm thinking about," and I read the scenes and went, "OK, this is really cool - we'll just have to figure it out."
Unfortunately, I was under the impression that, because our raven was well trained and easy to get for The Witch, seagulls would be easy too. I didn't look into it - we just kept writing. So the saga of understanding how we would get these trained seagulls is a very long, horrible story. The happy ending is that Chris Columbus of Harry Potter and Mrs. Doubtfire and Goonies fame hooked us up. He contacted the owl trainer from Potter, and he found us our British seagulls.
But now I'm just, OK, there are animals in my movies and I'm fine with it. The thing that hopefully I'm doing next has a few animals, but before I started writing I made sure that in the countries that we're perpetually shooting that they're legal to keep in captivity and can be trained.
AC: Both The Lighthouse and The Witch deal with what happens to people in isolation, and definitely deal with subjective viewpoints. The Witch remains more objective until the later scenes,so what made you amp that up here, make it even more subjective, more claustrophobic?
RE: People return to the same things. Charles Dickens wrote the same story a million times - and A Christmas Carol. Even if I did a film in a zillion locations, there would be certain themes and motifs that would repeat without me trying.
The reason for the isolation is partially financial - because I can create a contained, specific space that I control - but what I enjoy about it, and why I was happy to return, is that you get these heightened, ecstatic emotions when you're in these pressure cooker situations. I think that there has been some discussion about the performances being stylized, and that's subjective, but if you've been around crazy, well, crazy's big and that's fun to explore.
RE: My brother and I do so much research, and I don't really stop researching until I go to camera., and I would keep going, but you just don't have time. My whole process relies on research. I can't do anything without research. Obviously I'm trying to bring in personal experiences and details, so that it's alive with myself, but the way I work and my brother works with me, the story, the scenes, everything comes from research.
So reading the manual for how to be a lighthouse keeper that Rob has in the film - one little direction about how to polish a lens can spawn a scene. Or misreading a line can spawn a scene. When you start looking at books of seafolklore, which leads me to start looking at classical mythology more deeply than I have in the past, and that brings me back to Symbolist paintings that were happening at the same time as the film takes place. So most things in the film come from research.
I've said before that I don't tend to get a lot of writer's block because I can just pick up a book and it inspires something. It doesn't mean it's good, but I can keep going.
And sometimes you just have to have a piece of obvious exposition, and with the old timey language that I like it's great because it can soften the blow. I'll have just one line that's, "This is what needs to be said," and I'll have three pages of rewriting that line until I go, oh, now it's enough in that world that it doesn't smash you in the face with exposition. Of course, in this movie there're a few genre-type signpost moments - like, it's bad luck to kill a seabird - that are in-your-face, super-obvious to guide the audience: but then, my brother and I are working on deliberately trying to be ambiguous and misrepresent and obscure.
AC: And you do deal with superstition as a way to make sense of an illogical, arbitrary universe, which is something particularly true in sea communities. Someone falls in and doesn't come up? Well, the mermaids got them.
RE: Every belief system, whether it's orthodox or unorthodox, is trying to make sense of the chaos of life, and the sea, she's going to win every time. She's one of the few female characters in the movie and she's the most powerful.
RE: We knew what we were getting into, and we knew it was going to be the case. I didn't think it was going to be quite as bad as it was, but the movie simply wouldn't work without all the terrible weather. So it was worth all the risks we had to take.
I don't mean with our lives, but I remember when William Flower, the marine coordinator, at one production meeting came and slammed his arm on the table and went, "People have died on Cape Forchu," to really impress upon us that the sea, she's the winner. When you're up on those cliffs, it's slippery. There's a scene where Rob runs with his leather-soled boots and that was quite dangerous. He's covered in dirt bike armor under his oilskins -
AC: Yeah, but you fall and crack your head wrong, all that armor is for naught.
RE: Oh, yeah, but it needed to be this way. We talk about how miserable it was, but we're not exactly complaining.
AC: You also put a lot of effort into the accents and dialect, that they're period and location specific. They're difficult to do because they are a historical document and if you get it wrong you will hear from historians and linguists.
RE: Certain people have a better ear than other people. If you're from U.K., you're used to having to wrap your head around a lot of sounds for the same word. If you left your village, you had that exposure and I think that that helps understand different American accents. American audiences, a lot of people couldn't understand a word of The Witch. With this film, at one screening, the sound, it was just a really bouncy room, and one of the questions was, "Are there going to be subtitles when this is released?"
My brother and I used many, many sources, but the cornerstone became the work of Sarah Orne Jewett who was a Maine-based author writing in the period that the film takes place. She would interview farmers and sailors and sea captains, and she would write dialect phonetically. So Rob's accent is based on an old-timey, New England, down east accent - or at least our interpretation of that. Willem's dialect is the way the maritime people spoke. Now having a sort of Bristolian, Robert Newton, piratey, rhotic-ness? There isn't proof that that was in New England. It definitely was in Brunswick and Nova Scotia in that period, but when you read these Sarah Orne Jewett texts you can't hear it any other way.
The dialects are my best interpretation of something that is accurate. Obviously you can never know, but you're trying to create something that is based on research and feel consistent.
The Lighthouse is in theaters now. For review and listings, visit our Showtimes page.