The Robert Eggers Q&A

The Lighthouse director Robert Eggers answers your questions and ours about what he’s wearing on Hallowe’en, being cool with memes, and paying homage to Mary Poppins.

I wanted to be able to laugh at misery.” —⁠Robert Eggers

The Lighthouse, out now in select US cinemas and opening nationwide this weekend, is the follow-up to Robert Eggers’ feature debut The Witch, one of our highest-rated films of 2016 and the third highest-rated horror of that year.

Similarly, The Lighthouse is firmly in our top ten narrative features of 2019 and is absolutely tearing up the Letterboxd reviews section with reactions like “Eggers holds nothing back in this film. He takes things far past okay and doesn’t apologize for any of it,” (Logan) and “If a bearded, bulging-eyed Willem Dafoe talking like a pirate for one hundred and ten minutes, shot on high-contrast orthochromatically filtered high-resolution black-and-white celluloid that brings out every follicle and pore doesn’t deserve five stars, I simply don’t know what does” (Jonathan).

The film’s success lies in a combination of obsessively detailed production design, singular technical choices (“a black-and-white movie in a stupid aspect ratio”, as Eggers told Filmmaker magazine), the superb acting partnership of Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson as lighthouse keepers on a far-flung rock, a borderline-ridiculous amount of foghorn in the soundtrack, and—in spite of the characters’ miserable circumstances—a hysterically funny script.

When we spoke to Eggers’ brother and co-writer Max at TIFF, he told us that the writing partnership was “a perfect fit; we trust each other, and I think that’s the big thing about writing teams is you gotta trust each other”. Their brotherly relationship naturally enabled the film’s dialogue to head into comedic territory, even as the story itself descends into hallucinatory horror. “Comedy is about that. You’ve gotta be able to be honest and trust yourselves. We didn’t know how it was going to play but, thankfully, I think the fart jokes work.”

Not only do the fart jokes work; the poetically trippy 1890s dialogue became instantly meme-able. It was no surprise, then, that when we invited the Letterboxd community to contribute questions for this interview, many of them dwelled on the script. But first, with Hallowe’en fast-approaching, we needed to know what Eggers had planned.

A24 has put out a helpful guide for those who want to do Hallowe’en as a 19th-century lighthouse keeper. You’re in the middle of The Lighthouse promo tour, but have you managed to plan yours?
Robert Eggers: Hallowe’en was my favorite holiday growing up and I made many elaborate costumes, but now that I’m doing this, I will agree with Marilyn Manson where he says: “Hallowe’en is my day off”. It’s time for everyone else to catch up!

At TIFF, we spoke with your co-writer and brother Max about your collaboration. Letterboxd members Kevin and MrRabbit7 are interested in what the writing process was like with Max. Does that relationship allow more of an ‘anything goes’ approach?
I know my brother, so it’s easy for us to write together. My movie that was leaked in the trades a couple days ago [The Northman] I also wrote with another writer. I’m finding, as much as I like writing scripts on my own, it’s fun to collaborate. It’s actually joyful to pass the drafts back and forth and see how you’re lifting each other’s work up.

We had many questions (including from John, Austin and Tylerabout The Lighthouse’s dialect and vernacular. Can you tell us about the work you did in constructing dialogue in unfamiliar languages, including the sources you consulted?
It’s a lot of research and there is some quoting the sources directly. There’s much more of that in The Witch, where sentences remain intact. There’s very few intact sentences from the research in this film. There’s certainly many turns-of-phrase. When I’m looking at my primary source material from the period, I’m writing down vocabulary words in my own thesaurus that I can turn to.

I tend not to write in modern English and then translate the dialect. I try to write in the dialect even as I’m learning to do it, so the thesaurus is organized more [as] moods and ideas. I’m washing my eyes with words and hoping something turns up that works as I’m moving forward. You’re studying the sentence structure and trying to find the rules.

Thankfully with The Witch, because it was written in early modern English, which was a golden age of English writing, there were plenty of books available to teach me what the rules were. In studying the various Puritans, I could find how different people broke the rules and did things their own way. With this film it was much harder to find that, but eventually my brother came across the work of Sarah Orne Jewett. She was writing in coastal Maine dialect, interviewing working people to get their dialect. My wife found a thesis written by Evelyn Starr Cutler where she provided rules for different dialects—where are ‘r’s omitted and where are ‘r’s added, so on and so forth—so we could create consistent dialects for both characters.

“Why’d ya spill yer beans?” “Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?” Everyone—even A24’s marketing team—has taken to the film with meme-able gusto (exhibit A: these goofy Lighthouse emoji). How does it feel to have your deeply researched script torn apart in this affectionate, ironic way by internet culture? Does it make you hesitate in your approach to writing and directing these types of lines? (This question brought to you by those who quoted those infamous questions in response to this AMA.)
No, it’s cool with me. The Lighthouse was designed to be a black comedy and not just have moments of black comedy. The Witch takes itself very seriously, but I think that there’s something kind of film student-y about how serious it takes itself. I’m glad that people can make PlayMobil and Lego playsets as jokes. You need to be irreverent, and with The Lighthouse I was exploring misery again but I wanted to be able to laugh at misery. Werner Herzog talked about it like, you’re on the floor laughing, you know?

You and your brother both have deep roots in theater. After listening to your A24 podcast with brother-in-arms and Midsommar director Ari Aster, Solly F wants to know which playwrights you look up to, and who was particularly useful in your approach to The Lighthouse?
I like Shakespeare [laughs]. I don’t know if he was particularly helpful for this, but he’s pretty good! Clearly [Harold] Pinter, Sam Shepard, and evoking the name [Samuel] Beckett is almost worse than evoking the name Shakespeare, but you know, they’re good at what they do, and for this two-hander about identity it was impossible not to think of those playwrights.

Many members are curious about the films that inspire you and, more specifically, your most influential Ingmar Bergman films. So, which Bergman were you looking at for The Lighthouse? Also, Evan McKenzie dares to ask, “Given the chance, which Bergman film should you like to remake?”
Well, I would not remake a Bergman movie because that’s just insanity! Even though I dared to talk about remaking Nosferatu—which also probably does not need to be done—so I guess, yes, I am insane. Fair enough question. Obviously Persona and any of his chamber dramas would be the ones I would be thinking about here.

There’s a shot where Willem is knitting and Rob is smoking in the foreground, which Jarin [Blaschke, The Witch and The Lighthouse’s director of photography] and I referred to fondly as our Hour of the Wolf shot. Of course we’re using a much wider lens than Bergman ever would have done and had a different approach to lighting than he did, so it doesn’t seem all that Bergman-esque in the end, even though it was our homage.

Youssef asks: which foreign-language films are your favorites, or provided you an entry point into the non-English language arthouse?
The arthouse films that I saw in high school were ones that just happened to be in my local video store. Only one of them is foreign language, The City of Lost Children, but that, Eraserhead, and Brazil were three movies that I can think of that made me ask: “Oh you can do that? Wow!” Julie Taymor’s Titus also was another film from high school that made me realize that there was something other than—and not to speak disparagingly—Spielberg and Tim Burton and whatever was more easy to see in rural New Hampshire cinemas.

Robert Pattinson and Robert Eggers on the set of The Lighthouse. — Photographer… Chris Reardon
Robert Pattinson and Robert Eggers on the set of The Lighthouse. Photographer… Chris Reardon

The Lighthouse has an ambiguity that has led to many of our members questioning its genre. Even Ari Aster wasn’t sure when he mentioned the film in his Q&A, and you’ve referred to it as a black comedy here. But we have to ask, for the sake of our community’s sanity: is The Lighthouse a horror movie?
I don’t see it as a horror movie. But I’ve definitely spoken to people who get my intentions that think it is. So maybe? I don’t care what people call it.

It’ll probably make our top horror lists, if that’s okay.
That’s fine.

Let’s not tease too many hypotheticals, since this question is based only on your two-feature output so far, but there is significant interest in whether you’ll branch out into other genres, specifically sci-fi, and other time periods, specifically the future.
Well again, pointing to the leaked Viking movie, that ain’t a horror movie. And I’ve written other movies that aren’t horror movies. It’s just The Witch and everything that I’ve actually gotten made so far have been horror or horror adjacent. That’s just how it’s been—fine, happy about it.

Never say never because I am interested in sci-fi. I feel like generally when people are trying to ask big questions and challenge current philosophies, to look at things that are bigger than ourselves today, it’s always done with sci-fi. So for me, I’m enjoying doing that kind of stuff in the past just because that’s not how people often use historical movies today.

Writer-director Robert Eggers.
Writer-director Robert Eggers.

We love asking filmmakers this and Filbert wants to know: what are your go-to comfort films? The movies you’ve seen the most? Anything that could surprise us?
The Big Lebowski I’ve watched a lot. We have a little bit of a nod to it in The Lighthouse when [Pattinson] throws their shit off the cliff and it hits him in the face. It’s pretty damn close to the ashes of Steve Buscemi. I think it’s not going to surprise anyone that I’ve seen The Shining a zillion times. I’ve seen Mary Poppins a lot, and we have a little nod to it with our weather-vane shot.

By the way, when I’m writing it I’m not thinking ‘this is the Big Lebowski scene’ or ‘this is the Mary Poppins scene’. I’m just kind of writing and you say, “well, I know where that came from.”

Finally, the 2010s are drawing to a close and many of us, including Max and John, would like to know: what are your essential films of the decade?
I’d have to think about it more, but recently I thought Trey Edward Shults’ Waves is great, Hereditary is great, Parasite’s great… I’m sorry, I haven’t seen Parasite [laughs]. That’s a microaggression, I meant to say Burning is great. Anything by Ciro Guerra [director of Embrace of the Serpent and co-director of Birds of Passage] is great. Yeah, there’s a few.


The Lighthouse’ is in US cinemas now. All images courtesy of A24.

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