The director of ‘The Witch’ delves into his writing process, and reveals the scariest thing about growing up in the New Hampshire woods
Back in 2016, director Robert Eggers established himself as one of the most essential voices in the modern horror landscape with his film The Witch. It was a New England folk tale that, in addition to being a heavily-researched period film, proved that the director could work with weighty and deep themes nearly as well as the filmmakers he drew influence from. The Witch was deathly serious, and all the more terrifying because of it. His latest film, The Lighthouse (now in select theaters), is its polar opposite: A deliciously absurd “weird” tale of two lighthouse keepers (Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe) who are slowly driven mad by one another and some unseen outside forces. Full of fart jokes and viscerally vulgar imagery, it’s exactly the lateral move that Eggers’ fans and detractors weren’t totally expecting, and its period styling — in which a crew had to build a replica of a 19th century lighthouse, and the production had to use classic film equipment in order to achieve — is a dramatic expansion of Eggers’ skill as a visual stylist.
Vanyaland spoke with the director and New Hampshire native in a mirror-clad room inside of the belly of Boston’s Eliot Hotel last week about “weird fiction,” production design, and the scariest thing the director’s seen in the New Hampshire woods.
Nick Johnston: So, in other interviews, you’ve made some distinctions between The Lighthouse being more of a work of “weird fiction” like, H.P. Lovecraft or Robert E. Howard, than a traditional horror film. Some aspects of those works have really started to show their age, even though they’re more influential then ever. What aspects of Weird Fiction did you want to incorporate into the film and put your own spin on, and what did you want to do away with?
Robert Eggers: It’s funny, I’ve been thinking about it: I’m not walking back anything purely because Lovecraft was a bigot, but, really thinking about it, it’s closer to a weird tale than a horror movie, but also because of the influence of some theatrical traditions and [writers] like Pinter and Shepherd, it’s kind of it’s own weird bastard child. Lovecraft and Arthur — I actually don’t know Howard’s work very well — but Lovecraft and Poe, who is weird fiction adjacent, Mackin and M.R. James and Blackwood — me and my brother are all fans of those gentlemen and those are all stories about people experiencing something that humans shouldn’t experience and losing their mind. They’re good at keeping the mystery going and keeping the ambiguity going. I mean, Lovecraft finally tells me more than I want to know. Like, I’m glad when Robert Pattinson finds Willem Dafoe’s logbook, it’s not full of the Cult of Dagon runes or that he learns that Cthulu is in the lens or whatever, and Dafoe pulls out his robe. That’s not what I would ever want this to be. I prefer the more M.R. James’ [Eggers does an English accent here] “Was it a ghost? Or was it a bedsheet?”
That’s interesting that you bring that up: I think one thing that defines this film for a number of audience members is its impenetrability with regards to its meaning.
And, I was wondering how much of that was done intentionally in order to make less clear for the viewer, or make it a different experience for each of them.
It was intentional, I think. I mean, it’s great, because I could really just be totally lazy and be lying and say that it wasn’t intentional and I was just throwing shit against the wall, but my brother and I really did spend a very long time trying to figure out what the meaning of these various things were, and why they were important. For better or for worse, we have a lot of Jungean tendancies, so [we spent] a lot of time exploring and amplifying our understandings of archetypes and images. And it’s tricky too, because some of it occasionally becomes incredibly heavy-handed but I don’t know any other way to go about it, other than being heavy-handed with some of this stuff. But yeah, I think we [as writers] need to know everything about Rob’s past, we need to know what the Light is or is isn’t, and what it means to Will and what it means to Rob, but then we’re trying hard to misdirect the audience and create ambiguities.
To some degree, we have certain very clear genre tropes that the audience can hold on to. Bad luck to kill a sea bird. “Got it. A sea bird’s gonna get killed.” But other lines of exposition that are important are deliberately photographed in a way that you might miss them and you’re trying to play catch-up, much like Pattinson’s character is, and be with him on his journey. So, the way we write it, the way we film it and also the way I’m working with Rob [are constructed in that way] — I mean, Rob would often be asking me “Is it this? Is it this?” about his character’s past, and I would say “Any of those things work. Pick one.” But I know that if he delivers the line in a certain way, the audience won’t go “Oh, that’s his relationship with the blonde lumberjack.” I want the audience to have a beer, have a glass of wine, a ginger ale [he motions to a table full of drinks behind us], a diet coke, a sprite [after watching it], and say “What was the relationship between him and that blonde lumberjack?”
Do you think there’s a greater onus on the artist to have an easily-digestible meaning in their works nowadays?
No, I think it’s just — there’s always been arty-farty fuckfaces and then people who want really clear narratives. It’s interesting: When I was researching Nosferatu, John Polidori’s The Vampyre is, in many ways, high art in its day. It certainly had aspirations to be that. But when it was going to be done as a play, they were like “Okay, we need some clear objectives here. The devil has to come and tell the Vampire that he needs to kill three virgins by this date or this [will happen].” So, yeah, [it’s always been like this].
I’ve seen this film referred to by a number of people, especially in the press, as a “buddy comedy.” Are you surprised by that being their takeaway from the film?
Nothing surprises me anymore [laughs]. I did want the movie to be funny. It was a conscious reaction to The Witch, which takes itself very seriously, [it’s] incredibly humorless, and I don’t think the movie would work otherwise, but I also find something about it smells a little film student-y, you know? So if I was going to explore misery again, I was going to have to laugh at it. But it really is audience-to-audience. Every once in a while, it doesn’t [go over]. That first fart just doesn’t land, and people don’t know what to make of it, and [they’re] saying “I had the impulse to laugh, but I don’t know what the filmmaker was trying to do there.” But yeah, it is kind of audience-to-audience because it starts out like a Hungarian arthouse boredom fest, so if people are then expecting that, then they don’t know what to do with the fart. But, again, [if we’re talking] about Hungarian boredom fests, I’m dying laughing watching Bela Tarr, you know what I’m saying?
You’ve worked extensively as a production designer on the past, I’m just wondering how that experience influences your day-to-day actions on the set when you’re directing?
[Laughs] Hopefully not too much, or the movie’s going downhill fast. I must admit though, we had a very small — we had a huge art department when it came to building the entire Lighthouse station and all that stuff — but on set, it was mostly Tim Andrews, who was the set decorator. Also, Gabrielle, the scenic painter and the carpenter, Mark Carp, sometimes. But it was mostly just Tim. So, often times, [because] every lighting set-up took an eternity, I would be going around with Tim throwing bits of salt cod around and dressing the set because it’s fun. But if that was distracting me from the work that I need to be doing as a director, than I wouldn’t be doing that. So, yeah. [He pauses] I can be fussy, but the most important thing is these guys’ performances. That’s the most important thing. So if I’m constantly saying “Uh, move the teapot a couple millimeters camera right,” when there are actors there, that’s not good. I wouldn’t do that. The movie’s a two-hander about these two guys, and [when] Jarin [Blaschke, the cinematographer], Craig [Lathrop, the production designer] and Tim got onboard [the project with me], we all know our sensibilities well. Gerold [Schmidt] and Kelly [L. McDonald], the props [department], were a big part [in managing] all that fussy stuff.
So many of these credits [go unnoticed]. Auteur theory has really reduced filmmaking down to a single name, so-
No, I mean, obviously, you need to have a captain of the ship for it, it’s important. Even writing collaborations, I think — I’ve only done it with me being in charge, but I think that it does help to have that. But yes, it is a massive, massive collaboration. I don’t a “a film by” credit on this film for a reason, because it’s by all of us, not just me. It’s written by me and my brother, and directed by me, but it’s not a film by me. It’s a film by everybody.
I just want to ask a quick question about the writing process.
I think you can tell it’s not going to be quick [laughs].
So, I got a Persona vibe from this movie, and I don’t think I’ve seen very many comparisons to that written elsewhere, because you’ve got these two very distinct psychologies that are starting to merge into one another thanks to isolation. When you were writing this with your brother, how did you guys keep those voices distinct even as you were blending them together.
[We knew that] their ages and their looks were going to be separate, even before, when we were writing, that we knew that Rob and Defoe [were going to be cast]. So there’s that separation, and the other obvious thing, aside from that they start out as very, very difference characters is the dialect. The dialect, and their voices, directed how the story would emerge to a certain degree. My brother and I were writing in [the] dialect before we learned it entirely so that — if you speak more than one language, you know that translating something from English to the other language isn’t the same thing as thinking in that other language. So we were trying to write in the dialect and learn how to express ourselves in that way [in order to do so].
Your next project, The Northman, was just recently announced in the trades, and I just wanted to ask what aspects of viking culture drew you to the project?
Iceland. As a setting or…
I’ll just happily say that my wife and I, well, we didn’t really take a real honeymoon [back when we got married]. We went semi-camping in Western Mass because we didn’t have any money [laughs], and after The Witch, we were like “Let’s go on a honeymoon.” And we went to Iceland and when we got off [the plane] and when we were driving from Keflavik [International Airport] to Reykjavik, I just went, “Ok, I didn’t know I needed to make a viking movie, but I do, because this is a fuckin’ landscape.”
Alright, just one final question. What’s the creepiest thing you’ve seen growing up in the woods of New Hampshire?
Well, I mean that [in the sense that] imagining what’s behind that tree is the scary thing. I mean, when I was a little kid and I lived in a setting that was not quite like The Witch, in a [secluded] house, surrounded by White Pines, on a dirt road. We had this incredibly long dirt driveway, and in winter — in every season — I’d have to take the garbage cans up and down the hill. But in winter, of course, it gets dark super early, and I was convinced that there were fucking werewolves out there, man. So, I would bring those pails down there, and run, run, run, run, run back to the door [laughs].
Editor’s Note: Read Nick Johnston’s review of ‘The Lighthouse’ below…