Ahrr, maties! It's mid-May at the Cannes film festival and the Mediterranean has put on a show for The Lighthouse. Robert Eggers's briny follow-up to The Witch triggered a sensation at its first screening in Directors' Fortnight, the strand of the film festival in the south of France that runs parallel to the main event. So much so that two hours before kick-off, the queue of journalists for the second show stretches all the way up the block and half-way to Marseilles. Dozens will be turned away.
Under typical conditions, there would be a fiesta atmosphere, but an unseasonal cyclone has turned up to fling rain in our hopeful faces. The sea is churning just a few hundred metres from the entrance to the Théâtre Croisette. It’s not all that much like The Lighthouse – set on a battered outcrop in late 19th-century New England – but it’s the closest you could hope for in this part of the world.
Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson star as two lighthouse keepers going rapidly bonkers as the natural elements rage and malevolent spirits circle. Shot in black and white with a narrow 1.19:1 aspect ratio, the film is a masterpiece of creative logistics. The camera was old. The lenses were older still. This is how they used to make films at the turn of the last century. But what do you know? Halfway through the screening, the digital cinema package (DCP) breaks down and leaves us in very modern limbo. What an irony. If they'd screened it on an old-school film print they wouldn't have had that problem.
Five months later, Eggers groans
"Michael Schaefer at [co-producers] Regency called me when we were in the mix and said: 'What's this I hear about 35mm prints?'" he remembers. "And I said: 'We are obviously going to need some prints, but I want a DCP for Cannes because I don't want anything to go wrong.' Ha ha!"
There’s a lesson there. Happily, there was no need for a riot. They got the digital file working again within 10 minutes and, at the close, Pattinson and Dafoe joined Eggers to soak up the standing ovation. By the time we meet at the BFI London Film Festival, Eggers has had time to absorb the acclaim, but I wonder how tuned in he was to the chatter at Cannes. I can think of no film in the previous decade that attracted such buzz at Directors’ Fortnight.
“I was a bit,” he says. “It took some time for me to be able to enjoy that because I was just so terrified by the reaction. And the anxiety grew at the Q and A after the press screening. Robert Pattinson was explaining in detail: ‘When they you boo you at Cannes everything goes into slow motion.’ So we were relieved when that didn’t happened at least.”
If he will forgive me for saying so, Eggers doesn’t look entirely unlike how you’d expect the director of The Lighthouse and The Witch to look.
Now resident in Brooklyn, the New Englander has the expected beard and the uniform tight black jeans. But he turns out to be a gentle, amusing fellow with a healthy line in self-deprecation. He is clearly not lacking in ambition and courage – no chicken sets out to make a film in this fashion. When this year's Oscar nominations were announced, in a morning dominated by more conventional choices, the Academy recognised the achievement by nominating Jarin Blaschke, his cinematographer.
“The camera body wasn’t that old and therefore our lenses needed to be rehoused,” Eggers explains. “But we had a Pathe lens from 1905. We had some lenses that were a bit newer, but designed in the 1840s. Our main set of lenses was from the 30s. Early cinema only had the option of shooting orthochromatic film, which is not sensitive to red light – just blue, green and ultraviolet. That’s why in daguerreotypes and Eisenstein movies everyone is darker. Ultraviolent is bringing in skin imperfections from years in the past. And red is rendered as black. So the pink hues in Caucasian skin-tone gets dark.”
Fascinating stuff. But I imagine there were as many restrictions as there were possibilities. The equipment is so much less flexible than, well, the iPhone I have in my pocket.
“Oh, sure. Our focus puller hated those lenses. Afterwards he said: ‘Do you think Panavision would give us that lens set?’ I asked why and he said: ‘I want to throw them off my balcony.’ It was tough on him, but he is a fantastic focus puller. Ha, ha!”
Let's go back a bit. Raised in the US in New Hampshire, Eggers moved to New York at the start of the century with plans to act. He struggled through this audition and that play as thoughts of directing movies gestated. It wasn't until 2015 that, after years of struggle, his highly praised The Witch made it to screen. Anya Taylor-Joy and Kate Dickie star in a tale of the occult from colonial New England. The film was a huge critical success, but it started an annoying conversation that hasn't quite gone away. Films such as The Witch and Ari Aster's Hereditary were, much against the directors' will, identified as part of a movement dubbed "elevated horror". Some hardcore horror fans decided the filmmakers were elitist. Others just proudly declared the films "not scary".
“I can’t worry about it because it is just a fact,” Eggers says with a sigh. “I am not going to flap about my European arthouse heroes and then say: ‘This is Robert Eggers’s style.’ It’s not worth it. I see The Witch as a horror movie. I see The Lighthouse as something adjacent. I use some of those tropes. You need to have these genres to sell tickets. If people buy tickets, I get to make another movie. I don’t get people who get uptight about those labels. But I do get people not liking bait-and-switch marketing campaigns.”
Eggers is just the sort of person who the studios approach to make their marquee blockbusters. More than a few independent filmmakers have moved on to Marvel, Star Wars or related empires. He can't say what he turned down but, following The Witch, there were a few huge projects that tempted him.
“But it was clear that I was going to have no control,” he says. “It’s all cool to think about doing a fairytale, but there’s no point if I can’t do it my way. And I am not going to do that if I can’t have ambiguity – that’s what fairy tales always have. I watched Disney and Star Wars as a kid. That what’s got me interested in stories. But you grow up.”
The Lighthouse was first conceived while he was trying to get the money together for The Witch. He explains the atmosphere came to him before the story. Eggers wanted to make a “movie in a crusty, dusty, rusty mood and in a boxy aspect ratio”. His brother conceived the idea of ghost story set in a lighthouse and, a couple of months later, Eggers politely asked if he could steal it for his own movie. Dafoe and Pattinson were always in his mind for the main characters. By this stage, nobody should be surprised to see the latter help an eccentric, modestly budgeted project into production. That’s what he does.
“I have never asked him this because I don’t want to bring up Twilight or Harry Potter, but I get the sense he didn’t want to do that stuff,” Eggers says. “I was a working actor and I would want to be doing the stuff Rob is doing now, but if someone had offered me Edward in Twilight I would have f***ing taken it. Of course. What are you going to do?”
Other directors, including Claire Denis, the Safdie brothers and David Cronenberg have told me Pattinson's interest helped their films happen.
“Of course. And after Batman we will all be whistling Dixie,” Eggers says with a chuckle.
I have read that Pattinson and Dafoe have very different approaches to acting. Rob came up through movies and, if the tales are true, is less intense in his approach. Willem cut his teeth on rigorous experimental theatre and throws every sinew at the role. This must offer the odd challenge for a director.
"It was a little of Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier in Marathon Man," he says. "Not to say that Willem was all outside in and Rob is inside out. It was a combination of two things – old guard, young guy – but, you know, that's the story of the film. That helped the story. I don't know how much of that was conscious, but the camera sees all these things."
The Lighthouse is already a cult. It will trigger all kinds of chatter and generate more offers of potentially inappropriate blockbusters, but, when we meet in London, the director is giving little away about upcoming plans.
“I can’t say, but I can say that it’s the same crew. It’s a period movie. It’s folklore, it’s mythology, religion, the occult. I am ready to get out of my lease. Don’t tell my landlord.”
Let’s hope he doesn’t read The Irish Times.
It transpires the last facetious quip was more relevant than I had anticipated. On the last day of November, Eggers and I meet up for a questions and answers session at (where else, folks?) the Light House cinema in Dublin. He has travelled down from Northern Ireland where he was prepping work on a Viking drama called The Northman. Rumours abound of contributions from Claes Bang, Anya Taylor Joy and Nicole Kidman, but, a superstitious fellow, he politely declines to discuss specifics until the cameras are rolling.
We can, however, bet that he won’t be moving on to the next Marvel film.
“Well, I am mostly a vegetarian now,” he says. “If you’d told me that a few years ago I wouldn’t have believed you. So I can’t rule out doing a superhero movie, but right now it seems impossible to me.”