How exactly does one describe “The Lighthouse,” Robert Eggers‘s unsettling followup to his breakthrough horror film “The Witch”? “Sometimes it’s very funny. Sometimes it’s very dark. Sometimes it’s very heavy,” explains Willem Dafoe, who co-stars in the film with Robert Pattinson. “It’s not really horror in the usual jump-scare horror way, but it does get under your skin, and it does explore some dark parts of the human psyche. Because whenever you strip away identity interesting things happen.” Above, watch our exclusive video interview with Dafoe, who also discusses his role this fall in “Motherless Brooklyn.”
“The Lighthouse” is mostly a two-hander in which Dafoe plays Thomas Wake, a veteran lighthouse keeper in 19th century New England who trains the less experienced Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson) during their time isolated together on an island. “How they come together is they don’t really come together,” says Dafoe. “It’s really about affecting each other with extreme actions and not so extreme actions.” The push-and-pull between them is at times playful, at times sinister, and at times downright violent as madness descends.
Dafoe knew he wanted to work with Eggers as soon as he saw “The Witch.” So when the filmmaker presented Dafoe with the “Lighthouse” script and “it was a simple yes” for the actor. “Besides the beauty of the location, one of the things that struck me immediately was the elevated language. It’s very unusual that you have poetic language like this in a movie that in many respects is naturalistic.” That includes some grandiloquent speeches that required careful preparation because “you have to find the music. You have to find the rhythm,” while also understanding how the dialogue functions in the psychological interplay between the two men.
Rehearsing also meant understanding the unique visual style of the film, which is shot in black-and-white in a tight aspect ratio. That made rehearsals unique because “the camera was basically set. We were told what the visual language was going to be, and then we had to find the scene in relationship to that. We had to submit to that. Maybe that sounds horrible — it wasn’t. It was great. It helped to focus us and gave us a very good idea of what we were trying to do and what the world was.” And what a world that turned out to be.
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