Director Robert Eggers co-wrote the screenplay for his new film, “The Lighthouse,” with his younger brother, Max. Growing up in southern New Hampshire, both were involved in local theater.
Max, admits Eggers, “was a much better actor than me. I was always a little hammy,” a “mustache-twirling” type, he says with a laugh.
Eggers’s first feature film, “The Witch” (2015), was a supernatural period piece set on the edge of the foreboding New England forest during the colonial era. As much as he stayed out of the way in telling that story — “ ‘The Witch’ tried hard to be subtle,” he says — there’s nothing particularly subtle about “The Lighthouse.”
It’s another period piece, set on a remote New England island during the late 19th century, where a cantankerous “wickie,” or lighthouse keeper (Willem Dafoe), takes on a guarded apprentice who may be harboring a dark secret (Robert Pattinson). Shot in black and white, with an old-fashioned, boxlike aspect ratio, the film makes its misery feel like an assault, from the unforgiving elements to the two characters’ eventual, mutual psychotic breakdowns.
“Certainly the movie makes a lot of big choices — grotesque, juvenile, stupid, over-the-top — and we stuck to them,” says Eggers, 36. “I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but that’s what we were up to.”
He’s frank about its prospects. The film premiered at Cannes in May to near-universal praise, but Eggers realizes that some viewers may not get past the film being in black-and-white and uncover the black humor he intends.
“We’ll see what happens when it leaves the warm embrace of the film festivals and the hardcore cinephiles,” he says.
Still, Eggers’s career is off to a rousing start. Dafoe, whose resume runs from “Platoon” (1986) and “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988) to “The Florida Project” (2017) and “At Eternity’s Gate” (2018), wanted to work with Eggers after seeing “The Witch.” Pattinson, meanwhile, was eager to take on the “weird” role of the steadily deteriorating apprentice, Ephraim Winslow.
As with the Puritans’ dialect in “The Witch,” the language in “The Lighthouse” — especially that of Dafoe’s Thomas Wake — is dense and archaic. It brims with old slang and nautical lingo.
“A man what don’t drink best have his reasons,” Wake ominously tells his young charge early on.
The Eggers brothers were inspired by the literature of Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson, as well as the precise New England vernacular of the writer Sarah Orne Jewett. Eggers says that while he was doing research for the screenplay, his wife came across a dissertation on dialect in Jewett’s writing, in which the author laid semantic ground rules that he and his brother would cling to.
Jewett’s grandfather “was a retired sea captain,” explains Marilyn Keith Daly, site manager for Historic New England’s Sarah Orne Jewett House in South Berwick, Maine. “He would have had a lot of stories about these older men who’d been out to sea. . . . I heard that the two actors were reading Orne to get an ear for the dialogue.”
The initial idea for the film was Max’s, says Eggers, in a recent telephone interview. His brother had a vague idea about a ghost story set in a lighthouse; Eggers says he instantly envisioned the look of the film, down to the distinctive technical choices.
“I was jealous he came up with the idea, and I asked if I could take a crack at it,” he says.
‘When you’re exploring madness honestly but with humor, it falls into the absurd.’
Writing the screenplay with his brother turned out to be a real advantage, Eggers says. “The great thing about collaboration is you’re pushing each other. It’s not a competition, just the joy of passing the draft back and forth, knowing you can bring it up a notch.”
Like “The Witch,” “The Lighthouse” hinges on its fantastical elements — unsettling seagulls, a freak encounter with a mermaid. The camera leers at Pattinson’s Winslow. Driven hard by the imperious Wake, he’s covered in sweat, brine, and grime, looking at times like the subject of Lewis Hine’s “Steamfitter,” wrenching the bolts of the Industrial Revolution.
Again, all this may not sound like high comedy. But Eggers is clear that it’s meant to be.
“When you’re exploring madness honestly but with humor, it falls into the absurd,” he says. “Because they’re going so crazy, rather than trying to be invisible with the camera, [cinematographer Jarin Blaschke] and I decided that sometimes the camera is going to shout, ‘Look what I’m doing, ha ha!’ Even if that’s kind of juvenile.”
An audience’s response to the film, Eggers says, will be revealed during one of the opening scenes, in which Wake welcomes Winslow to the cramped quarters they’ll share — by passing gas, loudly.
“It’s a deliberate display of power,” he says. “The movie is designed so you come in, and after the first few images you’re like, ‘Oh, no — I bought a ticket to a boring Hungarian arthouse movie, and there’s no hope.’ Then Dafoe farts, and it’s like, ‘Oh, I have a fighting chance.’ ”James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.