Director Robert Eggers Breaks Down the Mysteries of 'The Lighthouse'
This post contains spoilers for The Lighthouse.
Robert Eggers' first period horror fantasia, The Witch, is pretty upfront about what terrors are befalling its Puritan family. There's a witch in the woods and Satan's in the barn, having taken the form of a goat named Black Phillip. But his follow-up, The Lighthouse, is a film that holds its secrets close.
On the surface, it's a fairly simple story. In the 19th Century, two seamen, Robert Pattinson's Ephraim Winslow and Willem Dafoe's Thomas Wake, are tasked with taking care of a lighthouse for four weeks. Soon, madness sets in, thanks to a toxic combination of personal grievances, sexual frustration, and possibly supernatural meddling. Is there a magical force emanating from the beam that entrances these men? Or is it all tricks of the mind? I sat down with Eggers and the stars to get some insight into the movie's mysteries.
Eggers drew from historically accurate sources, but also mythology
Despite growing up in coastal New England, Eggers himself more "naturally respond[s] to a forest than the sea." The idea for a ghost story set in a lighthouse actually originated with Eggers' brother and co-writer Max. But once the idea was placed in his brain, the iconography of The Lighthouse popped into his brain. "The black and white, a boxy aspect ratio, the pipe smoke, the cable knit sweaters," he says. "All of these archetypal images and two men huddled around this kerosene lamp." He and Max then dove into research, consulting primary sources, like United States Lighthouse Service codes of conduct manuals, and 19th Century fiction, like the writings of Sarah Orne Jewett, whose characters and their dialects were based on interviews she did with farmers and fishermen in Maine. A dissertation Eggers' wife found on Jewett became a "sacred resource."
But the Eggers brothers also delved into classical mythology, evident in Ephraim's vision of Thomas as a Proteus-like god at the height of his mania. "Partially because [Herman] Melville goes there and partially because of I'm sure our unhealthy Jungian leanings you get into classical mythology in this movie, which was a lot of fun," Eggers says, referencing symbolist paintings as another source of inspiration. He understands however that his interpretations might not completely appeal to Classics Majors. "I think that some people who are into the classics might not like some of our jamming together of different myths -- Prometheus and Proteus never hung out together. But the classical authors did a bit of that themselves anyway, so I think it's okay," he says.
You're not supposed to know what's in the light
The light, locked away at the top of the lighthouse, is an object of fascination from the start of the film. Thomas refuses to let Ephraim care for the lighthouse's lens, relegating him to grueling manual labor, and we briefly see why. When Thomas is alone in the blinding beam, he experiences a sort of euphoria. Is in the throws of religious ecstasy? Is it sexual? And what's the deal with those octopus-like tentacles oozing goo? "It's a moment of mystical love, love for this thing that cannot be explained," Dafoe says. He continues: "He's toasting to his love because he's a believer and that is what he's dedicated his life to. That's the simple explanation. When you're looking at that light, you're communing with something that's not human, that's beyond human, that's eternal."
Ephraim's mania that sets in over the course of the film is partly borne out of deep guilt, given how he ultimately reveals that his name is not Ephraim, but Tommy, and that he was responsible for a man's death when he was a woodsman. But the promise of what the light contains also contributes to his growing insanity. He ultimately kills Thomas, and storms up to the lighthouse's peak to see what's within. Inside he's met with a blinding flash, and his face contorts. He falls down the steep stairs. In the movie's final shot, we see seagulls eating his innards.
Eggers was never tempted to reveal what Ephraim/Tommy sees. "The movie was always intended to have a level of obscurity and ambiguity because that's what I enjoy," Eggers says. "Sometimes a simple story well-told is the best thing, but that's definitely not what we were after."
Pattinson shot his moment in the light at the very end of production, but doesn't have a clear answer for what Ephraim/Tommy was seeing. "I always thought of it in such a sort of reductive way," he says. "There's something about wanting something to be real so much and you are having a transcendent experience. And regardless of whether the thing has a mystical power or not you could still wind yourself up into that frenzy." He partly was riffing on a note in the script, and partly just went for it. "I think in the script there was a mention that it was so pleasurable it becomes absolutely terrifying," he says. "I sort of really liked the idea of that. I really connected to it. We shot it right at the end, after having done such an enormous build-up to touching the light. I probably had gone just a little bit mad by the time I did it."
Eggers wanted to go big
The Witch, according to Eggers, takes itself "very seriously" and does so with immense restraint. In The Lighthouse, he is admittedly going a little bit wild with everything from the camera angles to the classical imagery. "We wanted to have a few over-the-top, on-the-nose, ridiculous genre motifs that would be enough for the audience to hold on to, and then we can hopefully, if we're successful, keep them off balance for the rest of the movie and create a lot of ambiguities," he says. He cites Thomas' omen that it's "bad luck to kill a seabird" as one of these misdirects. Ephraim, perturbed by the birds, goes ahead and bludgeons one. (Side note: There were actual seagull actors used in production and their names were Lady, Tramp, and Johnny.) "There are other lines of dialogue that are just as important, [but] you pass by them, which we do kind of deliberately, and then, hopefully, if we're successful, leave you saying, 'What?'" Eggers explains. "It's a bit of a tightrope and we may have fallen off it."
The sexual drama is also yours to read into what you want
My first thought upon leaving The Lighthouse was: This is a horny movie. Pattinson's character masturbates furiously over a wooden figurine of a mermaid and then ends up having sex with (or imagines having sex with) an actual mermaid, complete with oversized mermaid genitalia. "I love how he seems to have these extreme lustful reactions to things that are in no way erotic at all," Pattinson says laughing. "The clay figure, and the horrifying kind of crocus type of thing." But the topic sure to generate more speculation is whether the relationship between Thomas and Ephraim is at all sexual or romantic.
"Homoeroticism doesn't necessarily have anything to do with homosexuality -- not that this movie necessarily doesn't have anything to do with homosexuality," Eggers says. "I've heard people say that it would have been better if they just went to town on each other, and people have asked me, 'What was Rob's [character's] relationship with that blonde lumberjack?' And I'm not, by the way, trying to indicate a truth or preference in anyone's interpretation." At the same time, he acknowledges the side of the movie that could be read as a treatise on toxic masculinity. "In some ways, this could be considered the absolute worst movie to be made right now. The two female characters: one is literally an object that Rob's character holds and the other is the sea," he says, acknowledging that they are powerful figures.
But just as Eggers says he wasn't intentionally writing a feminist allegory with The Witch, though he's happy it's been interpreted as such, he wasn't thinking of making a broader statement with The Lighthouse. "The setting, this atmosphere, inspired something, and then the zeigest tells you what's going on without you trying. In fact, if anything, I'm trying to be as obscure and stuck in the past as I possibly can be, but if this movie's only entertaining for people from 1890, I've got a real serious problem on my hands."