Robert Pattinson & Willem Dafoe on 'The Lighthouse': It's '50 Shades of Grey' with Rotting Fish

the lighthosue

The Lighthouse was a stinky movie to make -- at least that's how star Willem Dafoe described it when I sat down with him at A24's New York headquarters earlier this month. "It's raining inside, there's water everywhere, it stinks, it's cold," he says of the shoot. When I ask him to elaborate about the bouquet of aromas on set, he says: "I didn't stink, but everything else did." (That's telling since it's Dafoe's character who spends much of the movie farting. "Some of that's done in post," he says. "And I say some.")

A couple weeks later, I'm on the phone with Robert Pattinson, Dafoe's co-star in Robert Eggers' fantastical horror about a pair of lighthouse keepers going mad off the New England coast in the 19th Century. I mention the "stink"-related comment to Pattinson, who replies: "I think he might have been referring to me." Or perhaps it was emanating from the bait used to lure seagulls into circling where they were filming. "The entire area had rotting fish everywhere so the seagulls would keep coming back," he adds. "To be honest, I only really noticed it for about two days." 

Eggers' follow-up to his Puritan creep show The Witch is another meticulously crafted historical nightmare. Shot in 35 millimeter black and white, The Lighthouse immerses you in the madness of two seamen, Pattinson's Ephraim Winslow and Dafoe's Thomas Wake, trapped in a lighthouse on a rocky coastal island for four weeks. (Or is it more? Who's to say?) Thomas is the grizzled veteran of this type of work, keeping watch on a lighthouse; Ephraim is the quiet newbie at his elder's mercy. But when a storm approaches and a seabird is murdered, tension rises, fueled by booze and pent-up sexual energy. It's a movie that traps viewers in its viscosity. Liquids abound: rain from the sky and the sea, alcohol, kerosene, piss, "jizzum," as Dafoe crows in one of his many ranting monologues. "You never thought about playing drunk necessarily," Dafoe says. "Because the situation was drunken, really." 


Eggers chose to shoot exteriors in the "punishing" locale of Nova Scotia's Cape Forchu, where grips would sink into thigh-high mud and the actors were sprayed with cold rain. "We enjoyed suffering because that's what the script requires," Eggers says. "You weren't thinking, 'This is so crazy,' because that's what's on the page, so what else were we supposed to do?" 

Aside from dealing with inhospitable conditions, Dafoe and Pattinson were tasked with mastering Eggers' ye olde dialogue, co-written with his brother Max. While Herman Melville is an obvious influence -- one who gets a shout out in the credits -- the Eggers brothers specifically pulled from the writings of Sarah Orne Jewett, who wrote stories using Maine dialects during the 19th Century, the period in which The Lighthouse takes place.

"[The language] is musical," Dafoe says. "It has a strong rhythm." It takes a minute to adjust your ears to the sonic landscape of The Lighthouse, and the screenplay mixes the poetry of grunts and flatulence with lyrical monologues and repetitive catchphrases like, "Why'd you spill your beans?" 

"There's something about those vowels and the accent and the way it's written that you really have to contort yourself to say it," Pattinson says. "It makes you contort your body, and your face is contorted, and then you realize, oh shit, the reason why that is -- that's his psychological state." But Pattinson says he couldn't understand his drunken slurring some of the time when watching the final cut. "There are some scenes where I know what the lines are I literally cannot understand what I'm saying at all," he adds. "I really loved that Robert allowed me to do that. I loved watching it at Cannes subtitled." 

In Dafoe's case, he was also working with fake bottom teeth. "Physically, we wanted some funky teeth," Dafoe says. "I've got pretty funky teeth. It's not like I had braces when I was a kid. But we wanted some missing teeth appropriate to the period, appropriate to someone that had this kind of life." Pattinson remembers Eggers' attention to detail, down to the fastenings on the underwear. For as grody and sea-worn as their clothing looks on screen, Pattinson's first impression was how fashionable it seemed. "The waterproof stuff, the oilskins, I put that on I was like, 'Wow, this literally looks like '90s Yohji Yamamoto,'" he says, dropping the Japanese designer's name. "It was really cool. The rain hat thing? I was like, 'This looks sick.'" He assumed he was going to be runway ready in the final product. "Then you look at it in the film -- nah, definitely wrong about that," he says. "I look like shit." 


The script leaves plenty of room for interpretation when it comes to the relationship between Ephraim and Thomas, which is mostly hostile, but gets increasingly intimate as the days meld together and the liquor starts flowing. (Eggers' new adage is: "Nothing good happens when two men are trapped in a giant phallus.") Perhaps, as Dafoe suggests, it is evidence of "toxic masculinity" pushed to its breaking point. Or maybe it's a love story.

"It's like a kind of extreme 9 1/2 Weeks," Pattinson argues, citing Adrian Lyne's 1986 erotic drama starring Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke. "There's very much a kind of sub-dom thing happening. It's not that far from the surface. We were really trying to push it as well. The bit when we fight each other -- there's definitely a take where we were literally trying to pull each other's pants down. It literally almost looked like foreplay." I note that I've spoken to some people who have seen the movie who were rooting for a kiss between Ephraim and Thomas. Pattinson laughs: "It's like 50 Shades of Grey, but you're shoving bits of rotten fish in your face." 

If this sounds funny, well, it is -- intentionally so. Pattinson was pleased to hear the audience laughing along at The Lighthouse's Toronto International Film Festival premiere. "When I think something's funny, a lot of times I'm really not sure if everyone else is going to find it funny or even if it's funny at all," he says. "I've been caught in that situation a lot where things I find funny other people find sort of horrifying. So to hear everybody laugh and really go with the story when it's such an ambitious film was such a relief." 

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.