Robert Eggers was in his third year of trying to get “The Witch” made when his brother Max told him he was working on a ghost story.
“I was very envious of that idea,” said Eggers when he was a guest on IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit podcast. “It was a contemporary story about a guy repairing a haunted lighthouse with his dog. A couple months later, I asked him how that was going, he said, ‘Sucks.’ So I asked if I can take a crack at the concept, which I then immediately turned into a period movie.”
Like “The Witch,” making a period film intrigued Eggers for the visuals as well as for the lure of forensic research. By digging into the lives of men who were lighthouse caretakers over a hundred years ago, he found a constant flow of inspiration.
“I don’t get a lot of writer’s block, because it’s all based on research,” said Eggers. “I just start looking through my notes, and I can write garbage for days — I mean, some of it ends up being good.”
The Eggers brothers’ research also informed the distinct Shakespeare-meets-pirate dialect of stars Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson. Eggers found one late-19th century Maine-based author, Sarah Orne Jewett, to be particularly helpful in identifying the unique phonetic dialect through interviews she did with retired sea captains and fishermen.
“I have to give a tremendous amount of credit to Dafoe for basically doing a pirate voice with all the stereotypical pirate language, which by the way, is the real thing,” said Eggers. “When you see it in the research, ‘Well, I guess if this is what they’re saying, he’s going to have to sound like a pirate.’ And Dafoe makes it credible because he’s so in it.”
In “The Lighthouse,” sound plays a particularly important role, not only by introducing a potentially supernatural element to the film, but also bringing to life just how punishing and loud the weather could be for these men living in old wooden structures by the sea. Like many writers, Eggers usually listens to music while working his way through the screenwriting phase, but he found that aural world of the lighthouse to be more useful in terms of getting in the right creative headspace.
“I had basically a soundscape that I built for myself with rumbling waves, and then crashing waves, and winds, rain, seagulls that was just constant while I was writing,” said Eggers. “And occasionally just to stay in that world [I would listen to it]. I remember my assistant coming into my hotel room and I’m playing all this while I’m making my eggs, and he’s like, ‘OK.’
After the “The Witch” became big hit for A24 in 2016, Eggers tried to get larger studio projects greenlit, but kept “The Lighthouse” in his back pocket. “My brother and I were secretly working on this just in case,” said Eggers. “And this became the thing, strangely enough, that people wanted to make.”
The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, Stitcher, SoundCloud, and Google Play Music. The music used in this podcast is from the “Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present” score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.