“The Lighthouse” marks the latest attempt by director Robert Eggers (“The Witch”) to make a visually Gothic brand of silent cinema in the 21st century. It’s an isolated, maddening, black-and-white tour de force for 19th century lighthouse keepers Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson to break each other down both psychologically and physically. Think of it as another tune-up for his “Nosferatu” remake. Shot by Eggers’ go-to cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, it appropriately boasts the square 1.19:1 aspect ratio of silent movies.
And Eggers’ trusty production designer Craig Lathrop was instrumental in building the right environment in Nova Scotia to help deliver the horrifying mood, including an authentic lighthouse illuminated by a Fresnel lens replica that could shine for 16 miles. “The film itself feels old and shingled, you’re transported back to a different time,” he said. “And the claustrophobic sense lends itself to the boxy framing. It was a beautiful choice.”
Unable to find the right lighthouse for the punishing landscape hit by constant wind and storms, Lathrop built one from scratch on Nova Scotia’s Cape Forchu, situated on volcanic rock. It was 70-foot-high (perfect for the aspect ratio), had tons of concrete, was anchored by iron bars drilled into the bedrock, and secured with several safety cables to withstand the wind. The interior was comprised of a spiral staircase made of steel and a lantern with the Fresnel lens. The lantern was moved to a studio set in Halifax for more extensive dramatic moments.
The Fresnel lens, of course, posed the biggest challenge. Resembling an Art-Deco spaceship (squid shaped, actually), it gives off ghostly light. Lathrop first located one in Australia but it couldn’t be shipped, so he built his own. However, he needed to start before the movie was even greenlit. “I had a meeting in New York with director Robert Eggers, cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, and the A24 and New Regency producers,” he said. “I showed them everything I had done as a 3D model. I found somebody who could build it in Florida, but I needed the first part of funding to get started. And they came through.”
The lens was made of acrylic and glass, hand polished, and tinted, with 230 prisms that create the light. “The way it was shot in black-and-white was very interesting looking,” Lathrop added. “The set was designed so that the light would be trippy. When you’re down in the mechanical room you look up and see the twirling light through the grate. And it’s all technology from the 1800s.”
The interior of the house, meanwhile, where most of the tense, psychological unraveling takes place, was shot on three sets in Halifax. “That was the one cheat,” Lathrop admitted. “It takes place in the 1890s but the house is about 90 years older. It needed to feel old and weathered and peeled away to reflect the mentally unstable world of our two characters. Historically, these houses were very well maintained, so we couldn’t be so accurate.”
The final oddity was tracking down trained seagulls for some creepy scenes. But training seagulls has been outlawed in North America and Europe. “So we were in a bit of a panic,” Lathrop said. “It turns out there’s a guy in England with five seagulls who were grandfathered in before the laws changed. So we shot everything on Cape Forchu, and we used a puppet stand-in for the actors to interact with on location. Then, in post, we went to London and built some small sets and set pieces and redid the action with the trained seagulls, who were composited into the scenes.”
The haunting mood, overall, was part of this remote and very inhospitable place. “It reflects back to the beginning of the film, with the possibility that the house had endured this before,” said Lathrop. “And our two characters are pushed over the edge by the harsh environment.”