When Working on Set of The Lighthouse Seemed About as Fun as Working on an Actual Lighthouse
By Sean M. Sanford
You Gotta Fight for Your Light
Robert Eggers’s The Lighthouse is an incredible movie with breathtaking cinematography and imagery, haloed around two of the best acting performances seen either side of Covid. Turns out this wasn’t accomplished via the plush glitter sometimes associated with a Hollywood lifestyle. To hear it from those involved, filming The Lighthouse was downright aquatic torture on both sides of the camera.
While Willem Dafoe wrangled his fear of heights, Pattinson was put on self-induced isolation, and don’t even get me started on the three trained seagulls who could only eat squirrel-feed (that last one is pure conjecture, but still). All this while the film crew was busy trying not to unintentionally wind-surf or go blind. Oh, and it turns out Nova Scotia is cold and wet enough to ruin a camera or three. As we know, a good horror story is made great with a proper setting. And all totally fucked filming experiences are made horrific with an environment like Cape Forchu to help sour the deal.
When Location Rivals Setting
The Lighthouse was primarily filmed on the cliff-strewn shores of Cape Forchu in Nova Scotia. They built the title lighthouse on the cape, and turns out the actors wouldn’t have to stretch too hard to get into character. They filmed in late-winter/early-spring, and that must be wind-season, because, as Robert Eggers says in the film’s director commentary, they were in little need of fake wind or rain. The wind would get so bad that at times, he says, you couldn’t hear someone talking 3 feet away from you. They were hit with 3 different nor-easters while filming. Talk about mind…blowing.
It also rained. A lot. While shooting one scene, Robert Pattinson said, “That’s the closest I’ve ever come to punching a director…After a while I was like, ‘What the fuck is goingon? I feel like you’re just spraying a fire hose in my face.’” Turns out Eggers was really spraying him with a hose, but Pattinson didn’t even realize it at first because such a thing chimed with the vibe.
Conditions were so brutal, the actors said they rarely talked off set. They were probably too busy battening down the hatches.
The Tide is High…
…But they were holding on. To their star actress. Turns out the tides on Cape Forchu came in wet and furious, which made for a few sketchy scenes; as in life-threatening. Like when Pattinson is getting fishy with a mermaid on the rocks. Valeriia Karaman’s she-tail was so heavy and elaborate, they had to take her to and fro on a stretcher when they filmed her on the bluff. They could only film for brief stints, as when the water started coming in, it came in quick, and had burly undercurrents that could have easily swept Karaman out to sea (where she was ironically liable to drown because of her heavy-ass mermaid’s tale). Not to mention the crew members who had to take her to and fro on a stretcher. Ever carried a sack of potatoes on a seaweed-lined bluff in 50 mph winds while getting sea-sprayed? Me neither, and for good reason.
Anything for Art. Wait…Anything?
The crew for The Lighthouse should all be listed in stunts. Especially the stuntmen, one of whom took a bail down the lighthouse steps twice! And not because Eggers asked him to, he actually wanted to do it. That really puts the Stun in stuntman.
Stuntmen aside though, the crew went above and beyond their comfort zones on this movie. The conditions were brute. It rained nearly every day they were there. Which couldn’t have been easy for key grip Craig Stewart, who conjured the rigging for all the camera’s pulleys for shots like the one when Pattinson is painting the side of the lighthouse. Or the shot that goes from the basement boiler room, all the way up to the big-ass bulb in the lighthouse –a shot that Eggers said, in the DVD film commentary, was intended to represent ascending from hell to heaven. All I know is if they were destined for heaven they must have gotten out at the wrong stop.
From High Tides to High Beams
Because it was shot on Double-X stock black and white, the nighttime and indoor shots required unholy degrees of lighting. Bright enough so the crew had to wear sunglasses. Meanwhile all the seagulls would be glaring at them from outside, attracted by the light, and making everyone aware that they were eating lots of protein in preparation for the next time any humans went outside.
Acting for The Lighthouse was Not Lighthearted
All of the aforementioned artifacts of misery translated to the talent as well. For one, Willem Dafoe is afraid of heights. Something maybe not ideal for someone having to go lighthouse-high in a torrential wind gale. Being the incredible actor that he is though, you’d never know it whenever the cameras came on. Unless you checked his jockeys for skids
The actors were all relatively isolated during production. Defoe lived by himself in a little fishermen’s cottage during production, while Pattinson housed with the crew in a hotel. While on set though, Pattinson would isolate himself between takes and during breaks. Maybe speaking in teeth-chatter Morse code from the sub-human temperatures that permeated. The three stunt-gulls, Lady, Tramp, and Johnny (clearly the third wheel), were likely heckled in squawk-talk from the local seagulls who thought they were Hollywood prima donnas with their squirrel feed and whatnot.
Because the steeze of the narrative called for such a headspace, Robert Pattinson would get himself in the vibe by punching himself in the face and drinking rainwater from the cottage gutter in between takes. He’d also use time-honored tactics like spin himself in circles or jam his fingers down his throat. As Eggers mentioned, before one take in particular, Pattinson was play-acting Bulimia hard enough for Willem to give Eggers “…a look as if to say, ‘If Rob fucking pukes on me.’”
For All That, A Masterpiece of Horror is Docked
The Eggers brothers wrote an incredible horror story, using inspiration from fables and Greek myths; specifically, Prometheus and Proteus. They intentionally left their story partially unexplained to honor a foundation of mystery. Robert Eggers and his crew went on to create a setting that was rife with detail, from the garb and cutlery that was labeled with the government’s US Lighthouse Establishment, to reading and studying verbiage and dialect from the era, such as Sarah Orne Jewett and Herman Melville. They based Dafoe and Pattinson’s accents on two different styles from those days (that of farmers for Pattinson and sailors for Dafoe), and both actors toiled to simulate their required verbal steeze.
Beyond all the hard work that went into preparing for this film, and all the torture that was experienced in filming it, all those involved in The Lighthouse should be proud of what they made. The only terror that may rival the making of the film, is that of watching it. And for a horror flick, you couldn’t ask for much more.
Indie Wire https://www.indiewire.com/2018/11/the-lighthouse-physically-demanding-robert-pattinson-punched-robert-eggers-1202018441/
NY Times https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/23/movies/the-lighthouse-clip.html
Vanity Fair https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2019/10/robert-pattinson-the-lighthouse-acting-willem-dafoe
Ancient History Encyclopedia https://www.ancient.eu/Prometheus/
Sarah Orne Jewett https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sarah_Orne_Jewett
Herman Melville https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herman_Melville
The Lighthouse DVD director’s commentary (highly recommended)
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