'The Lighthouse' interview: Director Robert Eggers on Robert Pattinson's bizarre pants-wetting 'process' (exclusive)

Sam Ashurst
Contributor
Robert Pattinson takes direction from director Robert Eggers for The Lighthouse (Universal Pictures/A24)

The Lighthouse is a very unique experience.

It’s a black and white period art film, shot on archaic equipment in an obscure aspect ratio, about two lighthouse keepers slowly going mad, from the director of 2015’s arthouse horror The Witch. It’s dark and intense, but it also riotously funny, featuring the kind of fart jokes you’d find in an Adam Sandler movie. Oh, and it has two of cinema’s biggest stars in the lead roles: Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe. 

One of those stars, Hollywood heartthrob and future Batman Robert Pattinson, recently talked about wetting himself for real on set as part of his dedication to his craft.

“It’s his process,” director Robert Eggers tells Yahoo Movies UK. “I’m not asking for it, but if we’re getting what we need to tell the story, and he’s not hurting anybody then, please, be my guest: pee your pants.”

Yahoo Movies UK spoke to Eggers about how he brought his singular vision to the big screen, what he thinks of the homoerotic readings of the film, and we got some clues about how to solve the mystery of his strange movie. 

So, shove on your sailor’s cap matey, grab a bottle of grog, and watch out for those pesky seagulls...

Yahoo Movies UK: How did you get this level of creative control on your second film?

Robert Eggers: To be very honest, it was a little bit of a perfect storm. I was trying to make some larger studio movies that I was contractually obligated to do. I wanted to make them. I really did. They were things that I had written, so I was really passionate about them, and spent tonnes of time working on them. Blood, sweat and tears - whatever, it was very painful that they didn’t get made. But, eventually, I felt that the studio wasn’t compromising. They felt I wasn’t compromising, and probably that’s true. But there you go.

A24 and RT Features wanted to work with me again, and Regency [Enterprises] and I had been talking for a long time, we wanted to find something. So, when it seemed that these things were falling apart, people were excited to work with me, frankly. It’s embarrassing to say, I’m very privileged, after the success of The Witch, they were down to do something that was fairly modestly budgeted. 

I could see the potential disaster of these things that I wanted to make on the horizon, so I said to my brother, Max, we’ve got to have something in the back pocket, so we wrote The Lighthouse. So, I think they were kinda like, ‘Oh, this is what you want to make next? Okaaaaay.’ 

The Lighthouse (Universal Pictures/A24)

Obviously there was a time when everyone said ‘Are you sure it’s not in colour? Are you sure we can’t shoot digitally?’ It takes some convincing. But I think my luck spirits were with me, what can I tell you? I don’t know. It takes work, it takes convincing. 

Michael Schaefer, who I absolutely love at Regency, called me a week before production and said ‘I think this aspect ratio is a really bad move, I’m sorry. I’ve been thinking about it, and I’m happy about the black and white negative, but I’m looking at the location and how great the sets are, and you don’t want to shoot this in CinemaScope, don’t you think that’s going too far, and trying too hard, and it’s too fussy, and people are going to hate it?’ 

Read more: Robert Pattinson's method of crying on screen is pretty gross

I talked to him for about forty minutes on the phone about why, and in the end he was ‘Okay, just get off the phone.’ Sometimes that’s what it takes. Schaefer also gave me some other notes that  I didn’t always want to hear that were really good, by the way.  

In the Q&A at the Cannes screening, someone compared the film to Bergman and Tarkovsky, and you made a joke saying ‘they’d think it was dumb’. I know it was a joke, but why would you say that? This isn’t a dumb film, it’s poetic cinema in the tradition of the European stuff…

The Lighthouse (Universal Pictures/A24)

I think Bergman would get behind it, I do, I do. I think that he would get that my flagrant choices, my juvenile choices, my grotesque, scatalogical, over-the-top, ham-fisted, deliberately stupid choices had intention behind them. 

It is a funny film, I wasn’t expecting that. 

If he liked the movie, there’s a chance he’d get behind it. Tarkovsky, it’s just not for him. Come on, you know it’s not for him. 

Yes and no, it has poetic elements that he’d love, the water... the fart jokes maybe not so much. 

He was part of the reason I wanted this to be funny. Now, this is going to make me sound like a real schmuck, but I was reading Dostoevsky and I was thinking ‘Andrei [Tarkovsky] learn from your boy!’ 

I don’t think The Witch works unless it takes itself so seriously, I feel like it needed to be like that, and I’m not saying Michael Haneke isn’t a good filmmaker because he makes humourless films – he’s a great filmmaker – but something about The Witch, maybe because it’s a first feature, the self-seriousness almost felt juvenile also. 

A still from Robert Eggers' first feature The Witch. (Universal Pictures)

I felt that if we’re going to explore misery again, we need to be able to laugh at it. And so the idea is you get your ticket, you see the opening sequence and think ‘Oh no, I’m in a Hungarian arthouse movie and I can’t get out’ and then Dafoe farts and we see that there might be some light at the end of the tunnel. 

The foghorn sound stayed in my head for about a day after the film, it was just going round and round in my head. I also like the way the title becomes an optical illusion when you cut to white…

I don’t know if I like that, but it is just a fact.

That’s interesting, I was going to ask if those psychological tricks were in your mind when you were making the film, I guess not in terms of the title, but…

Director Robert Eggers, from left, actors Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson pose for portrait photographs for the film 'The Lighthouse' at the 72nd international film festival, Cannes, southern France, Sunday, May 19, 2019. (Photo by Joel C Ryan/Invision/AP)

The foghorn, yes. And the first image is meant to be disorientating, we have this Petzval lens and you’re looking at the opening image and it’s just mud - ‘What is this?’ - and suddenly it becomes clear, and also, you’re expecting to see a lighthouse and you see a boat [laughs].

In an Esquire profile, Robert Pattinson says he wet himself for real making the film – what was that like to shoot? 

I didn’t know he’d wet himself, because everything was so wet, I couldn’t see anything, and it smelled terrible, so I didn’t know that.

But he also talks about gagging himself, and I saw that a lot. And, you know, it’s his process. I’m not asking for it, but if we’re getting what we need to tell the story, and he’s not hurting anybody then, please, be my guest: pee your pants. 

Can you talk a little bit about the homoeroticism in the film, that’s something I responded to and it’s definitely there. 

Yeah, two men, trapped in a giant phallus, there’s going to be pent-up erotic energy with nowhere to go. There’s a difference between homoeroticism and homosexuality, but both of those things play a hand in what’s going on here. It’s complicated. And sexuality has a lot to do with power dynamics. I can’t get too on the nose with it, the movie does it enough [laughs].

Pattinson’s a bit of a guardian angel when it comes to indie movies, did his presence help get it funded, or were you already okay? 

Everyone was really happy with Robert and Willem for this movie. Everyone was clear it was the best cast you could ask for. It was the only cast I wanted or considered, and people felt good about it. As they should! 

You’re an auteur, you’re not going to answer this directly…

Well, I’m trying.

You are. There are going to be so many YouTube videos analysing this film, could you give them any clues, even if they’re oblique, giving them the key to understanding or unlocking this film?

The Lighthouse (Universal Pictures/A24)

There’s no key to the movie, there’s no… You know, I read some essays about Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, and I was ‘Oh, that really makes sense - now I don’t like it as much.’ (laughs) Do you know what I mean? I want questions more than answers. 

But look up Proteus and the island of Pharos, that’s not going to be the key to understanding the movie, but you might learn something. 

What’s next for you? Is Nosferatu still happening, or is it The Knight? That has Tarkovsky potential…

The version of The Knight I was cooking up, he wouldn’t have liked. But if I end up making the movie, he might be more interested in how I would change it. 

I’m getting ready for something, bringing the whole team back again, the heads of department. But until I’m on set saying ‘action,’ I can’t be certain. And I said all these titles, Rasputin as well [Eggers is working on HBO miniseries] – there’s nothing wrong with it, Guillermo del Toro says titles all the time, that don’t materialise, and I could make that choice and that’s fine, but I don’t want to.

I’m sticking to the past, and mythology and folklore and fairytales and religion, that’s where I’m at home. A contemporary movie would be so boring, because I love to research. If I did a contemporary movie I’d be looking at millions of wallpaper swatches unnecessarily, to occupy my time, so I have to hang out where I like to hang out.

The Lighthouse is in UK cinema on 31 January. Watch a trailer below.