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‘The Lighthouse’ director Robert Eggers on Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe and seagulls

Movie trailer: The Lighthouse
WATCH: 'The Lighthouse' trailer

Robert EggersThe Lighthouse is a tough movie to encapsulate in words — it’s more about feeling and mood than it is about plot.

Taking place in the 1890s entirely on an island out in the middle of the sea, the film follows two lighthouse keepers (Willem Dafoe as Thomas Wake, Robert Pattinson as Ephraim Winslow) as they battle the isolation of their post.

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Never one to shy away from the grotesque or cryptic, Eggers does his best work here as the hallucinations start to set in for both Thomas and Ephraim. The two men eventually come to blows over access to the light at the top of the lighthouse, among other things. Midway through the movie, you start to ask yourself: is this real? What is real?

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Global News sat down with Eggers at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival to talk about why he cast Dafoe and Pattinson, his inspiration and those scene-stealing seagulls.

Global News: What about history, specifically New England history, fascinates you?
Robert Eggers: History is terrifying because human beings do bad things all the time. The further we are away from different epochs, they either look more romantic or more horrifying. We don’t tend to learn from the past so, for me, it’s nice to understand where we are and where we’re going by looking where we came from.

Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in ‘The Lighthouse.’
Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in ‘The Lighthouse.’ A24 Pictures

And why Willem and Robert? What about them made you want to cast them?
I wanted to do something with Willem, and he, shockingly, wanted to do something with me. Same with Rob. When The Lighthouse looked like it was actually going to get made, there was no question that they’re the appropriate people for the roles.

Willem looked like he was having the time of his life.
Yeah, it was amazing to be on set and have him chew up that language and that scenery. He’s a hero of mine so it was quite incredible.

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Is it easier or harder to have two main actors that you have to deal with rather than a huge, robust cast?
It’s more and less … obviously, you really have to cast these two people well, and they’re both formidable actors. What’s easier about it is that every actor demands something a little different. They need different things. With only two people for this movie, I had fewer tools that I had to keep extra sharp.

The film is dominated by men’s lust for power, and it’s a central theme.
My go-to quote is ‘nothing good happens when two men are trapped in a giant phallus,’ but there’s a lot of truth in that. There’s all of this heteronormative masculine energy that’s bubbling up, an erotic energy with nowhere to go so it’s going to explode and come out somehow.

What was the most difficult scene to shoot?
Really, there was never an easy scene. Even when we moved into a stage … no. These are all scenes with elaborate choreographies. In the scene [involving the mermaid], the tides on Cape Forchu move really, really quickly, so Valeria in a prosthetic can’t walk. We have all these guys walking her on a stretcher and then carrying her to place her. Minute after minute, these huge, crashing waves are getting closer and closer and closer. We’re trying to shoot this thing before waves come and wash the mermaid out into the Atlantic Ocean. She’s freezing out there … that was incredibly stressful for everyone.
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Williem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in ‘The Lighthouse.’
Williem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in ‘The Lighthouse.’ A24 Pictures

Can you speak more to the use of seagulls in the movie?
The seagulls were amazing. There are three that play the “one-eye” seagull — Lady, Tramp and Johnny — and they were incredibly smart and incredibly well-trained. The trainer was a French guy who was always giving us very low expectations of what the birds could do. The first thing we did was the bird pecking the window three times and then flying away. It just did it, right away, with no CG. It was unreal. Not easy, since shooting animals is never easy, but they were cool.

The sound production on this movie is spectacular. Did the lighthouse and sea noises haunt you?
I usually write to a lot of music, but for this, I had built a soundscape … like five hours of YouTube videos playing a subwoofer rumbling, waves crashing, wind blowing, foghorns … I would listen to that non-stop.

What terrifies you? What scares you? Did any fear inspire you to make this movie?
Honestly, it wasn’t any terror. It was the atmosphere. It was this idea of two guys trapped in a lighthouse, shot in black-and-white. That made me interested. It was about finding the things that are scary about this setting and indulging in them. Certainly, every little kid knows after the first time they get swept under by a wave: she wins every time. Mother Nature is for real.

‘The Lighthouse’ is now playing in theatres across Canada.

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[This interview has been edited and condensed.]