Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Rob Hunter settles in for black & white weirdness with Robert Eggers’ commentary for The Lighthouse!
The Witch (2015) was something of a stunner crafted with the kind of exquisite care typically absent from genre fare. The question as to what director Robert Eggers would do next was answered with another period piece, but while the former film aims for terror the latter aims for a more tonally fluid sense of weirdness. The precision is still on display, though, with its story of two men crumbling mentally on a remote rock island. Keep reading to see what I heard on the Eggers’ commentary track for The Lighthouse!
The Lighthouse (2019)
Commentator: Robert Eggers (director, co-writer, producer)
1. The opening title treatment is from the treatise of a 19th century book called The Lighthouse “that has nothing to do with the plot or story of this movie.” He found it to be an attractive typeface that “suited the atmosphere of this movie.”
2. The opening shot was filmed with a Petzval lens which was designed around 1840. “There’s obviously a lot of weird lens characteristics which helps transport us back into time and make for a mysterious shot. hopefully.”
3. It was filmed in part on the southern tip of Nova Scotia in a small fishing village called Cape Forchu.
4. They built all of the buildings including the 70-foot working lighthouse tower.
5. “The sound design is very delicate here,” he says, roughly fifty seconds before the first fart is heard.
6. Around the 4:22 mark we see Thomas Howard (Robert Pattinson) trying to get into Thomas Wake’s (Willem Dafoe) desk. “Don’t know if it reads, but that’s the intention there.”
7. “After making The Witch so miserable and self-serious I thought if I was gonna explore misery again I would wanna be able to laugh at it. So. The fart jokes.” In case you were wondering.
8. Part of the sound design behind the water pump noise is a donkey’s “hee-haw.”
9. Dafoe didn’t want to wear a hat for the first dinner scene, but Eggers wanted his character to look authoritative and in charge. It’s historically inaccurate as it was considered bad luck to wear hats in the kitchen.
10. USLHE is marked and tagged over most of the things at the lighthouse to discourage theft, and it stands for United States Lighthouse Establishment.
11. They looked at different ways in which people used tools to help them carry heavy loads, and Pattinson chose the head strap visible at 14:48 because he thought they were cool.
12. There were at least eight Robs on-set which caused only minor confusion.
13. The main seagull was played by three seagulls from the UK named Lady, Tramp, and Johnny. They’re rescue birds.
14. That’s a bird puppet swooping up at Pattinson at 17:20, and “now that I say that it will always look like a puppet for everyone, so maybe I shouldn’t have said anything.”
15. The top interior of the lighthouse “is one of the places where my insistence on historical accuracy maybe wasn’t the best thing for the movie.” It’s too cramped, and he’s still not sure if he likes any of the scenes filmed up there.
16. The screenplay refers to Wake and Howard and Old and Young, respectively, as their names aren’t even mentioned until halfway through the film.
17. Dafoe is afraid of heights and was no fan of going atop the lighthouse, but he’s a professional and did so without squawking once action was called.
18. “Learning how to roll cigarettes was a problem” for Pattinson, but he eventually figured it out.
19. They shot in 1.19:1 which is “a rare aspect ration from early sound cinema” because they felt it captured the cramped quarters and vertical objects well.
20. Dafoe learned to knit for the film, but they only found a single scene in which to have him doing it.
21. That’s Hershey’s chocolate syrup coming out of the water pump at 39:35.
22. The seagull murder scene has more impact when watched in color.
23. He was somewhat surprised by the success of and reaction to The Witch. “I didn’t think it was a bad movie, I thought it was good enough to get some kind of distribution, and I hoped that it would get enough good reviews that maybe someone would let me make another movie.” Dafoe’s management team emailed on his behalf saying the actor wanted to meet with him. “I wanna do whatever you’re doing next,” said Dafoe, and they made it happen.
24. Eggers had offered Pattinson a role in something more traditional that he was working on, but the actor passed as “he was only interested in doing challenging and strange stuff.”
25. The production company (ie the suits) wondered if a more traditional score would be better for The Lighthouse, so Eggers tried it for several scenes before realizing that it just didn’t work. They eventually decided to have composer Mark Korven add a smidgen of Bernard Herrmann into this score.
26. Why yes, the mermaid’s labia is based on shark genitals.
27. Pattinson would stick his fingers down his throat and “gag himself a little bit” whenever he was drunk. Eggers shares this only because Pattinson himself had been mentioning it in interviews.
28. “This is the shot where Robert Pattinson said he wanted to punch me in the face,” he says at the scene with Pattinson running in close-up in the rain at 1:17:59.
29. The book that Howard is intently flipping through at 1:26:20 is filled with photos and memorabilia of Wake’s family. Early audiences were apparently confused by the images thinking it was a plot point of some kind, so Eggers removed the cuts and instead stayed on Howard’s face.
30. They shot the burial scene on day two of filming.
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“That steamship that is so far away that it could be CG, is real.”
“If you look beyond Dafoe’s urine stream there’s a Sears & Roebuck catalog on a piece of rope.”
“The first of many farts.”
“Well we couldn’t have shot that in a more obvious way.”
“This is the Full Metal Jacket meets Miss Hannigan in Little Orphan Annie scene.”
“He got a lot of tentacle juice on him when we photographed that.”
“This masturbation scene was the first thing we shot.”
“Hope everyone sees the gull pooping on Rob, it’s very important to me.”
The meticulous nature of Robert Eggers’ movies might make some think he’d be a dry speaker, but he’s actually far more laid back than that — at least on The Lighthouse commentary track. He shows a playful sense of humor alongside a true appreciation for the craft and the talent that goes into filmmaking, and his commentary offers a strong blend of observations and technical detail. It’s a good listen.
Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.