Why'd Ya Spill Yer Beans? The Lighthouse: Director's Commentary - Reviewed

In an era where personal film libraries are quickly becoming digital, physical copies are still cherished by cinephiles. Hard copies make for an impressive display, but above all, the extra content and special features offer a wealth of behind the scenes information. The cherry on top is the director’s commentary, a captivating look at the creation of a film. For some fans, the commentaries are the final piece of puzzle, exploring the nuances of writing, set design, and all the bizarre antics that occur behind the lens. 

The Lighthouse is a story that unfolds in polarizing layers, and challenges its viewers to analyze what is real. It is a film that begs to be dissected and discussed, and director Robert Eggers’ commentary offers a generous insight to a complex tale of misery and mystery. Filmed on the southern tip of Cape Forshu, Nova Scotia, Eggers choose the location for its unique volcanic rock formations. The crew built the 70 foot operating lighthouse and its quarters specifically for the film. The Lighthouse was written by Eggers and his brother Max. The initial concept was a ghost story that occurs in a lighthouse. The plot is loosely based on the 1931 silent film The Lighthouse Keepers, which revolves around a father and son keeping watch over a lighthouse while the son slowly goes crazy after being bit by a rabid dog. 

The movie was shot on black and white 35mm negative film with a 1.19:1 ratio. “I felt it was a good choice for filming the cramped quarters and vertical objects like the lighthouse tower,” Eggers shares. He goes on to explain the challenges of filming on the small set, and even joked about the film ratio, calling it soap opera blocking. Due to the size restraints, the crew had to get creative, building rigs for specific shots where dollies and cranes would normally be used. Eggers also used a variety of vintage camera lenses that were fabricated between the years 1905 - 1930. Many scenes were shot using orthochromatic filters, which were popular in early era black and white films. Orthochromatic film is red tone sensitive, creating a vast spectrum of grey and black hues as a result. Eggers choose this filter specifically for its ability to highlight skin blemishes, giving Dafoe and Pattinson a weathered look on film. 

“After making the miserably serious The Witch,” Eggers explains, “I decided if I ever wanted to explore misery again, I wanted to be able to laugh at it.” The solution, fart jokes. After The Witch was released Eggers received a message from William Dafoe's management that the actor wanted to meet him. After praising the film, Eggers was shocked when Dafoe told him he wanted to be a part of his next film. Eggers has an impressive memory, recalling the days many scenes were filmed as he paints a fascinating behind the scene collage. It doesn’t take long to realize he is a history buff. He often points out little set design pieces that most likely went unnoticed to viewers. For example, in the bedroom quarters there is a Sears and Roebuck catalogue hanging from a rope on the wall. “This is what most keepers used for toilet paper,” he explained. Eggers also points out a brief scene where Dafoe is knitting. It was very common for light keepers to knit to occupy their time. Eggers confesses he wished he would have highlighted Dafoe a little more in the scene, especially since he learned to knit specifically for the film.  

Eggers spent a lot of time researching period worthy dialect. He wanted to showcase the differences between the men, with Dafoe’s character having a weathered seamen elegance, and Pattinson’s character being more rough and uneducated, which was common of Northern Canadian timbermen of that era. Like The Witch, many changes were made to the script to keep a consistency throughout the film. Dafoe originally had more pages of dialogue, but many lines got cut during pre and post production to keep a steady pace. In order to help Pattinson nail down his accent for the film, Eggers had an old fisherman recite all his lines, and gave Pattinson the audio recording to rehearse. Dafoe and Eggers spent a day together in an old fishing cabin rehearsing the famous Sea King's Fury scene the day before shooting. Dafoe steals the scene with his flawless performance. What many don’t realize is Dafoe does not blink during the entire lengthy rant. Filmed in one take, Eggers assures viewers that even when the camera switches to Pattinson’s reaction, Dafoe continues the scene without batting an eye. 

There are a few scenes Eggers points out and assures viewers they are real. Filming in black and white with vintage lens gave some scenes an artificial look. The opening shot of a ship mast breaking through the waves was an actual period worthy steam ship that was restored specifically for the film. The script also called for a lot of seagulls to be present. Luckily, the gulls quickly learned the crew were a good source of food, and often fluttered about while they were shooting. Many of the gulls movements look odd in the film. This is attributed to wind on the island, which lent strange movements to the birds as they hovered in the air. Eggers confesses he believes the night shots of the lighthouse look like a miniature scale model. He assures viewers it is the actual lighthouse built for the film, which had an impressive beam capability that reached 16 miles. 

Eggers’ commentary is full of praise for Dafoe and Pattinson. The two actors had to endure a lot of hardships due to the unconventional production of this film. While Eggers went through painstaking details to produce a historically correct set, there were some aspects that needed to be replaced for practical reasons. In scenes where Dafoe and Pattinson enjoy dinner, the kerosene lamp on the table did not produce enough light to develop a shot, so the lamp was fitted with a 600 watt halogen bulb with a flicker dimmer. Eggers explained that the result was blinding due to the small set. It was so bright the crew wore sunglasses during the shots while Dafoe and Pattinson had to act natural with the bright lamp inches away from them at the dinner table. The weather also made for miserable shooting conditions. The inhospitable landscape of Cape Forshu called for the actors and crew to shoot in extreme wind and cold. 

The vintage lenses proved to be especially problematic, and Pattinson had to shoot several scenes over and over again due to the lenses fogging over in the harsh conditions. In one particular scene where he had to walk face first into the rain with a wheel barrow, Pattison became so frustrated with the multiple takes that he wanted to punch Eggers in the face. The fact that Eggers was spraying him in the face with a firehouse from behind the camera probably had a lot to do with Pattinson’s frustration. In a scene where Dafoe and Pattinson wait for a ship to come and relieve them of their duty was filmed in the actual weather of Cape Forshu. The extreme wind and horizontal rain made for a great shot as both men stare into the sea while their navy pea jackets and rain slickers flap about. Eggers confesses he wish he’d had taken more shots of the sea to showcase how isolated the environment was. A few small sets were built in an airplane hanger near Cape Forshu. Eggers remembers these sets were extremely hot, which made for a vastly different agitated environment for Dafoe and Pattinson to endure. Eggers shot some of the late night drinking scenes in real time, with some of the shots running as late as 4am. 

The mumbled whispered dialogue and quiet set made for a difficult situation due to the camera noise of the 35mm film, which could be heard from the microphone. Pattinson dived deep into method acting for these scenes, and was fond of sticking his fingers down his throat just to make himself queazy and nauseous. In the end, both Dafoe and Pattinson delivered career performances. The film plays out like its been around for a century, and this can be credited to Eggers and his attention to set detail and dialogue. Perhaps the most shocking is the behind the scenes feature. The Lighthouse is so historically accurate that the colored behind the scene footage and photos look like a modern set attempting to remake a vintage era film, which only further credits Eggers’ efforts. The result is an otherworldly film that will long be remembered as one of the most captivating films of this century.  

-Lee L. Lind