Willem Dafoe on Why The Lighthouse Worked So Well: “There’s Simply No Substitute for Shitty Weather”


I walked by the Angelika movie theater on Houston Street in New York one afternoon and saw The Witch was playing. On a whim, I bought a ticket. I had been away working and knew nothing about it. I was absolutely clean of expectation or even curiosity.

I go to movies to be challenged, disturbed, to laugh, or to be transported, to imagine a world that was or a world that could be. I entered the world of The Witch so easily. I loved the film. I was with those people on the screen. Often a period film points to itself and wrestles you into a world with its period-correct elements, but The Witch had such a sense of place. It breathed. It lived. I thought: whoever made this is a real filmmaker. I asked my representatives to get me in contact with Robert Eggers.

I liked him immediately. We both come from less than traditional theater backgrounds and share a language of performing and making things. He was extremely well read, with a classics education, yet direct and unpretentious. I knew I had to work with this guy. We kicked a few things around, but nothing quite came together until he called one day out of the blue and said, “I’ve got it. You and Rob Pattinson, in a two-hander, play lighthouse keepers. Yes or no?”

I read the script. It had all the things I love: specificity of time and place, physicality, and all the things I must confess I like to do as an actor—to play with a period look and accent, to dance, sing, fight, flirt, joke, speechify. So many pleasures in the doing. But I was first struck by the beauty of the language.

It’s complex, poetic, and musical—even the words were physical. Applying myself to “the doing” would drive things. Psychology and narrative would take care of themselves. The biggest question was where and how were we going to shoot this thing. Robert told me they would build a lighthouse on a small peninsula in Nova Scotia, and, with the exception of some interiors, everything would be shot outside, practically, in the elements. Music to my ears. Shooting on location gives you the greatest creative partner you can have: Mother Nature. She can be nasty, but she is also wise and slaps you around and tells you how it’s going to be. It wouldn’t be comfortable, and while I’m not a masochist there’s simply no substitute for shitty weather and its ability to put you in a place where you can tap into your body, where you don’t even have to pretend. When you are cold, you are cold. The elements were an essential part of the story, and we were going to be in them.

Once I signed on, Robert bombarded me with background material on lighthouses, accents, historical facts, related pieces of literature. His love for the material was infectious. He lives in and loves history, and, it seems to me, he believes the present is best expressed with tales of the past. They say you can’t film research, but if you steep yourself in enough of it that knowledge will change you. That new perspective can fuel discovery and creativity, pretending and becoming.



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