Central to the sound design is a bellowing foghorn, so sound designer Damian Volpe turned to J.J. Jamieson, a craftsman in Shetland, Scotland who makes YouTube tutorials on operating and maintaining foghorns, for recordings of a period-accurate foghorn. Using Jamieson's samples, Volpe manipulated the sound and created a foghorn that was ominous, memorable, and unique to the film. The fog horn heard throughout the film is a recording of the Nash Point Lighthouse Fog Horn (located in Wales, UK). The Nash Point Fog Horn is sounder with compressed air.
Dafoe and Pattinson stated that they barely spoke a word to each other on set and were too exhausted to hang out together after a day of shooting because filming was so physically demanding due to the miserable weather conditions. While Pattinson stayed at a normal hotel with the rest of the film crew during the shot, Dafoe lived in a little fisherman cottage in solitude. On set, on the other hand, Pattinson would tend to eat and stay by himself in filming breaks, while Dafoe stayed with the crew. Both stated that they liked each other very much as soon as they had their first real conversation a few months later.
Since the film is set in 1890, it was shot on 35mm black and white Double-X 5222 film, all while augmenting the Panavision Millennium XL2 camera with vintage Baltar lenses from as early as 1918 to as late as 1938. This makes the aspect ratio approximately 1.19:1, which is practically square. To enhance the image and make it resemble early photography, a custom cyan filter made by Schneider Filters emulated the look and feel of orthochromatic film from the late 19th century.
The cast and crew filmed under extreme weather conditions: Freezing temperatures, cold atlantic water, intense winds, snow, rain and no protective flora on the Forchu terrain kept them exposed to the elements throughout the shoot. Three Nor'easters blew across Cape Forchu during various stages in the production. Much of the film was shot in real weather elements, so rain and wind machines weren't needed most of the time, with Eggers stating that, "The most crazy and dramatic stuff was shot for real."
Pattinson's accent is based off a very specific area of Maine farming dialect, while Dafoe's is the jargon of Atlantic fishermen and sailors of the time. Director/writer Robert Eggers was very precise about the actor's accents and line delivery. He would for example give instructions to "say the second sentence of your third line 75% faster."
The story is very loosely based on a real-life tragedy from 1801 (called "The Smalls Lighthouse Tragedy"), in which two Welsh lighthouse keepers, both named Thomas, became trapped on their lighthouse station during a storm. Other influences were seafaring literary classics by Herman Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson, and supernaturally tinged weird tales of H.P. Lovecraft and Algernon Blackwood.
Before filming began, Dafoe and Pattinson rehearsed with Robert Eggers for a week in a hotel in Halifax. While Dafoe loved to rehearse given his extensive theatre background, Pattinson didn't want to show and let out too much beforehand, prefering to jump into the scene blindly. He found the rehearsal process frustrating and uncomfortable, being used to react impulsively infront of the camera and getting self-conscious by thinking too much about the scene beforehand. His method being, that if he accomplishes certain things in rehearsal, it will later ruin the spontaneity infront of the camera. Director Robert Eggers welcomed that the two worked so differently and stated: "They have this incredible, electric chemistry on screen, but it was chemistry through tension. That couldn't have been better for the movie."
In 2012, Robert Eggers brother Max first had the idea for a contemporary ghost story set in a lighthouse. After years of trying to get The Witch made, and failing, Eggers turned to his brother Max to work on that ghost story, but decided it had to be a period piece after he discovered a real-life tragedy about two Welsh lighthouse keepers in 1801. But The Lighthouse was put on the back-burner once The Witch finally was financed and started filming in 2014.
For dialogue inspiration, the brothers read the works of Melville, Stevenson, and more, consulting 19th century slang and nautical dictionaries for concise jargon. Dafoe's character is prone to articulate soliloquies in the style of Shakespeare and Milton. For naturalistic dialogue, the Eggers brothers turned to the works of Sarah Orne Jewett, a Maine-based poet and novelist best known for her works set on the Eastern seaboard, including 'Tales of New England' and 'Strangers and Wayfarers', both published in 1890. As research for her own work, Jewett interviewed old sailors and farmers, often writing in their dialect.
Robert Pattinson had an unusual approach to psyche himself up before emotional extreme scenes. Robert Eggers: "Sometimes he'd beat himself in the face so bad. Or he'd stick his fingers down his throat to make himself gag, things like that." Particular the scene where both characters are drunk and Dafoe lies on Pattinson's chest, he "was sticking his fingers down his throat (before the take). Willem gave me a look as if to say: 'If Rob f*cking pukes on me...'"
No seagulls were harmed while filming this movie. Fake ones made out of rubber were used for *that* particular scene. The one-eyed seagull were played by three trained rescue seagulls from the UK, named Lady, Tramp, and Johnny. Other seagulls seen flying around in the distance were living in that area and were always around while shooting, much to the anger of the filmcrew, because the seagulls quickly realised to use them as their foodsource.
Pattinson and Dafoe reached out to Robert Eggers to work with them because they loved The Witch (2015). So when Eggers finished the script, it was always clear to him to cast them because he had been looking for a project to do with both. Before this movie, Eggers talked with Pattinson about other roles in films (including The Knight, and Nosferatu).
Because it was shot on Double-X stock black and white, it requires much more light to get exposure, so they had to use about 15 to 20 times more light on set to actually see something on film. The crew put flickering 500 to 800 watt halogen bulbs in period-correct kerosene lamps that were only a few feet away from the actor's faces, resulting in the set being blindingly bright, so the actors could barely see eachother. Because of this, the crew would often wear sunglasses.
The Fresnel lighthouse lens fabricated for the movie was a functioning and historically accurate reproduction, which, through its intense reflective capacity, allows light to be visible for 16 miles. Robert Eggers and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke discovered it during a research trip to Northern California. They visited Point Cabrillo, the site of a lighthouse dating back to 1909, featuring a working Fresnel lens. There is only one team, Dan Spinella, Lens Preservationist and Kurt Fosburg, U.S. Coast Guard Lampist, that manufacture the lenses today. The team worked with Production Designer Craig Lathrop who directed them to create the style lens he had envisioned.
Every building appearing on screen was made for the film. The lighthouse complex was actually two sets: For the exteriors shots, a full-scale, 70-foot lighthouse tower that could withstand 120-kilometer winds on Cape Forchu in Nova Scotia, Canada, a unique outcropping of volcanic rock, was built. The skeleton for the lighthouse was covered with plywood, then wrapped in a thin sheet that resembles brick facing and got torn down after shooting finished. A few of the interiors were filmed there as well, but the majority were built inside soundstages and warehouses outside of Halifax. In the writing phase it became clear that it would be too cramped to maneuver the camera inside the lighthouse tower.
Robert Eggers knew from the start that the film had to be in black and white. Even before he began writing the script, he wrote on the front page: "This film must be photographed on black & white 35mm negative, Aspect ratio: 1.19:1, Audio mix: Mono."
The camera gear kept breaking down constantly because of the miserable weather conditions and because three different camera equipments from three different time periods coupled together were being used. Robert Pattinson had to walk into the ocean around 25 times because the camera lens kept fogging in that scene.
The film has an aspect ratio of 1.19:1, an almost-square frame that was used in the early sound years by filmmakers including Fritz Lang and G.W. Pabst. They choose the format because "the spaces in this movie are meant to feel confined, it's more of a close-up movie than The Witch. The idea of widescreen only came about in the 1950s - we wanted to take people back further than that."
Robert Eggers stated that the scene where Dafoe's character shines the light to Pattinson's character is heavily influenced by the painting "Hypnose" by German painter Sascha Schneider from the year 1904.
The design of the mermaid's genitals is based on shark labias. The mermaid labia was constructed entirely out of silicone. Eggers on the backstory: "The mermaid on the Starbucks cup that has two tails is based on an early mermaid design: Medieval and Renaissance mermaids were always split so that these anima figures of male fantasy could perform their role that had been unfairly thrust upon them by their male imaginers. But no surprise that in the Victorian era, they closed the mermaids up and made them impenetrable. So that single-tail mermaid silhouette has become the archetypal mermaid look for people today, and also what a mermaid would have looked like in the period of the movie. But we still had to figure out how mermaids can copulate and create more mermaids. So, we studied shark genitals."
According to Robert Eggers, the film was meant to include "a very juvenile shot of a lighthouse moving like an erect penis and a match-cut to an actual erect penis" (belonging to Pattinson), but it got cut after the premiere at the Cannes Film Festival.
Robert Eggers on the film's music: "I was looking for an aleatoric score with nods to ancient Greek music. I wanted to de-emphasize strings, and instead focus on glass and instruments you can blow into, including horns and pipes. It needed to sound like the sea. But I realized that we needed elements that would also harken back to an old movie score, so there's a nod to Bernard Herrmann."
The script didn't explain what Wake and Winslow's characters were seeing when they are staring into the light of the lighthouse. When Dafoe and Pattinson were playing these scenes, they didn't know it, either. The script only explained how their characters felt while looking at the light.
The residents from Yarmouth, Nova Scotia (where the lighthouse set was built) liked it so much that some fought to keep and maintain the fake lighthouse when filming wrapped, but it was removed because of safety issues and because it was only made out of wood.
Eggers' preparation for The Lighthouse began with the creation of a look book, detailing and distilling the film's aesthetics through works of literature, music, historical documentation, including photographs of New England mariner life in the 1890s. Also paintings by Andrew Wyeth, an early 20th century realist who painted the land and people of rural Pennsylvania and Maine, and symbolist painters like Arnold Boecklin, Jean Delville, among others, whose allegorical and mythical subjects inspired some of the fantastical imagery in the film.
Composer Mark Korven centered the films score on brass instruments with some orchestral production including friction rubs, an effect achieved by dragging a wooden mallet with a rubber ball on its end across various surfaces, including wood and glass. Other instruments present in the score include a glass harmonica, designed to replicate the sound of music made by wine glasses and wet fingers, and a waterphone, or ocean harp, a stainless steel bowl with bronze rods around the rim that gives off a vibrant, ethereal sound when used with a friction mallet.
The film had its world premiere in the Directors' Fortnight section of the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, three days after the news leaked that Robert Pattinson was in negotiations to play the next Batman. When press outlets asked him about it, he declined to comment. Two weeks later, it became official.
By coincidence, this is the third movie where Robert Pattinson's character has a masturbation scene, after Little Ashes (2008) and Damsel (2018). With maybe the fourth one happening in next years "The Devil All the Time".
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
According to Robert Eggers, the two lead characters represent figures in Greek mythology: Wake represents Proteus, an old prophetic sea-god, who was called the "Old Man of the Sea". Winslow represents Prometheus, a Titan and trickster figure, who defies the gods (Wake's character) by stealing fire (represented by the light of the lighthouse).
The final shot of seagulls swarming over Winslow's body and pecking at his insides as he lies helplessly on the rocks resembles that of the Greek mythological tale of "Prometheus": The Greek Gods took away the fire from humans as punishment for disobeying them. Then, the Titan Prometheus stole the fire back to give the valuable gift to mankind. The Gods were outraged by Prometheus' theft of fire, and so they punished Prometheus by chaining him helplessly to a rock, where each day an eagle was sent to eat Prometheus' liver, which would then grow back overnight to be eaten again the next day, forever.