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By Shanee Edwards · October 25, 2019
Max Eggers co-wrote the hypnotic new film The Lighthouse with his brother, director Rob Eggers (The Witch, 2016). The film stars Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson as two lighthouse keepers who frighteningly let the isolation of living on a tiny rock – with just each other as companions – get to them. Max and I take a deep dive into the mythology that inspired the new film, why everyone was mad at him (hint: the seagulls) and what it was like to be on set with two powerhouse actors.
The Lighthouse opened Oct. 25.
00:03 Shanee Edwards: You’re listening to The Script Lab podcast. I’m Shanee Edwards. Today I talked to Max Eggers, the co-writer of one of my favorite movies of the year, The Lighthouse. It stars Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson as two isolated lighthouse keepers who basically descend into madness before our very eyes. Here’s a clip.
00:57 SE: Okay. Hi, Max.
00:58 Max Eggers: Hello.[chuckle]
01:01 SE: Welcome to LA.
01:02 ME: Yes.
01:02 SE: We’re just talking about traffic and parking, and all of those LA things.
01:04 ME: Yeah. It’s LA, yeah. You find that when you come here, it’s like, yeah, there’s a lot of driving surprisingly, right? [laughter] I feel like New York, it’s like… What is great though, honestly, about LA is, if you’re late to a meeting in New York, there’s no excuse, but if you’re late to a meeting here, everyone’s like, “It’s okay. I was late. Don’t worry about it.” And I think I’m still getting used to that idea of like, when someone says, “It’s okay,” in LA, they actually mean it. In New York, they’re like, “It’s okay. I’m writing you off.” [laughter] But, yeah.
01:39 SE: No, we get it, we get it. We’re here to talk about The Lighthouse. Oh, my God, this movie. It’s powerful. It’s hallucinatory. It’s mythic. It’s masculine…
01:55 ME: That it is.
01:56 SE: In a lot of good and bad ways. [laughter] I don’t know about you, but whenever men are isolated, I don’t care if you’re gay or straight, whatever, you need women around, right?
02:06 ME: Yeah. And for us, it’s like, the two big female characters, one of them is powerful though, I will say, she, the sea, she has power and she will do something to those two men, who, as my brother said, are trapped in a giant phallus.[laughter]
02:24 SE: I didn’t… It’s funny, I was gonna ask you about some of the symbolism, but the giant phallus didn’t occur to me.
02:29 ME: Yes, yes. Well, it’s one of those things where it’s like it’s right there in your face, and you don’t think about it until you’re like… Someone says, and you’re like, “Oh, yeah, duh.”
02:39 SE: Right, duh. [chuckle] Let’s go back. One thing I really appreciate about the film, as in The Witch, is this heightened stylized language.
02:49 ME: Yes.
02:50 SE: I have a theater background, as do you.
02:51 ME: Right. I do, yep.
02:52 SE: And it’s just really exciting to see this language up on the screen. Maybe you can tell me a little bit about that, and how you got inspired to write the story.
03:01 ME: Sure. I think it all comes from research. Obviously, we dip into the great sources like Melville, Stevenson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge with “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” So, in terms of the language, like I said, it all goes back to research. You start from a place where you try to understand who these people were, and then you get into things like… Simply like sailor’s dictionaries. When we’re trying to think about somebody like Willem Dafoe’s character, they’re enormously helpful. But you have to know the context. You have to be able to write not only in their lingo but from their perspective. And I think that’s where, if you watch the film or you read the script, you see a lot of the antecedents with Melville, for example. I think that’s a big one. But then also there was a Maine author named Sarah Orne Jewett, and she was interviewing seamen and woodsmen in Maine from the era that we wrote in, which was about 1890. And she was enormously helpful for us, because she wrote these things, she wrote the interviews in dialect.
04:09 ME: And actually my brother’s wife, she was able to find someone’s dissertation on it, where we had some breakdowns of the rules of all the accents. Actually coming from a theater background, the rules of how you perform accents is exactly how it is as you are doing it when you’re writing it, which is certain vowel rules, certain consonant rules. I think the most obvious thing is the rhotic R, which is in Willem Dafoe’s character, Thomas Wake, so this sort of pirate kinda thing where it’s like West Country, where it’s like, “Rrr,” that kinda thing. But it’s directly contrasted with the non-rhotic R, which is what Pattinson’s character does. So, it’s that sort of “pakeka” kinda thing. But again, that all is research. And that was helped by… Specifically, the accents was helped by Sarah Orne Jewett. But then, we had the influence of Melville. And even as Rob has said, my brother, like Miltonian dissertations that Willem expounds. So, yeah. And I think, to your question about theater, I think we both have a background in Shakespeare. Our father was a Shakespeare professor, and our mother was a theater director.
05:32 SE: That makes so much more sense.
05:32 ME: Okay. [chuckle] Yeah. I could go on, but, yeah. It’s something that, I think, has been in our blood. I don’t say that I do this for pleasure, but Rob says that he reads this kind of language for just immense pleasure, and it’s in his bones. And I think I had a little bit more of a learning curve. But as performers, we’ve been in this. As children, we’ve been in this kinda just… I don’t wanna say Shakespearean, that’s giving us a lot of credit, but we’ve had that in our bones for a while.
06:03 SE: Sure. So, nature, obviously it plays a big part in this movie. You mentioned the sea being a character, how powerful she is.
06:12 ME: Right.
06:14 SE: There is the sea bird.[laughter]
06:17 ME: Yes, yes. Seagull, yeah.
06:19 SE: It’s the seagull. And the mermaid, of course.
06:22 ME: Yes, of course.
06:23 SE: Gotta love a mermaid. [chuckle] Gotta love it.
06:26 ME: Men love their mermaids.[laughter]
06:27 SE: They sure do.
06:28 ME: I’m sorry.
06:29 SE: When you were doing research, what did you learn about mermaids?
06:33 ME: Well, I think… They obviously go back to classical mythology, and obviously, I think, it’s one of those things where women were actually, in terms of the folklore, bad luck on the sea. So, I think personifying those that they miss was something that was clear. And I think it also goes back to, as I said, Greek mythology, with the sirens. So you have the danger of what listening to that feminine voice might do to you if you follow it. It’s one of those things where you can go deep into the rabbit hole with mermaids, and you can see it in folklore, like in Greece, in Ireland, in lots of different places. But I think, for us, it was much more about the archetype of it, what she represents for, I would say, sexual repression. Especially for Robert Pattinson’s character, he finds this scrimshaw mermaid in a mattress. And then, of course, he does see it later in the film in person. So, I think it was something that was more linked for us to something like temptation, like it is in Homer, if that makes sense.
07:42 SE: Yeah, of course. So, what made you want to write a movie about a giant phallus, The Lighthouse?[laughter]
07:49 ME: That’s a good question. I think…
07:52 SE: Tell me about your mother as well.
07:53 ME: Oh, my God.[chuckle]
07:54 SE: No, I’m Just kidding.
07:54 ME: Yeah, right. Oh, God. Or maybe my dad, maybe he has more responsibility. [chuckle] I’ll try to be succinct. I was an actor, as I have been saying, before I was a screenwriter, and I think I was inspired by The Witch. I think my brother’s process was really inspirational, even from the research level, from the writing process before it was financed. And I always thought I had a writer’s soul. I had people come up to me and say, “You’re a writer. You’re not an actor.” And I’m like, “Yeah, whatever.” But then I started dabbling in it. I started writing bad screenplays, as you have to, and then I hit on a really good idea. I realized no one had done a genre film on a lighthouse, specifically horror. And I was like… I did some research, found that Poe had written a story called “The Lighthouse,” but he never finished it. It was his last story that he never finished. Being a naïve writer, I thought hilariously that, “Oh, well, I can finish “The Lighthouse” for him.” [laughter] Sorry. It’s a joke. I’m not comparing myself to Poe, but I had originally called it “Burnt Island.” It was based on a lighthouse that’s, I think, in Kennebunkport called Burnt Island. It was about a man and a dog, a ghost story, much different from what we have right now, but linked to the Poe story. It was about a man and a dog, but it was about madness on a lighthouse. That’s what was clear.
09:24 ME: I told this to Rob, my brother. He loved the idea. When I couldn’t really get it together – again, amateur writer – he asked if he could take a stab at it. Years later, after The Witch, after some projects of his that hadn’t come together, after I’d made the switch and wrote a spec script that went to some screenwriter festivals, he thought was halfway decent. And knowing that this was my idea, it was my idea… [laughter] I’m sorry. He thought we should work together, ’cause he needed some help. And actually it was great. And I think, for me, in terms of collaboration, it all comes down to trust. And you never know with your brother, sometimes it can be complicated, but thankfully we trust each other. We knew that however crazy this thing could be, and we knew we wanted it to be crazy from the start, we could trust each other and see where it would go.
10:24 ME: And I think that should bring me to Rob had… Once he had it in his hands, he knew from the get-go what this thing was gonna be. He saw it as a two-hander. We got inspired by a historical event, called the Smalls Island Tragedy in Wales in the early 19th century. And it was about two men, both named Thomas, and they get stuck on a lighthouse and something bad befalls them. But we don’t follow what happens in the history, we just take the nugget of that and make it into something else, which is this dissertation on masculinity, or toxic masculinity. But he knew from the beginning that it’s gonna be black and white, aspect ratio. We also knew that we were gonna have… It’s two men trapped in a giant phallus, farting, peeing, feces, all that stuff, because that’s sweating, that stuff… That’s what happens when two men are trapped. And we also knew from the beginning that we wanted it to be that story of they’re there, and then they get stuck, and something bad happens really. Yeah.
11:30 SE: Well, it’s interesting. The two main characters argue quite a bit and… I don’t know. My dad has a twin brother.
11:40 ME: I’m a twin.
11:41 SE: You’re a twin, too?
11:41 ME: Yeah.
11:41 SE: Okay. Well, all I know is that they still fight. [chuckle] So, I just wonder if any of the arguing was influenced by you and your brother?
11:48 ME: Oh, sure, sure. Yeah. He’s told me that my work is vomit. [laughter] I probably shouldn’t have said that. No, but it’s true. Again, it’s about trust actually, because we’ve been working together in the theater. He had me… Rob is amazing. He knew he wanted to be a director from when he was 4 years old. He would dress us up in costumes, like Dick Tracy costumes. We were his guinea pigs. And so, I think, from an early age we trusted each other. And I think… Yes, I will say though that arguments happen, brothers butt heads, and I think… Actually, what’s really interesting is, the dynamic of Willem’s character and Pattinson’s character… In the script they’re called old and young actually. We did take that on, of the head keeper and the assistant, so there was that dynamic that we could identify with there already. And I think also we wanted it to be this very archetypal story, very classic tragedy, Dionysian and Apollonian, old and young. Yeah. And I think, but… I can’t say… I have to be honest and say, yes, of course, there were… As brothers do, you can have knockout, drag out fights, so yeah.
13:14 SE: Your brother, the director, is not your twin.
13:15 ME: No.
13:16 SE: No, okay.
13:17 ME: I have another twin. His name is Sam, Sam and Max.
13:19 SE: Okay, great. Just to be clear.
13:21 ME: Yes, to be clear.
13:22 SE: So, there are so many symbols and mythic things in this film. At one point, I was watching it and they were arguing, and it made me think of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” That black and white movie. It’s very extreme.
13:37 ME: Yes.
13:37 SE: But then later on, I kinda realized, “You know what, this is sort of a Prometheus story, too.”
13:41 ME: Of course. Of course.
13:42 SE: Maybe you could talk a little bit about that.
13:44 ME: Yeah. I think early on… When we did the research… A couple of things. One is, you look into the masculine, and you can read any book that’s about psychoanalyzing sexuality or gender, and Prometheus, the Greek pantheon, all that stuff, that is there, when you talk about the masculine. Prometheus, he’s often called the culture hero. But what’s evident in researching sea folklore is the influence of the Greek and Roman pantheon. So, we then saw a common cause for our main character, Pattinson, with Prometheus, because he’s this man who’s after light, just like Prometheus was. And then because he is flawed, and he’s stealing that for ill-gotten gains, personal, he has to be cast down. With Willem Dafoe’s character, we actually found Proteus, who was often called the old man of the sea, whom you have to wrestle to get the truth. And he can go through every form imaginable, like fire, and water, and snakes, and whatever. So we just saw… Though those two characters never really met in the stories, we saw archetypal models from Greek mythology, with Proteus, the old man of the sea, which is what he’s called, and then Prometheus. It was just a very easy thing, once we started doing the research, to see. And so rich in terms of, again, what it means for the masculine.
15:15 ME: There’s also another character in Greek mythology called Heracles, who… He had labors that everybody knows that he did, but then there were extra labors after the fact. And one of them… This is actually not known to most people, very similar to The Lighthouse, he was this man, very strong, young, had to do extra labors, didn’t want to, just like Pattinson’s character, he encountered Proteus when he was told to find golden apples that were guarded by women. I can’t remember what kind of sirens they were, whatever, but he had to find Proteus and wrestle him to find the golden apple that gave eternal life. So, another Greek mythological analogy that we could have applied. But for us, it was Prometheus.
16:04 SE: Yeah.[laughter]
16:06 ME: Sorry, if that’s like…
16:06 SE: No. No, it’s great. Trust me. It’s rare that I get to kinda do this deep dive into mythology and stuff.
16:14 ME: Yeah.
16:15 SE: So, it’s exciting.
16:15 ME: It’s surprising how useful it is. I think someone named Joseph Campbell talked about that, or something.[laughter]
16:21 SE: Somebody’s journey. Maybe it’s a hero.
16:24 ME: Right.
16:26 SE: Yeah. How is this movie personal to you?
16:29 ME: Oh, Lord. That’s a good question.
16:32 SE: And what does the light mean to you?
16:35 ME: I don’t know if I can say what the light means to me, because I feel like… What I can say is you have to… I think you should… You need to know if you’re worthy of it. I think you can only encounter it and wrestle with it once you know who you are. If you don’t, and you try to steal it before you’re ready, then I think something bad may befall you. I don’t wanna give too much. I don’t wanna say… We know what it is, but I don’t wanna say, because I feel like that gets close into what is in there, what’s in the light. I think, for me, bridging off of that, this is about the masculine and the folly of the masculine. I think it’s about not knowing… Every story, every script is someone has an issue of the self. You don’t know… There’s something wrong in terms of the id, the ego, the super ego. There’s something out of whack here, and you gotta order it in some way. That’s why they go on the hero’s journey. You have to encounter yourself and find out who you truly are. So, I think… If this is making sense, I think, for me, ultimately, it’s about not kidding yourself. It’s about not denying the truth of who you are. And if you cannot face yourself, then you’ll never see the light.
18:00 SE: That’s heavy.
18:01 ME: I’m sorry.[laughter]
18:04 SE: As a person who feels like she’s in denial all day, every day…
18:08 ME: Oh, I am. We all are. But that’s what makes screenwriting such a, to your question, such a wonderful self-reflective process. Because though every time it should be new, I think you discover yourself in these characters as you’re writing them, because you can’t write them if it’s not coming from an honest place. I think that’s probably why it’s somewhat difficult to get into what it means to me, because it means so much. But I think, clearly, if you look at the arc of the script, of the story, this man is mired in the unconscious of… Of his own unconscious. And he cannot deal with what he’s done. He cannot deal with himself. He’s trying to get away from himself, but he still wants to see the light. And then he has to crawl up there. And then once he sees it and gets above water, to where the light is, he’s not worthy. But again, that’s just… It’s about not knowing who you are, not being comfortable with that, and lying. And it’s true. We all do do that, to some degree. But sometimes the light burns, sometimes it’s 95 degrees in October, in LA, and… [laughter] Anyway.
19:23 SE: Were you on set?
19:25 ME: Yes. Yeah, I was. It was actually wild. That’s the thing. Writing this thing was wild. Knowing that people got it was wild, that they embraced it, like our producers. Halfway through, our producers’ first reading of the script, Rodrigo Teixeira, with RT Features, he texted us, “I love. He’s resilient.” [chuckle] And we were like, “Woah.” But he got it. And then… Obviously, you go through the regular stuff in pre-production, where you have to fix the things that you wrote that don’t make any sense or are factually incorrect, or will not work. And there was a lot of stuff we threw at people, so there was a lot of that. But seeing what other people added to it in the process, and then seeing it happen on the day, and seeing the actors bring what they brought, which was so… We were so blessed. Because we had ideas about what we wanted and we… Specifically, we shaped it in a way that made it hard to go away from what is on screen. I think what you see, on the page to on the screen, is actually quite similar. That being said, Pattinson and Dafoe, they brought something magical every day, every take, that I didn’t expect, I don’t think a lot of people expected. And so being on set was magical, but it was maddening because, again, a lot of the stuff we wanted, it was crazy. Crazy.[chuckle]
20:55 SE: Are there any funny stories that you can share?
20:57 ME: Sure, absolutely. First of all, I will say that I was responsible for the seagulls, that was my fault, and everybody reminded me of that. We couldn’t film… We couldn’t get the seagulls in Canada, where we shot, because those are protected species. So, we had to use seagulls that weren’t exactly like the classical yellow-billed seagulls, but in London. So, we had to do that later after the shoot. But I remember one day, I was talking to our… Our assistant director was passing by me… And if you’ve seen the film you know that the seagulls are very important and they do a lot, but it was really stressful. Our assistant director passed me, and I said, “Look, there’s a couple of seagulls over there.” And they’re like, “They’re eating a carcass. Look, check it out.” And he goes, “Don’t even talk to me about seagulls. I know they’re your fault.” [laughter] And I think everybody kinda had that attitude.
21:58 ME: Something else that was funny was… Actually this speaks to the writing process. We’re very specific about it all, and we wanna get it right. And there was a section, that’s early on in the film, that is the first real scene of dialogue between the two of them, and we just… There was a piece of text, it wasn’t right and it was… And it had all this, like the sailor’s lingo, it was about the dog watch. Something wasn’t right. And I had to go back through rehearsal, as we were doing with Willem Dafoe, and then into, up until the first shooting day, or actually I should say I think that was like the second or something, but basically on the day I was still working it. And finally we got it, we got it right, it was factually correct. Willem, at the time, was like, “Look, don’t worry. No one’s gonna know what I’m saying.” And I was like, “But we will.” So, I give him the new sides, and he learns them thankfully. And then when he’s about to do the shoot, when he’s about to do the take, I’m like, “Willem, thank you so much. Thank you for taking our notes.” And he goes… He looks at me and he goes, “You guys are crazy.” [laughter] But we hadn’t buried him alive yet, so he didn’t actually know how crazy we were.[laughter]
23:11 SE: That’s great. A lot of my listeners are up-and-coming, emerging screenwriters, and they would love to see their movie up on screen. What advice do you have?
23:25 ME: Oh, man. I think you’re gonna have to work your butt off. I know that’s an old adage, that is… People do, people work really, really hard on their scripts, but I think… Here’s what I would say. I think be willing to collaborate, and I think be willing to face the fact that what you are, what you love and are precious about needs exposure. You need as many voices in this process as possible, because, as much as you think you love your story, I think collaboration is the name of the game. Even if you’re not involved in the production level, I think, give your script, even if you’re afraid, to somebody and let them talk to you about it. Make sure that they know… Make sure that it’s something that can be as good as it can be. I cannot tell you, from the theater, coming from that background, collaboration, even on something that is very personal, like screenwriting, is the name of the game. Because if you can’t do that professionally, I think, in this world, be willing to have a question asked of you and think about it, even if you don’t know, it’s impossible. It’s collaborating. I think that may be my biggest advice.
24:39 SE: Sure. That’s great.
24:41 ME: Okay.
24:42 SE: What’s next for you?
24:44 ME: Oh, my God. Right now, working with Bob [24:49] ____ and his producers on a project. But right now, I can’t say precisely what it is, or anything like that, but I’m talking to lots of different companies and producers, and seeing where this takes me. Writing, of course, all the time, but… Yeah.
25:12 SE: Well, I wish you nothing but the best of luck with this movie and your future career.
25:17 ME: Thank you.
25:17 SE: And I really hope everybody goes to see The Lighthouse, because it’s that good. It’s so good. It’s one of the best movies of the year, for sure.
25:25 ME: Thank you.
25:26 SE: Thank you, Max.
25:27 ME: Yeah, thank you. Thank you.
Shanee Edwards graduated from UCLA Film School with an MFA in Screenwriting and is currently the film critic for SheKnows.com. She recently won the Next MacGyver television writing competition to create a TV show about a female engineer. Her pilot, Ada and the Machine, is currently in development with America Ferrera’s Take Fountain Productions. You can follow her on Twitter: @ShaneeEdwards