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The director of one of this year's craziest films is pretty confident about one thing: "People farted in the 19th century," Robert Eggers, the director behind The Lighthouse, tells SYFY WIRE. "I'm sure of it."
That's a big factor in why The Lighthouse, which tells the story of what happens when two men, played by Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, go increasingly mad while tending to a 19th-century lighthouse, is gleeful about the more scatological elements of life.
"I wanted to explore misery — I wanted to be able to laugh at misery because it's funny, frankly. And so we began very early on with the fart jokes," Eggers says.
This isn't to undercut the depth of the film, which is rich with symbolism and references to classic mythology — even though Eggers is, to be clear, not into the idea of explaining what his movie is about. "I hope that doesn't seem disrespectful to the journalist. It's just that's just not what I'm interested in," he says.
Instead, he enjoys how critics and audiences have the opportunity to find their own meaning to the story. "My brother [Max Eggers, who co-wrote the film] and I worked very hard on having answers for all these questions and then trying to tell the story in a way that, to use the filmmaker cliche, provides more questions than the answers," he explains.
For example, the titular lighthouse invokes a very clear image with a lot of different meanings, as Eggers acknowledges: "Yes, it's a phallus. Yes. It's a beacon of hope. Yes, it's a fortress, it's a castle tower."
But at the same time, The Lighthouse is deliberately a much less mature movie than Eggers' inaugural feature, The Witch — in his words, it is "juvenile and over-the-top and grotesque by design," while his first film, about a 16th-century Puritan family encountering evil forces, was meant to be "very restrained and subtle."
"There's definitely some beauty shots," he adds, before explaining how, with The Lighthouse, the aim was really to emphasize the characters' descent into insanity. "If you've experienced madness, you know that it's quite larger than life, and so in order to justify like all of these kinds of wild things that happened in the movie we want to be up close and personal with the things that are driving, particularly, our protagonist mad."
Thus why it was important to show the more explicit aspects of Pattinson's character's daily duties, including emptying chamber pots filled with feces, and also put on display the more brutal aspects of the character's life. "I mean, you go on his journey, he's hung over — we know what that feeling is, where you can't find any water to drink," Eggers says. "Then he needs to relieve himself and he can't even do that. That's a bad morning for Robert Pattinson, isn't it?"
For the record, Eggers had plenty of examples of other classical fiction that weren't afraid to get graphic. "Commedia dell'arte plays have all kinds of scenes with, like, giant syringes performing, like, enemas on characters," he says. "And there's a chapter in Don Quixote where Sancho Panza and Don Quixote are hanging off a cliff and Sancho is so nervous that he's going to die that he starts having diuretic bowel movements all over Don Quixote hanging on a branch below him. Scatological humor is old as time."
Pattinson, for the record, tells SYFY WIRE that he was pleased by the film's level of comedy, though he was also surprised that audiences found it to be funny.
"The script was really funny, but I'm always in that weird place, where you read something crazy, and you're thinking, 'I think this is funny, but I don't know,'" he explains. "Until I saw the first screening and I could hear people laughing inside, I honestly had no idea anyone was going to get it ... I'm stunned that people think is as funny and accessible as they do."
"I underestimated the appeal to the audience. Like, little things, like I didn't realize how much people like sea shanties," he continues. "I was walking into the theater at the end, and everyone's clapping to the song at the end. It's absolutely nuts."
While the film gets pretty graphic at certain points — including an extended fantasy sequence in which Pattinson's character has pretty explicit sex with a mermaid — Eggers was clear about how, when it came to one key moment of violence toward the end of the film, he decided to avoid showing the full moment. "I feel like that would have been gratuitous," he explains. "I'm making these choices as an author."
But showing the mermaid sex scene, in all its explicitness, was important because it represented a challenge to the Victorian paradigms that led to previous representations of mermaids going from split tails to a singular tail.
"They give no access point to forlorn sailors or even to male mermaids who are looking to, you know, repopulate their species," Eggers says. "But also I wanted to have the archetypal Victorian mermaid shape."
It's just one of the complicated elements that draw in the viewer, for a film that seems to truly defy any classification of genre. "I think it goes closer to like Luis Buñuel kinds of surreal, more than the horror," Pattinson says. "It is kind of scary, but I think it's so funny that I think I would classify it more as a really, really, really dark comedy more than anything else. Sort of a surreal dark comedy."
Meanwhile, Eggers feels that "when people are looking to explore ecstatic truth or truth beyond humanity and things that are divine and challenge contemporary philosophies, like all that kind of storytelling, is only done in science fiction today ... But I'm interested in exploring those themes by going backward and try to understand who we are where we're going from where we came from. In general, though, I bow down to the altar of genre every day, because it's enabled me to make two movies."
That said, Eggers still doesn't quite know what's going on in his own film, by design.
"What genre is The Lighthouse? I couldn't tell you. I think it's similar to the literary genre of weird fiction. Lovecraft, Blackwood, I might occasionally put Poe in there, though some others might not," he says. "But ... I don't really see it as a horror movie. I don't think it's scary. But, you know, I've had a lot of people who understand my intentions and enjoy the movie and proudly call it a horror movie. So call it whatever you want."