“I know how to hype myself up now”: Robert Pattinson on making The Lighthouse

Robert Pattinson tells Philip Concannon what drew him to The Lighthouse, why he likes a director who knows exactly what he wants and why Willem Dafoe’s ‘impossible’ career is a one-off.

Celebrating Willem Dafoe in the February 2020 issue of Sight & Sound
☞ Divine inspirations: the art of The Lighthouse

Philip Concannon

Willem Dafoe as the lighthouse-keeper and Robert Pattinson as his second in The Lighthouse

Willem Dafoe as the lighthouse-keeper and Robert Pattinson as his second in The Lighthouse

In the same year that the Twilight saga ended, Robert Pattinson starred in David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis (2012), and it felt like a statement of intent from a young actor determined to take control of his career. Pattinson is a risk-taker who is drawn to directors with unique visions and roles that push him to extremes, and The Lighthouse is the latest chapter in an increasingly impressive body of work.

When you first read this screenplay, what was it that connected with you and convinced you that you had to do it?

Screenplay writing is quite a strange artform. It’s just designed to make you turn the page and it’s a sort of bastardised version of writing a lot of the time.

When you see something from page one that’s like, “This is something that’s not going to change, there’s not going to be any script revisions, you’ve written it as a piece of writing” – when you feel that level of respect for something and that disciplined approach, it’s powerful. I remember reading Paul Thomas Anderson’s scripts and that’s a similar thing, where it doesn’t feel like a script, it’s something more.

If you’re making in any way a narrative movie and the script is bad and the dialogue is bad, it doesn’t matter what you do with it, the movie will be bad. So when someone is writing something in a very special way, you trust it.

When I spoke to Robert Eggers he said, “Rob and Willem have different combinations of inside-out and outside-in, method and not-method.” How would you describe your approach to acting?

I saw Willem do an interview where he said, “The only way for Robert to approach a scene is to jump in the water and drown,” and I was like, “That’s kinda true.” I’ll prep stuff but sometimes when I say what I’ve been thinking about a part, I always feel so silly talking about it, and you’re much better off just keeping it to yourself.

I know I can access a kind of recklessness, which doesn’t always work, but I know how to really hype myself up now. It’s fun, but it can only work when you’re in a particular type of scene or working with a particular actor. Willem is a really exciting actor to do stuff with because it’s never phoned in, ever, and we both really enjoy going to that manic level.

The Lighthouse (2019)

It’s unusual for a film to be a pure two-hander and The Lighthouse does have a very theatrical quality. Did you approach it any differently because of that?

Not really, but when we were rehearsing Robert had taped out the whole room exactly to the dimensions of the set, and Willem and Robert have both done a lot of theatre, but maybe I just don’t have the imagination for it.

In some ways the blocking was like a play, but there was also weird stuff like the aspect ratio meant we had to be closer together. There are so many scenes when we’re close together just to get in the shot, but then it kind of adds this weird thing because they’re supposed to have so much animosity, but we look like we’re about to kiss all the time.

Everything about Robert’s filmmaking is very precise, from the dialogue to the blocking to the lighting. How do you respond to that kind of exacting direction?

I kind of like it. I think you always balk at it initially. You think, “I want to have total freedom to do this thing,” but really even if someone says this is the track you’re on, the direction is still always different and particular.

It’s also not designed for any perceived audience satisfaction, it’s just for Robert’s taste and that’s the movie I wanted to make, so it’s actually weirdly satisfying. And it’s exciting; if someone says the only way they’ll accept the scene is if you get a hole-in-one, when you do get that hole-in-one it’s like [screams excitedly].

Willem often talks about his choices being dictated by filmmakers and how dedicated he is to fulfilling a director’s vision, and it seems you have a similar outlook. Do you look at his career as a model to follow?

His career is impossible! Willem is a one-off, but I do love the fact that he’s just so excited about finding new directors. I mean, he is on the hunt for directors constantly.

I think supporting people who are making exciting stuff, especially when it’s so difficult to get anyone to come and see anything, it does make a difference. There are so many auteur directors whose movies don’t make any money, but there’s always a believer somewhere, some kind of patron, and they always seem to have long careers. I mean, Claire [Denis] is still making loads of movies. I think there are believers everywhere if you are a believer.


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