The Partnership: Robert Pattinson & Willem Dafoe On Their Tense Two-Hander, Contrasting Styles & Appreciation For Robert Eggers

'The Lighthouse' stars Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson
Chris Chapman

Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe had never worked together before they found themselves in a remote part of Nova Scotia being battered by wind, rain and sea on the shoot for Robert Eggers’ Lovecraftian horror The Lighthouse. They came from different worlds to create the movie’s only two characters; Pattinson, a stoic, young man who takes a job as an assistant lighthouse keeper to run from his past, and Dafoe, the mile-a-minute, seasoned wickie whose eldritch monologues are all pungent slime and dread emperors. Over the course of the movie, these characters drive each other mad—or perhaps they started that way—as the harshness of the environment bears down on them. Yet there’s plenty that the two actors have in common, beginning with them each seeking out Eggers to work with, determined to find projects to rattle their own sense of security. In conversation with Deadline, Pattinson and Dafoe dive deep into the black waves to relive the slithering, tentacled tales of The Lighthouse.

DEADLINE: How familiar were you with one another before this project beckoned?

WILLEM DAFOE: Well, not so much. We’d never met. I actually met Rob at a party when I knew we were going to be doing it together. I knew his work some, of course, but I even looked at a couple things more when I knew we’d be working together. Not so much for work but just socially. You know, to be pleasant.

Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe in 'The Lighthouse'

I think the one thing that’s worth noting is, separately, we did the same thing in that we reached out to Robert Eggers. Rob can tell you his story, but mine is that I saw The Witch and I thought, Wow, this filmmaker here. Who is the person that made this? So, I set up a meeting with him, and I had a really good time talking to him.

What you see is what you get. Even in conversation, he’s precise, he has great film culture. He’s very passionate, very articulate, and sweet. So many things. Not only did I appreciate him from his work, but then I thought, This guy would be good to work with. I said, “Let’s try to do something.”

He had a couple of false starts on a few things that he talked to me about. They just never happened. And this one was very direct, because really, he said, “Look, here’s the script. You’ll play opposite Rob Pattinson.” There was no discussion. “This is the way we’re going to do this. My way or the highway.” That’s very unusual, especially for a two-hander, for a director to say, “This is the way I see it. Yes or no?”

ROBERT PATTINSON: It’s true. I really do love going to see the movie now and knowing how much of a punt it truly was. To have so much certainty about the casting… Even talking about the script—I asked him where it came from, what the nexus of the idea was, and he couldn’t really articulate exactly what it was. But seeing the movie now, it seems so singular. He definitely had it in his bones, exactly what he wanted to do. 

DAFOE: He had a really clear structure, and he had a clear visual thing. He had the bones, and then the meat I think he fleshed out with casting and seeing what we’d bring to it.

It’s funny, we’ve talked about this movie a lot but this is something I’ve only just remembered. In the script they were described as “old” and “young”. I was like, “Well, obviously if it’s Rob Pattinson I’m ‘old’. I get that. But I don’t feel that old.” I thought, Well, OK, we’ll figure it out. But it’s strange that I’d play this old guy.

But then I look in the mirror, and I think, OK, maybe I pass. The joke’s on me. You read the script and it’s really rubbing your nose in it [laughs].

DEADLINE: Rob, why did you go after Robert Eggers?

PATTINSON: I didn’t realize it at first. I had seen The Witch in the theatre and I’d really liked it, but there was something… It’s funny, now it’s kind of changed, this idea of horror being a genre in which you can be much more experimental and get away with a lot. But at the time it really stood by itself. I just couldn’t really picture myself being in something with him if it would be like The Witch again. It just didn’t really click.

Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in 'The Lighthouse'

And then I met with him in New York, and he had so many different projects ready to go. It hadn’t really registered with me until then, just the level of craftsmanship in The Witch. That took me a couple of years. But when I met him, it really came into focus, just how much I liked his stuff. And when I saw the script for The Lighthouse, seeing the detail, seeing the dialect in it, and seeing that he could really follow through on The Witch, it made me realize there was something there.

DAFOE: It’s funny. As Rob is talking about it there, I’m reminded of one of the things I liked about The Witch, which was that I wasn’t at all familiar with the performers and, once you mixed them with children, you’re not sure who’s professional and seasoned and who’s someone new. I saw the film shortly after I’d done The Florida Project, and so I was in the mind of being fascinated with that mix. People with various different backgrounds, where you combine the theatrical with the naturalistic. As Sean Baker did in The Florida Project, Robert Eggers could take actors with great skill, and then people who had never acted before, like the children, and there’s no adjustment. They were living in the same world. That’s a real talent.

DEADLINE: What does that offer you?

DAFOE: You want a challenge as an actor, but you don’t want to make a show, you know? So, you want to find a way to get the stink of acting off your performance. You want to be clean. You want to be a human being. You want to pass as the character, and it’s not necessarily through the language of acting that you want to go about that. He had a deep understanding of that. Which is curious, because he’s so accomplished technically.

PATTINSON: And he seems to be quite theatrical, in a way.

DAFOE: Yeah, but the challenge is to make it pass, you know? To take that language and make it feel normal. Of course, that’s where he’s brilliant too, is in realizing the period. That’s what I like about The Witch too. You’re there. It’s not this academic thing where you’re always pointing to the period carriages and things.

PATTINSON: He and his brother Max just kept coming up with more and more dialogue for these characters. It wasn’t as simple as just writing lines to fit the plot. They almost had to come up with scratch dialogue just to figure out the period language. It felt like, by the end, they could generate conversations for months and months.

DAFOE: I think they did. Because he said they got carried away with it and really grooved on all the slang. That was all before we got to it, where they said, “Whoa, should we pull back?”

DEADLINE: You talked there, Willem, about actors from different backgrounds. That seems true of the two of you. Were you conscious of approaching this from different places?

PATTINSON: We are different. But what Willem was saying about wanting to try to get rid of the acting—to act while not acting—I think that was the main thing.

DAFOE: I think we both ultimately want the same thing. 

PATTINSON: Yeah, assimilation, more than anything. It is quite a frightening thing with acting, when you know you’re with someone who has mastered the actually technical ability of being able to convey a particular emotion. “If I behave like this, the person in front of me will know exactly what I’m trying to express.” I think that’s really frightening; that’s the terrifying thing. Whereas, if you’re just allowing yourself to feel the situation, then the audience will take what they want out of it. That’s kind of interesting to me. I mean, I don’t have the ability to do it the other way, so… [laughs]

DAFOE: I’m not so sure.

Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in 'The Lighthouse'

But it’s true, it’s about doing stuff and having stuff happen. Having an experience that’s transparent enough that the audience can feel it with you, rather than doing a show that tells the audience something, interprets it, like, “This is the way it is, folks. We’re going to dump it on you.”

A lot has been made of our different approaches, but that stuff becomes cartoon-y. The point gets made because you’ve got to find something to talk about. And then someone picks up on that and they run with it.

The truth is, we each had different tasks in the movie. You see the movie through his eyes, and in the beginning, for a lot of it, he’s mostly reactive. So, when he talks about receiving the experience and having something happen, that’s one way. And I had to drive for a little while, at least in the beginning. So, the preparation is different. Wouldn’t you say?

PATTINSON: Absolutely. I mean, from the beginning for you, you were getting used to the amount of dialogue. There’s a ton for Willem, and not for me.

DEADLINE: You were both grappling with the technical exercise of navigating the camera, and how that was going to work in such confined spaces.

DAFOE: It was so precise. I’m used to working lots of different ways, and I don’t know about you, Rob, but I’m more used to a looser camera. I mean, I’m used to Abel Ferrara, working from a scenario on the street, or Lars von Trier, where the camera’s never in the same place twice. On this there’s no coverage, so everything shot is for keeps, you know? You have got to really make sure that the scene happens within that frame and that structure.

PATTINSON: You couldn’t really hide. There was no halfway point. You couldn’t look away or try to get a little amount of light on your eye or something. It was literally, you were either in total darkness or you were totally exposed. That’s what, for me anyway, brought a lot of the intensity to everything.

Also, there’s something about being reactive to the light. There was so much light on your face, and it kind of made you feel like you had to push back against it somehow. Whereas normally, my go-to in a scene is, number one, figure out how to get out of the room as quickly as possible. Number two, try to figure out how to look away [laughs].

DAFOE: What, in case there’s a fire? [Laughs.]

PATTINSON: Here you had to really stand still. Stand still and actually do your job. Stand and fight. It was terrifying.

DEADLINE: What it results in is these incredibly specific moments that stick in the memory long after you see the movie. It’s somehow elevated and it’s hard to know how.

PATTINSON: I think even in the script that was true. You could feel the death-defying nature of it. It definitely felt like you were on the edge of a cliff, getting ready to jump. And where you’d land, you had no idea.

Robert Pattinson in 'The Lighthouse'

There’s something about the aspect ratio as well. When you have a closeup where there’s nothing either side of your face, it really does do something remarkable. 

DAFOE: It’s so intentioned. It’s not like you’re unsure of where to look in the frame.

This isn’t a rule, but I like films sometimes that really feel like they express or capture the feeling of shooting. This one felt like that. There wasn’t a lot of fat, and the shots were so designed that there didn’t need to be a drop of coverage. Now, Louise Ford did a beautiful job of editing the movie, but what we shot is what you see. So, there were few surprises, in contrast to something that is overshot, which can go in a lot of different ways when you see it. And it wasn’t like we were checking playback, but you had a pretty good sense of the shot on the day.

PATTINSON: I remember when you were doing your big monologue, and Robert did only one shot. It felt bold. I mean, that was a page and a half. Maybe even longer.

DAFOE: Yeah, probably longer. 

PATTINSON: I don’t know any other director who would have kept on one shot for maybe two pages. The thing I really like about the final movie as well, there’s something about when someone wants to have a pretty formal aesthetic, they can kind of create this sort of distance to the audience. The fact that it feels so visceral, even with the aspect ratio and the black and white, there’s something special about that. When I saw some of the dailies, that was my only fear, that there would be some kind of coldness to it. And it doesn’t feel cold at all. It feels very juicy.

DEADLINE: Have you had experiences where you’ve shot stuff with a ton of coverage and you’ve felt your performance has been manipulated by the edit?

DAFOE: Well, it can feel that way, because it gives a different rhythm and they can take stuff out. I never think about modulating a performance for that very fact: that it’s going to be ordered later. All I think about is the individual moments. Like beads on a mala, you’re building one thing at a time and making sure each of them has integrity. That’s all you can do. Some people, I think, try to modulate, like, “Ooh, this is the arc of the character.” I can’t do that bullsh*t. Particularly when we’re shooting out of sequence, like we did on this. We did the burial on the second day. He was doing the… intimate scene on the first day. The self— What did they call it?

PATTINSON: The self-abuse [laughs].

Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe in 'The Lighthouse'

DAFOE: As Rob said, it certainly sobered up the crew. “I get it. We’re making this kind of movie.”

PATTINSON: This was a weird one, because my character at least doesn’t particularly know what’s going on, ever. You are just kind of winding yourself up into a state of frenzy. There were moments where I had to realize I didn’t even know quite what was going on. I remember, when we were talking about f*cking and all that stuff, I think Willem was quite frightened that I was going off on him or something. 

DEADLINE: Is the uncertainty sometimes the draw of the job though?

DAFOE: It’s one of the best parts. Otherwise you’re just in lockstep, you know? Then it’s just a crafted thing, rather than an adventure or an experience.

Robert went and rankled us, in such a good way. I think he got the best out of Rob, and he got the best out of me. The best directors give you a good set-up and structure to find a sweet spot. If you get into the fabric of the thing and it works, that’s the best. It’s along the same lines as getting rid of the actor stink.

PATTINSON: Yeah, if you can define what you did afterwards, then you probably did the wrong thing. And the nice thing when you finally see the movie, is you can watch it and—

DAFOE: See someone else? Yeah, me too.

PATTINSON: I really enjoyed it as a movie and felt like an audience member, which doesn’t happen every time.

DAFOE: It’s really true. Usually, when I see a movie, the association that I’m making is so strong. And maybe that contradicts with what I said about how it looks like it felt, but that is true. When I see the movie, I can kind of lose myself and I don’t see myself up there. I don’t see Robert Pattinson up there. I don’t have hard associations, like I normally do, with the filming.

DEADLINE: You have both chosen, in your careers, provocative work. Roles that provoke a reaction in an audience. Is there a drive towards that?

DAFOE: I don’t know about that. They provoke a reaction in me. And I want people to like what I do—when you make a movie that you really like, you want to get it out there. But I don’t think about provoking people ever. I don’t even really think about provoking myself, but it’s just about getting yourself off of your game. Particularly if you’ve been performing for a long time, you can get really corrupted. You can really develop a schtick. You can develop a go-to place that, for a lot of people, is very satisfying. For the actor and for audiences.

But for me, just because of how I’m built, and the sensations I like, I’m always trying to pull the rug out from under myself. I don’t think that’s human nature. I think you’ve got to create situations where you’re forced to do that. I think that’s what saves you from feeling like anything is a slog. Everything becomes special and sacred and fun.

When people say, “Oh, that movie must have been so hard,” it’s like, yeah, we were f*cking miserable sometimes. But I’m alive now. It didn’t kill me. You know what I mean? It was fun. I look back on it fondly.

PATTINSON: Yeah, it’s kind of against human nature. Your body is constantly telling you to find the comfortable place. The safe place. 

DAFOE: Not just the body, the mind as well.

PATTINSON: Yeah. I think there’s something about Robert being so meticulous and so obsessive that he has to make these massive leaps. As soon as he’s made the leap, he’ll immediately start building the bridge to wherever he is going to land. He needs to take the leap first, otherwise he’ll build the bridge so that it’ll look like there’s too much structure there. Doing press with him now, I can see the way he’s filling out the ideas of what he meant. But at the beginning of the shoot, I think it was a leap of faith. And I love that. I’m reminded of working with Claire Denis, or other directors, where they trust their instinct really, really profoundly, and the direction you’re going in doesn’t need to be defined.

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