Robert Egers' new black and white dramatic drama Farah is the kind of movie that is almost impossible to bring a studio to the market. This is a nominal horror film set in the brutal isolation of a remote, storm-shuttered coastal lighthouse in the 1890s. But it's hard to say what kind of type of horror film – Jiger and his brother and co-author Max Eggers deliberately keep the details ambiguous. It focuses on an older headlight guard (William Dafoe) who takes on a young, initially restrained apprentice (Robert Pattinson) who eventually becomes a belligerent. As tensions rise between them, they cope with events that can be hallucinatory or an attack from the supernatural. This is the kind of movie that deeply frustrates conventional horror fans who just want a clear and present monster to show up and say boo.
But the easiest way to market is to say "This is the second Robert Eggers movie." Egers' debut film, The Witch caused similar frustrations with some fans of the genre due to the slow burning of tension and the lack of conventional scares. But for a certain breed of movie fans, it was a stunning project ̵
In the Questions and Answers of Fantastic Fest, you said that you developed a whole camera language for this movie. What went into it? What do you want to get out of it?
Jarin [Blaschke, the cinematographer] and I worked very closely together to develop this. Our intention was to tell the story through Rob's eyes in the beginning, and the final footage is our objective directorial point of view. From the scene where Rob watches the gentle beacon disappear into the fog, all the way to the third to last shot of the film, this is from his perspective.
Now you may not experience it as an audience all the time. I hope you do. But when Jarin and I were deciding where to put the camera, we thought about how Rob was going through that moment. There are several scenes from Willem's perspective, but only rarely. And then – it's not like the slightest cut is any better, but we're trying to come up with something very substantial, so we would start with a scene that we shot from four angles and reduce it to two or three. Sometimes frame / frame is the best way to do things, but I've never shot a scene with traditional coverage and probably not.
You can create a sense of momentum in a scene when you make a long-tail lie. It captures a kind of energy if done correctly. And there are certainly things about the cinematic language of this movie that refer to old cinema. You don't have to consider any specific films, but the handmade feel of how the camera works is sometimes a little off. We talked about how big the tooth head is in Fritz Lang's camera – it was not in good shape and this is evident in his films.
There is a shot early in the movie when Patison moves to the camera in water and looks like a very early quiet picture, especially with a square ratio. What did you want from the sense of a silent age?
I'm not trying to trick anyone into thinking it's an old movie. Our lighting just isn't how anyone would make a movie then. But by evoking the feel of an early sound film, it more easily places the audience in the past. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, there was a small genre of headlights in Europe, with several French directors filming things in Brittany for the maritime community there. And in the early 20's there were some silent films, with Rin Tin Tin and a lighthouse [1924s Lighthouse by the Sea ] and a silent movie with a girl and an old man in a lighthouse [1924 Captain January ]. Shirley Temple made the color and sound version later. Somehow, setting headlight stories in this era just feels right.
You have been using one camera lens since 1912 and others from the 30's. How did you get them? What did you get out of them?
We received them from Panavision. Jarin has a good relationship with Panavision and they know that he is dealing with all these strange things. So when they are in their dusty cupboards and find something strange, they tend to let Jarin know about it. We had an enlarged lens that we use for a shot that no one knows what the hell. I think – not unknowingly, but subtly provoking certain answers that the audience will not know. There are certain ways in which whites flourish and this makes it feel like an older movie. Creating an atmosphere is just the sum of all these little, tiny details, such as making sure the buttons on the uniforms are correct for the period and the instruments and dirt under their nails are correct. The small aberrations of these old lenses, the sound design, all of this is just being built to create an atmosphere where you can buy and hope you will be immersed.
Part of the atmosphere is the feeling of impending madness because of the threat of isolation and superstition. But since you deal with the madness explicitly from the beginning, the movie feels ambiguous. We don't know if it's a fantasy or a psychological thriller.
So this ambiguity was key to the story?
Yes! My brother and I worked very hard at writing to answer all the questions about ourselves, but then to make all those mistakes for the audience. There are a few signboards – it's bad luck killing a seabird – and we couldn't be more obvious with the minor boom by the headlight to meteorologist Mary Poppins. But other times there are many important lines of dialogue that pass by momentarily and if you are not there to pick it up, you will be thrown out. This is deliberate! I don't know if it's successful, but we worked on it.
Was there any complication in remodeling these old lenses for modern cameras?
Yes, Panavision regenerated all lenses for us and it took a little work. The speed of remote control to pull the focus had many problems. We have broken many rain deflectors over time. Eddie Mackinis, our great magician, was like – it's raining and he has a flashlight in his mouth and he's like [ Yells ] "I'm trying to break three fucking eras of fucking camera equipment together, all this nonsense ! Raaarrr! ”[ Laughs ] Good times.
When you were talking to Q&A about the awful time throughout the movie, most of all, my first thought was how did you keep your lenses dry and clean?
Yes, as I said, we broke a lot of rain deflectors and there were many pictures that we couldn't use because the lens was foggy. Take after after take … Rob had to enter the Atlantic 25 times because the lens continued to blur in that frame.
You are drawing a dialogue from contemporary sources, as you did with The Witch . What was the process of sewing these old magazines together in history?
With The Witch I started a lot with other people's words to create scenes. This was not the case here. Mostly I was trying to translate what I was looking for. Defoe has a few sentences here and there that are completely intact by the sailors of Sarah Orn Jewett and the sea captains. But overall my brother and I developed a kind of thesaurus for ourselves. There are useful dictionaries that have been helpful, and we have come across things where we say, "That's a great phrase, we have to use it." As when Willem's diary becomes important to history, this was from my research. I found a headlamp guard who says nasty things about my assistant and used some of it. After we got involved, Willem was so much fun writing – I had to sit down with him to cut a lot of his dialogue out of the script before going on camera because I just couldn't stop writing dialogue about that character. It was fun, but I went too far.
In Q&A you said that Dafoe and Pattison have radically different rehearsal and acting styles. How did they approach the material?
Everyone needs something different. I'm probably talking to you a little differently than I was talking to the last people who were in this room. You are always calibrated to what other people need. Frankly, neither of them needs a whole lot. They are very talented actors and I cast them because I knew they could do it. But I need certain things. They both choose to take risks in the films they make and the directors they work with and knew that they would have to give up some of my approach in order for the film to succeed. It could still fail, but if they didn't work under the conditions I had to work, there was no chance of success.
There are some things that William likes, and things I did that he doesn't like, and the same with Rob. Jarin and I needed the actors to rehearse to know their blocking ahead of time so that the movement of the camera did not feel artificial. Willem came from the theater and he was in rehearsals and was happy to do it. While Rob really hated rehearsals, he didn't really feel comfortable. It wasn't like I took advantage of Kubrickian in this way, but … you know, Rob's character is awkward and out of place, so it only ultimately helped us.
One of the most striking shots of the film is Willem Dafoe giving a speech while lying in the water with dirt in his mouth. What was it like to shoot this scene? How did you manage?
Willem was not a happy camp man. She was really in a terrible mood and we couldn't do too much of it. This water underneath it, if you notice it, just looks like a nice texture. But he lay in icy water on top of everything else he had to endure in that scene. And we shot it the next day. But Willem Dafoe is Willem Dafoe, so he did and I'm just a happy person.
We talked before about how Witch evokes a modern, corresponding fear of female power. Do you see a similar contemporary resonance in Headlight ?
If it wasn't, I don't think anyone would like the movie. You know, if it's so vague that only one of the 1890s will get, like and understand and enjoy what I'm doing, I have a fucking problem! But I never thought of making a feminist movie when I did The Witch was just something that happened. And like with this movie, I see it through a lens like this – people like to talk about the difficult, toxic masculinity in this movie. As I said last night and again in the fucking press release, "Nothing good happens when two men are alone in a giant phallus." Really, what else is going to happen there, except what happens here?
headlamp and movie accessories because you couldn't find something to meet your needs. How did you find this control useful?
The kits are designed to work with the aspect ratio. The furniture had to be built to match the sides – the kitchen table had to be a certain size where we could get two shots on a 50mm lens without squeezing the walls out. And the interior of the tower of the lighthouse – I'm going to give away my secrets here, but we had to be able to move walls because it's eight feet in diameter and you can't fit an actor and camera in eight feet and do anything with them .
This was at least a little inspired by the true historical case of two men of the same name looking for a headlight. How much did you get from this story?
Only that. The younger man, too, had a sinister past and was known for violence, and the men entered a number of lighthouses. So I used that too. But the end of this true story – I just don't know how true it is, because its end is like a folk tale or something outside of Edgar Allen Poe. The old man dies of a heart attack and the young man is afraid of being accused of killing him. So he ties the body to the side of the headlight to somehow tell people that there is a problem. I know, "What ?!" And then the corpse of the old man continues to knock on the window.
You talked in Q&A about using an orthochromatic movie that I had to look at. Why was this important to you?
They no longer make an orthochromatic movie. So we used Double-X, which is actually the only 35mm black and white negative that you can easily get. But we tested some other movie stocks. Kodak had fun with the idea of doing some stocks that make 16, making them 35 for us. We couldn't afford to do that. But this is the stock we preferred because it has a more aggressive grain structure. And we used a filter to create a more orthochromatic look. If we went with true orthochromatic, we would have used a deep blue filter. But we already needed so much more light to get exposure with Double-X that we used a cyan filter. So it wasn't as aggressively orthochromatic as the movie stock of early cinema. But no one is used to working with a format that requires so much light these days. So it was a learning curve for everyone.
The headlamp opens in limited theaters on 18 October 2019, with widespread distribution beginning on 25 October.