Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in “The Lighthouse,” set on a fictional Maine island. Photo by Eric Chakeen

“The Lighthouse” may be the most Maine-centric movie not made in Maine.

The psychological drama, which has been receiving praise from critics since premiering at the Cannes Film Festival in May, is about two lighthouse keepers on a remote Maine island in the 1890s. It stars longtime Maine vacationer and ice-fishing enthusiast Willem Dafoe, and has dialogue heavily influenced by Maine writer Sarah Orne Jewett and visuals informed by the Maine paintings of Andrew Wyeth. Director Robert Eggers grew up near the Maine border, in New Hampshire, visiting the beaches and lighthouses of southern Maine often. He and his crew painstakingly researched the history and looks of Maine lighthouses to get their sets just right.

If the film hadn’t been shot in Nova Scotia for financial reasons, it would be about as Maine as a major motion picture ever gets. It opens in select theaters nationwide Friday. In Maine, it’s scheduled to open Oct. 25, including at the Nickelodeon Cinemas in Portland and Railroad Square Cinema in Waterville.

“The production designers looked at a lot of Maine lighthouses to get the look right, and the writing of Sarah Orne Jewett was incredibly crucial in shaping the character’s accents,” Eggers said. “But, unfortunately, it just makes so much more sense, financially, to film in Canada.”

That’s also where he shot his directorial debut, the critically acclaimed 2015 horror film “The Witch,” though it’s set in his native New Hampshire.

Robert Pattinson, left, and director Robert Eggers on the set of “The Lighthouse” in Nova Scotia. Chris Reardon photo

“The Lighthouse,” Eggers’ only film since then, received the critics’ award for best first or second feature at the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes. Reviews have praised the film for the dramatic tension between the main characters – the lighthouse keepers played by Dafoe and “Twilight” star Robert Pattinson – and say it blends elements of a psychological drama with horror and black comedy. The film was shot in black and white, with the murky light, shadows and fog reminiscent of 1940s film noir. The only other character in the film is a mermaid.

The story begins as two “wickies” – a period term for lighthouse keepers – arrive on a remote Maine island in the 1890s to man the light and do maintenance on the grounds. Thomas Wake (Dafoe) is a high-spirited veteran lighthouse keeper who tries to control his younger, inexperienced partner, Efraim Winslow (Pattinson). Winslow is a former lumberman looking for a new start. In trailers for the movie, Wake is highly suspicious of Winslow. Dafoe is heard repeating over and over, in a dream-like voice, “Why’nt you spill yer beans?” Other parts of the trailer show the two men drinking, dancing and becoming less grounded in reality as time goes on.

MAINE ACCENTS UNCOVERED

The film is getting buzz because of its edgy look and feel, and because of the impression Eggers’ film “The Witch” made on critics. Set in 1630s New England and also shot in black and white, that film was a supernatural horror story centered around a Puritan family. But “The Lighthouse” also is attracting attention because of Dafoe, one of the most celebrated actors of his generation and one known for taking on challenging roles.

Dafoe’s 40-year career includes several memorable roles in major films, including “Platoon,” “The Last Temptation of Christ,” “Clear and Present Danger” and “Shadow of the Vampire.” He’s been nominated for Oscars four times, two of them in the last couple years – for “The Florida Project” in 2018 and “At Eternity’s Gate” in 2019 – but he has never won.

Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in “The Lighthouse.” Photo courtesy of A24 Films

Dafoe has had plenty of personal experience with Maine accents, Maine people and the Maine landscape. For more than 20 years, he has vacationed at a home Thompson Lake in Oxford County and has said in interviews how much he enjoys ice fishing there. He was actually filmed ice fishing in Maine for the short-lived early 1990s cable TV show “Fishing with John.” In recent years, he’s been spotted around Portland, where he often comes to visit family members who live in the area. Eggers said Dafoe’s love of Maine is apparent to anyone who works with him.

“He really loves it there, and I know he goes there a lot,” Eggers said.

Requests to interview Dafoe, made to publicists for the actor and the film over several months, were never granted. Dafoe’s publicist deferred to the film company, which said his schedule wouldn’t allow for it.

Although the lighthouse in the film is set on an island off the Maine coast, Eggers said it isn’t supposed to be a specific island. But for the dialogue, the filmmakers got very specific. Eggers said he and his brother and co-writer, Max Eggers, wanted to be as authentic as possible when it came to how the characters of 1890s Maine should sound. They scoured period writings about seafaring life, including those by “Moby Dick” author Herman Melville. But they found the voices for their characters in the works of South Berwick writer Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1909). Various coastal Maine dialects of the time are represented in her novels “Tales of New England” and “Strangers and Wayfarers,” both published in 1890. The brothers learned that Jewett had researched old sailors and farmers for her works, which informed their decision to make Pattinson’s inland character talk differently than Dafoe’s mariner, Eggers said.

Plus, contrary to the belief that all Down East Mainers drop their r’s at the ends of words, Jewett’s work convinced Eggers and his team that an 1890s lighthouse keeper off Maine might actually pronounce a hard r.

“When I was reading Jewett’s work, it was impossible not to hear the dialogue in this pirate-y way,” Eggers said.

“The Lighthouse,” starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, is set on a fictional Maine island. Photo courtesy of A24 Films

LOVE OF NEW ENGLAND, CONSCIOUS OF COSTS

Eggers, 36, grew up in Lee, New Hampshire, near Durham, where his father was an English professor at the University of New Hampshire. He would have loved to have made his latest movie in Maine, just as he really wanted to make “The Witch” in New Hampshire instead of Ontario. “The Lighthouse” was filmed on Cape Forchu, near Yarmouth, in Nova Scotia, where the crew built a 70-foot lighthouse.

“When we were filming ‘The Witch,’ I’d go home to New Hampshire and think, the white pines here would be so perfect,” said Eggers, who now lives in Brooklyn, New York. “But Maine and New Hampshire just don’t have the tax incentives that would make it possible to film there. Canada does.”

Karen Carberry Warhola, director of the Maine Film Office, said U.S. film companies have been making movies in Canada for years to take advantage of tax incentives. According to the film industry website CastandCrew.com, Nova Scotia offers film companies a rebate worth 25 percent of all spending as well as wages for resident labor. Maine offers rebates of 10 and 12 percent on labor costs and a tax credit of 5 percent on spending.

Warhola saw “The Lighthouse” at an industry screening and called it “well-crafted and mesmerizing.”

Even though Maine lost out as the filming location for “The Lighthouse,” Maine lighthouses have had their Hollywood moments. Tom Hanks can be seen jogging to the Marshall Point Lighthouse in Port Clyde in the 1994 hit “Forrest Gump,” and Portland Head Light in Cape Elizabeth makes a cameo in the Ethan Hawke film “Snow Falling on Cedars,” also from 1994. The 2018 superhero film “Aquaman” shows the future aquaman being born to a Maine lighthouse keeper and the queen of Atlantis in fictional Amnesty Bay, Maine, though the movie was made mostly in Australia. Aquaman’s mentor and teacher is played by Dafoe.

Besides studying photos of lighthouses up and down the Maine coast, Eggers said he and his team drew inspiration from the paintings of Wyeth, who spent summers in the midcoast until he died in 2009 the age of 91. Wyeth famously painted coastal Maine people and places, and Eggers said the filmmakers looked at them to make sure “our shingles and clapboards looked right,” among other things.

Eggers said the filmmakers tried to re-create a Maine lighthouse of the 1890s as accurately as possible. It just happened to be in Canada.


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