In High Life, the Claire Denis astro-thriller released earlier this year, Robert Pattinson’s prisoner, in a remarkable display of restraint, abstains from wanking in “The Box,” a metallic masturbation room housed in the most fucked-up spaceship imaginable. Not so in The Lighthouse. In fact, the future Batman tugged himself off with such vigor, such frenzied commitment, it charmed his director.
“On day one we shot Rob masturbating in the shed—it’s the very first thing we shot—and Rob really, really went for it,” the film’s director, Robert Eggers, recalls. “And you know, it was inspiring.”
Set in the 19th century and shot in stunning, boxy black-and-white, The Lighthouse tells the tale of two lighthouse keepers, grizzled vet Thomas (Willem Dafoe, in full Ahab mode) and green Ephraim (Pattinson), whose isolation, combined with a plethora of potent booze, drives them to madness.
Dafoe, whom Eggers calls “one of his heroes,” reached out to the filmmaker after seeing his Puritan horror movie The Witch, keen to work on a project together—as did Pattinson, whose involvement came with one major caveat: “I’m only interested in things that are weird.”
And weird this is.
Theirs is akin to a master-slave relationship, and as Thomas’ treatment of Ephraim worsens, and as more booze spilleth, the young charge’s hallucinatory visions become more and more intense—as do his masturbation fantasies. According to Eggers, the film was meant to include “a very juvenile shot of a lighthouse moving like an erect penis and a match-cut to an actual erect penis” belonging to Pattinson’s character, but the financiers demanded that it be cut for ratings purposes.
Yet that pales in comparison to what actually made it into the film. In what may be the most bonkers movie sex sequence of the year (sorry, Midsommar), the lonely laborer imagines that his pocket-size mermaid carving has come to slithery life (played by Valeriia Karaman), beckoning him on the beach, waves crashing all around her.
“When you’re on the southern tip of Nova Scotia in March or April, it’s gale-force winds, and you’re getting sprayed in the face with a firehose, it’s cold—to put it mildly,” says a chuckling Eggers.
Ephraim approaches, and as he does, the mermaid spreads her tail to reveal, well, an elaborate mermaid vagina. The seaman mounts her, and starts pumping away in the sand; all the while, a series of grotesquely beautiful images flash onscreen, from slippery tentacles to the aforementioned mermaid parts in extreme close-up.
“It was very pre-planned and storyboarded,” says Eggers. “The design of the mermaid’s genitals—based on shark labias—was all planned out, and what we call the ‘seafood salad’ shots, or the writhing tentacles and fish, those were tricky to figure out on the day.”
The mermaid labia was constructed entirely out of silicone, and the mention of it causes Eggers to offer up a rather detailed backstory. “The mermaid on the Starbucks cup that has two tails is based on an early mermaid design. Medieval and Renaissance mermaids were always split so that these anima figures of male fantasy could perform their role that had been unfairly thrust upon them by their male imaginers,” he explains. “But no surprise that in the Victorian Era, they closed the mermaids up and made them impenetrable. So that single-tail mermaid silhouette has become the archetypal mermaid look for people today, and also what a mermaid would have looked like in the period of the movie.”
He pauses. “But we still had to figure out how mermaids can copulate and create more mermaids. So, we studied shark genitals.”
The Lighthouse’s trippy mermaid-sex sequence was shot in less than a day—they shot the entire film in 35 days, after all—and a memory of it has been immortalized in Eggers’ iPhone.
“There’s a behind-the-scenes photo on my phone of Rob and Valeriia in blankets in-between takes smoking their Juuls,” he concedes with a laugh.