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'The Lighthouse' And 'Jojo Rabbit'

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Two films that will make my ten best list are arriving in theaters: "The Lighthouse" and "Jojo Rabbit" so I'm thrilled to be able to highlight both films with interviews. I speak with filmmaker Robert Eggers (who previously directed "The Witch") about his new film "The Lighthouse" starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson and set in an 1890s remote New England lighthouse. And then I talk with actor Stephen Merchant who enlightens us about how to tackle playing a Nazi for laughs in Takia Waititi's anti-hate satire "Jojo Rabbit."

Show transcript

Speaker 1: 00:04 Well, major last police. He believed that there was some in China in the light

Speaker 2: 00:14 [inaudible]

Speaker 1: 00:14 when two Maddie did call tales writer director Robert Eggers kept his new film, the lighthouse tightly under wraps while it was being made. But now that it's been released, he's opening up about the film set in an 1890s new England lighthouse. How long have we been on this rock? Five weeks. Two days. Unempathic Armando and welcome back to another episode of listener supported KPBS cinema junkie podcast

Speaker 3: 01:01 [inaudible].

Speaker 1: 01:01 Today I looked to a pair of new films and speak with filmmaker Robert Eggers about the lighthouse starring Willem Defoe and Robert Pattinson. And then I talked to Stephen merchant about his role as a Nazi in Tyco [inaudible] anti hate satire, Jojo rabbit. So let's get the first break out of the way early and I'll be right back with my interview with Robert Eggers, the director of the witch, and now the lighthouse.

Speaker 4: 01:28 First of all, there was a title at the end of the film, which I wasn't able to read because it was fairly small, but did it say that some of the dialogue was taken from like lighthouse, uh, logs?

Speaker 5: 01:42 Yeah. In the, which my previous film, uh, there's a lot of Intacct sentences from Puritan writings. There's not a lot of Intacct sentences in the lighthouse. My brother and I were really, for the most part, writing our own dialogue, but because we don't speak in obscure new England dialects from the 19th century, we had to do a lot of research to sort that out. Being from, from in the 19th century and new England and nautical, obviously we're going to turn to Melville very quickly. And we did look at lighthouse keepers, logs and journals and many other sources, which I'll spare you, but the one that listed, uh, on the, on that title card that was too small and brief for you to decipher. We, we, we acknowledged the main author within the state of Maine, Hara Orn Jewett's. She was writing in the same period as a film takes place and she was interviewing, uh, working people in coastal Maine and then writing her main stories in dialect often phonetically, which became very helpful for my brother and I Rob speaks like her, her slightly inland farmers' more or less. And, and Willem speaks like the characters who make their living on the, on the seat. And there are a few, Willem Defoe does have a couple intact sentences from a retired to captain character in Sarah orange do it, which allegedly means that a retired sea captain actually said those things at some point in time.

Speaker 4: 03:16 And in doing that research, was there anything you found that inspired you in some way or that surprised you?

Speaker 5: 03:25 Uh, I mean, anything that was surprising or inspiring, we, we put in the movie you're creating, um, creating a source over whether you're creating a SSRS, uh, to kind of draw from, you know, we're writing in, in dialect from the beginning. We're not translating from modern English. So [inaudible] is kind of grouped with phrases and vocabulary that I talk about. Mood and feeling and intention rather than like a direct one-to-one translation like a, a global thesaurus. But yeah, it's all inspiring. I mean the, you know, of course we were, we weren't, we didn't sit say let's write a movie in 19th century main dialects. Like the idea was to do a, a create a ghost story and a lighthouse didn't end up being a ghost story. It ended up being something more strange. But the, it was that concept. And then the, the black and white atmosphere, the black and white crusty, dusty, rusty must be atmosphere of, of this nautical world with cable Mitch Guernsey sweaters and cool stumpy clay pipes in salt Cod. Uh, you know, that was a world we wanted to explore and in order to articulate it, uh, we needed to do a whole lot of research.

Speaker 4: 04:38 Now you mentioned the witch and that was inspired by tales of new England and this also is kind of very localized to that area as well. W w what appeals to you about drawing on these stories that are kind of from your neighbor, your backyard kind of?

Speaker 5: 04:53 Well, you know, a, as every writing teacher says, write what you know. So there's that and, and max and I kind of grew up in the location of the which in a collaborate house surrounded, surrounded by scary, uh, white Pines. And then, you know, family summer vacations, we would drive up to Maine and, and for, to vacation in the lighthouse, uh, location sort of. Uh, and, and in both films are certainly me trying to come here and with the, the folk culture of my region's past or, or I should say the culturally dominant, uh, Anglo products in folk culture of my region.

Speaker 4: 05:39 I wanted to ask you about the, your choice of the aspect ratio for the film. Do you intend for it to be seen on a big screen where it does have these kind of, um, black pillars on either side? And the reason I ask is that there were certain times in the film where that almost it feel more claustrophobic. Like they were moving in on the characters and sometimes it blended into the frame and made it seem wider. And I was just curious if you intended it to be projected kind of on a screen like that or, or to have it just be that that squarish frame?

Speaker 5: 06:15 Well the bossy aspect ratio was a does a few things for us. For one thing, it is an old timey aspect ratio one 19 to one that comes from the early sound era. And so it, you know, on a very simple, easy surface level transports us back in time a bit. But additionally, you know, we're framing vertical objects like the lighthouse tower and cramped interiors, cramped claustrophobic interiors like you mentioned. And a bossy aspect ratio is better for that than than a wide one. In a perfect world, I would kind of prefer for it to be screened in theaters that had a more square screen. But obviously knowing that we live in a 2019 and theaters are designed for cinema scope. I was quite aware of that. Yeah. And nearly every situation this movie is going to be seen as a box. You know, in the middle of the cinema still screen with, with with pillar boxing would do. Was I conscious about the pillar boxing adding to the claustrophobia? Maybe, but I think if there were theaters that had a slightly square screen I would, I might prefer that. I still think it would be plenty claustrophobic

Speaker 5: 07:33 comrade shaft, which was a film made in the early thirties about a mine by uh, was very claustrophobic in this aspect ratio back when screens, uh, were more square.

Speaker 4: 07:46 Well, what I love about your films, this one in the which is that you really feel this sense of craft going on in the sense of I feel like everything that's there is there for a very particular reason and you, you really took the care to frame it exactly like that light it exactly like that. Put the elements in the frame. And I'm just wondering, when you tackle these things, did you know from the beginning that that's the aspect ratio you wanted to work in and that you wanted it to be black and white and kind of where in the creative process did some of these decisions come in?

Speaker 5: 08:19 A black and white and a boxy aspect ratio where they're from? From the very, very first time that my brother said it goes story in a lighthouse. How we specifically carried these things out is an evolution of that that comes from research and writing and the story becoming more clear. Uh, and then some of the technical stuff is also like what we can literally what me and Jared, the cinematographer and I can like literally get our hands on the, the, the even boxier aspect ratio than Academy. The one 19 to one early sound business that came a few years in since thinking about the movie Jerry and brought that up happened jokingly, but I thought that it was a fine idea, but you know, we would have wanted to photograph the movie on or the chromatic film stock. Uh, but that doesn't exist anymore for motion picture cameras.

Speaker 5: 09:15 So we, we use a black and white negative called codex double X. That hasn't changed since the 1950s and also looks really good. And then the Jaren developed a custom filter with Schneider a to give us the ortho chromatic look and, and weren't there chromatic basically the main thing about it is that it's, it's not sensitive to red light. So, uh, the color red renders black and all the rosy Hughes in Caucasian skin tones rendered darker and you're picking up every blood vessel and Tor, uh, which is going to make Robert patents and unwilling to so look more like salty seaman.

Speaker 4: 09:54 I have to say that when I went to the film, I had gone with no sleep the night before cause I had a project, I was working on deadline. And I have to say that on a certain level that intensified the experience of making it a little more like kind of hallucinatory on a certain level. And I just want you to talk a little bit. I'm glad you didn't just fall asleep. No, no, not at all. It was, I mean, I found it quite riveting. Talk a little bit about how you use, there's this mix of, some of it feels very kind of gritty and real. And then there are these other moments where it just kind of, I don't want to give away too much, but there's other moments where it like takes off and creates a very different kind of fantastical world.

Speaker 5: 10:38 Well, uh, fairytales, folktales, mythology, religion, uh, sometimes vehicle. That's what really interests me. And so we're going, so in exploring the, the folklore of new England and the natto nautical new England and the imported folk folklore from the British Isles in Western Europe, there's going to be a mermaid and you have to try to make that mermaid as credible as the buttons, the period. Correct. United States, lighthouse establishment buttons on Willem Defoe and Robert patents in uniforms. And of course it is a story of two men in a claustrophobic potboiler situation. And so, you know, that's going to lead to madness and madness leads to large emotion. And I actually don't think that devote and, and Rob's performances are stylized. I think that they're quite realistic. But if you've ever been face to face with, with madness, it can seem quite extreme

Speaker 4: 11:43 and there are certain elements in this that harken back to HP Lovecraft and I'm wondering if you are a fan of his and, and if that influenced you in any way.

Speaker 5: 11:54 Yeah, absolutely. A PO Arthur Machen, Mr. James Algernon, Blackwood love crafts were all influential to this movie though I, my brother and I prefer the like Jamesy and ambiguity rather than Lovecraft and kind of explaining everything [inaudible] if this were true love crafty. And when Rob finally gets his hands on willing to foes logbook, it would be filled with a dig on runes and explanations of how Willem was part of a mystical Colts and the, and, and the love crafty and God that lives in the beacon of the lens and all that stuff would be explained. Not that I'm saying that that's what is happening in the movie either. Uh, like that got specificity. I'm not really particularly interested in for this movie.

Speaker 4: 12:48 Well, what I like about your films also is that you take horrific elements and you take certain elements that are kind of familiar, horror tropes, but you always seem to be able to push the boundaries of conventional horror to find something that feels uniquely your own.

Speaker 5: 13:05 Well thanks. That's a very nice compliment. I think it's just that the stuff that I read and watch and, and and inspired by the composers and painters as well, they all tend to be in cemeteries so people are kind of less familiar with some of my, with some of my influences. So that can give, maybe give my seals the appearance of being unique even if I know they aren't.

Speaker 4: 13:33 And one element that's great in this also is the soundscape because there isn't a real defining line between kind of ambient sound or sound, real sounds. And then music. And then sound design. And talk a little bit about how you work with sound on your film,

Speaker 5: 13:49 uh, in a very heavy handed fashion. Uh, there's a lot of sound telegraphing with what's going on. I, I'd love to make a movie one day that, that doesn't have a musical score, but both the witch and the lighthouse because they're dealing with these like ecstatic emotions and experiences. I don't think that you can really communicate that without, without music. But yeah. Um, when I was shooting the film on the Cape for a shoe, which is a peninsula off the Southern tip of Nova Scotia, and incredibly punishing and hospitable location, I might say the sounds in the power of the sea, and the wind was so present that, you know, I, I wanted to have a really large sounding movie that was the only way you could do it. So we worked very hard with Jamie, involve a, the sound designer and Mark Corban the composer on, on, as you say, uh, blending the lines between these two things where the Foghorn would sort of meld with the aleatoric brass section and Willem to foes flatulence. And there was a lot of work to be done to make sure that every object in the house sounded as crusty, dusty, rusty, musty. I hope I didn't know where to use that string of words in this interview, but you know, to make everything sound as broken down as as possible so that when you know, when you hear all, all the rust and old pipes and horrible sounds of the water pumps, that you know that the water that's going to come out of that has gotta be the worst tasting water that's ever existed.

Speaker 4: 15:27 You mentioned that when you and your brother were younger that there were things about witches and ghosts that that scared you as kids. What kind of influences did you have as a child in terms of the things that scared you and how that maybe has colored your creative interests moving forward into filmmaking?

Speaker 5: 15:45 I mean obviously, which is were a big deal since I've made the, which I haven't had a nightmare about the which, so I suppose I kind of exercise that, so that's nice. But I think all these childhood memories are a huge part of any creative person's work. I mean, it's part of any adult baggage and, and, and what makes it makes them who they are, any of them. But of course in doing creative work, if it's going to resonate, you're, you're drawing from your auto biography. I don't think I ever literally make anything autobiographical, I don't think interesting enough. But you put your, your [inaudible] pieces of yourself into the fiction that, that you create. So whether it's a literal tear of a, of a creature, like a witch, a or an archetype like a witch, there's also just the every day anxiety, uh, of, of childhood and being afraid that your parents are going to find out that you flunked everything that semester that you can, you know, uh, and do your work with that same kind of tailor, uh, or try to

Speaker 2: 16:55 [inaudible]

Speaker 1: 16:56 that was filmmaker Robert Eggers. The lighthouse opens in more theaters this week. I'll be right back after this final break with my interview with Stephen merchant. He plays a Nazi and Tyco, T T's new anti hate satire. Jojo rabbit, although merchant only acts in this film, he's a writer and director in his own right and was one of the creative forces behind the British sitcom the office. So sit tight and I'll be right back to talk about Jojo rabbit with Stephen merchant

Speaker 4: 17:26 to begin with. Stephen, this film is not a film that fits neatly into a box, which is one of the things I love about it, but how would you describe it to someone?

Speaker 6: 17:36 Yes, it's a, it's a tricky, um, sell as it were. Obviously the, the people behind the movie have labeled it an empty hate satire, which I think is a pretty accurate description. But yes, a G do you mean in terms of, how would I describe the story or how would I categorize the tone of the film or the feel of the film?

Speaker 4: 17:55 If you were trying to get somebody to come to see your film and they were a little bit like, I'm not sure what it is, what would you tell them?

Speaker 6: 18:02 Well, firstly I would, I would tell them that for me it fits into a, a tradition of movies that I've always really loved, which use humor to deal with, with big or difficult subjects. It puts me in mind to films. I booked her Strangelove, you know, there's no more Bleeker subject than you can, or apocalypse, but dealt with such irreverence and humor that obviously famously became a classic. I think Monday Python's life of Brian did something similar with religion and a, in this case we're dealing with Hitler, we're dealing with prejudice, uh, and the way that sort of, I suppose people can become and get swept up in a particular ideology, particularly children. And so in that regard, it fits into an even longer tradition of, of movies. The satirized and mocked Hitler right back to the 1940 is when he was still in power.

Speaker 6: 18:50 Obviously a Chaplin's the great dictator being a kind of prime example, but also earn it's Lubitsch did it with, to be or not to be late to Mel Brooks in the 60s. And certainly in the UK where I'm from, there was a long tradition of sort of people mocking Hitler. Even. I remember on talk shows people would come on sort of dressed as heaven and goof around and, and so, um, I suppose for me that's what kind of appeals to me about the film is it's, it's, it's very comic, but I think it deals with big ideas and I think also by the end it's very moving and I think it takes you on an emotional journey, which in, in a, in a climate of movies where there's a lot of, you know, and nothing wrong with it, but a lot of the superhero movies and we make, it's, it's quite brave I think to make a film in which a young boy has hitting her as an imaginary friend.

Speaker 4: 19:34 All right. Do you have mentioned like some of my all time favorite films, uh, in that list? But we're at a time right now where it seems comedy is in a difficult spot because people seem to be almost looking to be offended and to, to kind of take this stance of like, you can't make jokes about that, which is a little different or not. Maybe not a little different, but it seems like there's a very acute sense of this right now. So how do you kind of get a comedy like this to reach an audience and to kind of sidestep some of that?

Speaker 6: 20:10 Well, it's tricky isn't it? I think there's, there's a difference between giving offense and taking offense and sometimes people can take offense at something and there's no way of you policing that really as, as the filmmaker, I think you just have to be able to do something that you can stand by and feel that you're not trying to upset or offend. You're just simply trying to tell your story and use humor as you see fit. And like I said before, I think this film fits into that long tradition of the satirizing hit there. In fact, it's interesting that during the war itself, the BBC and my country had a German ex-pats writing comedy sketches, which they then broadcast back into Nazi Germany and in an effort to sort of undermine and mock satirize the regime. And so I suppose for me it seems all to that we would be overly sensitive now about dealing with this subject when in fact at the time it w you know, Kuma was, it was, was what are the direct targets against him. So yes, of course people will always feel this subjects you can't joke about. I guess because I come from the world of comedy art, I've always felt you can't even theory make humor and satire about any subject. It's about how you do it. Do you do it responsibly? And, and so like I say in the end, I don't think the movie sets out to cause offense, but people could choose to take offensive if they decided to,

Speaker 4: 21:41 well, you've written and directed a lot of comedy yourself. So looking at the film that Tyco TD has created, what are the, the challenges are, how do you actually kind of make it work when you're kind of going from slapstick to pathos? Like sometimes within seconds of each other?

Speaker 6: 22:00 Well, I have to say, you know, I've tried to juggle, you know, humor and emotion and pathos in the work I've done. But it wasn't until I sold the finished version of this that I was amazed at sort of how he had managed to pull it off. Because you know, even in the making of it, I sort of admired Tycho's ambition, but I couldn't quite see how those two things were going to match up. I really was, I was thinking, wow, this is going to be, this is going to be a sort of all day. She just rolled up the dice and, and somehow, you know, in seeing the finished film, I think he starts with, with humor, sometimes quite broad, sometimes even surreally that in a multi Python way. And then somewhere in the mid point of the film you're starting to really invest in these people.

Speaker 6: 22:43 And by the end I think it's very emotional and very heartfelt. And that's, that's a Testament to him that I'm genuinely, and I don't mean this sort of, you know, just in order to sort of blow smoke up his ours as we would say, I just don't know quite how he did it. I, it's some kind of slight of hand that that is very impressive. And I think in part it's because Tyco is just very instinctive. I think he just, he, he just goes with his gut and I think he feels, whereas perhaps I would have overanalyzed it. I think he's just gone with, I'm going to make you laugh and now I'm going to make you cry. And I think he just goes with his instinct and I think he pulls it off magnificently. I really was dazzled when I, when I sold the finished film.

Speaker 4: 23:23 And what does he like to work with? Cause the comedy to create this kind of comedy. It, it seems to me that it would have to be kind of very meticulously planned and written, but is it something that was tightly scripted or did he allow for some sort of improvisation by actors? How was he to, to work with?

Speaker 6: 23:43 Certainly my experience was I had, um, learned the script very carefully and I'd worked with a dialect coach because we had two, we'll do these German accents and I'm not very good at accents. And I was anxious about that. And I and I and I, you know, read my script, every word, kind of broken it down into syllables and was very well prepared and got there on the day and then he's had nearly improvise and I had something of a panic attack thinking, well I can barely do the German accent as it is, let alone improvise and I'm opposite recent Academy award winner Sam Rockwell and I was very anxious but the atmosphere he created was very nonjudgmental and very improvisitory if that's the word. And just you know, welcomed our, our input. And you know it's tricky because you are dealing with delicate subject matter but you don't want to sort of sensor yourself on set really. You just feel that you need to go with it and trust that he'll choose what's right in the editing room, which is, which is what he did. But yes, certainly again, for dealing with such heavy subject matter, there was a surprisingly light sort of atmosphere on set, which I think you just need to, when you're doing comedy in particular,

Speaker 4: 24:54 well, and you're seeing in particular too, he seemed to have a lot of fun with the physicality of you being very tall and exaggerating possibly. But you being very tall and Sam Rockwell being much shorter.

Speaker 6: 25:06 Well, I sort of was towering above salmon, a very deliberate way to seem like this intimidating you stop officer. And then it's like, I just thought that was funny. So then put me on a [inaudible]

Speaker 6: 25:18 to make me even told her again. And I'm already six foot seven. It's rare that people make me stand on a box in a movie. They normally want me to cry or bend down. So, um, yes. But yes, there's a kind of a subtle ways of using this sort of physical humor, which, which I always love as a very tall English person with blondish hair. It was inevitable to me one day I would get the phone call, we want you to play enough Nazi. It feels like every English actor plays in Nazi at some point. But I just was pissed I was able to do it for Tyco.

Speaker 4: 25:49 And how do you tackle a role like that?

Speaker 6: 25:51 Well, to me, I was put in mind of the estoppel officers you saw in movies like, uh, the great escape or uh, even Raiders of the lost arc in which there's some thing sorts of, it's, it was felt very bureaucratic and it's something about that which made them all the more chilling for me. They always seemed like petty men, men of is of no significance in, you know, in life who had sort of somehow been given the power of life and death over people. And so they were sorts of, they were characters like, like type before nerdy guys, insecure people who have suddenly been given this power. And sometimes for me, they're the scariest people because, because they don't wheel the gun, you know, they make other people do their dirty work. And so for us, for me it was drug trying to be sort of both slightly buffoonish like a kind of nerdy bureaucrat who then can suddenly turn on a diamond B eerie and chilling and have a kind of creepy smile in them. That was what we were shooting for. And again, as you said before, just trying to get that balance of, of humor with hopefully something more real or sincere or in this case chilling.

Speaker 4: 27:01 I recently had the opportunity to, um, interview, uh, Armando Iannucci about his films and work. And one of the things you mentioned is that he said our real world and our real politics have become so absurd that like he felt he had to quit Veep because he couldn't, as a comedy writer, he couldn't come up with anything more absurd. And then he turned to Soviet Russia to make a film. So as someone who does deal with a lot of comedy, I mean, is there that sense that sometimes the real world gets so absurd? It's, it's hard to find comedy, like contemporary stuff. You have to go back in time to,

Speaker 6: 27:37 well, yeah, I mean I think that, I think that's true and I feel like we are living in an age in which the rules that used to exist, particularly politics sort of no longer do. And it seemed like the rules was wa you could mock and, and you could, you know, you kind of, when things have a very rigid structure of how things are done, somehow that makes sense. Higher, easier, and sort of magnifying the absurdity of it. But now when the, the absurdity is just, you know, for instance, you know, the classic joke by politicians is always that they were lying. Well, now they're lying openly and, and, and everyone accepts that they're lying and that's a new normal. And so you kind of undermine the aspects anymore. I mean, there is a sorts of power, this extraordinary power in someone just denying that they've done something.

Speaker 6: 28:22 You've lied. No, I haven't. Oh, Whoa. Where do you kind of come back to that they used to use the rule used to be you've lied. Oh no, I'm human. I did as a shame. I better resign. But, but if you just say no, I didn't lie, you're sort of invincible and it does make satire and comedy much harder because you used to try and expose that hypocrisy. You played that hypocrisy for last, but that pockets, he's just worn as a badge of honor. So it is, it is somehow, you know, you, you, you go back as all, I'm on duty to stall in this Russia where you go back as we have to world war II and, and yes, at least at least somehow the rules were clearer. So yeah, it is. It is difficult. It's very, I, it's, it's, it's also, I think always slightly depressing. No matter how many times a late night talk show host or a sign in our live sketch mocks the current political climate, it makes no real impact. And he starts to feel a little bit like you're just, um, again, without, should to be vulgar, as we were saying. England, you're pissing into the wind.

Speaker 4: 29:25 All right, well, I want to thank you very much for your time. I know you're on a tight schedule. And, um, thanks so much for talking about the film.

Speaker 6: 29:31 I appreciate it. Thanks so much for having me.

Speaker 3: 29:41 [inaudible]

Speaker 1: 29:42 that was Steven merchant who plays one of the Nazi officers in the new film, Jojo rabbit that opens in theaters in November. Thanks for listening to another episode of cinema junkie. The show comes out every other week, and in a crowded podcast field, I need your help to get more people to give cinema junkie a try and hopefully become addicted. So consider telling a friend to take a listen to our next film fixed on BeltLine, Mondo, your residence and mud junkie. [inaudible].

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Satisfy your celluloid addiction with the Cinema Junkie podcast, where you can mainline film 24/7. This film and entertainment series is run by KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando. So if you need a film fix, want to hear what filmmakers have to say about their work, or just want to know what's worth seeing this weekend, then you've come to the right place