How 'The Lighthouse' Cinematographer Shot a "Transportive" Black-and-White Film

The Lighthouse BTS - Publicity - H 2020
Chris Reardon/A24 Films

Since 1968, when the Academy combined black-and-white and color cinematography into one category, only two black-and-white films — 1994's Schindler's List and last year's Roma — have won the Oscar (awarded to Janusz Kaminski and Alfonso Cuarón, respectively), and just a handful have landed nominations in the past decade, including 2009's The White Ribbon, The Artist in 2011 and last year's Cold War. Robert Eggers' psychological thriller The Lighthouse now finds itself in the conversation thanks to the stark, evocative work of Eggers' regular collaborator Jarin Blaschke. The two have worked together on two shorts and two features, including 2015's breakout horror film The Witch.

Lensed on location at Cape Forchu in Nova Scotia , the A24 release follows two lighthouse keepers in the 1890s — Willem Dafoe as Thomas Wake and Robert Pattinson as Ephraim Winslow — who battle the elements and, eventually, each other on an island as a storm approaches.

While the film's isolated setting and intimate characterizations go a long way toward creating a pervasive sense of claustrophobic dread, Blaschke says that shooting in black and white offered him and Eggers an opportunity to create an immersive experience to transport audiences to an earlier, perhaps more elemental, time. "Photographically, I wanted to be transportive as well," he says. "That was to create a feeling like earlier, older photography, not contemporary black and white."

To achieve the film's vintage look and texture, Blaschke chose to shoot with the rarely used Kodak Double-X 35mm film to capture a "unique signature that you can't get any other way."

But carrying viewers to another time took more than just highly specific film stock. "I also had some custom filters made to emulate film stock that doesn't exist anymore, that went out of production in the '20s," he says. "It was to pull you into the past."

The DP also visited Panavision and asked for something "off menu." There, he found original Bausch & Lomb Baltar lenses, which were designed in the 1930s. "I also [found] a lens from 1905 that we used for a few shots, for some heightened sequences with a lot of distortions," Blaschke says.

Asked about a favorite sequence, he notes that he's particularly proud of a scene in which Winslow descends upon a sleeping Wake to snatch a logbook resting on his chest. He then reaches for Wake's lantern keys before pulling out his knife, which he aims directly at Wake's throat.

"It was very difficult to not envision this scene as a series of static close-ups intercutting between Pattinson's face, a POV of each detail he's coveting, his hand reaching, then with the knife," Blaschke admits, adding that instead he decided to place the camera on the other side of the action, dollying between magnified targets of Winslow's attention in the foreground as Winslow's hand remains in frame as the "performer." This eliminated the need for cuts to Pattinson's face while still connecting his points of interest.

"The decisive camera moves still indicate glances of his eye, even though we are completely on the 'wrong' side to do so," Blaschke explains. "Simultaneously, we can also experience this as Thomas Wake, and all of this is happening 'to us.' And, because we are on this side, it then positions us to finally tilt up and form a medium close-up of Pattinson's face at the end of the shot." At this point there's a cut to an extreme close-up of Wake's eye opening, which the DP designed for "heightened impact due to the dearth of prior cuts."

The decision to move the camera rather than rely on edits underscored Blaschke's commitment to working economically as much as possible during the 34-day shoot. "The more shots you have, the less each shot means," he says. "Consequentially, and equally important: Each cut in the film then loses its power too."

This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.