[Interview] Willem Dafoe details the smell of ‘THE LIGHTHOUSE’ set, a ‘STREETS OF FIRE’ connection & his ‘MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN’ beard


Courtney Howard // Film Critic

Director Robert Eggers’ THE LIGHTHOUSE has yet to be officially released, but tales about what’s in the film and what happened on set have been circulating online for a few months now since its auspicious Cannes debut early this year. Part unsettling horror, part pitch black absurd comedy, part psychological character study, the period piece is about two lighthouse keepers (played by Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe) that get stranded on a remote New England island and subsequently descend into madness. And by the end, it’s clear that this finely-tuned feature demanded that the cast (and quite possibly the crew as well) put their blood, sweat, tears, farts and other bodily fluids into crafting this fully cinematic experience.

Esquire reported that co-star Pattinson “licked puddles of mud,” was “pissing” himself and drank lots of booze to stay in character – so much so, he blacked out. Pattinson told them,

“[I was] basically unconscious the whole time. It was crazy. I spent so much time making myself throw up. Pissing my pants. It’s the most revolting thing. I don’t know, maybe it’s really annoying.”

Before Dafoe’s grizzled character, experienced lighthouse keeper Thomas Wake, even utters a word of dialogue, the audience hears him urinate and fart. And throughout the picture, storms arise and serve to weather the lighthouse. So with all that going on – and on a male-dominated set in Nova Scotia – it begs the question, “What did the set smell like?”

Williem Dafoe in THE LIGHTHOUSE. Courtesy of A24 Pictures.

Luckily, I got the answer when I spoke with co-star Dafoe at the recent press day for MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN (which I’ll have more from that interview closer to that film’s release). He became giddy when I asked him to spill the beans on the set’s specific fragrance.

“Oh God. [It was] horrible, because we’re sort of isolated. It smelled like salt cod, standing water, mustiness, wet wool, food floating around in water. The salt, greasy, salt cod that stayed with us what seems like the whole film. I’ll stop there. Hopefully I’ve grossed you out enough. It was a very stinky set.”

Dafoe continued, grateful to be able to discuss such unpleasantries openly as the odor, in fact, helped to augment their performances.

“No one has asked me that question and, you know what, it’s a very important question. It’s central to what we were doing. It tells you what to do. It tells you where to go. It tells you where to avoid.”

Edward Norton and Willem Dafoe in MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN. Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures.

For those piecing together the mystery at the core of MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN, in which Dafoe has a pivotal supporting role, you’ll spot the genesis of his LIGHTHOUSE beard. In that noir-infused detective drama directed, adapted and produced by Edward Norton, Dafoe plays Paul, a man who’s easily mistaken for a homeless person at first glance. The quadruple Academy Award nominee said he wasn’t sure if his facial hair was going to impede his portrayal in the 50’s set film.

“When Edward asked me to do this, I said, ‘Yes, but I got a problem. I’m growing this beard and it’s essential to this next film I’m going to do. In the 1950’s, no one had a beard. I’m going to stick out. I’m not going to be good. You’re gonna be unhappy. It’s going to color things. It’ll look strange. I’m not sure it’ll work. And I can’t shave it because I’m not gonna wear a fake beard for THE LIGHTHOUSE.’ He said, ‘I know what you’re saying. Let me think about it.’ And when he came back, he said, ‘No, no. I think it can work.’”

In the end, Dafoe was happy he was able to make the beard make sense to his character.

“I think, in the end – and it’s not for me to say, but I’ll say it anyways – I think it did work. You talk about smell. With that beard, I look very unkempt and I did look like someone who was truly marginalized. You don’t know when you see him how marginalized he is and it’s not really clear. That helped to set him up in the beginning, that he was a homeless, or disturbed crank. If I didn’t have that beard, in that long coat and fedora, I think that combination of him did set him apart, not in a way that throws the audience out of it, but in a way that made the audience curious about who is this guy.”

Willem Dafoe in STREETS OF FIRE.

THE LIGHTHOUSE isn’t the first time Dafoe has donned fisherman’s wear. As the biker gang leader Raven Shaddock in STREETS OF FIRE, costume designer Marilyn Vance put him in black patent leather fisherman’s waders. He laughed and joked light-heartedly,

“That was a warm up for THE LIGHTHOUSE, I guess.”

THE LIGHTHOUSE opens in New York and Los Angeles on October 18, with an expansion to follow. MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN opens on November 1.

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Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.