Production designer Craig Lathrop was on vacation when he first heard about The Lighthouse. Director Robert Eggers had mentioned the film to him. It just so happened that the island he was on had a manually working lighthouse. Lathrop went to work right away. He studied lighthouses around the country. He looked at photographs and archives before getting to work on building his lighthouse and the keeper’s area.
I caught up with Lathrop to talk about building the lighthouse, the fresnel and working in black and white.
What was the key to building a lighthouse and its quarters from scratch?
I looked at every bit of information that I could find on lighthouses. We looked at hundreds and hundreds of lighthouses up and down the East Coast, West Coast and Canada. I started doing my research and digging up as many drawings and sketches that I could find. There are so many lighthouses that are no longer around. We researched at the Library of Congress because some of it isn’t online, so we had to dig it up.
That’s what I did. I didn’t physically go down there. I hired someone to go down there for me.
There was the US Lighthouse Society and they were a great resource. I actually joined the society.
I read that. That’s amazing. How did that help you?
Everyone was so kind and helpful. If they didn’t have the information, they’d send me to someone who might. It just felt like they were helping me so much that I should give them money and join.
I still get regular emails from them, but they were really lovely.
Talk about the design and inspiration of the light itself.
I got the script in November, and it happened really fast. The first thing I picked out as being a possible challenge was the lighthouse itself because it has a small base, it’s very tall and you think it’d want to tip over. The other challenge was the fresnel.
When Robert first started talking about The Lighthouse, I didn’t know much about it, but it was around The VVitch. I was on vacation in the Bahamas on this little island in Copetown, just off the Abaco Islands. They just so happened to have the last manually working lighthouse in the world. I went up there and made the lighthouse keeper go through everything with me. It was absolutely beautiful.
I started looking around to see if there were any that we could rent. There was one I found in Australia, but that was just too heavy. They weigh just over a ton, and so I couldn’t bring that.
I started thinking about the design. I designed one that had a bit of a squid shape. It was basically the same as any other fresnel lens, and I started modeling it up. I modeled it in a 3D program and I found somebody that could build it. I spoke to Dan Spinella at Artworks Florida Fresnel Lens Design. He thought I was crazy when I called to tell him I wanted to build it in the amount of time that I wanted to build it in. He said it was going to take eight months to a year to build, but I got him down closer to eight weeks.
He really came through for me.
What about building the living quarters. What went into that?
It was based on research. The house itself was a little bit like the keeper’s house and a lot of homes from the early 1800s in Maine. I wanted the building to be old; that was my key objective.
We tried to make sure that it had character to show that it was older. We put in small details; I bricked in the fireplace and I put in cast iron stoves too. We had the interior and exterior set.
We had the big storm that happens halfway through. That was where the special effects team came in and did some heavy lifting. The set needed to hold water for the flooding. I built that set like a bathtub so it was watertight. That was a fun set to work on because we had to calculate how it would all go.
How did shooting in black and white factor into your design when building the Lighthouse and the sets?
When they first said black and white, I wasn’t all that worried. Jarin Blaschke, our cinematographer wanted to use a blue filter and he ended up having one custom made. A lot of still photographers use a red filter when they shoot in black and white because the red will make the redshift toward white. Any blemishes you might have on your skin, all the reds are going to white so your skin looks beautiful and smooth. A blue filter does the opposite. It shifts everything towards black, so it makes your skin look weathered and leathery. Any blemishes you have and any pores will pop. It was perfect for what we were trying to do. I had to be careful become some tones looked like charcoal. There was a shift that I wasn’t anticipating, but Jarin gave me the specs to his filter. I created a custom film in the Dolby lightroom. I took photos with my regular camera and turned them into black and white with this shift of a blue filter. As soon as you start doing that, it becomes intuitive. We just took photos and ran it through computers to see what worked and what didn’t work.