Best of 2019: Trey Edward Shults on Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse

The writer-director of Waves on his favorite movie of the year (which just happens to be by a friend of his!).

It’s been a great year for cinema. I’ve loved so many of the films I’ve seen, but my cinematic highlight of 2019 was when I saw The Lighthouse at the Toronto International Film Festival – in IMAX! It was fucking amazing, and I was just blown away. I didn’t know a lot going in, which was great. I wanted to see it properly, to be surprised by the film. Because it was in IMAX, it was an even more epic and full-on immersive version of the film. I was totally transported. I know Rob Eggers, and that just added to the “Holy shit, how did you make this?” of it all. The film is so singular, there’s nothing like it and it’s purely Rob.

Rob and I met at the Karlovy Vary Film International Festival back in 2015. He was there with The Witch and I was there with Krisha. He saw Krisha and gave me a big hug when I was doing the post-screening Q&A. I watched The Witch that same night and was blown away by it. We’ve been buddies ever since, and he’s become one of my closest filmmaking friends.

When you see a friend’s film, your hopes are higher, and you don’t want to not like it and then have to have a weird, awkward conversation. (I’ve been in situations like that before.) I went into The Lighthouse really wanting to like it, and it just shattered my expectations. It rivals any film this year and I think he’s one of the best directors working today. The Lighthouse is a time capsule from another world, but it’s still a Rob Eggers world. It’s visionary. The craft, the attention to detail, the filmmaking, the lenses, the 35 mm, the black-and-white cinematography, the performances by Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe – it’s all outstanding. The film is also hilarious.

Because of the writing – those insane monologues and the richness of the language Rob uses – it doesn’t feel like something that was made by a human being today, which is what’s so beautiful and singular about it. The two leads are movie stars, but they’re also classical actors. When I was watching the film, I wasn’t thinking at all about Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson; they completely become the characters. When you start making movies, one of the things you’re trying to do is be free of any of the artificial bullshit, to get rid of anything that gets in the way of immersing the audience in the experience. In The Lighthouse, there’s none of that stuff. Even as a filmmaker, I don’t quite know how he did everything he did in the film, how he got to that place. It’s really inspiring.

The cool thing is that Rob and I make very different movies, otherwise I’d probably just be really intimidated! It is very inspiring to be pushed by your filmmaking friends, to see them double down on singular cinema. When a peer does that at such a high level – and at such a young age – it excites and inspires me. I’ll never make a movie like The Lighthouse, but I want to make a movie with the cinematic ambition of The Lighthouse. Rob is not scared to just go for it. It’s not easy to make a movie like that at that budget level, to not let outside voices change it, to stay true and make it good all the way through. That’s what it’s all about, and that’s what I’m aspiring to.

As you make bigger films, there are more voices and more people trying to chime in and influence you, so you have to navigate that and not get deterred from staying on your proper path. I want to make the kind of personal films that I believe in with all my heart and soul, but I still want to reach people – I want to make movies that people see and debate, I want to push and challenge audiences. But I never want to cross that threshold where the film becomes a “product,” and not cinema.

After that Toronto screening of The Lighthouse, I was just in awe of the filmmaking, of how Rob made it. I haven’t been transported to a world in such a vivid, nuanced way since I saw There Will Be Blood. It’s the place we’re all after, the level cinema should be. I was a bit shook and all I could say to Rob was, “Fuck, I’m so proud of you.”

I love seeing a new movie over and over, discovering new things in its world. (I’ve probably seen There Will Be Blood a hundred times.) If I hadn’t been busy with Waves, I’d have already watched The Lighthouse another two or three times. I can’t wait to see it again.

Trey Edward Shults is the writer, director and co-star of the 2015 award-winning film Krisha. The film premiered at SXSW where it received the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award, and had its international premiere at the Cannes Film Festival where it played in Semaine de la Critique. A24 acquired worldwide rights to Krisha, and also released Trey’s follow-up, the 2017 horror thriller It Comes at Night, starring Joel Edgerton, Christopher Abbott, Carmen Ejogo, Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Riley Keough. His latest film, the family drama Waves, starring Kelvin Harrison Jr., Lucas Hedges, Taylor Russell and Sterling K. Brown, is now in theaters, also through A24.