How The Lighthouse Made The Most Disgusting Dinner Of The Year
This article contains mild spoilers for The Lighthouse.
Robert Eggers’s debut feature, 2015’s The Witch, ended with a demonic goat asking, “Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?” His new film, The Lighthouse, answers that question with a resounding “no.”
Set in 1890s New England on an isolated slab of rock in the middle of the ocean, the movie follows two salty dogs named Thomas and Ephraim during their doomed four-week tenure tending the island’s lighthouse. The pair—played by Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, respectively—descend into madness and lose all sense of time, an unraveling filmed in such a way as to make the viewer feel as if their own tenuous grip on reality is slipping. One device that exacerbates this spiral is the identical dinner Thomas insists on preparing night after night after night—a horror that has plagued me ever since I first saw it. I’ve since come to call it “the slop plate” because, you guessed it, it looks like a big ol’ plate of slop. It’s so unrelentingly bleak that it causes Ephraim to break down and bellow, “If I had a steak right now... I would f*** it!”
Knowing that Eggers meticulously researches all the period details for his films (The Witch took place in 1630s New England), I insisted on interrogating him about how the dinner plate came together. Mostly, I needed confirmation on what was in all that unidentifiable mush so that I could have a moment’s peace from thinking about the unidentifiable mush. “Not much,” he told me, listing off boiled potatoes and boiled salt cod. There was also hardtack, which the Lighthouse Keepers' Manual euphemistically called “ship biscuit” and then, starting in 1883, “pilot bread.”
Eggers pointed out that actual lighthouse keepers—or "wickies," in the parlance of the time—would have likely been eating more varied meals. “The Lighthouse Keepers' Manual gives them 200 pounds of pork, 100 pounds of beef, and also some rice and beans or peas,” he said. “But it also says in the manual, ‘At the request of the head keeper of the light station, these quantities may be changed, some being increased, others diminished, provided the total cost of the ration is thereby not made greater.’ So perhaps Willem Dafoe wants to keep it simple.”
As for how the dinner plate achieved its status as the platonic ideal of slop, we can thank stylist Gerold Schmidt for his masterful work “making it look miserable.” Though The Lighthouse is shot in black and white, Eggers said that the dinner appeared even less appetizing in full color. Taste-wise, his official review was: “It’s not particularly good. I mean, I'm up for kind of anything.” The most disturbing aspect had to be the smell, especially during the filming of the scenes where the house floods during a ferocious storm. “There were remnants of those dinners all over the place. It smelled terrible in that,” Eggers told me. “There was a food-fight scene that was cut, but the remnants of that food fight stayed all over there.” (A humble plea for A24: Release the food-fight scene in a future cut. The people need to see Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe flinging puree at each other.)
There were a couple of treats to break up the culinary monotony. The first was homemade hooch, even though drinking alcohol was technically forbidden by the official Lighthouse Keepers' Manual. The other was the occasional lobster. “I think this is common knowledge, but it was not a delicacy. It was a working man’s food,” Eggers said. “There is some rule or regulation that I don't exactly remember in detail... Lighthouse keepers were spending more time attending their lobster traps than their work.”
The potential for more varied meals did cause a brief worry about continuity. “When they're looking at rations, there are some cans of beans,” Eggers explained. “I know that the set decorator, Ian Greig, was concerned that some audience members might say, 'Why the h*ll aren't they ever eating the beans if there's cans of them?’ ” I will say that even I, a noted bean enthusiast, was too shellshocked by everything else going on to notice the beans. Knowing this now, though, I want to grab Willem Dafoe by his rank fisherman’s sweater and ask: Why the h*ll aren't you ever eating the beans if there's cans of them?