Costume designer Linda Muir calls The Lighthouse one of her most “memorable moments for me, of my career.” Robert Eggers shot his film in black and white, and for Muir that meant recreating the costumes with the authenticity of the period. Whether it was hand waxing the oil-skins or recreating the stitching, Muir paid close attention to fine detail. Her challenge was finding the wools and knits seen in the film because we simply don’t wear heavy knits in 2019 with heat and down to keep us warm. Muir searched for her fabrics to create the looks of Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, a weathered lighthouse keeper and logger.
I caught up with Muir to talk about how textures helped her create the details for Eggers’ black and white film.
What was your process to approaching the costumes for The Lighthouse?
Everything, for me, comes from the script. I’ll have conversations with the director who is often the writer in the films that I’ve done. I had long conversations with Robert to talk about the backstory and go in between the lines.
I’ve done one other film before in black and white, but it wasn’t shot in black and white. So, this was a two-fold challenge. I had to provide impactful character-driven costuming without the use of color.
As you can imagine, that’s huge in costuming with cues and giving people reminders and echoing things. So, the texture became hugely important.
Also, I had to create authentic multiple looks for just two men with a minimum amount of clothing. They’d gone to this island supposedly for just four weeks. Some of what is there is clothing that is provided for them. That has to hold the interest for 150 minutes and help drive the story. That, for me, was the challenge.
So, it was the initial conversations through to finding images and finding styles. So much of it is set in an actual historical entity. It was important to replicate that. I found the manual that indicated how many buttons and where they should be placed. I found all the brass uniform buttons of all the varying sizes for all of the coats.
I tried to figure out what’s going to give character detail but not give away the story. Willem’s character is really seasoned; his stuff was evocative of maritime wear. The sweaters were hand-knit. They were hand-knit stitches that were evocative of nautical life.
Rob’s character was more ambiguous. He was more of a wanderer. He’d just come off logging in Canada. The logger who features in his nightmares and thoughts; we needed to find a coat that was really ironic because it’s recurring.
We recreated that coat with this strange collar and shape. It also had this crazy cap at the top of the sleeve. It worked out great, but it took a lot of research and time.
The oilskins were fun to work on, but there was nothing available. The oilskin hats, coats, overalls and boots were all made. The oilskins were two weights of oilskin cloth that I had bonded. We cut everything; we sewed it and we fit. Three of us then waxed by hand for three days. Most of the costumes you see in that film, there are three of. We had that because of blood multiples and stunt doubles and it just gets buried in dirt.
They were hung in the sun to set. We polished with buffers to a hard finish and by the end, they were totally waterproof. All the crew kept asking where we got them. The actors were just so happy. They were warm, dry and comfortable.
When you’re dealing with black and white, the texture is so rich and you can see that. What did you have to do to achieve that?
It’s the detail and the choice of fabric. One of my pet peeves is when I watch period pieces- and I’ve done low budget and it’s brutal. There’s no time to anything. I’m saying this with a caveat that if you have time to do it, one should try to do it. Instead of doing the one-piece men’s union suit. They do an overlock stitch to finish everything along the edges so that it doesn’t fray. What we did was we recreated the look. I bought an Edwardian one-piece like onesie. We recreated the stitching along the pockets and cuffs. The amount of time that I spent trying to buy expensive buttons and fabrics – it’s getting harder because we just don’t wear that much wool. It was a similar problem on The VVitch, but that was more pronounced because it was mid 17th Century. Plain weaves were hard to find.
I’ve been doing this for a long time and I love fabrics. I’m such a fabric whore.
Did you reference other black and white movies at all?
Robert is amazing in that sense. He sent me links to really great movies. Some of them I had seen, and those were ones I had seen when I was his age. I’m older than he is, and that was so refreshing. To get back into the specialist mode was great. We watched black and white films. We looked at a lot of black and white photography. The DP was going for a very specific look with Robert, but that really affected the look of the actors and they were going for achromatic look. That, in turn, affected everything they were wearing. Craig had a similar challenge with set painting.
This will be one of the most memorable moments for me of my career. I prepped in Toronto. All the costumes were built in Toronto, fit in Toronto and made in Toronto. A week before we went to camera I went to Nova Scotia and we had final fittings. We did a bit more breakdown and distressing. We took everything farther south to where the lighthouse was built, and when I arrived on that set, I could have cried. The lighthouse was whitewashed, but it was the natural phenomenon that was Cape Forchu. The oilskins were the same color as the kelp. The water was navy and blue. The grass was like the sweaters. Every color in the costume was like the color around me. I thought it was fantastic, but it was all shot in black and white.
I can’t imagine what it was like.
The actors were incredible. They really inhabited the clothing and the set. They used the props. Being on set was similar to The VVitch. Robert creates this atmosphere that’s so calm. I remember standing, pressed up against the house with the family at the table. The fire was going and it was freezing cold outside. I remember thinking about how did anyone survive in that time.
How did the elements of water factor into your design and keeping everyone dry?
I was on set every day. We are a team that kept the actors happy and dry. That was why I went to the lengths that I did to make the oilskins real. Those work. The sweaters are really warm; all the layers of cotton and wool are really warm. There wasn’t much we could do for Willem in the grave. He had stuff under him for a cushion. He was lying in a pool of water. We had battery-operated heated vests. We had really heavy wool socks that I sourced in Alberta. Some of the socks also came from Ireland for the logger. We had parkas and blankets. It was hard because the location was so large. The unit could not be that close to where we were filming. Also, it’s just two actors and they were on set all the time, so we did our best to keep them happy.
The driving rain that we were standing in, that would affect the camera. The mechanism that would keep the rain off the lens kept breaking. We had to keep doing it over and over again. As exhausting and difficult as it was, Robert Pattinson was just great. They both were.