Willem Dafoe on The Lighthouse, Motherless Brooklyn and Loving to Complain

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Illustration by Britt Spencer

It's not really a horror film or a thriller. It defies description. It's like nothing you have ever seen before and a beautiful character study," says four-time Oscar nominee Willem Dafoe about The Lighthouse in a Newsweek Conversation produced by Maria Vultaggio.

Set in the 1890s and directed by Robert Eggers, The Lighthouse is a mesmerizing tale about two lighthouse keepers who get stranded together. The film opened October 18.

Dafoe also stars in Edward Norton's Motherless Brooklyn, in theaters November 1. Adapted from Jonathan Lethem's novel, it tells the story of private detective Lionel Essrog (Norton), who has Tourette syndrome. He tries to uncover the murder of his friend, Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), but instead uncovers a salacious truth about politician Moses Randolph, loosely based on the real life Robert Moses, the controversial "master builder" of New York City. For his adaptation, Norton created new characters and set the story in the 1950s.

"The whole story that alludes to New York politics is invented and has certain resonances with what's going on in the world now," says Dafoe.

Dafoe also spoke of filming in black-and-white and the art of complaining.

Was shooting The Lighthouse in black-and-white limiting?
I don't find those choices restrictive. There are a lot of things you can do visually… you forget it's black-and-white after awhile. It does things that color can't do.

Tell me about The Lighthouse.
There's kind of an antagonistic relationship because I'm the old hand bossing around this new guy, played by Robert Pattinson. He isn't quite with the program. And then we're stuck. If there were tensions before, they get much worse.

Were the conditions harsh?
Actors love to complain about the misery they go through in their work, but it's great work if you can get it. A movie like this has harsh conditions, but often I prefer working on location because you start to create a story,
a narrative, that's not of your life.

How is Norton's character special?
His weakness is his strength. While he's alienated from people because they don't know how to deal with his behavior, he free-associates in quite an uncontrolled way and he's got crazy OCD. But he can also remember things. He also puts things together in a way that most people can't.

How was shooting in your hometown for Motherless Brooklyn?
It's great to sleep in your own bed! I love shooting in New York at night. You
really get a feel for the pulse of the city.