Transcript from the 2019 Screenwriters' Lecture Series: Robert Eggers, Saturday 7 December, Curzon Mayfair, London
Jeremy Brock: Hi, Jeremy Brock. Welcome to the 2019 Screenwriters Lecture Series, number four of five, the great Robert Eggers. Incredibly excited. Thanks as always to BAFTA’s Learning and Events team, to Lucy Gard and the JJ Charitable Trust for funding and to the Curzon for hosting us.
I just wanted to say that you are the loveliest audience any screenwriter could hope to have. I love that you remain so resolutely optimistic in the face of that po-faced, unsmiling, film buff-y kind of cinephile bullshit. I love that you remain so resolutely impressed by the centrality of the screenplay. It is about the script, folks. Actors learn the lines, they go on set, and they act them. You can throw all the bells and whistles you like at it, but there is a controlling intelligence at work, and that controlling intelligence is the controlling intelligence that looks at the structure, that looks at the shape of the whole piece, and I am delighted tonight to be hosting the great Robert Eggers, writer director of The Witch and The Lighthouse. God knows what he has for breakfast, but he has got the most incredible vision, which is extraordinary and sometimes alarming. But his attention to detail in his writing, in his filmmaking is the thing that I find most scintillating. And it is an enormous honour for us to be hosting someone who I think is one of the great storytellers in the world of film today.
We’ll do the usual thing of showing a montage of all our lecturers’’ work, then Robert will lecture, and he will then be in conversation with the irreplaceable and wonderful Mariayah Khaderbai, Head of Programmes at BAFTA, and then we’ll open it up as we always to the floor. So we’ll have the montage, thank you.
Robert Eggers: OK, thanks. Jeremy was like far too kind. I’ve made two feature films and some short films nobody’s seen, so it’s still strange to me that anyone cares what I might have to say. Yeah. But anyway thanks very much and thank you to BAFTA, it’s truly an honour to be here. I’ve never lectured before and perhaps it’s the word lecture but it makes me anxious. I feel comfortable public speaking, the only training I have is as an actor and my theatre background makes me happy to be in front of an audience; I do feel more comfortable here than at a cocktail party. Luckily there’s cocktails and I have one here just in case. So you know but I’m really looking forward to the conversation later because a Q&A is where I feel I thrive a little more. I almost thought about just asking myself a series of questions up here to make myself feel more comfortable but I will spare you that strangeness.
So I want to say, as you all know, the most important thing we can all do as people who are trying to make creative work is to be yourself and embrace what is uniquely you and your own voice. So obviously I’m just talking about my approach and it’s unique to the kind of strange interests that I have and I just hope that there’s some tools that you can put in your toolbox that can work with how you are you. I also want to say that as many of the other incredibly accomplished filmmakers it’s an honour to be among in this series, I’m a writer and director, so the way that I write my screenplays would be inappropriate if I weren’t directing them. As an actor who recently turned down a role in one of my movies said, the screenplay was overwrought, and there is a kind of indulgence in the details of my screenplays that would be entirely foolish if I were writing for another director; there’s a level of specificity in the blocking, you know, if Willem Dafoe wears his reading glasses like this, if Robert Pattinson scratches his ear like this, it may very well be in the screenplay. There’s never in my screenplay ‘Rome burns,’ or ‘they fight,’ you know, ‘Arthur draws Excalibur, he thrusts towards the giant,’ you know. The whole thing. So there.
OK, so that out of the way, I’ll start at the beginning, again this feels so odd, but what’s the inspiration? Where do the ideas come from to write something? It depends on the script, as I’m sure you’d all agree. I had an incredibly intense nightmare many years ago that led to the idea of a story. I walked around Brooklyn for five hours and had the structure of a screenplay that took me six years to write that was terrible. But you know I just kind of had it. Most often, I have an atmosphere, which I’ll talk about a lot later, and some images that get me going. Sometimes it’s something pragmatic. And very often it’s a combination of a few of these things. I made a short film called Brothers that was a proof of concept to try to get The Witch financed. It had been many years since I’d made a short film and my most recent work was a very stylised piece based on Edgar Allen Poe, which featured a pupped as the lead character, and performances that were truly weird. And my producer said, you know, ‘if you want anyone to finance The Witch, you probably ought to make a new short, and it probably should feature naturalistic performances by children and scary woods.’ And so that was a task and thus I was able to find a story that met with that pragmatic task.
With The Witch, I had written many feature screenplays no one wanted to finance, and I felt that as an American director at the time if I wanted to get a film financed it seemed like it needed to be in an identifiable genre. All of my sort of weirder films no one cared for. So I thought it probably had to take place in New England because that’s where I’m from and given that I’d probably have no budget I’d have to shoot it in the proverbial my parents’ back yard, and witches are the archetypal New England spook and I’ve been interested in them, so that makes sense. So there’s the pragmatic end, but then I truly as a kid—and this sounds a little precious—but I really did imagine the fact that there were puritans walking around who grew up in the reign of Queen Elizabeth who were stomping around in the woods behind my house and that was—and living an almost medieval existence. And you pair that in the belief in a real witch and that was an atmosphere that really excited me. With The Lighthouse, similarly my brother said he was working on a ghost story in a lighthouse and that phrase ‘a ghost story in a lighthouse’ conjured up the images of the movie, the visual atmosphere, the crusty, dusty, musty, rusty black and white square aspect ratio, and then I needed to find a story that accompanied that.
So anyway, all of these things really finally have to do with what I’m really interested in and what is sort of uniquely me, I think, maybe. Which is my interest in ghost stories, fairy tales, folktales, mythology, religion, sometimes the occult. That’s what really gets me excited; I’d rather write a novel or paint a painting that has to do with that stuff than to just make a movie. And all that really has to do with the past, which weirdly may somehow be my biggest passion. I think that there’s complicated things about organised religion, but there’s also complicated things about an entirely secularised society. We lose the sublime and the sacred, sometimes, and so I find that what really excites me is to kind of understand where we’re coming from and where we’re going from where we came from, and to try to go back in the past to think about ideas that are bigger than ourselves. The genre that tends to explore that today is science fiction, which makes sense when like number is God in the intelligentsia that we’re all probably a part of, but I like to stay in the past.
And what’s very important to me when I begin writing a piece is not to have a message, to not have any intention beyond staying true to the world in which I’m trying to write in. But thank heavens, like, as much as I try to seal myself up like an anchor and lock myself in my alchemical cell, the world—my world is not vacuum sealed, so I am affected by the zeitgeist whether I want to be or not, and that’s important because otherwise The Witch can’t just appeal to people who are alive in the 1630s, and The Lighthouse can’t just appeal to people who are alive in the 1890s because there’s not enough graveyard screenings for that to be profitable. So you know, with The Witch, I’m happy that most people, though not everyone for sure, sees the film as a feminist film. If I were to be objective and stand back I think I would agree with that stance, but that was not my intention, I just wanted to make a witch movie as I kind of said. But that’s what happened. With The Lighthouse, which I don’t know if people have seen, I was just trying to make a ghost story in a lighthouse, which It’s finally not, but it became—you know when I was writing this story, this hyper-masculine story about two men, with my brother—I was thinking why are we writing this right now? This is the worst time to be writing this story, and then once we had the first draft we realised ‘oh I guess we’re talking about toxic masculinity and like everything that’s messed up about it.’ So that’s cool.
But even still, when you’re getting into this other world, you can’t be judgmental of the characters and the time period, you can’t rewrite history to conform to the zeitgeist, but you do have a responsibility to understand what’s going on today and not be foolhardy. The thing that I’m working on currently has slavery and violence against women and it takes place in the Viking age so that’s going to happen, but how do I tell those stories without rewriting history, responsibly? Those are the questions I have to ask myself and I can’t provide easy answers.
So continuing to stay quite large, a few things that I think about and struggle with are trying to find a harmonious balance of certain opposites in my writing. The largest things would be Dionysian vs. Apollonian. I’ll start with Apollonian, the structure, what patriarchal Western culture would call ‘male ideals,’ then the Dionysian, female, mysterious stuff. Like how do you create a balance of something that is rigorous and structured and clear, but also has enigma and mystery and atmosphere? Moving further with these opposites, the mythic vs. the naturalistic. Again I’m drawn to archetypal storytelling, I’m drawn to archetypal characters. How do you make them believable? It’s difficult. In doing this kind of archetypal storytelling, even if it’s based on a fairy tale or a myth, I still try to bring in my personal experiences, the things that are me. When my brothers first read The Witch screenplay, they said that even though this is the seventeenth century it sounds like our family arguing, you know. That’s very important. Someone not just conveying plot but also having little asides that are about life, these kind of things can of course ground it and another thing that really helps me, which is not surprising, is knowing the space. When I write it’s very helpful for me to have a kind of dollhouse and dolls and their clothing and know what’s in each room in order for me to really imagine what’s going on. Also because I’m telling stories that are taking place in the past and aren’t my personal experience, by creating this dollhouse in my head and with mood boards and such I’m able to see it clearly enough in my head to own it. Because if I can’t experience what I write as my own memories, it can’t be truthful. That’s sort of a precious statement but that’s how I try to look at it, taking every moment on as if this is a moment from my personal past in order to tell it.
Another one of these opposites for me is atmosphere vs. story. As Jeremy sort of hinted at in the beginning of this thing, all you need to make a film that’s incredibly engaging is an excellent script with a great story and serviceable performances; they don’t even have to be good, just serviceable. You don’t need good cinematography, you don’t need good art direction, you don’t need good costumes, you don’t need good sound design—you have to have professional sound so it’s not distracting—but it’s really about the script. For me, both my two feature films have very simple stories: The Witch has a very clear, simple story, The Lighthouse is almost void of story; it’s almost the same scene over and over and over and over and over again with changing power dynamics. So in my films you need atmosphere for the world to survive, for the film to survive. And the atmosphere is an accumulation of details and these details come from my research, they come from the weather, they come from the light, they come from the format that we shoot on; they come from all of these things. And atmosphere in some ways is a visual obstacle, and I mean that in a positive way. Emmanuel Lubezki, AKA Chivo, obviously I couldn’t admire him more, but he’s very excited about shooting—this isn’t writing, sorry—but he’s very excited about shooting Alexa 65 and he has a quote kind of saying that in the history of cinema we’ve been looking at the world through dirty windows and finally now we can see the world clearly with Alexa 65 and the technology. I like the dirty windows; I like having to peer in through something. That excites me. So we’ll get further into like when I start really talking about period research we’ll get further into atmosphere and details and the research process, but I’d like to play the first clip—all the clips are a little long, so sorry. It’s from The Witch.
It’s hard for me to watch The Witch because it doesn’t always quite live up to my expectations. We had to shoot it digitally for financial reasons and I’m glad that we did but the irony is that I’m using that as an example of atmosphere but I find it to be quite naked. Dick Pope was talking about Mike Leigh’s Peterloo, which I thought was a fine looking digital film, and Dick Pope like myself finds it blasphemous to add film grain if you’re shooting with the Alexa, but he added a bit more digital noise and I wish that we had had that idea with The Witch. But in any case, that is an example of the kind of atmosphere that I’m trying to create and all of the goat bleats and the dirty stockings and the rushes on the floor and all that stuff is very carefully—and the creaking ladder rungs—is all very carefully described in the screenplay. Again, that kind of detail in the screenplay might be laborious but I feel like in my movies that are sometimes like thin on plot, if you can’t get that atmosphere from the text we don’t have any understanding of what I’m trying to do here. I very often describe the odours in my screenplays as well in order that we can better convey that feeling when we watch it.
The other thing that’s important potentially about this clip is it’s kind of showing the audience my dollhouse. It’s not always important for the audience to know geography, but in this clip and in the next clip we—the geography of their cottage was important and so early on in the film we’re establishing the atmosphere and the mood, and then we’re showing the lay of the land, so to speak, and the same thing will happen with the next clip from The Lighthouse. You know, going back to pragmatism, and maybe we’ll talk about producer and studio notes at some point during the Q&A because that’s another interesting topic, but the film is supposed to start not—I don’t know if everyone’s seen The Witch or not—but basically the film was supposed to start not much further back from that, and my producers and financiers wanted me to start earlier, like with them leaving the village or the plantation that they came from, which I thought was ridiculous and I didn’t want to be doing like Little House on the Prairie. So I wrote a scene sort of that I thought would be too expensive that we couldn’t shoot and then everyone loved it and then we had to find a way to fit it into the budget and I kept trying to cut it out of the movie, but actually they were right. We did need it. So sometimes studio notes are good. OK let’s watch the next clip.
He continues, he goes upstairs and he sees more but you know, we’ve got to get on with the night as far as, you know, the dollhouse goes. So that—it was about four minutes and that was four pages of writing, which could easily have been a page: Boat comes, sees an island, get off the boat, they walk across the thing, stand there, he goes in, he walks around, whatever. But again, it’s this overwrought writing of every detail for four pages, but it also gives a better understanding of exactly what we’re shooting, how long things are going to take, and it helps—I feel like it helps my collaborators understand what we’re doing. Even that long close-up of the two of them standing with the eye line towards camera was a very hefty paragraph about what we were supposed to convey from their faces in that moment.
So let’s get into something that’s actually interesting. Researching the period is my whole thing. There’s nothing better about being period accurate, but it’s something that really excites me and if there is anything like, you know, I said my interest in ghost stories and fairy tales is perhaps unique about me, but if there is anything unique about my films it’s perhaps my obsession with being accurate. Of course, you know, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Peter Brooks’ King Lear are fantastic examples of films that aren’t period accurate in any shape or form but take you into incredibly rich, transportive, believable worlds—I guess Dracula’s kind of stylised but it’s great. And for me, you know, I like to—I like when I don’t understand these people, I like it when I’m researching Puritans and I think how could this kind of English Calvinism be helpful for anyone? And then be reading and reading and reading and struggling, these are alien thoughts, these are alien people, and finally reading John Winthrop’s letters to his wife back home in England and that they were praying at the same time, they didn’t know about time zones but you know, they thought they were praying at the same time, and things like that you see all of a sudden OK they’re human like me. Finally you can unlock this door where you realise like ‘oh my goodness, if I was alive then I would’ve thought exactly like them.’ Of course I would’ve. And not only that, like I can see how that kind of thinking still resonates in culture today.
That for me is the most exciting moment, and that requires a lot of reading, and then in the creation of the physical world, which also begins in the script phase, I’m also looking at tonnes of visual imagery to understand all this stuff, because again atmosphere is an accumulation of details and if I were to be creating a fictional world, perhaps if I were like J.R.R. Tolkein and if I were that kind of genius and had that kind of time on my hands, I could create something that specific, but generally it’s not going to be as specific as the real thing. So if I’m just taking research and saying ‘this is exactly what it is, team let’s recreate it to the best of our ability,’ we have a huge amount of detail, more detail than we would have if we had conjured it up ourselves. At least that’s my thinking and yeah, so you read secondary sources, you read primary sources, you read children’s books on it to get another base overview after you’ve already gone deep you watch crappy YouTube videos, you just go into museums and consult with historians; you do whatever needs to be done to find out as much as you possibly can. With The Lighthouse, for example, it’s all built on research. My brother set a ghost story in a lighthouse, that was inspiring imagery; then on day two of researching I read about the Smalls lighthouse tragedy—two guys, both named Thomas, one older one younger, get marooned on their lighthouse station because of a storm, the old one dies, the young one goes mad. That’s my story. That’s the base of my story. Then the Instruction to Lighthouse Keepers, the manual becomes a huge key. All the tasks that they’re doing and the rules that they’re not supposed to break, that becomes inspiration for all kinds of scenes, and then the photographs of nineteenth century lighthouse stations tell you a whole lot, not just about my dollhouse but more. You see the boathouse with runners and a lifeboat in it. Well I guess at some point Rob Pattinson’s going to try to escape and pull that lifeboat out. All that stuff is incredibly helpful, and then we continue to amplify our knowledge in these different areas—I’m saying ‘we’ because I wrote this with my brother, and in considering Melville which you would if you were writing a nineteenth century New England maritime story, you start getting into classical mythology. When you start getting into classical mythology you start thinking about symbolist painting from the period and so Sascha Schneider and John Delville who are doing mythic paintings in a homoerotic style become perfect candidates as imagery that’s going to work itself into the script.
In writing period dialogue it’s the same kind of rigour. With The Witch I felt that—I don’t know if I agree with this conceit today, but I felt that because the Puritans were so, to use the word again, rigorous in their beliefs, so devout, I felt that I needed to use their own words to be respectful to them. I don’t know if I agree with that now and I think it might have been disrespectful to use their own words, but that’s what I did. Luckily because it’s early modern English that’s the period of Milton and Shakespeare and Spencer, so there’s many books and thesauruses with the vocabulary and the rules, which was incredibly helpful. But I also read tonnes and tonnes and tonnes of primary source material and made my own thesaurus that wasn’t a one to one, but sort of like a vibe. So things you might say when you’re chastising your children, things you might say when you think someone is a witch, things you might say to your goat, and so you kind of are pulling from all these different things. Some of the dialogue early on became a bit of a collage that then I need to hone into the separate voices for different characters and make it much more specific and mine, but things that the children say when they are possessed are things that children supposedly said when they were possessed and that was, at the time I wrote this, important to me.
But very often in my research something would inspire a scene. So John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts who I mentioned earlier, he had a very personal religious diary that was a real treasure trove for me, and he wrote that he dreamed, quote, ‘that I was with Christ upon the Earth, and that very instant with him in many tears for the assurance of the pardon of my sins, etcetera. I was so ravished with his love towards me, far exceeding the kindest husband, that being awakened had made so deep an impression in my heart as I was forced to unmeasurable weeping for a great while, and had a more lively feeling of love than ever before.’ So in this next clip I take that, it inspired a scene with the mother and The Witch, and she uses half of that and she uses it to a different end. The other dialogue in the scene with her and her husband is very much a fight that I might have with my wife or a fight that my parents might have had, only in early modern English and I apologise if Kate Dickie’s Scottish-tinged Yorkshire accent is a bit tricky to understand, but at least I’m in the UK and not the States. Let’s do it!
I do like the performances, Alexa or not. But yeah, so there’s an example of that. In The Lighthouse my brother and I did not, or very, very rarely used in tact sentences. We were studying all kinds of things to create two different forgotten New England dialects from the end of the nineteenth century. I mentioned Melville, Stevenson is not from New England but certainly with some of the maritime stuff we felt he could come in handy, and Coleridge too; all the usual culprits, but then of course we turned to lighthouse keepers’ journals and diaries and that was very fruitful for Robert Pattinson’s character as a former lumberjack, I found a treasure trove of interviews with former lumberjacks from that period, but who became the most helpful was a writer called Sarah Orne Jewett, and she was writing in the state of Maine in our period and she was very concerned or interested in dialect herself. So she would be interviewing sailors and sea captains and farmers and then writing her main stories in phonetic dialect. So that was the key. Dafoe has a couple sentences, like when he’s wistfully thinking about the past, that come from Jewett, but other than that my brother and I were working with all this source material and various slang dictionaries, nineteenth century slang dictionaries separated into region and nautical dictionaries and lexicons, to really create something or our best version to recreate something, and my wife found a dissertation by a woman named Evelyn Star Cutler, and her dissertation was on dialect in Jewett, and thank you Evelyn because she provided rules and I had those rules when I was writing The Witch, but who if not Evelyn would have provided rules for how two working class people in the north east of America would have spoken? So she was able to break it down and talk about what words are omitted and where there’s verdict displacement and so on and so forth, so we could make sure these twelve things were always consistent with Rob’s character and these then with Willem’s, or whatever.
It was very important when we got to her, but from the beginning we were writing in dialect before we totally were fluent in it because we were getting our minds to think differently as you would if you were writing in another language. So this next clip, it begins with quite naturalistic dialogue, or our attempt at it based on our research, but then Dafoe goes into a kind of rant that I think is a bit theatrical; I think the influences of Sam Shepherd and Pinter and dare I say out loud Beckett show themselves to be clear, because even the rantiest ranter might not go on for this long. But it was fun.
Yeah, so I don’t know if that’s mythic, but it’s not naturalistic either. Yeah, you know one thing that I just didn’t mention with the research, looking over my notes here, is just that you’re always learning more, and I’m writing in tandem. So I can research some stuff, write some stuff, research some stuff, write some stuff, the whole time, and you’re constantly revising as you find more clarity on what the world is. The Viking script, there was a tremendous amount of research that I did, my co-writer there is Icelandic and really knows a lot about Vikings, but we have consulted with three of the greatest Viking historians recently and we missed some stuff, and that means—it’s tricky because there are some things where you can say ‘oh we’ll fix this, we’ll fix this,’ but then it’s like we’ve made this sandcastle and we’ve made this glorious tower we’re proud of and we have to smash it now? It’s horrifying, but sometimes you have to suck it up and smash it and rebuild it better.
So in conclusion, that was a bit scattered, but hopefully during the Q&A we can find a way to tie this all up in a bow. Or maybe I’m exposing myself as someone who’s more interested in atmosphere than story through this lecture. OK.
Mariayah Khaderbai: That was kind of incredible, thank you.
RE: I’m glad you thought so!
MK: I’m not going to even try to pretend to play intelligence gymnastics with you, so I’m maybe going to start and strip it all the way back and start from layman’s terms in terms of process.
MK: In everyday terms, kind of just routine, waking up in the morning. When the idea is in place, when it’s in place is it already mapped out in your head before you put pen to paper?
RE: Yeah, I think again it sort of depends if I’m writing alone, I can be quite free. I have my little notes about my three or five act structure depending on the piece, that I can kind of go back to and tweak but I am sort of finding it as I go and allowing myself that. If I’m writing for a studio, I’ve never written something for hire but I have been commissioned to write my own piece, and therefore do need to have a treatment for the studio to be sure that they like what they’re paying me to write, but with things on spec I will just kind of let it happen. When I’m writing with another writer, it’s essential that we outline things very clearly before we put pen to paper, but again things evolve and we have the whole sandcastle metaphor, whatever.
MK: So writing with another writer, writing with your brother on The Lighthouse, picking up on the idea of dialect and naturalism and even in the last scene we’ve just taken a look at, there’s a poetry to it and a rhythm to it and a beat to it, how do you a) create that in a way that’s communication between two people and conversation? But then write that with another person.
RE: I don’t know, you just do. Sorry. My brother and I know each other pretty well, we’re brothers, so that helps. And I think in both writing with my brother and the Icelandic novelist and poet who’s a much better writer than I am, I’m finally sort of in charge and that does sort of help clarify things, though both of them are incredibly talented and I respect them so much so if they’re really telling me like I’ve made a mistake, I listen.
But you just kind of toss things back and forth, and with my brother we’re pretty well aligned on what this was and I think sometimes when working with Sjón I tend to gild the lily and he tends to say ‘you can take it back a bit’ with the Nordic sensibility.
MK: With The Lighthouse, you did kind of undersell it in the way you said every scene is kind of a similar conversation between two people with a different power play, and it’s so not that. It’s so kind of mental gymnastics again between the two of them and ever so carefully, cleverly leads to this incredible finale. So the time of kind of pacing that and then writing with your brother those scenes together, how did you kind of piece together the story and arc and narrative to get to something that essentially is two people in one situation.
RE: So I had that basic plot I mentioned from Smalls lighthouse in Wales. Then very quickly I was like OK there needs to be a mermaid in the movie and she needs to be washed up on shore at the midpoint and there’s a mystery in the light and there’s a foghorn and all these bits and bobs, and I wrote some stuff. Years passed and my brother and I got together to really write this thing. I gave Max the eleven pages that I had written, all my notes I rewrote in a way that could be decipherable to another human being, and then I gave him a list of movies to watch and books to read and a month later we reconvened and started talking about how to make sense of this. And we talked and talked and talked and talked and then Max wrote an outline and it wasn’t great, and Max wrote another outline—I was also writing two other things at the time—so that’s the other thing, I really am enjoying collaborating with other writers but I’ve found that because the movie business is so tricky, if I don’t have more than one thing going at a time I’m painting myself into a corner. So anyway, back to this. Then Max wrote a third outline and act one and two were strong, act three was not working we just couldn’t find it, but I said we’re in good enough shape. So Max wrote act one, I revised it, then he wrote act two, I revised it, then I was so excited that I wrote act three and we actually had like a movie. And from there we just passed it back and forth, back and forth.
Once we had found that first version, we realised we had kind of retold some myths by mistake, or not by mistake but whatever, by the muses that we were conjuring. So we said OK let’s amplify our knowledge on Prometheus and Proteus and Triton and Neptune and see how we can further infuse our next draft with the knowledge of all that stuff. And that led to some fairly heavy-handed imagery in the movie but sometimes you just have to go with it.
MK: You kind of mentioned as well when you were talking, the idea that you’re researching, researching, researching, and then that you’re perhaps in kind of the seventeenth century or the nineteenth century and to you it perhaps might not be resonating today, but then obviously it has resonated with audiences today and thematically with The Witch kind of being a portrayal of the dark feminine, and with The Lighthouse looking at toxic masculinity, did you realise that when you were writing?
RE: No. When you’re done writing you can see it, but not, no I don’t during.
MK: How important is it for you to have something that is obviously so embedded in a specific time and place but then can have sort of… You said that it’s not about a message, but…
RE: I’m after this kind of archetypal story. I can’t know if it’s going to work forever, but the best stories stick around. There’s a reason people talk about Oedipus, there’s a reason people talk about Hamlet, there’s a reason—I’m not going to keep going. Marie-Louise von Franz, who was a prominent Jungian, said that Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tales are going to die because they aren’t essentially human the way many of the Grimm fairy tales are, and that Hans Christian Anderson was a demented Victorian and his stories are too wrapped up in his Victorian repressions and whatever. And she’s right. The Little Mermaid is kind of sticking around thanks to Disney, but the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tales are not being told at the same frequency as they once were. Is The Lighthouse a Grimm fairy tale? No. But I guess the idea though is that you’re trying to have something that resonates in any time and I think that by trying to have it be all about the time it’s set in rather than having to make any concessions for a contemporary audience, I feel like I have a stronger chance of it being timeless. Because obviously as much as I try to get into the mind-set of the people from that period it’s obviously impossible, so it’s only going to be a mirror of the mind-set of today, but using the lens of the past to reflect back on ourselves. That’s a little… but I think you know what I’m saying.
MK: There’s still space for interpretation because you can’t ever know.
RE: Yeah, you can’t ever know.
MK: I’m going to skip a little bit forward in terms of the visual look and how that relates to the writing in terms of looking of the notion of four by three… Do you have all of those things in your head and in place when you begin the writing process? And how does that affect the writing? Obviously the claustrophobia of The Lighthouse and how can that impact on the way you write?
RE: Yeah, I mean the aspect ratio got a little smaller over the years, but I always wanted it to be boxy and I always wanted it to be thirty-five millimetres. That’s something I saw when I pictured the atmosphere, and of course as you move forward in the writing and development and prep you learn more, things change and your preconceived notions are not always correct, but you make choices that are closer to your original intentions, even if they weren’t your preconceived notions about how to articulate your intention. And yeah, sometimes I see how it’s shot, and sometimes in certain sequences I write ‘extremely wide shot,’ ‘lighthouse in the middle of the sea, yadda, yadda, yadda,’ ‘close shot, the hull carves through the waves.’ Sometimes I’ll do that, which again, as a writer-director I can get away with, because it’s a terrible thing to do otherwise. Sometimes I see that and don’t write it because it’s distracting to the flow of the scene; sometimes I just see a scene, a story, and I know we’re going to have to find it later. Sometimes I see a scene that’s a complicated action sequence or stunt or visual effect or practical effect, and I think ‘ok how can I write this in an achievable way?’ and sometimes I think ‘if you’re thinking about writing it in an achievable way, you’re not going to write it, so just write it and you’ll figure it out,’ and you have to be blind to the realities of shooting to tell the best story.
MK: Then circling back to the idea of studio commissions or studio notes or producer notes, how does that then have an impact on the writing in that way, and do you leave things out?
RE: I’m not duplicitous because the most important thing is that everyone’s on the same page. I try to, now, after some experience, say every horrible thing that a studio wouldn’t want to hear about what I’m doing straight away. And if they’re scared at that point, good. If they’re still willing to listen after I’ve said all the crazy stuff then we’re good to go because I’m not going to like shock them too much as we move forward. I think I used to be very defensive when I was younger and now I’m not in the room. I get my notes, go home, go ‘they’re trying to ruin my movie,’ then sleep on it and realise actually these are smart. I think a lot of times, and this is I’m sure common knowledge to you, the thought behind the note is right but the note itself is not good. If you have multiple people saying something is wrong with a scene, maybe they have different ideas about how to fix it, then there’s probably something wrong with that scene even if their solutions are poor. It’s worth thinking about that stuff. The Witch, the first draft of the script that was presentable, there was no central protagonist. We followed each of the family members carefully for a period of time and then the film ended with Thomasin. And my producing partners were kind of like, ‘look we think it’s cool but it probably cannot be financed. It might be the best version of the movie that you’re doing but we think it may never get financed if you do it like this. If you have a central protagonist, I think we can finance this movie.’ And I was very upset about it at the time, incredibly defensive, but I thought ok I can make it about Thomasin and deal with that. One of the things I don’t love about The Witch, though, is that there are these kind of—you can feel that the original version wasn’t only her, and there’s good things about that as far as the world building is concerned, but there’s bad things about that as far as having the best narrative you could have.
MK: Then when you at that point go into filming with a script that you’re eighty, ninety per cent happy with—
RE: I was happy with the script at the time. Now I have my things, but I had many years because no one wanted to finance it for so long. Like I had many years to get it in pretty good shape. I like the script better than the film.
MK: I’m going to ask a very superficial question about writing in animals. You had the goat in The Witch and then seagulls feature very heavily in The Lighthouse. Did you think when you were writing it how you were going to orchestrate birds—
RE: Now I’m very, very, very cautious about writing animals. Not that I don’t do it, but I do a lot of research about can these animals be trained? Are they legal to shoot with in the countries I’m most likely to be shooting in? Who trains them? What can they do? All this stuff before I do that.
So I didn’t do that with The Witch, the goat was a nightmare and you can’t train a goat and don’t write a goat in your movie is my biggest tip of the night, unless they’re just supposed to stand around and eat stuff they’re not supposed to eat. And so then—I wanted Pattinson’s character killing a seabird to be like the catalyst that would bring the storm, and that inspired my brother to write all these fucking scenes with seagulls.
He was telling me about it and I was like there’s no way I’m going to do that, no. And then he was like ‘I urge you to read these scenes, I think they’re good,’ and they were great. So we had to have a seagull. But the great news is seagulls are incredibly intelligent and there’s three very well trained seagulls in the UK, so write seagulls, write away.
MK: I’m going to open it out to the audience now. We have roving mics, so if you put your hand up… I can see someone right at the front here, and if we can get one over here as well? Thank you.
Q: How much—how seriously do you take theme and does it influence any stage of your writing process, one central concept that influences and constricts the plotting and the characters?
RE: Yeah, a central theme doesn’t affect anything for me. I think I may—I guess things kind of sort of happen organically and then I might find a central theme. If there’s a central theme that presents itself very clearly, I may then go through and tease that out. Again The Witch and The Lighthouse are sort of art-house films and they’re not…. The Witch to me is very clear narratively, though it doesn’t explain everything I feel like it implies a lot of things that are clear. To me, that’s my experience, if you find it ambiguous that’s fine too. The Lighthouse is meant to be incredibly obscure; those are films where sort of like hitting the central theme is not the style of it. In scripts that I’ve written that haven’t been made that were intended for a larger audience, they have a theme that is more clear. While The Lighthouse and The Witch don’t confirm to traditional Western Hollywood dramaturgy, that’s not a bad—that kind of dramaturgy’s also great. As much as I like Beckett I like Charles Dickens, come on, you know. I actually find that it’s harder to write something that is a good normal beginning, middle and end clear story for everyone without it being spoon-fed and stupid. I find that to be the greater challenge. The Witch where it’s sort of subtle is its own kind of challenge; The Lighthouse, my brother and I did a tremendous amount of work to make something off kilter. We have the answers to all of the questions, we wrote versions of the script that were much more clear and then we went back to create roadblocks and confusions, so I do feel like it is well constructed, but you can do something like that a little bit willy nilly and not know what you’re doing in a way that can still be kind of successful, in a way that with a very traditional narrative it’s harder to do. My brother is better at that A, B, C, D, and Sjón who’s writing The Northman with me, his novels are at times super out there but he’s incredibly good at that structure in a way that I am not so that’s another great thing about me working with another writer.
Q: Hi there. You’ve spoken a lot about myth, fairy tales, and Jungian archetypes. I’m wondering what you believe it is about this ancient wisdom, subconscious wisdom that the world needs today? Why’s it relevant?
RE: I just think it is what it is to be human. Like, to be really goof troupe about it, there are some ancient creation myths that are closer to current astrophysics, do you know what I mean? So I think that so-called primitive societies or early ontologies, there is something just understood that is just uh, essential. I don’t know, I think maybe that’s too simplistic of an answer, but there you go.
Q: Thank you. Huge question!
MK: Let’s go to the lady there.
RE: Again, if it’s archetypal it should always be relevant, right? You know what I mean? It should always be relevant. That’s the point of an idea of an archetype. But certain archetypes reconstellate themselves and appear at certain periods of time. The Witch isn’t the only witch movies that happened in this period; everyone has fucking crystals you can buy at Urban Outfitters. Witchouse music was very popular right before The Witch and then right after and around The Witch there was all this hipster witch fashion and stuff. The witch archetype was needed then and into now for whatever reason. I’m not a social anthropologist so I don’t quite know why, but that was important for that archetype to re-emerge at that time.
Q: I had a question about how do you get to the feeling of completion when you’re writing a script? That’s something I find I really struggle with, is getting to the end and then going I’m finished now, because I always feel like I can go back and do something else. How do you kind of achieve that feeling of—?
RE: Yes, it’s a great question and you can’t. I can’t. But there’s deadlines. I have to turn shit in and have to start shooting. A deadline, that’s the only thing. And if it’s a spec script I have to just say you’re done. This is the day you said you’d be done so you have to be done. Otherwise you’re going back and putting walkie-talkies back into ET you know?
MK: OK let’s come to the lady just at the front there and then can we get a mic to this gentleman here?
Q: How many scripts would you say you’d written before The Witch was financed?
RE: Two adapted feature screenplays, two original screenplays, three short films that were made and two short films that were not made. And I also adapted—I did a lot of theatre, so I adapted a lot of plays over the years before then.
MK: And you said you’re writing sometimes multiple things at the same time. On average how many screenplays would you at this point be working on?
RE: I can’t do more than three things at the same time, because I’m prepping the next thing, hope it happens, until I’m on set saying action I don’t like believe that it’s happening. Seven nine thirteen, knock, knock, knock, that’s how you say ‘touch wood’ in Iceland. Right now aside from Lighthouse press I’m just working on what I’m working on. When I get into post is when I can start getting into maybe writing a little bit again.
MK: We’ve got a question just here.
Q: Thank you. Being very prescriptive with your direction in your scripts, does that change on set? In other words, when you start working with the actors, and also as a writer-director do you write your direction notes for shooting, in other words camera angles and all that? Do you write that in your script as well?
RE: Sometimes I write the camera angles but rarely. It’s just if I truly feel like that’s the best way to convey like, the imagery and the moments. Even I feel like sometimes that’s distracting, but sometimes I feel like actually it’s the best way to convey the moment. Does it change? Not a lot. Always things change if things aren’t working; if things aren’t working, they change. But if things are working they don’t change, and I like to kind of—there’s so many decisions to make as a director and it’s nice to have decided and to move on. I like the rigour of being decisive, I like saying this is the shot—I mean, I was speaking about this earlier today, there’s this idea that spontaneity is best and you prepare, you prepare, you prepare so that you can be spontaneous in the moment. That is great and I’m not saying it’s worse than what I’m about to say, but I’m also saying that it’s not necessarily best. There can be incredible satisfaction and magic and beauty and something transcendent about actually preparing, preparing, preparing and then carrying out the act that you have prepared to do. Kurosawa later in his career, like with Ran for example, would rehearse all day and then do one take, that’s it.
Q: I suppose my thought was does it affect some of the cast? Would they prefer to have some input into maybe how they would portray that role, even though you’ve sort of stipulated a certain way of doing it, and are you open to that?
RE: Obviously it’s collaborative and I’m not entirely dictatorial, although the director’s job is to be a king and everyone else’s job is to be the director’s subject—no, of course it’s collaborative but I think it depends. It’s interesting, with Ralph Ineson who played the father in The Witch, early on in the movie we knew that story-wise two weeks had passed I believe when Ralph’s about to take his son into the woods after the baby dies, and Ralph was like I feel like I can’t be morose, I have to be upbeat because I’m trying to like, not have my son tailspin into all this shittiness and depression. So I think I need to be playing it upbeat instead of morose as it’s written in the script. And I said Ralph you’re absolutely right, we’ve got to do it like that. But he was wrong, because the audience who had just seen a baby get squished up into a pulp by a witch, they didn’t know until a few scenes later that two weeks had passed, so when Ralph was like jauntily doing all this and that it seemed horrific. So we had to ADR his performance into this morose thing. I’m not saying that to say that I’m right all the time, but sometimes there are instincts that you have for a reason.
With The Lighthouse, Dafoe’s character is so very clear, and Dafoe basically delivered a 2000 per cent version of exactly what I had imagined. But many of my preconceived notions about Rob’s character were wrong, and Rob I would say a third of the time delivered something very different than my preconceived notion, but it was closer to my intention and was definitely preferable. However, because of the rigorous camera language that I’m using, he had to work within a certain box, and within that box he was allowed whatever freedoms he could invent, do you know what I‘m saying?
MK: Can there ever be freedom of language? Just because it’s so specific in dialect and classicism, so perhaps freedom in tone and movement and reaction and action, but is there freedom in language ever?
RE: The way I’m currently working there’s absolutely no freedom in language. And it’s funny because this has come up in the past, and a lot of the time with The Lighthouse people think stuff was improvised which is a great compliment to Rob and Dafoe in making it seem off the cuff even though it was all very planned. And I’ve said sort of snarkily like how on earth could you possibly improvise this stuff? But you know, I was watching a documentary about Mike Leigh making Mr Turner, and if you’re working with Mike Leigh you can improvise that shit, you know, because he’s work shopping and work shopping and work shopping with the actors, perhaps you know, and they’re creating the dialogue together and so then Timothy Spall can speak in an obscure nineteenth century dialect like impromptu—it’s incredible. Maybe some day, but right now stick to the script.
MK: I think we literally have time for one more question. This gentleman here.
Q: How do you approach writing a script where you didn’t have artistic—where you knew you weren’t going to have artistic control over the final product? So writing a script for another director, or writing a franchise, studio-driven franchise film?
RE: That’s a tough question. I mean, I think I’d certainly be more spare than I am. I mean the short, snide answer is I wouldn’t, but you never know, I might get hungry and need to pay some bills. But I think—writing in a way in which… I haven’t done this before so I don’t know, I think whatever it means to write in a way in which I’ve created a canvas for someone else to take to a new level and be themselves with. I think it does need to have my DNA and my identity for me to care, and put the time into it. But it’s funny, I actually—there’s an IP, a famous novel that I won’t say what it is, but people were talking about me directing it and I didn’t want to and one day I was like ‘I’m just going to write a spec script that I’m going to sell and I’m not going to care about it and I’m going to write it in two weeks and it’ll be great and whatever.’ And after three days I was like ‘oh no I just have to direct it,’ and I got all into my whole world and the whole thing and whatever. It wasn’t very good anyway so I stopped after a couple of acts but you know, I think it would be hard for me to do. Sorry I don’t have a better answer.
MK: I want to thank you so much for giving a phenomenal lecture, for creating two wonderful pieces of cinema; I know that we’re all really excited to see what you do next. Thank you Robert Eggers.