Fall 2019 Director's Profile: Robert Eggers
Robert Eggers
Seeking, finding illumination

Robert Eggers made an auspicious feature directing debut with The Witch, which earned him Film Independent Spirit Awards for Best First Feature and Best First Screenplay in 2017. Two years earlier upon its worldwide premiere at Sundance, The Witch won the Directing Award in the U.S. Dramatic category.

The indie horror hit brought to audiences the terrors of a 1630s’ New England family with a psychological folk lore bent. Now Eggers’ second feature, The Lighthouse (A24), takes us back to the 1870s where two lighthouse keepers--played by Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson--struggle to keep their wits intact on a remote New England island, ultimately unable to stave off a descent into madness.

The Lighthouse premiered earlier this year at the Cannes Film Festival’s Directors Fortnight to stirring reviews. Ironically, it was for Eggers the unlikeliest project to get greenlit as his much anticipated second feature. The director had been more prominently linked to larger scale films, including his take on 1922’s Nosferatu. But when those big-ticket assignments didn’t come to fruition, he fell back on a script written by his brother, Max Eggers, about a pair of lighthouse keepers. Robert Eggers, though, gave it a decidedly different twist from what was originally envisioned as a strange breed of ghost story. 

The silver lining of Eggers’ planned bigger budgeted fare falling by the wayside was that the writer-director could retain creative control over The Lighthouse, meaning he had the freedom to seek the illumination of his cohorts on The Witch, including cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, editor Louise Ford, production designer Craig Lathrop, and costume designer Linda Muir.

Eggers’ working relationship with this core group sheds light on him as a filmmaker. Eggers said of Blaschke, “He shot all my shorts that aren’t bad....If anyone has anything praiseworthy to say about the cinematic language of any of my movies, it’s for a collaboration between Jarin and me. I am not dictatorial. We push each other to get to something essential.”

Eggers has teamed with editor Ford as long as he’s been with Blaschke. “She knows my tastes better than I do,” assessed Eggers. “Jarin and I are usually painting ourselves into these corners and Louise knows how to get us out of that. I’m perhaps most sensitive in the edit room and Louise knows how to keep me from jumping off a bridge.”

Of costume designer Muir, Eggers related, “She does the tailoring that transports us to another world. She understands my scripts dramaturgically better than anyone else. She reads my script and finds my intentions immediately.”

Ambitious construction
Eggers said of production designer Lathrop, “He’s relentless. His research is impeccable, particularly on The Lighthouse. He will often tell me something is impossible and deliver it the next week.”

In terms of special delivery, how about the construction of a 70-foot-tall working lighthouse? “We were shooting this movie with two characters in a single location--but the third character is the lighthouse,” affirmed Eggers. “A CG lighthouse would have ruined the movie. It had to be real.”

It was real enough to withstand three nor’easters and give further credence to an inspired, hypnotic tale shot on black-and-white 35mm film. While the movie has a hallucinatory bent at times, belief is never suspended as Eggers grounds The Lighthouse in realism rooted in extensive research to attain historical accuracy. “You read and read,” related Eggers. “You flip through a manual about how to take care of a lighthouse from the 1870s. Even if you misread a sentence, it can spawn an idea. This research informs my writing, the specificity of details inspires the story, inspires moments, inspires motifs.

“Creating this material world through creative interpretation and with historical accuracy--with great collaborators--feels good. I like living up to this standard of history and realism. I like transporting an audience to a different time and historical place. By contrast, someone like Guillermo del Toro invents his own worlds so beautifully. But I find the pressure of trying to create that stuff crippling.”  

Research was also key in Eggers bringing a different dynamic to his brother’s script. Robert Eggers took a period piece turn with the film, combining nonfiction and fiction elements. He came across a real account of two lighthouse keepers who had the same name--one young, one older--and that served as a catalyst for a story grappling with identity that could evolve into something almost mythological. Then came Eggers and his ensemble looking to infuse this tale with the right feel and atmosphere.

Both The Witch and now The Lighthouse imparted a lesson to Eggers, namely “to continue to try to stick to my guns.” That cannot occur within a vacuum. “I’m still trying to sort out when do I listen to people and take their advice? And when do I insist that we have to reinvent the wheel?  Unless  you’re Ridley Scott or Ingmar Bergman, generally the director is the least experienced person on the crew. That certainly applies to someone in my shoes with just two features. But even if you’ve made five or six features, which is formidable, your crew has made at least dozens. You have to learn from them and still be true to your vision.”

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