Robert Eggers: A Method Behind the Madness

Spending summers growing up on Tiree I got to experience the unadulterated beauty of the Scottish seaside. But the island lives in the shadow of a monument that feels pulled directly out a horror film: Skerryvore – a colossal Victorian lighthouse that stands in the horizon defiant against the crashing waves that attack the rock it balances on. What always fascinated me was not the tower itself but that the man who constructed it, Robert Stevenson, was the same Stevenson whose grandson wrote “Treasure Island” and spent time himself on Tiree. So, when Robert Eggers released “The Lighthouse”, a film based in part on research into Stevenson Lighthouses, I was fascinated to see it. The fantastical met with the historic. I want to show you that Eggers is currently the best director in the industry, as we explore his two features – the aforementioned The Lighthouse and The VVitch.

Eggers spent 16 years as a production designer before transitioning to writer-director and that is immediately obvious in The Lighthouse. His meticulous attention to detail in terms of set is apparent from the get-go – building the entire living quarters of a lighthouse just for the film but keeping it exactly accurate to the period. This thoughtfulness creates a setting that works in harmony with the films’ central themes. In fact, both Eggers’ films take place only in one location, which opens the door for these sets to act almost like other characters in these stories – they are both used as anchor points around which the themes of their films develop. This is most obvious in The Lighthouse: the theme of masculinity is central to the film, but it is the lighthouse itself which is used to confront the characters with its violent undertones. As Eggers’ puts it, “Nothing good happens to two men trapped in a giant phallus”, showing Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe’s characters’ inability to overcome their masculine egoism in order to work and ultimately survive together.  

Eggers’ features avoid the pitfalls of other psychological thrillers to which they are often compared. The focus on keeping these worlds historically and thematically accurate ground the films, avoiding erratic plotlines and gratuitous jump-scares. For example, The VVitch follows a puritan family’s descent into hell as a witch picks off members one by one. The underlying fear of the occult – which was rife during this period – is a theme that consumes the film more so than the witch itself. We see mother turn on daughter, as Anya Taylor-Joy’s character is falsely blamed for the evil afflicting the family. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: at the end of the film she is cast out of said family and inducted into the cult of witches that had indeed haunted them. This cyclic structure keeps the story concise and doesn’t leave the audience feeling irritated by a thoughtless ending, like so many other films in this genre.

It is obvious within the final product of these films that the methodical approach Eggers takes elevates his work. Each script starts as a single idea that he then contextualises by collating as much relevant text from the period as he can, to immerse himself in not just the history but the dialects as well. Letters to and from Robert Stevenson were used to add authenticity to the lighthouse keeper’s vernacular. In addition, Eggers scrutinised the dialect of 19th pirates and sailors and accents from the West Country to give Dafoe’s character, Thomas Wake, not just the perfect dialect but an implicit backstory too – that prior to the events of the film he was a sailor. The effort Eggers put in to craft dialects like this makes way for some of what I would consider the best dialogue in modern cinema. The Lighthouse – which feels like a never-ending series of confrontations – comes to a hilarious crescendo when (of all things) Pattinson’s character, Ephraim Winslow, accuses Thomas Wake of being a poor cook. This sends Wake into a drunken frenzy, cursing Winslow in a soliloquy Shakespearean in breadth.

 “Haaaaark! Hark, Triton! Hark!… take up his fell, be-finnèd arm — his coral-tined trident…”.

The poetry of this speech is undeniable. However, it is the vernacular that really sets it apart as an exemplar of the fruition of the Eggers method. Each word feels chosen from a history book and strung together to create a speech that conveys his craft to the exact magnitude of which he intended. 

The research that goes into these stories really does add a layer of depth. Maybe it is because of my background in science that I highly value this meticulous and methodical approach to filmmaking, but I do believe that, with what I have said above, it creates a film that stands out as unique in its ideas but grounded in its approach to storytelling and veracity.

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