How Robert Eggers Brings the Past to Life Onscreen

With ‘The Northmen,’ the director of ‘The Witch’ and ‘The Lighthouse’ will go back in time once again.
The Lighthouse
By  · Published on October 20th, 2019

Robert Eggers isn’t interested in making movies about modern times. He wants to traverse history and explore the fringes and forgotten corners of bygone eras. Despite having only made two movies so far, it’s clear that he is a filmmaker with a distinct set of interests that don’t align with the majority of filmmakers working today. But that’s what makes him such an exciting presence in the current cinematic landscape.

According to Collider, Eggers’ next movie is a Viking-themed revenge drama that’s set in Iceland during the 10th century. The Northmen will reportedly star Alexander Skarsgård as a Nordic prince who’s out for retribution, while Bill Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Bjork, Willem Dafoe, and Anya Taylor-Joy are also being eyed for roles.

Unlike his first two, The Witch and The Lighthouse, Eggers’ next effort won’t feature any supernatural elements. However, the premise lends itself to exploring some of the themes and characteristics that define the director’s work, such as hysteria, violence, and transporting audiences to those days gone by.

While Eggers’ previous films are known for their fantastical horror qualities, the director goes to great lengths to ensure that they are also accurate reflections of their respective period settings. His goal is to make viewers suspend their disbelief while they’re watching his films, and to achieve this he believes that depicting as much historical accuracy as possible onscreen is important.

The Witch, a film that takes place in 17th century New England and revolves around a Puritan family who encounters evil from the woods beyond their farm, is a prime example of Eggers’ meticulous attention to detail. Prior to making the movie, he devoted five years of his life to researching the era in which it’s set.

The idea for Witch stemmed from Eggers’ childhood days visiting New England and the Plimoth Plantation museum in Massachusetts. This is when he became fascinated with witch trials, religious superstition, and people’s belief in supernatural folktales.

To project New England’s mythic past on the screen, however, Eggers had to learn all about the language and worldview of people during that time. As noted by The New York Times, he dug into old books and texts written at the time — including Reginald Scot’s The Discoverie of Witchcraft, as well as church pamphlets, prayer books, and sermons from Puritanical ministers.

He learned how people talked by studying the diaries of John Winthrop, a founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and Samuel Sewall, a judge involved in the Salem witch trials. These diaries are rife with mentions of witchcraft, and they were essential in helping Eggers understand how people thought and communicated back then.

Of course, a key element of the movie is witchcraft, and Eggers devoted a lot of his time to learning all about it by reading up on these customs from around the world. For example, the scene involving the witch kidnapping the family’s baby was lifted from an ancient English belief that proposed witches feasted on the entrails of unbaptized babies in order to fly. Talk about living deliciously, eh?

Every believable horror story needs some basis in reality, though, and that involves creating a realistic location for the story’s setting. The Witch was filmed in Canada because shooting in New England was too costly. At the same time, the woods where the movie was filmed — — with its towering trees, eerie isolation, and gloomy natural light — very much resembles the forests of New England that Eggers had in mind.

To build the farm, Eggers and production designer, Craig Lathrop, read old agriculture books and turned to the Plimoth Plantation for guidance. In order to make the farm appear realistic, they even used tools from the time period to make the sets as true-to-life as possible.

Watching the film, it’s evident how much time and energy Eggers put into making this world believable. However, these key elements in the filmmaking process aren’t always appreciated by audiences looking for thrills and scares, no matter how much they enhance the overall experience.

That said, Eggers is dedicated to his process, and The Lighthouse is another movie experience that transports viewers to another time by obsessing over the finer details. His sophomore feature, which he co-wrote with his brother Max Eggers, is a tale of seafaring madness that centers around two grizzled lighthouse keepers (Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson) going mad in a lighthouse. Like The Witch, it’s another film concerned with both intricate realism and mythical fantasy.

The idea for The Lighthouse came about after the Eggers siblings read a true story about two lighthouse keepers — both of whom were named Thomas — who got stranded on their station in 19th century Wales. As the BBC reports, both men were known to argue and come to blows, until one night a freak accident occurred which led to one of them dying. The surviving member then tied his colleague’s body to the railings of the lighthouse and waited for a lifeboat to arrive.

The film deviates from that story in many ways, but it inspired Eggers and company to make a movie about how isolation at sea can lead to madness, which gave them an opportunity to explore all kinds of strange ideas.

In an interview with Vox, Eggers revealed that he learned all about the 1890s maritime community by reading a lot of fiction from yesteryear, including stories by Robert Louis Stevenson, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Herman Melville. The works of these authors were key in helping the filmmakers learn all about the way seafaring men spoke back then. They also lifted some phrases from old nautical dictionaries.

Eggers and his brother also researched what sailors and lighthouse keepers wore and ate at the time, as well as where they lived and what their lifestyle was like. Needless to say, they enjoyed a drink and a brawl. As documented by Esquire, Pattison embodied this lifestyle by getting intoxicated and soiling himself during the shoot. He also ate mud and came to physical blows with the director.

Despite the film’s dedication to portraying realistic men from the era, The Lighthouse is littered with references to nautical mythology and superstitions, including sea birds and mermaids. Birds are symbols of luck, both good and bad, while mermaids are commonplace in sea legends all around the world.

The work of the artists Jean Delville, Sasha Schneider, and Arnold Böcklin helped inform Eggers on mermaids. However, Eggers was so attentive to the ancient lore that he went as far to portray mermaid genitalia onscreen. To understand how they’d copulate, however, he had to study the private parts of sharks.

Check out this interesting nugget of information that the director gave to The Daily Beast:

“Medieval and Renaissance mermaids were always split so that these anima figures of male fantasy could perform their role that had been unfairly thrust upon them by their male imaginers. But no surprise that in the Victorian Era, they closed the mermaids up and made them impenetrable. So that single-tail mermaid silhouette has become the archetypal mermaid look for people today, and also what a mermaid would have looked like in the period of the movie.”

As was the case with The Witch, the locations of the modern world weren’t up to the standards of Eggers and his team this time around, either. They had to build their own lighthouse set and other buildings from scratch to not only depict a 19th century Maine setting but also to fit the film’s silent film-esque aspect ratio.

In an interview with Den of Geek, Eggers revealed that they worked with consultants to bring the architecture to life, though they weren’t as involved during every stage of development this time as the movie was green-lit very quickly.

Eggers and company also took some creative liberties with this movie to make the story more dramatic. For example, some of the containers in this lighthouse wouldn’t have been used in remote stations back then as they posed too many problems for the inhabitants. Still, the fact Eggers knows about so much about containers shows just how much research he puts into his movies beforehand.

No matter how crazy Eggers’ movies get — and they do go to some wild places — the decision to at least try and ground them in a long-lost reality must be commended. The attention to detail and craftsmanship is remarkable. Furthermore, while the bonkers elements are entertaining to watch, the real beauty of Eggers’ films is in the way they teach us about obscure, freaky history in their odd way. Who doesn’t want to see this vision brought to a Viking epic?

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Kieran is a Contributor to the website you're currently reading. He also loves the movie Varsity Blues.