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How Robert Eggers Showed His Incredible Talent for World-Building in His First Three Films


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With the theatrical release of The Witch in 2015, Robert Eggers put himself on every cinephile’s radar as an important filmmaker to watch. If you’ve seen The Witch or Eggers’ subsequent films, The Lighthouse and The Northman, it’s apparent that the New York City native is particularly drawn to folklore and mythology, and while his films all have distinct supernatural elements to them, they are all grounded in a realistic historical context based on the time period during which they take place.


Eggers’s movies work for a number of reasons: the acting performances are next-level, the cinematography is evocative, and the scores are distinct and powerful. But, perhaps the most resonant aspect of any Eggers project is its immersive quality. Even though they each take place in long-ago eras, Eggers’ films make you feel like you are actually living in the world of the story, making even the fantastical seem believable. Here’s a brief examination of Robert Eggers’s incredible commitment to world-building in his first three films.


A Satanic Period Piece with The Witch (2015)

When Robert Eggers was just a child, he and his family moved to Lee, New Hampshire. While there, they frequently took trips to Plymouth, Massachusetts, to visit Plimoth Plantation, a complex of history museums that replicates life in the 17th-century Plymouth Colony. It was these trips that inspired Eggers to write the script for The Witch.

Set during a time when satanic and witchcraft-based influence was very much a real fear, The Witch is a folk horror film that follows a family of Puritans in the 1630s who are banished from their settlement and forced to fend for themselves in a secluded forest. Starring Anya Taylor-Joy in a breakthrough performance and co-starring Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie, the movie is a perfectly-crafted, slow-build descent into madness as a malevolent presence tears the family apart.

The Witch

The Witch

Release Date
January 27, 2015

Director
Robert Eggers

Rating
R

Runtime
92

Despite the overt appearance of a child-eating coven in The Witch, the film doesn’t rely on cheap jump scares to get its message across. Instead, it is most effective as a period-piece horror through Eggers’s painstaking stylistic approach and authentic world-building. For instance, the exterior scenes were shot using natural lighting, while candles were the only light source for the interior scenes. While he had originally intended to film in New England, Eggers ultimately shot The Witch in Canada for tax purposes, though the forest in Kiosk, Ontario, that he used as the location perfectly replicated the remoteness of New England at the time. According to Eggers, the closest town in Kiosk “made New Hampshire look like a metropolis.”

Eggers also extensively consumed 17th-century primary sources prior to filming, from diaries to official court documents, which helped him to not only nail the elevated language featured in The Witch, but also contributed to the costume design and even the farming techniques employed by the ill-fated family. When added together, all of these factors helped to masterfully create a bleak, tension-filled tone and atmosphere that helped make the final bonfire scene all the more satisfying.

Related: Robert Eggers: Explaining the Endings of His Films

The Lighthouse Was Inspired by Poe, Lovecraft, Melville, and Others

The Lighthouse

The Lighthouse

Release Date
October 18, 2019

Director
Robert Eggers

Rating
R

Robert Eggers tackled late 19th-century New England for his second film, The Lighthouse, once again proving his adeptness for creating minimalist and surreal horror movies. The movie was originally conceived by Robert and his younger brother Max to be a big-screen retelling of Edgar Allan Poe’s unfinished short story The Light-House, though the eventual basis for the Eggers brothers’ screenplay was a 19th-century myth about an incident at a lighthouse in Wales. According to the legend, two wickies (lighthouse keepers) named Thomas get trapped at the lighthouse during a storm, and later die as a result. The two Thomases in The Lighthouse are played by Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, though the central conflict in the A24-produced film is more psychological and symbolic in nature, making the movie more of a character study than a beginning-to-end narrative.

Just like with The Witch, Eggers extensively examined primary and secondary sources, researching 19th-century maritime culture in New England as well as literature of the time to nail the film’s authentic dialogue and atmosphere. While Eggers pored through photos of New England in the 1890s, he also studied the works of Herman Melville, H.P. Lovecraft, and Robert Louis Stevenson. The dialect-heavy writing style of Sarah Orné Jewett, whose novels and short stories were primarily set near the coast of Maine, directly inspired the movie’s distinct dialogue. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” which tells the story of a sailor who becomes cursed after killing an albatross, is one of the film’s most overt literary influences.

At its core, The Lighthouse is more than just a simple period piece, so Eggers went far beyond 19th-century New England to formulate the screenplay’s symbolic aesthetic. Freudian and Jungian philosophies are clearly apparent in The Lighthouse, with Oedipal urges and the idea of the “dark side” of the individual’s personality serving as strong thematic tenets. Eggers also acknowledged the influence of symbolist artists Sascha Schneider and Jean Delville on the film’s homoerotic and phallic imagery. But, it is the story of Prometheus that stands out as the movie’s mythological crux, with Pattinson’s Thomas Howard evoking the light-seeking Prometheus and Dafoe’s Thomas Wake representing the Poseidon-serving Proteus. These thematic elements are more than just subtext, as they become just as real to the world of The Lighthouse as the melancholic portrayal of the turn-of-the-century East Coast.

Eggers’s incredible world-building in The Lighthouse was achieved not just thematically, but cinematically as well, which is most noticeable in the film’s cinematography. Shot in Nova Scotia in black-and-white with a 1.19:1 aspect ratio, the movie evokes a harrowing isolation that ratchets up as the two Thomases become more at odds (for his efforts behind the camera, Jarin Blaschke earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Cinematography). The use of pipes, horns, and even conch shells in the movie’s score (a direction suggested by Eggers though eerily and effectively executed by composer Mark Korven) further immerses the viewer into Eggers’s film. Just like with the two ill-fated Thomases, once the audience enters the world of The Lighthouse, there is no escaping it.

The Northman Is a Viking Epic

The Northman is probably Robert Eggers’s most mainstream film, in that, on its surface, it functions as a big-budget, blood-soaked revenge movie. Still, Eggers didn’t sacrifice authenticity for conventional appeal in his 2022 epic historical saga about a Viking prince named Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) who seeks revenge following the murder of his father (Ethan Hawke) at the hands of his treacherous uncle (Claes Bang).

Eggers teamed up with Icelandic poet Sjón to write the screenplay for The Northman, which was based on the story of Amleth, a legend featured in 12th-century Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus’s Gesta Danorum that notably inspired Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Eggers also drew from other Norse poems and histories, including cited the Poetic Edda, the Prose Edda, Egil’s Saga, and the Saga of Hrolfr Kraki. Consulting with Norse historians, folklorists, and archeologists, Eggers was able to further ground the movie in a historical context while also including supernatural elements inexorably tied to Viking culture.

the Northman

The Northman

From director Robert Eggers comes The Northman, an action-filled epic that follows a Viking prince on his quest to avenge his father’s murder.

Release Date
April 22, 2022

Director
Robert Eggers

Rating
R

Runtime
2hr 20min

Filmed in Iceland and Northern Ireland, The Northman looks and feels like ninth-century Scandinavia. From the king’s royal hall and the massive ships to the carts and even the shields, pretty much every set piece and prop is based on an authentic Viking artifact. The on-screen behavior of the Vikings, from their viciousness in battle to their reliance on seers and seeresses to their ritualistic and primal dances around the fire, were all meticulously recreated from artwork and sagas of the time.

Even the film’s music draws you in: on top of using actual Nordic instruments for the score, co-composers Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough assembled a 40-member string ensemble to recreate the sound of an old Scandinavian instrument known as a bullroarer. All of these elements came together to make The Northman one of the most historically accurate Viking films ever made.

Related: How Directors Robert Eggers & Ari Aster Have Influenced Modern Horror

What to Expect From Nosferatu (2024)

Nosferatu 2024 poster

Nosferatu (2024)

Release Date
December 25, 2023

Robert Eggers’ Nosferatu, a remake of the 1922 F.W. Murnau of the same name, will mark the filmmaker’s first attempt to put his own spin on a cinematic classic. Set for a Dec. 25, 2024 release date, the film stars Bill Skarsgård as the vampiric Count Orlok, and features a star-studded supporting cast that includes Nicholas Hoult, Lily-Rose Depp, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, ​​​​Willem Dafoe, and ​​​​​Ralph Ineson.

In an interview with Empire, Eggers briefly teased what audiences will be in for with his latest film.

“Yeah, it’s a scary film. It’s a horror movie. It’s a Gothic horror movie,” he tells Empire in the 2024 Preview issue, featuring the world-first look at the film. “And I do think that there hasn’t been an old-school Gothic movie that’s actually scary in a while. And I think that the majority of audiences will find this one to be the case.”

Filmed in Prague, Nosferatu was shot in color and has a look that evokes 19th-century Romanticism, according to cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, who worked on all of Eggers’s previous films. Other than that, not too much is known about the film, aside from the fact that Dafoe plays a “crazy vampire hunter,” and was involved in a scene that includes a burning set piece and 2,000 live rats. Eggers has also been incredibly praiseworthy of the performances in the film, particularly those of Skarsgård and Depp, so it’s clear that the director’s take on the gothic masterpiece will rely just as much on the commitment of his actors as on his own commitment to authentic world-building.

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