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Robert Eggers 1

Jeremy Brock: Hi, Jeremy Brock. Welcome to the 2019 perhaps it’s the word lecture but it makes me anxious.
Screenwriters Lecture Series, number four of five, the I feel comfortable public speaking, the only training I
great Robert Eggers. Incredibly excited. Thanks as have is as an actor and my theatre background makes
always to BAFTA’s Learning and Events team, to Lucy me happy to be in front of an audience; I do feel more
Gard and the JJ Charitable Trust for funding and to comfortable here than at a cocktail party. Luckily
the Curzon for hosting us. there’s cocktails and I have one here just in case. So
  you know but I’m really looking forward to the
I just wanted to say that you are the loveliest audience conversation later because a Q&A is where I feel I
any screenwriter could hope to have. I love that you thrive a little more. I almost thought about just asking
remain so resolutely optimistic in the face of that po- myself a series of questions up here to make myself
faced, unsmiling, film buff-y kind of cinephile bullshit. feel more comfortable but I will spare you that
I love that you remain so resolutely impressed by the strangeness.
centrality of the screenplay. It is about the script, folks.  
Actors learn the lines, they go on set, and they act So I want to say, as you all know, the most important
them. You can throw all the bells and whistles you like thing we can all do as people who are trying to make
at it, but there is a controlling intelligence at work, and creative work is to be yourself and embrace what is
that controlling intelligence is the controlling uniquely you and your own voice. So obviously I’m
intelligence that looks at the structure, that looks at just talking about my approach and it’s unique to the
the shape of the whole piece, and I am delighted kind of strange interests that I have and I just hope
tonight to be hosting the great Robert Eggers, writer that there’s some tools that you can put in your
director of The Witch and The Lighthouse. God knows toolbox that can work with how you are you. I also
what he has for breakfast, but he has got the most want to say that as many of the other incredibly
incredible vision, which is extraordinary and accomplished filmmakers it’s an honour to be among
sometimes alarming. But his attention to detail in his in this series, I’m a writer and director, so the way that
writing, in his filmmaking is the thing that I find most I write my screenplays would be inappropriate if I
scintillating. And it is an enormous honour for us to weren’t directing them. As an actor who recently
be hosting someone who I think is one of the great turned down a role in one of my movies said, the
storytellers in the world of film today. screenplay was overwrought, and there is a kind of
  indulgence in the details of my screenplays that would
We’ll do the usual thing of showing a montage of all be entirely foolish if I were writing for another
our lecturers’’ work, then Robert will lecture, and he director; there’s a level of specificity in the blocking,
will then be in conversation with the irreplaceable and you know, if Willem Dafoe wears his reading glasses
wonderful Mariayah Khaderbai, Head of Programmes like this, if Robert Pattinson scratches his ear like this,
at BAFTA, and then we’ll open it up as we always to it may very well be in the screenplay. There’s never in
the floor. So we’ll have the montage, thank you. my screenplay ‘Rome burns,’ or ‘they fight,’ you know,
  ‘Arthur draws Excalibur, he thrusts towards the giant,’
[Applause] you know. The whole thing. So there.
   
[Clip plays] OK, so that out of the way, I’ll start at the beginning,
  again this feels so odd, but what’s the inspiration?
[Applause] Where do the ideas come from to write something? It
  depends on the script, as I’m sure you’d all agree. I had
Robert Eggers: OK, thanks. Jeremy was like far too an incredibly intense nightmare many years ago that
kind. I’ve made two feature films and some short films led to the idea of a story. I walked around Brooklyn
nobody’s seen, so it’s still strange to me that anyone for five hours and had the structure of a screenplay
cares what I might have to say. Yeah. But anyway that took me six years to write that was terrible. But
thanks very much and thank you to BAFTA, it’s truly you know I just kind of had it. Most often, I have an
an honour to be here. I’ve never lectured before and atmosphere, which I’ll talk about a lot later, and some
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images that get me going. Sometimes it’s something excited; I’d rather write a novel or paint a painting that
pragmatic. And very often it’s a combination of a few has to do with that stuff than to just make a movie.
of these things. I made a short film called Brothers And all that really has to do with the past, which
that was a proof of concept to try to get The Witch weirdly may somehow be my biggest passion. I think
financed. It had been many years since I’d made a that there’s complicated things about organised
short film and my most recent work was a very religion, but there’s also complicated things about an
stylised piece based on Edgar Allen Poe, which entirely secularised society. We lose the sublime and
featured a pupped as the lead character, and the sacred, sometimes, and so I find that what really
performances that were truly weird. And my producer excites me is to kind of understand where we’re
said, you know, ‘if you want anyone to finance The coming from and where we’re going from where we
Witch, you probably ought to make a new short, and it came from, and to try to go back in the past to think
probably should feature naturalistic performances by about ideas that are bigger than ourselves. The genre
children and scary woods.’ And so that was a task and that tends to explore that today is science fiction,
thus I was able to find a story that met with that which makes sense when like number is God in the
pragmatic task. intelligentsia that we’re all probably a part of, but I like
  to stay in the past.
With The Witch, I had written many feature  
screenplays no one wanted to finance, and I felt that as And what’s very important to me when I begin writing
an American director at the time if I wanted to get a a piece is not to have a message, to not have any
film financed it seemed like it needed to be in an intention beyond staying true to the world in which
identifiable genre. All of my sort of weirder films no I’m trying to write in. But thank heavens, like, as much
one cared for. So I thought it probably had to take as I try to seal myself up like an anchor and lock
place in New England because that’s where I’m from myself in my alchemical cell, the world—my world is
and given that I’d probably have no budget I’d have to not vacuum sealed, so I am affected by the zeitgeist
shoot it in the proverbial my parents’ back yard, and whether I want to be or not, and that’s important
witches are the archetypal New England spook and because otherwise The Witch can’t just appeal to
I’ve been interested in them, so that makes sense. So people who are alive in the 1630s, and The Lighthouse
there’s the pragmatic end, but then I truly as a kid— can’t just appeal to people who are alive in the 1890s
and this sounds a little precious—but I really did because there’s not enough graveyard screenings for
imagine the fact that there were puritans walking that to be profitable. So you know, with The Witch, I’m
around who grew up in the reign of Queen Elizabeth happy that most people, though not everyone for sure,
who were stomping around in the woods behind my sees the film as a feminist film. If I were to be objective
house and that was—and living an almost medieval and stand back I think I would agree with that stance,
existence. And you pair that in the belief in a real but that was not my intention, I just wanted to make a
witch and that was an atmosphere that really excited witch movie as I kind of said. But that’s what
me. With The Lighthouse, similarly my brother said he happened. With The Lighthouse, which I don’t know if
was working on a ghost story in a lighthouse and that people have seen, I was just trying to make a ghost
phrase ‘a ghost story in a lighthouse’ conjured up the story in a lighthouse, which It’s finally not, but it
images of the movie, the visual atmosphere, the crusty, became—you know when I was writing this story, this
dusty, musty, rusty black and white square aspect ratio, hyper-masculine story about two men, with my
and then I needed to find a story that accompanied brother—I was thinking why are we writing this right
that. now? This is the worst time to be writing this story,
  and then once we had the first draft we realised ‘oh I
So anyway, all of these things really finally have to do guess we’re talking about toxic masculinity and like
with what I’m really interested in and what is sort of everything that’s messed up about it.’ So that’s cool.
uniquely me, I think, maybe. Which is my interest in  
ghost stories, fairy tales, folktales, mythology, religion, But even still, when you’re getting into this other
sometimes the occult. That’s what really gets me world, you can’t be judgmental of the characters and
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the time period, you can’t rewrite history to conform Another one of these opposites for me is atmosphere
to the zeitgeist, but you do have a responsibility to vs. story. As Jeremy sort of hinted at in the beginning
understand what’s going on today and not be of this thing, all you need to make a film that’s
foolhardy. The thing that I’m working on currently has incredibly engaging is an excellent script with a great
slavery and violence against women and it takes place story and serviceable performances; they don’t even
in the Viking age so that’s going to happen, but how have to be good, just serviceable. You don’t need good
do I tell those stories without rewriting history, cinematography, you don’t need good art direction,
responsibly? Those are the questions I have to ask you don’t need good costumes, you don’t need good
myself and I can’t provide easy answers. sound design—you have to have professional sound so
  it’s not distracting—but it’s really about the script. For
So continuing to stay quite large, a few things that I me, both my two feature films have very simple stories:
think about and struggle with are trying to find a The Witch has a very clear, simple story, The
harmonious balance of certain opposites in my Lighthouse is almost void of story; it’s almost the same
writing. The largest things would be Dionysian vs. scene over and over and over and over and over again
Apollonian. I’ll start with Apollonian, the structure, with changing power dynamics. So in my films you
what patriarchal Western culture would call ‘male need atmosphere for the world to survive, for the film
ideals,’ then the Dionysian, female, mysterious stuff. to survive. And the atmosphere is an accumulation of
Like how do you create a balance of something that is details and these details come from my research, they
rigorous and structured and clear, but also has enigma come from the weather, they come from the light, they
and mystery and atmosphere? Moving further with come from the format that we shoot on; they come
these opposites, the mythic vs. the naturalistic. Again from all of these things. And atmosphere in some
I’m drawn to archetypal storytelling, I’m drawn to ways is a visual obstacle, and I mean that in a positive
archetypal characters. How do you make them way. Emmanuel Lubezki, AKA Chivo, obviously I
believable? It’s difficult. In doing this kind of couldn’t admire him more, but he’s very excited about
archetypal storytelling, even if it’s based on a fairy tale shooting—this isn’t writing, sorry—but he’s very
or a myth, I still try to bring in my personal excited about shooting Alexa 65 and he has a quote
experiences, the things that are me. When my brothers kind of saying that in the history of cinema we’ve been
first read The Witch screenplay, they said that even looking at the world through dirty windows and
though this is the seventeenth century it sounds like finally now we can see the world clearly with Alexa 65
our family arguing, you know. That’s very important. and the technology. I like the dirty windows; I like
Someone not just conveying plot but also having little having to peer in through something. That excites me.
asides that are about life, these kind of things can of So we’ll get further into like when I start really talking
course ground it and another thing that really helps about period research we’ll get further into
me, which is not surprising, is knowing the space. atmosphere and details and the research process, but
When I write it’s very helpful for me to have a kind of I’d like to play the first clip—all the clips are a little
dollhouse and dolls and their clothing and know long, so sorry. It’s from The Witch.
what’s in each room in order for me to really imagine  
what’s going on. Also because I’m telling stories that [Clip plays]
are taking place in the past and aren’t my personal  
experience, by creating this dollhouse in my head and [Applause]
with mood boards and such I’m able to see it clearly  
enough in my head to own it. Because if I can’t It’s hard for me to watch The Witch because it doesn’t
experience what I write as my own memories, it can’t always quite live up to my expectations. We had to
be truthful. That’s sort of a precious statement but shoot it digitally for financial reasons and I’m glad that
that’s how I try to look at it, taking every moment on we did but the irony is that I’m using that as an
as if this is a moment from my personal past in order example of atmosphere but I find it to be quite naked.
to tell it. Dick Pope was talking about Mike Leigh’s Peterloo,
  which I thought was a fine looking digital film, and
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Dick Pope like myself finds it blasphemous to add film He continues, he goes upstairs and he sees more but
grain if you’re shooting with the Alexa, but he added a you know, we’ve got to get on with the night as far as,
bit more digital noise and I wish that we had had that you know, the dollhouse goes. So that—it was about
idea with The Witch. But in any case, that is an four minutes and that was four pages of writing, which
example of the kind of atmosphere that I’m trying to could easily have been a page: Boat comes, sees an
create and all of the goat bleats and the dirty stockings island, get off the boat, they walk across the thing,
and the rushes on the floor and all that stuff is very stand there, he goes in, he walks around, whatever. But
carefully—and the creaking ladder rungs—is all very again, it’s this overwrought writing of every detail for
carefully described in the screenplay. Again, that kind four pages, but it also gives a better understanding of
of detail in the screenplay might be laborious but I feel exactly what we’re shooting, how long things are going
like in my movies that are sometimes like thin on plot, to take, and it helps—I feel like it helps my
if you can’t get that atmosphere from the text we don’t collaborators understand what we’re doing. Even that
have any understanding of what I’m trying to do here. long close-up of the two of them standing with the eye
I very often describe the odours in my screenplays as line towards camera was a very hefty paragraph about
well in order that we can better convey that feeling what we were supposed to convey from their faces in
when we watch it. that moment.
   
The other thing that’s important potentially about this So let’s get into something that’s actually interesting.
clip is it’s kind of showing the audience my dollhouse. Researching the period is my whole thing. There’s
It’s not always important for the audience to know nothing better about being period accurate, but it’s
geography, but in this clip and in the next clip we—the something that really excites me and if there is
geography of their cottage was important and so early anything like, you know, I said my interest in ghost
on in the film we’re establishing the atmosphere and stories and fairy tales is perhaps unique about me, but
the mood, and then we’re showing the lay of the land, if there is anything unique about my films it’s perhaps
so to speak, and the same thing will happen with the my obsession with being accurate. Of course, you
next clip from The Lighthouse. You know, going back know, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Peter Brooks’ King
to pragmatism, and maybe we’ll talk about producer Lear are fantastic examples of films that aren’t period
and studio notes at some point during the Q&A accurate in any shape or form but take you into
because that’s another interesting topic, but the film is incredibly rich, transportive, believable worlds—I
supposed to start not—I don’t know if everyone’s seen guess Dracula’s kind of stylised but it’s great. And for
The Witch or not—but basically the film was supposed me, you know, I like to—I like when I don’t
to start not much further back from that, and my understand these people, I like it when I’m researching
producers and financiers wanted me to start earlier, Puritans and I think how could this kind of English
like with them leaving the village or the plantation that Calvinism be helpful for anyone? And then be reading
they came from, which I thought was ridiculous and I and reading and reading and struggling, these are
didn’t want to be doing like Little House on the alien thoughts, these are alien people, and finally
Prairie. So I wrote a scene sort of that I thought would reading John Winthrop’s letters to his wife back home
be too expensive that we couldn’t shoot and then in England and that they were praying at the same
everyone loved it and then we had to find a way to fit time, they didn’t know about time zones but you
it into the budget and I kept trying to cut it out of the know, they thought they were praying at the same
movie, but actually they were right. We did need it. So time, and things like that you see all of a sudden OK
sometimes studio notes are good. OK let’s watch the they’re human like me. Finally you can unlock this
next clip. door where you realise like ‘oh my goodness, if I was
  alive then I would’ve thought exactly like them.’ Of
[Clip plays] course I would’ve. And not only that, like I can see
  how that kind of thinking still resonates in culture
[Applause] today.
   
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That for me is the most exciting moment, and that homoerotic style become perfect candidates as
requires a lot of reading, and then in the creation of imagery that’s going to work itself into the script.
the physical world, which also begins in the script  
phase, I’m also looking at tonnes of visual imagery to In writing period dialogue it’s the same kind of rigour.
understand all this stuff, because again atmosphere is With The Witch I felt that—I don’t know if I agree
an accumulation of details and if I were to be creating with this conceit today, but I felt that because the
a fictional world, perhaps if I were like J.R.R. Tolkein Puritans were so, to use the word again, rigorous in
and if I were that kind of genius and had that kind of their beliefs, so devout, I felt that I needed to use their
time on my hands, I could create something that own words to be respectful to them. I don’t know if I
specific, but generally it’s not going to be as specific as agree with that now and I think it might have been
the real thing. So if I’m just taking research and saying disrespectful to use their own words, but that’s what I
‘this is exactly what it is, team let’s recreate it to the did. Luckily because it’s early modern English that’s
best of our ability,’ we have a huge amount of detail, the period of Milton and Shakespeare and Spencer, so
more detail than we would have if we had conjured it there’s many books and thesauruses with the
up ourselves. At least that’s my thinking and yeah, so vocabulary and the rules, which was incredibly
you read secondary sources, you read primary sources, helpful. But I also read tonnes and tonnes and tonnes
you read children’s books on it to get another base of primary source material and made my own
overview after you’ve already gone deep you watch thesaurus that wasn’t a one to one, but sort of like a
crappy YouTube videos, you just go into museums and vibe. So things you might say when you’re chastising
consult with historians; you do whatever needs to be your children, things you might say when you think
done to find out as much as you possibly can. With someone is a witch, things you might say to your goat,
The Lighthouse, for example, it’s all built on research. and so you kind of are pulling from all these different
My brother set a ghost story in a lighthouse, that was things. Some of the dialogue early on became a bit of a
inspiring imagery; then on day two of researching I collage that then I need to hone into the separate
read about the Smalls lighthouse tragedy—two guys, voices for different characters and make it much more
both named Thomas, one older one younger, get specific and mine, but things that the children say
marooned on their lighthouse station because of a when they are possessed are things that children
storm, the old one dies, the young one goes mad. supposedly said when they were possessed and that
That’s my story. That’s the base of my story. Then the was, at the time I wrote this, important to me.
Instruction to Lighthouse Keepers, the manual  
becomes a huge key. All the tasks that they’re doing But very often in my research something would
and the rules that they’re not supposed to break, that inspire a scene. So John Winthrop, the first governor
becomes inspiration for all kinds of scenes, and then of Massachusetts who I mentioned earlier, he had a
the photographs of nineteenth century lighthouse very personal religious diary that was a real treasure
stations tell you a whole lot, not just about my trove for me, and he wrote that he dreamed, quote,
dollhouse but more. You see the boathouse with ‘that I was with Christ upon the Earth, and that very
runners and a lifeboat in it. Well I guess at some point instant with him in many tears for the assurance of the
Rob Pattinson’s going to try to escape and pull that pardon of my sins, etcetera. I was so ravished with his
lifeboat out. All that stuff is incredibly helpful, and love towards me, far exceeding the kindest husband,
then we continue to amplify our knowledge in these that being awakened had made so deep an impression
different areas—I’m saying ‘we’ because I wrote this in my heart as I was forced to unmeasurable weeping
with my brother, and in considering Melville which for a great while, and had a more lively feeling of love
you would if you were writing a nineteenth century than ever before.’ So in this next clip I take that, it
New England maritime story, you start getting into inspired a scene with the mother and The Witch, and
classical mythology. When you start getting into she uses half of that and she uses it to a different end.
classical mythology you start thinking about symbolist The other dialogue in the scene with her and her
painting from the period and so Sascha Schneider and husband is very much a fight that I might have with
John Delville who are doing mythic paintings in a my wife or a fight that my parents might have had,
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only in early modern English and I apologise if Kate  
Dickie’s Scottish-tinged Yorkshire accent is a bit tricky It was very important when we got to her, but from
to understand, but at least I’m in the UK and not the the beginning we were writing in dialect before we
States. Let’s do it! totally were fluent in it because we were getting our
  minds to think differently as you would if you were
[Clip plays] writing in another language. So this next clip, it begins
  with quite naturalistic dialogue, or our attempt at it
[Applause] based on our research, but then Dafoe goes into a kind
  of rant that I think is a bit theatrical; I think the
I do like the performances, Alexa or not. But yeah, so influences of Sam Shepherd and Pinter and dare I say
there’s an example of that. In The Lighthouse my out loud Beckett show themselves to be clear, because
brother and I did not, or very, very rarely used in tact even the rantiest ranter might not go on for this long.
sentences. We were studying all kinds of things to But it was fun.
create two different forgotten New England dialects  
from the end of the nineteenth century. I mentioned [Clip plays]
Melville, Stevenson is not from New England but  
certainly with some of the maritime stuff we felt he [Applause]
could come in handy, and Coleridge too; all the usual  
culprits, but then of course we turned to lighthouse Yeah, so I don’t know if that’s mythic, but it’s not
keepers’ journals and diaries and that was very fruitful naturalistic either. Yeah, you know one thing that I just
for Robert Pattinson’s character as a former didn’t mention with the research, looking over my
lumberjack, I found a treasure trove of interviews with notes here, is just that you’re always learning more,
former lumberjacks from that period, but who became and I’m writing in tandem. So I can research some
the most helpful was a writer called Sarah Orne Jewett, stuff, write some stuff, research some stuff, write some
and she was writing in the state of Maine in our stuff, the whole time, and you’re constantly revising as
period and she was very concerned or interested in you find more clarity on what the world is. The Viking
dialect herself. So she would be interviewing sailors script, there was a tremendous amount of research that
and sea captains and farmers and then writing her I did, my co-writer there is Icelandic and really knows
main stories in phonetic dialect. So that was the key. a lot about Vikings, but we have consulted with three
Dafoe has a couple sentences, like when he’s wistfully of the greatest Viking historians recently and we
thinking about the past, that come from Jewett, but missed some stuff, and that means—it’s tricky because
other than that my brother and I were working with there are some things where you can say ‘oh we’ll fix
all this source material and various slang dictionaries, this, we’ll fix this,’ but then it’s like we’ve made this
nineteenth century slang dictionaries separated into sandcastle and we’ve made this glorious tower we’re
region and nautical dictionaries and lexicons, to really proud of and we have to smash it now? It’s horrifying,
create something or our best version to recreate but sometimes you have to suck it up and smash it and
something, and my wife found a dissertation by a rebuild it better.
woman named Evelyn Star Cutler, and her dissertation  
was on dialect in Jewett, and thank you Evelyn because So in conclusion, that was a bit scattered, but
she provided rules and I had those rules when I was hopefully during the Q&A we can find a way to tie
writing The Witch, but who if not Evelyn would have this all up in a bow. Or maybe I’m exposing myself as
provided rules for how two working class people in someone who’s more interested in atmosphere than
the north east of America would have spoken? So she story through this lecture. OK.
was able to break it down and talk about what words  
are omitted and where there’s verdict displacement and [Applause]
so on and so forth, so we could make sure these twelve  
things were always consistent with Rob’s character and Mariayah Khaderbai: That was kind of incredible,
these then with Willem’s, or whatever. thank you.
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  But you just kind of toss things back and forth, and
RE: I’m glad you thought so! with my brother we’re pretty well aligned on what this
  was and I think sometimes when working with Sjón I
MK: I’m not going to even try to pretend to play tend to gild the lily and he tends to say ‘you can take it
intelligence gymnastics with you, so I’m maybe going back a bit’ with the Nordic sensibility.
to start and strip it all the way back and start from  
layman’s terms in terms of process. MK: With The Lighthouse, you did kind of undersell it
  in the way you said every scene is kind of a similar
RE: Sure. conversation between two people with a different
  power play, and it’s so not that. It’s so kind of mental
MK: In everyday terms, kind of just routine, waking gymnastics again between the two of them and ever so
up in the morning. When the idea is in place, when it’s carefully, cleverly leads to this incredible finale. So the
in place is it already mapped out in your head before time of kind of pacing that and then writing with your
you put pen to paper? brother those scenes together, how did you kind of
  piece together the story and arc and narrative to get to
RE: Yeah, I think again it sort of depends if I’m something that essentially is two people in one
writing alone, I can be quite free. I have my little notes situation.
about my three or five act structure depending on the  
piece, that I can kind of go back to and tweak but I am RE: So I had that basic plot I mentioned from Smalls
sort of finding it as I go and allowing myself that. If lighthouse in Wales. Then very quickly I was like OK
I’m writing for a studio, I’ve never written something there needs to be a mermaid in the movie and she
for hire but I have been commissioned to write my needs to be washed up on shore at the midpoint and
own piece, and therefore do need to have a treatment there’s a mystery in the light and there’s a foghorn and
for the studio to be sure that they like what they’re all these bits and bobs, and I wrote some stuff. Years
paying me to write, but with things on spec I will just passed and my brother and I got together to really
kind of let it happen. When I’m writing with another write this thing. I gave Max the eleven pages that I had
writer, it’s essential that we outline things very clearly written, all my notes I rewrote in a way that could be
before we put pen to paper, but again things evolve decipherable to another human being, and then I gave
and we have the whole sandcastle metaphor, whatever. him a list of movies to watch and books to read and a
  month later we reconvened and started talking about
MK: So writing with another writer, writing with your how to make sense of this. And we talked and talked
brother on The Lighthouse, picking up on the idea of and talked and talked and then Max wrote an outline
dialect and naturalism and even in the last scene we’ve and it wasn’t great, and Max wrote another outline—I
just taken a look at, there’s a poetry to it and a rhythm was also writing two other things at the time—so that’s
to it and a beat to it, how do you a) create that in a the other thing, I really am enjoying collaborating with
way that’s communication between two people and other writers but I’ve found that because the movie
conversation? But then write that with another person. business is so tricky, if I don’t have more than one
  thing going at a time I’m painting myself into a corner.
RE: I don’t know, you just do. Sorry. My brother and I So anyway, back to this. Then Max wrote a third
know each other pretty well, we’re brothers, so that outline and act one and two were strong, act three was
helps. And I think in both writing with my brother not working we just couldn’t find it, but I said we’re in
and the Icelandic novelist and poet who’s a much good enough shape. So Max wrote act one, I revised it,
better writer than I am, I’m finally sort of in charge then he wrote act two, I revised it, then I was so
and that does sort of help clarify things, though both excited that I wrote act three and we actually had like
of them are incredibly talented and I respect them so a movie. And from there we just passed it back and
much so if they’re really telling me like I’ve made a forth, back and forth.
mistake, I listen.  
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Once we had found that first version, we realised we any concessions for a contemporary audience, I feel
had kind of retold some myths by mistake, or not by like I have a stronger chance of it being timeless.
mistake but whatever, by the muses that we were Because obviously as much as I try to get into the
conjuring. So we said OK let’s amplify our knowledge mind-set of the people from that period it’s obviously
on Prometheus and Proteus and Triton and Neptune impossible, so it’s only going to be a mirror of the
and see how we can further infuse our next draft with mind-set of today, but using the lens of the past to
the knowledge of all that stuff. And that led to some reflect back on ourselves. That’s a little… but I think
fairly heavy-handed imagery in the movie but you know what I’m saying.
sometimes you just have to go with it.  
  MK: There’s still space for interpretation because you
MK: You kind of mentioned as well when you were can’t ever know.
talking, the idea that you’re researching, researching,  
researching, and then that you’re perhaps in kind of RE: Yeah, you can’t ever know.
the seventeenth century or the nineteenth century and  
to you it perhaps might not be resonating today, but MK: I’m going to skip a little bit forward in terms of
then obviously it has resonated with audiences today the visual look and how that relates to the writing in
and thematically with The Witch kind of being a terms of looking of the notion of four by three… Do
portrayal of the dark feminine, and with The you have all of those things in your head and in place
Lighthouse looking at toxic masculinity, did you when you begin the writing process? And how does
realise that when you were writing? that affect the writing? Obviously the claustrophobia
  of The Lighthouse and how can that impact on the
RE: No. When you’re done writing you can see it, but way you write?
not, no I don’t during.  
  RE: Yeah, I mean the aspect ratio got a little smaller
MK: How important is it for you to have something over the years, but I always wanted it to be boxy and I
that is obviously so embedded in a specific time and always wanted it to be thirty-five millimetres. That’s
place but then can have sort of… You said that it’s not something I saw when I pictured the atmosphere, and
about a message, but… of course as you move forward in the writing and
  development and prep you learn more, things change
RE: I’m after this kind of archetypal story. I can’t know and your preconceived notions are not always correct,
if it’s going to work forever, but the best stories stick but you make choices that are closer to your original
around. There’s a reason people talk about Oedipus, intentions, even if they weren’t your preconceived
there’s a reason people talk about Hamlet, there’s a notions about how to articulate your intention. And
reason—I’m not going to keep going. Marie-Louise yeah, sometimes I see how it’s shot, and sometimes in
von Franz, who was a prominent Jungian, said that certain sequences I write ‘extremely wide shot,’
Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tales are going to die ‘lighthouse in the middle of the sea, yadda, yadda,
because they aren’t essentially human the way many of yadda,’ ‘close shot, the hull carves through the waves.’
the Grimm fairy tales are, and that Hans Christian Sometimes I’ll do that, which again, as a writer-
Anderson was a demented Victorian and his stories director I can get away with, because it’s a terrible
are too wrapped up in his Victorian repressions and thing to do otherwise. Sometimes I see that and don’t
whatever. And she’s right. The Little Mermaid is kind write it because it’s distracting to the flow of the scene;
of sticking around thanks to Disney, but the Hans sometimes I just see a scene, a story, and I know we’re
Christian Anderson fairy tales are not being told at the going to have to find it later. Sometimes I see a scene
same frequency as they once were. Is The Lighthouse a that’s a complicated action sequence or stunt or visual
Grimm fairy tale? No. But I guess the idea though is effect or practical effect, and I think ‘ok how can I
that you’re trying to have something that resonates in write this in an achievable way?’ and sometimes I
any time and I think that by trying to have it be all think ‘if you’re thinking about writing it in an
about the time it’s set in rather than having to make achievable way, you’re not going to write it, so just
9
write it and you’ll figure it out,’ and you have to be MK: Then when you at that point go into filming with
blind to the realities of shooting to tell the best story. a script that you’re eighty, ninety per cent happy with
  —
MK: Then circling back to the idea of studio  
commissions or studio notes or producer notes, how RE: I was happy with the script at the time. Now I
does that then have an impact on the writing in that have my things, but I had many years because no one
way, and do you leave things out? wanted to finance it for so long. Like I had many years
  to get it in pretty good shape. I like the script better
RE: I’m not duplicitous because the most important than the film.
thing is that everyone’s on the same page. I try to, now,  
after some experience, say every horrible thing that a MK: I’m going to ask a very superficial question about
studio wouldn’t want to hear about what I’m doing writing in animals. You had the goat in The Witch and
straight away. And if they’re scared at that point, good. then seagulls feature very heavily in The Lighthouse.
If they’re still willing to listen after I’ve said all the Did you think when you were writing it how you were
crazy stuff then we’re good to go because I’m not going going to orchestrate birds—
to like shock them too much as we move forward. I  
think I used to be very defensive when I was younger RE: Now I’m very, very, very cautious about writing
and now I’m not in the room. I get my notes, go animals. Not that I don’t do it, but I do a lot of
home, go ‘they’re trying to ruin my movie,’ then sleep research about can these animals be trained? Are they
on it and realise actually these are smart. I think a lot legal to shoot with in the countries I’m most likely to
of times, and this is I’m sure common knowledge to be shooting in? Who trains them? What can they do?
you, the thought behind the note is right but the note All this stuff before I do that. 
itself is not good. If you have multiple people saying  
something is wrong with a scene, maybe they have So I didn’t do that with The Witch, the goat was a
different ideas about how to fix it, then there’s nightmare and you can’t train a goat and don’t write a
probably something wrong with that scene even if goat in your movie is my biggest tip of the night,
their solutions are poor. It’s worth thinking about that unless they’re just supposed to stand around and eat
stuff. The Witch, the first draft of the script that was stuff they’re not supposed to eat. And so then—I
presentable, there was no central protagonist. We wanted Pattinson’s character killing a seabird to be like
followed each of the family members carefully for a the catalyst that would bring the storm, and that
period of time and then the film ended with inspired my brother to write all these fucking scenes
Thomasin. And my producing partners were kind of with seagulls.
like, ‘look we think it’s cool but it probably cannot be  
financed. It might be the best version of the movie that [Laughter]
you’re doing but we think it may never get financed if  
you do it like this. If you have a central protagonist, I He was telling me about it and I was like there’s no
think we can finance this movie.’ And I was very upset way I’m going to do that, no. And then he was like ‘I
about it at the time, incredibly defensive, but I thought urge you to read these scenes, I think they’re good,’
ok I can make it about Thomasin and deal with that. and they were great. So we had to have a seagull. But
One of the things I don’t love about The Witch, the great news is seagulls are incredibly intelligent and
though, is that there are these kind of—you can feel there’s three very well trained seagulls in the UK, so
that the original version wasn’t only her, and there’s write seagulls, write away.
good things about that as far as the world building is  
concerned, but there’s bad things about that as far as MK: I’m going to open it out to the audience now. We
having the best narrative you could have. 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.
 
10
Q: How much—how seriously do you take theme and believe it is about this ancient wisdom, subconscious
does it influence any stage of your writing process, one wisdom that the world needs today? Why’s it relevant?
central concept that influences and constricts the  
plotting and the characters? RE: I just think it is what it is to be human. Like, to be
  really goof troupe about it, there are some ancient
RE: Yeah, a central theme doesn’t affect anything for creation myths that are closer to current astrophysics,
me. I think I may—I guess things kind of sort of do you know what I mean? So I think that so-called
happen organically and then I might find a central primitive societies or early ontologies, there is
theme. If there’s a central theme that presents itself something just understood that is just uh, essential. I
very clearly, I may then go through and tease that out. don’t know, I think maybe that’s too simplistic of an
Again The Witch and The Lighthouse are sort of art- answer, but there you go.
house films and they’re not…. The Witch to me is very  
clear narratively, though it doesn’t explain everything I Q: Thank you. Huge question!
feel like it implies a lot of things that are clear. To me,  
that’s my experience, if you find it ambiguous that’s MK: Let’s go to the lady there.
fine too. The Lighthouse is meant to be incredibly  
obscure; those are films where sort of like hitting the RE: Again, if it’s archetypal it should always be
central theme is not the style of it. In scripts that I’ve relevant, right? You know what I mean? It should
written that haven’t been made that were intended for always be relevant. That’s the point of an idea of an
a larger audience, they have a theme that is more clear. archetype. But certain archetypes reconstellate
While The Lighthouse and The Witch don’t confirm to themselves and appear at certain periods of time. The
traditional Western Hollywood dramaturgy, that’s not Witch isn’t the only witch movies that happened in
a bad—that kind of dramaturgy’s also great. As much this period; everyone has fucking crystals you can buy
as I like Beckett I like Charles Dickens, come on, you at Urban Outfitters. Witchouse music was very
know. I actually find that it’s harder to write something popular right before The Witch and then right after
that is a good normal beginning, middle and end clear and around The Witch there was all this hipster witch
story for everyone without it being spoon-fed and fashion and stuff. The witch archetype was needed
stupid. I find that to be the greater challenge. The then and into now for whatever reason. I’m not a
Witch where it’s sort of subtle is its own kind of social anthropologist so I don’t quite know why, but
challenge; The Lighthouse, my brother and I did a that was important for that archetype to re-emerge at
tremendous amount of work to make something off that time.
kilter. We have the answers to all of the questions, we  
wrote versions of the script that were much more clear Q: I had a question about how do you get to the
and then we went back to create roadblocks and feeling of completion when you’re writing a script?
confusions, so I do feel like it is well constructed, but That’s something I find I really struggle with, is getting
you can do something like that a little bit willy nilly to the end and then going I’m finished now, because I
and not know what you’re doing in a way that can still always feel like I can go back and do something else.
be kind of successful, in a way that with a very How do you kind of achieve that feeling of—?
traditional narrative it’s harder to do. My brother is  
better at that A, B, C, D, and Sjón who’s writing The RE: Yes, it’s a great question and you can’t. I can’t. But
Northman with me, his novels are at times super out there’s deadlines. I have to turn shit in and have to
there but he’s incredibly good at that structure in a start shooting. A deadline, that’s the only thing. And if
way that I am not so that’s another great thing about it’s a spec script I have to just say you’re done. This is
me working with another writer. the day you said you’d be done so you have to be done.
  Otherwise you’re going back and putting walkie-
Q: Hi there. You’ve spoken a lot about myth, fairy talkies back into ET you know?
tales, and Jungian archetypes. I’m wondering what you  
11
MK: OK let’s come to the lady just at the front there today, there’s this idea that spontaneity is best and you
and then can we get a mic to this gentleman here? prepare, you prepare, you prepare so that you can be
  spontaneous in the moment. That is great and I’m not
Q: How many scripts would you say you’d written saying it’s worse than what I’m about to say, but I’m
before The Witch was financed? also saying that it’s not necessarily best. There can be
  incredible satisfaction and magic and beauty and
RE: Two adapted feature screenplays, two original something transcendent about actually preparing,
screenplays, three short films that were made and two preparing, preparing and then carrying out the act
short films that were not made. And I also adapted—I that you have prepared to do. Kurosawa later in his
did a lot of theatre, so I adapted a lot of plays over the career, like with Ran for example, would rehearse all
years before then. day and then do one take, that’s it.
   
MK: And you said you’re writing sometimes multiple Q: I suppose my thought was does it affect some of the
things at the same time. On average how many cast? Would they prefer to have some input into
screenplays would you at this point be working on? maybe how they would portray that role, even though
  you’ve sort of stipulated a certain way of doing it, and
RE: I can’t do more than three things at the same time, are you open to that?
because I’m prepping the next thing, hope it happens,  
until I’m on set saying action I don’t like believe that RE: Obviously it’s collaborative and I’m not entirely
it’s happening. Seven nine thirteen, knock, knock, dictatorial, although the director’s job is to be a king
knock, that’s how you say ‘touch wood’ in Iceland. and everyone else’s job is to be the director’s subject—
Right now aside from Lighthouse press I’m just no, of course it’s collaborative but I think it depends.
working on what I’m working on. When I get into It’s interesting, with Ralph Ineson who played the
post is when I can start getting into maybe writing a father in The Witch, early on in the movie we knew
little bit again. that story-wise two weeks had passed I believe when
  Ralph’s about to take his son into the woods after the
MK: We’ve got a question just here. 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,
Q: Thank you. Being very prescriptive with your not have my son tailspin into all this shittiness and
direction in your scripts, does that change on set? In depression. So I think I need to be playing it upbeat
other words, when you start working with the actors, instead of morose as it’s written in the script. And I
and also as a writer-director do you write your said Ralph you’re absolutely right, we’ve got to do it
direction notes for shooting, in other words camera like that. But he was wrong, because the audience who
angles and all that? Do you write that in your script as had just seen a baby get squished up into a pulp by a
well? witch, they didn’t know until a few scenes later that
  two weeks had passed, so when Ralph was like jauntily
RE: Sometimes I write the camera angles but rarely. It’s doing all this and that it seemed horrific. So we had to
just if I truly feel like that’s the best way to convey like, ADR his performance into this morose thing. I’m not
the imagery and the moments. Even I feel like saying that to say that I’m right all the time, but
sometimes that’s distracting, but sometimes I feel like sometimes there are instincts that you have for a
actually it’s the best way to convey the moment. Does reason.
it change? Not a lot. Always things change if things  
aren’t working; if things aren’t working, they change. With The Lighthouse, Dafoe’s character is so very
But if things are working they don’t change, and I like clear, and Dafoe basically delivered a 2000 per cent
to kind of—there’s so many decisions to make as a version of exactly what I had imagined. But many of
director and it’s nice to have decided and to move on. my preconceived notions about Rob’s character were
I like the rigour of being decisive, I like saying this is wrong, and Rob I would say a third of the time
the shot—I mean, I was speaking about this earlier delivered something very different than my
12
preconceived notion, but it was closer to my intention identity for me to care, and put the time into it. But it’s
and was definitely preferable. However, because of the funny, I actually—there’s an IP, a famous novel that I
rigorous camera language that I’m using, he had to won’t say what it is, but people were talking about me
work within a certain box, and within that box he was directing it and I didn’t want to and one day I was like
allowed whatever freedoms he could invent, do you ‘I’m just going to write a spec script that I’m going to
know what I‘m saying? 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.’
MK: Can there ever be freedom of language? Just And after three days I was like ‘oh no I just have to
because it’s so specific in dialect and classicism, so direct it,’ and I got all into my whole world and the
perhaps freedom in tone and movement and reaction whole thing and whatever. It wasn’t very good anyway
and action, but is there freedom in language ever? 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
RE: The way I’m currently working there’s absolutely a better answer.
no freedom in language. And it’s funny because this  
has come up in the past, and a lot of the time with The MK: I want to thank you so much for giving a
Lighthouse people think stuff was improvised which is phenomenal lecture, for creating two wonderful pieces
a great compliment to Rob and Dafoe in making it of cinema; I know that we’re all really excited to see
seem off the cuff even though it was all very planned. what you do next. Thank you Robert Eggers.
And I’ve said sort of snarkily like how on earth could RE: Thanks.
you possibly improvise this stuff? But you know, I was  
watching a documentary about Mike Leigh making [Applause]
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