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Film

Three essential screenwriting tips from Robert Eggers

Despite having made just two feature films to his name, by the time Robert Eggers was invited to host a talk on Screenwriting for BAFTA, he’d come to be regarded as one of the most unique auteurs in the industry.

Renowned for his depth of research and meticulously detailed screenplays, Egger’s folk-horror masterpiece The Witch expertly captured the paranoia, isolation, and madness of early American settlers on the cusp of an untamed wilderness.

His next film, 2019’s The Lighthouse, saw him tackle similar themes with a cast of just two actors, a minimal selection of locations, and one intoxicating script. The psychological intensity of his writing has both baffled and mesmerised fellow screenwriters, and Eggers has since become something of an authority when it comes to the art of the screenplay. Here, we take a look at three usable pieces of advice he’s given to aspiring film writers and directors.

Filmmaking tips from Robert Eggers:

1. Embrace your quirks

Whenever Robert Eggers is asked to give advice to other writers, he begins by acknowledging that he has no real authority in the subject of writing. “I’m just talking about my approach”, he begins. “I just hope there’s some tools that you can put in your toolbox.” Eggers maintains that “the way I write screenplays would be inappropriate if I weren’t directing them. An actor who recently turned down a role in one of my movies said that the screenplay was overwrought, and there is a kind of indulgence in the detail of my screenplays. There’s a level of specificity in the blocking. There’s never – in my screenplays – ‘Rome burns’ or ‘they fight’.” While Eggers’ emphasis on detail would be foolish if another director were in the chair, he has shaped his writing so that it better serves his own workflow and compliments the overall vision of the piece.

Embracing his personal passions has helped Eggers to create a unique style. Describing his decision to focus on the witch-lore of New England, he said: “All of these things really finally have to do with what I’m really interested in and what is sort of uniquely me, I think, maybe. Which is my interest in ghost stories, fairy tales, folktales, mythology, religion, sometimes the occult. That’s what really gets me excited.” So, write what excites you.

(Credit: A24)

2. Immerse yourself in the subject matter

As I said, Eggers is renowned for spending months researching his subject matter. For The Lighthouse, he not only read a hefty dose of maritime literature but also lighthouse keeper logs and diaries – allowing him to inhabit the minds of the characters he was attempting to portray. The sheer level of material Eggers consumed also allowed him to stave off writer’s block. “I don’t get a lot of writer’s block, because it’s all based on research,” he once said. “I just start looking through my notes, and I can write garbage for days — I mean, some of it ends up being good.”

But Eggers also finds inspiration in sound. As he said of his time writing The Lighthouse: “I had basically a soundscape that I built for myself with rumbling waves, and then crashing waves, and winds, rain, seagulls that was just constant while I was writing,” said Eggers. “And occasionally just to stay in that world [I would listen to it]. I remember my assistant coming into my hotel room and I’m playing all this while I’m making my eggs, and he’s like, ‘OK.’”

Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe in new The Lighthouse. (Credit: TIFF)

3. Utilise personal experience

Eggers films tend to focus on archetypal stories; tales and myths that are universal in some sense, and which are usually set in the past. Working in this territory, it’s easy to abandon one’s audience. However, Eggers has always maintained that the best way to get a script funded is to make it relatable to a contemporary audience.

One way in which Eggers achieves this is through ensuring that he can relate to the film’s world and characters on a personal level: “In doing this kind of archetypal storytelling, even if it’s based on a fairy tale or a myth, I still try to bring in my personal experiences, the things that are me,” he began. “When my brothers first read The Witch screenplay, they said that even though this is the seventeenth century it sounds like our family arguing, you know. That’s very important. Someone not just conveying plot but also having little asides that are about life, these kind of things can of course ground it.”