(Spoiler warning: This discussion between In Fabric director Peter Strickland and The Lighthouse director Robert Eggers contains a spoiler about Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.)
In Fabric director Peter Strickland and The Lighthouse director Robert Eggers both make movies with strikingly stylized worlds, but take different approaches to how historically accurate those worlds need to be.
Eggers’ The Lighthouse, which is set in the 19th century in Eggers’ familiar New England, required plenty of research. In Fabric, about a possessed red dress, did not. So for MovieMaker‘s 2020 Guide to Making Horror Movies, we asked the two directors to discuss their different approaches to research, and how it can help or hurt a film.
How far into the weeds should a storyteller get? A little? A lot? Is it better to work with unchecked creative license? Here’s their conversation.
Peter Strickland (PS): I just saw The Lighthouse and thought it was remarkable. Knowing your work, there’s obviously a lot of research that goes into it. With In Fabric and my other material, I take a lot of dramatic license. So, while I definitely do my homework to give my films some authenticity, I don’t think that all has to be put on screen.
Robert Eggers (RE): I find satisfaction in trying to recreate the past. In The Witch, I was specifically trying to understand the folk culture of my region’s past, so I did feel a responsibility to be historically accurate and to tap into the ways in which our characters would have spoken at that time.
PS: My research for In Fabric and my other films has focused a bit on the rhythm of characters’ speech, but to me it was nothing specifically historical. If you look at Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, which I also just saw, there’s something tragic about the ending: It’s like when you’ve dreamt of a loved one who’s passed away and you’re recalling that wonderful euphoria you felt when they were alive. Then, you wake up and that ending becomes 10 times more tragic. Walking out of the cinema, I thought, “Oh my God… Sharon Tate didn’t make it in real life.” So, I think the power of that ending came from the fact that it wasn’t historically reenacted.
RE: For me, historical accuracy should be almost all-encompassing. The language of your film should be an authentic language. Again, that’s based on my interpretation of “authentic”: Authenticity is just as much about the buttons on the clothing and the patina on the walls. But it’s all part of the film’s atmosphere, and the story doesn’t work without the atmosphere.
PS: Yes, but in The Lighthouse, one of the things that made it so wonderful for me was that if it had been written with contemporary dialogue, I still would have loved it.
RE: Well, with something like Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England, that film uses “f—” as an adjective and the characters talk in a fairly contemporary way, but somehow Amy Jump’s writing makes it feel like the 17th century, even though they’re speaking with a mix of old and contemporary language. It’s impressive. Usually that kind of annoys me, but it works so well in that movie. Still, it’s clear that they understood their period setting enough to convey it without having to do the same kind of writing that I do. I imagine you did some research to create the worlds of In Fabric or Berberian Sound Studio…
Peter Strickland: Berberian Sound Studio was my most research-heavy film, but ultimately I ignored some of the research I did. I met with people at BBC Radio and made a list of equipment used by Italian film composer Luciano Berio in the Fonologia Studio in Milan to help develop my own version of a sound studio. But I still knew that I was making a fantasy studio.
Robert Eggers: Recreating the past is impossible to do perfectly, but I still need to interpret the past so as to feel that the film is its own living history museum or exhibit. In the same way that archaeologists and historians are doing their own interpretations of the past based on facts, so are moviemakers who base their films on this kind of research. Stanley Kubrick credits Franco Zeffirelli as the first person who copied paintings and recreated period costumes. There are probably some people who did that earlier than Zeffirelli, but regardless, I think there’s creative freedom in saying, “This is it”—this is what people wore, how they spoke, and the world they lived in. Your approach, or, say, Guillermo del Toro’s approach—which is different than both of ours—would be crippling for me. That’s part of why I approach screenwriting this way.
PS: I find that some details that come from research are too much to sort through. I prefer to just get into the heart of a movie. Some of my favorite scenes in The Lighthouse are about the actual work Robert Pattinson’s character does—scenes in which he’s pushing a wheelbarrow through the rain, or working on the machinery of the lighthouse. I love the repetition of the work he’s doing.
RE: With scenes like those, I admit that even I fudge some stuff for the purpose of the story I’m telling. I wanted the lens in the beacon of our lighthouse to be a Fresnel lens: That’s the lens that looks like an art deco spaceship, and was actually used in the latter half of the 19th century and sometimes today. That lens is so beautiful and iconic, and I wanted to have a plot device in the film rooted in the sense of mystery that surrounds the light it reflects. I also wanted to have a foghorn that sounded the way the foghorn does in the film. So, I knew I needed to place the story near the end of the 19th century based on those two things alone. But in truth, the United States lighthouse establishment was run very militaristically, so it would’ve been unrealistic for the lighthouse station in our film to be such a s—hole. There was so much regulation of lighthouse maintenance at that time that it would have been nearly impossible for that to have happened. So we just said to ourselves, “Let’s make this one lighthouse station so remote that no inspector would ever go there. And that way, Willem Dafoe’s character can just drink away!” No matter what, we needed that dilapidation to tell our story and build the atmosphere.
Peter Strickland: I’m sure that the people who give our movies bad reviews would say it’s a problem that we’re so into atmosphere and visuals, but oh well. As a viewer, I don’t feel let down if I’m missing out on a great camera angle or if there’s some sloppy lighting. Ken Loach is a good example of someone who’s very meat-and-potatoes in the way he makes films. His stripped-down style isn’t really my cup of tea, but what he does is valid and important. Still, I’ve never been into narrative as a writer, because for me it’s about character and atmosphere. When it was time to write In Fabric, the atmosphere of the story was in my head before I put pen to paper.
Robert Eggers: When you write, are you watching films during the process?
PS: No. For me, it’s either output or input. When I lived in London, I had a regular job and I was watching stuff on VHS or going to the cinema all the time, but I had no mental energy to write. And now that I’m writing a lot, I don’t have much mental space to watch films! It’s very hard to have both flowing at the same time. Music, yes—I often listen to music to get me in the mood to write—but I’ve only seen three or four films this year. It’s crazy.
RE: Wow. When I’m writing, I do watch films and take a lot of notes about things in those films I want to try out. It’s not as simple as, “I’m writing a movie about a knight, so I’ll watch The Seventh Seal,” but it’s more about trying to find other ways in to my own material. If I’m having a problem writing my third act and I know that in a movie that has nothing to do with the kind of movie I’m making, there’s a scene in the third act that works out the problem I’m having, I’m going to watch it to see if that can be helpful. So, that kind of thing would not be for you?
Peter Strickland: It could be… but not a huge amount. In an ideal world I would like to have it both ways, watching and making films at the same time. But I just find it, mentally, quite difficult.
Robert Eggers: When I start building my film’s atmosphere as I’m writing, I generally think that the things happening in the zeitgeist should be making their way into the story.
PS: It’s not as if I’m living in a bubble not caring about the world. With In Fabric, I was interested in the idea of human desire being linked to clothing—the hang-ups that people have about body dysmorphia, consumerism, and our attachment to physical objects. But to do social realist cinema… I just don’t have that talent.
RE: But as storytellers, we’re not living in a vacuum either.
PS: I’m a British immigrant living in Hungary, so Brexit deeply affects me,
and all of us will be affected by climate change. There’s no escape from any of that. Still, I prefer to escape into my own little world, so I keep chasing escapism in my films.
RE: I never want to comment on anything in an overtly didactic or political way, because I’ll feel as if I’m preaching to the choir. Many people find The Witch to be a feminist film, which is great—it’s now impossible for me not to see it that way—but that wasn’t my intention. My intention was to make a movie about witches.
The Lighthouse has a couple of ham-fisted genre tropes and everything else in it is a series of intentional misdirections and ambiguities. I like films that are challenging in that way. You do a really good job of showing and not showing things in your films—of leaving things to audiences’ imaginations.
PS: That comes from wanting to acknowledge the power of horrific images. I recently read about how Facebook moderators, for instance, are having serious trauma from being subjected to horrific images again and again and again.
RE: The key for a director is to not be cruel when showing those images to audiences. Carl Theodor Dreyer knew that in The Passion of Joan of Arc, Joan of Arc’s burning body was something that audiences in 1928 needed to see. There are many examples of cases in which showing the terrible image is what’s needed. But there’s also a time for withholding those images to save or spare the audience, and sometimes withholding them is what’s best to make the audience even more disturbed.
PS: I’ve always felt caught in the middle between those who are pro-censorship and those who believe that horror cinema doesn’t directly influence anyone. I’m not knocking horror imagery; I love films like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. I believe we should be allowed to watch these films… but as with alcohol, you have to acknowledge that there’s the potential for these images to be explosive. That’s what makes them so powerful. MM
In Fabric, directed by Peter Strickland, is in theaters Friday. The Lighthouse, by Robert Eggers, is also in theaters.
Featured image illustration by Gel Jamlang.