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Have You Seen…? Episode 31

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David Hast and WGVU’s Scott Vander Werf discuss the three films of contemporary director Robert Eggers; The Witch, The Lighthouse and The Northmen. Eggers presents a unique, personal vision in his highly imaginative filmmaking.

David Hast: Scott, have you seen The Witch?

Scott Vander Werf: I have seen The Witch. It is not just one of my favorite movies of the last decade or so. I think it's one of the greatest horror movies ever made.

DH: Oh, I'm glad to hear you think so. I think so too, and it's what kind of inspired me for us to have a show on the director Robert Eggers. We're usually talking about older movies most of the time, and this guy's a new director, and has only made three films, the first of which was the witch.

SVW: In 2015 followed by the lighthouse in 2019, which I did see in the theater when it came out and the Northman which is from 2022 and I just watch that for our recording here and he has a vision that is unique to him and it's really kind of inspirational as a film you know as a film fan and film goer to see that there's a director a young guy who could be one of the greatest living filmmakers the rest of his life.

DH: He's certainly made three brilliant movies for his first three features. I mean, not many directors have that kind of track record to start off anyway. And he's about to do, his fourth film is gonna be Nosferatu, the remake of the great silent movie classic, which has been remade once by Werner Herzog, and both versions are great. From my way of thinking, having now seen the three Robert Eggers films, he's about the only person I would want to remake this movie.

SVW: And before we started recording, you mentioned to me that that's coming out within this next year or so. So that's something to look forward to.

DH: Yes. Nosferatu, which is a take on the vampire, on the Dracula story.

SVW: So The Witch, one of the things that just really impressed me with The Witch, which has a four million dollar budget, is it's a very simple film. It's pretty straightforward. But it's very deep in how he presented it in terms of everything that he did to organize it as a historical film as well as a horror movie.

DH: Well, that's kind of a hallmark of Eggers, is he, the Witch is set in the 17th century colonial New England, right, with Puritans. The Lighthouse is set in the late 19th century in a New England lighthouse, and the Northman is ninth century Vikings, right? He's incredible in his ability to realistically portray not just the look of the period but the way people talk the way they act their worldview.

SVW: He embodies, one of the things that people will criticize some of the Modern filmmaking or television making is a lot of times It seems like the people who are making it are actually from the outside looking in and Eggers totally Embodies the subject matter himself.

DH: Yeah, you just feel like you're taken into that world. So the witch, you know, you said it's one of your favorite horror films. I want to say right up front here, anybody who's listening, who hasn't seen Robert Eggers films, one warning is, these are scary and violent movies, right? The Witch is a very scary horror film. I mean, The Northman's more of an action film, but it's got a lot of violence, and The Lighthouse is pretty disturbing psychologically. So that's a bit of a warning, but you know, if you like those kind of movies, these are incredible. The witch made Anya Taylor-Joy into a star. You know, the Anya Taylor-Joy who is best known probably for the Queen's Gambit series, Last Night in Soho, The Menu, and she's gonna, she has the lead in the upcoming prequel to Mad Max Furiosa, playing a younger Furiosa.

SVW: And the thing that Eggers does in terms of the actors as well is that as you've mentioned that the film has dialogue. That's like right from the period of the 16th century.

DH: Yeah Eggers is even a credit right after the credit in at the beginning of the end credits These words come up at the end this film was inspired by many folk tales fairy tales and written accounts of historical witchcraft Including journals diaries and court records presumably from like witch trials much of the dialogue comes from these period sources. So it really feels that way. And what's amazing about it too is, you know, you're watching it and you're thinking, okay, these are, you know, these are 19th, 6-17th century Puritans, We all know about the Salem witch trials. So we're thinking it's psychological horror. It's their superstition and their folklore and their mysticism, but then you keep getting signs that like, this kind of seems real. And, you know, Spoiler alert by the end that does seem to be there's a real witch in the Witch.

SVW: Now the difference to me with the lighthouse between the witch and the Northmen is that the Lighthouse, does have elements where you don't you really, by the end, you still don't know what's real and what's not real,

DH: That's true,

SVW: Because the two characters have this psychological breakdown there They're stranded on the lighthouse past when they're supposed to be there. They've run out of food, they're drinking alcohol, they run out of alcohol and then start mixing turpentine with honey. And that's when it really pushes them over the edge.

Dh: Yeah, it's kind of, it's dealing with loss of sanity and stuff, and this movie stars, it only has two characters really except for a couple little minor things. It's Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson and they're both great, and this one's a little bit humorous, right? It's kind of got dark humor and a kind of love crafty and horror. And then right, by the end, not only the timeframe has gotten kind of fragmented, you're losing track of time, but you're not even really sure about who's who among the characters. And another thing we should say about his movies is all three of them are stunningly beautiful. They're incredibly beautiful.

SVW: Even The Witch with a $4 million budget visually looks amazing.

DH: Yeah, and it's a good example. We're talking about him as this incredible auteur, right? who, this guy who, you know, it's his vision, but I looked up the credits and all the really major people are the same in all three movies. Same editor, the same cinematographer, production designer, costume designer. So, I mean, if you have the same cinematographer and production designer, that's pretty much what visually everything that you're getting from the camera. Even the casting director, same one for all three. So the ability to get a strong sense of the character type that Eggers is looking for. So it's kind of at the same time, one, a unique vision, an auteur kind of vision, but it also shows you the power of a team collaborating movie after movie.

SVW: And with The Northman, it's like he follows that up with the critical acclaim of The Lighthouse, which was another fairly low budget film that made, you know, in the end, made its money. The Witch was wildly successful for him for a four million dollar budget.

DH: Oh, was it? Yeah?

SVW: Yeah. And then The Northman was going to be a sixty five million dollar budget and it ended up being closer to 80 million.

DH: Yeah.

SVW: And in its theatrical run, it didn't make its money back. But then after the fact video on demand and other elements, it made its money back. So he's also an artist who's going to be bankable.

DH: Yeah. And the visual, not only amazing visually, but there's a wide variety. So the witch and the Northmen are in color, and the Northmen is widescreen, fitting the kind of epicness of this Viking tale. But the Lighthouse, not only is it in black and white, but they shot it in film, they shot it in 35 millimeter Kodak film, and they shot it at a 1.19 to one aspect ratio. So what that means is that it's an even, it's almost a square image. It's like, it almost, you get the feeling like you're looking at an old photo album. I mean, it's even more square than old television, old movies.

SVW: And that also, and it almost enhances the surrealism that ends up being in the movie, because you start off and it looks like a very black and white realistic presentation of these two guys manning a lighthouse.

DH: That's right, but then it gets weirder and weirder.

SVW: And the thing that's wonderful about the plot line is that when it gets weirder and weirder, it's because when things are getting harder and harder for the two characters to basically live.

DH: Yeah, that's true. Yeah. The Northmen is an interesting story because it's a revenge story and it involves all this Viking lore and their religious beliefs and stuff. But…

SVW: And it's based on the Danish myth that became Shakespeare's Hamlet.

DH: Yeah, I mean you can see Hamlet in it, you know the murder of the father and the revenge and all this stuff and, but to me it also sort of looked, it's simultaneously like Hamlet and Lord of the Rings It's so big.

SVW: So big epic and dealing with swords, and like you said whether It's also mystical and there's fantastical elements as well.

DH: Yeah, just there are all three movies are very entertaining. The Witch is incredibly scary. But all three of them are just marvelous films.

SVW: And in the, The Northman is also an example where you can take a film that is going to be an action oriented very violent epic movie and still make it an incredibly, Historical and also deal with characters that are fascinating and have all these different layers and elements to them.

DH: Yeah, the films of Robert Eggers if you haven't seen them see them now.

David Hast is a retired high school English teacher. He has an MFA in Radio/TV/Film from Northwestern University and worked 15 years in the film and video industry. Some years ago he taught video production part-time at GVSU, and as a high school teacher he regularly taught a course in Film and Media Analysis.
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