How Robert Eggers 2015 short film ‘Brothers’ helped develop his style as a film-maker. - by Jack Keating

In the past 6 years, Robert Eggers has carved out his own lane as one of the new auteurs of independent film. Eggers, along with Ari Aster, are the names most commonly associated with the A24 surge of popular, bizarre horror movies. On his two feature length films ​The Witch​ and ​The Lighthouse, he blended classical folktale storytelling with surrealist imagery and set them in unique periods in American history. It’s very rare for a filmmaker to come out the gates with their style so seemingly recognisable and distinct almost instantly. Today we look at how his 2015 short film ​Brothers​ acted as a precursor for what was to come for Eggers and how short films are the perfect time to develop your style into what you need it to be before going into a feature.

Brothers

Brothers​ is an 11 minute short about a problematic relationship between two brothers. Eggers made the film in the hopes it could persuade investors to finance the making of ​The Witch,​ since he hadn’t directed anything for quite a while and was struggling to get it off the ground. His producers advised that he make the short to prove that he could film something in the woods and make it scary. It’s very much a DIY short film with him having a very slim crew with no AD and an acting crew that just happened to be local to the area he lived in at the time. It’s very clear from watching this short that it served as a means of him trying to put together a lot of the elements which would go on to become his trademark, as well as it being one of the first times he managed to get truly believable performances out of his characters.

Robert Eggers’ writing has always found him fascinated with folktales, the occult and the mythical, whether it be the links to prometheus in ​The Lighthouse​ or the borrowing of classical witch tales in ​The Witch.​ His first two shorts before this one had him adapting both Hansel and Gretel and Edgar Allen Poe respectively. ​Brothers​ shows him flexing his muscles on screen with his own original material for one of the first times in his career with him heavily borrowing from the mythology of Cain and Abel to help build his story. Eggers manages to find a way to let classical archetypes influence him in every story he tells. Even in something as normal as a brotherly feud set in what appears to be fairly modern times, there’s a certain amount of the fantastical to it that’s normally found in period pieces. One of the only ways in which this truly differs from Eggers’ feature films is this doesn’t dive head first into his normal explorations of using interesting dialects for his characters. His characters rarely speak, and when they do it’s in a very recognisable American accent. The dialogue is striking, though, in that every line seems to be a fight for power between the brothers, which Eggers would go on to perfect in his masterpiece ​The Lighthouse​. It’s easy to see a lot of the best hallmarks of Eggers’ writing being developed in this short.

The Lighthouse by Robert Eggers

One of the most memorable things about ​The Lighthouse a​nd​ The Witch ​is the way in which their style helps elevate the script so much. ​The Lighthouse​ in particular is an example of a movie with very little plot and instead relies on curating an incredible amount of atmosphere and tension to keep you engaged. Eggers himself said:

‘​There isn’t a lot of plot; it’s kind of the same scene over and over again, just slightly different, so we do have to find ways to keep tension and keep people engaged, and we’re trying to do that through confusion and ambiguity.’

The Lighthouse holds your attention by utilising the form of filmmaking itself, not by simply having a good screenplay. When talking to Mark Jenkin, the director of Bait, about form Eggers said:

‘​There is this kind of traditional narrative dramaturgy that is held by many film students and critics to be “what is good”. Having these turning points and three act structure or five act structure and how you play those rules to tell the story is what makes you a good storyteller, but of course... that’s absurd. ​​Shakespear’s Coriolanus is not the best way to tell that story, the way the scenes come together, but it’s so well-written that it’s incredibly moving. And that’s the form.

In ​Brothers​ you can see Eggers developing his style in this sense, despite it’s incredibly simplistic story. It uses a very boxy aspect ratio of 1.33 : 1, which is something a lot of upcoming filmmakers like to experiment with - to varying degrees of success. Eggers proves in his short that the aspect ratio should be used for a purpose. Nearly every shot has the two brothers squished together by the framing, with the blocking of each character displaying varying levels of the power dynamic between them. It also allows the trees in the forests in which they play to look overwhelmingly tall, like it could swallow the two of them up. Eggers went on to use this exact same technique when making ​The Witch ​with the scenes in the forest, and in ​The Lighthouse​ in the framing of the two main characters.

Brothers​ is an amazing case study showing how vital it is when making your short films as an upcoming filmmaker to really experiment with form and storytelling to really get a sense of your style. In hindsight, knowing that Robert Eggers would go on to make modern horror masterpieces in his first two feature films, it makes ​Brothers​ a must watch for any filmmaker trying to develop their style and find their footing.

Watch Brothers here