Robert Eggers spent years bringing The Witch to screen. Eggers was determined to stay authentic to his research and the time period, even if it meant waiting a long time to finally get the film made. The Witch, as it turns out is a great horror film, one of the year’s best films, of any genre. Eggers doesn’t rely on typical scare tactics. Instead he creates a foreboding fear by bringing the feeling of dread up close and taking us inside the mind of the young woman who is made to be the scapegoat. It’s the Witch that’s responsible for the crops failing, for the serious illness a child gets, and the Witch is blamed for another child’s disappearance. This is after all 1630’s New England and it is set in an isolated superstitious Puritan community.
I caught up with director Eggers to talk about The Witch and how he held onto his determination to keep everything authentic to the period.
Awards Daily: The Witch! Woah. What a great debut. It made me shiver a lot.
Robert Eggers: I understand. It’s been my pleasure.
AD: The imagery is devastatingly haunting and memorable. What’s was your first memory of witchcraft?
RE: The first dream that I remember was a nightmare that involved witches. The biggest witch of my childhood was certainly Margaret Hamilton, the Wicked Witch of the West. But, growing up in New England we heard about the Salem Witch Trials. There’s also folklore about other witches and legends throughout the area. Some of which are based on fact and others come from kids talking about creepy houses in the neighborhood.
AD: So, you’ve always had an interest in this subject?
RE: I’d go to Salem every Halloween. I’d get my parents to drag me there. As a little kid, I was always disappointed that the witches weren’t real.
AD: This took five years to research and make. Can you take us behind that process?
RE: It took five years to make the film, but it took four years to write, research and get it financed. It took a lot of research to do the first draft because no one wanted to make the film. So, I had three years to do more research. [laughs]. It was great. I was working with museums, historians, and people within the living history community. It was very exciting.
AD: Why was there reluctance to back the film? Witchcraft and films about the occult aren’t new.
RE: They read the script, they thought, “Witches can be scary. We get that.” I felt that the physical world needed to be as authentic as possible, and it was a high price tag for a first-time filmmaker. I couldn’t find a way to make this for less than 3.2 million dollars. If I could have done it in a way was a good film for a million dollars, I could have gotten it made easily. Secondly, it might have been easier to pitch if the language had not been my interpretation of an authentic 1630s English. I think that was the other thing people were afraid of. I understood why. I think that’s what is alienating people, even now.
AD: That’s how it was back then. There’s so much authenticity right down to the lighting. It’s not set in 2016, and you’re lighting it with barely anything. Talk about lighting the film.
RE: On a superficial, but an important level, the world of living in darkness with dirt floors, clay and dung walls in something that feels like a “howling wilderness” to a Puritan. That is going to help the film be atmospheric and scary. I took one of my producers to a museum that has a recreation of the colony in 1620s and he was shocked by how primitive it was.
For me, it’s satisfying to understand how people in the past lived. I feel like the film wouldn’t work if we couldn’t be in their mindset, and if we couldn’t understand that witches are a reality, and they were an accepted reality in that time period. If we can’t get there, then it wasn’t going to work.
All those details needed to be right. I wasn’t going to set up stylized lighting when they only had a candle. It also suits my taste. I like sculpted, naturalistic light. It’s rare that I find stylized lighting, especially in a period piece to be something I like.
AD: The dialogue is just as authentic. What research did you do to get that right for this, and what did you tell your actors that they needed to do?
RE: Figuring out the material world was difficult. Understanding the agricultural world was difficult. I had to go to experts to understand that. Just finding diaries and journals from people of the period was easy to find. Most of my dialogue source is on the internet. I took a lot of notes and make a phrase book, things about farming, things your children could say, and the prayers are all based on a Puritan prayer book that has a prayer for every possible situation. I cut them to fit into what I was doing. There are things the children say when they’re possessed that are things the children actually said when they were thought to be possessed.
I only cast the actors who could speak that way fluidly. It’s not something you can teach, and it was something easy for them. Different people had different levels of research. The adults had one thing, the children had a documentary about the first Thanksgiving only because little kids in the UK don’t know American history. There are a few things I sent. We had a week of rehearsal where they learned to use the tools.
Ralph Ineson who plays William is very much proud that he’s not a method actor, but he researched, lost weight and was chopping wood outside London in preparation for the role.
Kate Dickie who plays Katherine became really obsessed with that Puritan prayer book. There are a few places in the screenplay that say, “Kate is praying.” So, she had that book and she had it on her iPad. She’s walking around set reading this prayer book on her iPad in costume. [laughs].
AD: Let’s talk about the goat which was very reminiscent of Goya. Where did that influence come from or was it bigger than that given that goats are also symbolic of witchcraft.
RE: The goat is bigger than Goya. It’s also part of witchcraft and imagery having to do with that in the Middle Ages. There’s the famous Durer engraving of ‘Four Witches’ or ‘Four Naked Women’ so it’s not really from there, but there are definitely many Goya-esque images in the film, and if there’s someone who’s work was inspirational, it’s definitely Goya.
AD: What about the symbolism of the apple we see? Something synonymous with Eve and sin?
RE: We were thinking about that, we were also thinking about Snow White. What was interesting to me is that the real world and the fairy tale world were the same things. I read an account of a “true” account of a witch who gave a child a poison apple, and she was put on trial for it. This is before there was any recorded version that I am aware of.
Also, a fun fact, there were no apples in New England, aside from Crab apples.
AD: What about the music you’re using in the film. You’re using voices and beating drums, right?
RE: Yes. The initial plan was to use strings. I wanted to use 17th Century instruments and Psalms that would have been sung a capella, and have them played on these instruments.
With the witchcraft, that would become more like 20th Century music. So, I talked to the composer. We use those instruments. The composer Mark (Korven) said we need voices, the voices of the forest, and so much of the power of the score comes from the vocal work that you hear.
AD: What do you talk about with the cinematographer so you could bring this vision to life?
RE: Jarin Blaschke and I are both big fans of fairy tale illustration and it’s in us. We knew the film is a bit of a fairy tale and we tried not to hit the nail on the head with that cliche. It was delicate, but we don’t go out of our way to reference anything. Jarin and I actually shot-listed the whole film, we went away, came back and compared notes.
AD: What about the decision to reveal a lot early on?
RE: Generally, twists and surprises tend not to work. I also feel like this is such an ancient thing. There’s nothing I can do to surprise anyone. In order for the forest to feel dangerous, we needed to know that something was going on. We don’t know what a witch means in the early modern period, but this family would. But with this style of film, we were allergic to exposition, I didn’t want them to explain it. So, I wanted to show that right away that this is what a 17th century witch means, and this is what she is capable of.