Spook­ier than the Blair one?

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"I'm not orig­i­nal," con­fesses Robert Eg­gers, writer and di­rec­tor of The Witch. "I just read older books than most peo­ple..."

With his ma­jes­ti­cally sculpted hair and state­ment beard he has the look of a man who should be fronting some sear­ingly hip Brook­lyn five- piece. But a sense of Amer­ica’s strange, ar­cane his­tory trails Eg­gers, in­fects his blood. Raised in a tiny New Hamp­shire vil­lage – pop­u­la­tion 400 – he spent his child­hood play­ing among tum­ble­down Colo­nial farm­houses and con­cealed wood­land graves, fill­ing the ru­ral land­scape with imag­ined ghosts. Ev­ery Hal­loween he would make a pil­grim­age to Salem, site of the 17th cen­tury witch tri­als whose para­noia and dread played di­rectly into his award- win­ning de­but fea­ture.

He smiles. “There was a time when I thought, ‘ Am I writ­ing a story or is this a mas­ter’s the­sis on witch­ery?’”

Eg­gers im­mersed him­self in the past to cre­ate The Witch. He pored over au­then­tic folk tales and con­tem­po­rary ac­counts of sor­cery while foren­si­cally study­ing the Geneva Bi­ble to nail the au­then­tic lan­guage of his God- fear­ing Pu­ri­tan clan, torn apart by in­ex­pli­ca­ble events in a bleak, twilit New Eng­land. As he tells SFX, it was an act of cu­ra­tion as much as cre­ation.

“Ini­tially I was hit­ting the New York pub­lic li­brary,” he re­mem­bers. “It was a very af­ford­able method of re­search! The big epiphany was that – apart from the ex­treme in­tel­li­gentsia – in the early mod­ern pe­riod the real world and the fairy­tale world were the same thing. So you see folk­tales and court records of witch­craft and the same tropes are ap­pear­ing. It’s the same kind of witch­ing. This was re­ally cool. So what are the tropes that are al­ways there? Those need to be in the film. What are the tropes that speak most per­son­ally to me? Those need to be in the film. What are th­ese weird, half- for­got­ten, ex­otic things that some­how still have power? Those re­ally need to be in the film. And that’s how I worked on con­struct­ing the story.”


The Witch, he knew, also had to be built on phys­i­cal truth. Shot in a re­mote, aban­doned lum­ber town in Canada, be­yond the reach of mo­bile sig­nals, far from the 21st cen­tury um­bil­i­cal cord of Wi- Fi, the film’s sets were con­structed us­ing build­ing ma­te­ri­als ac­cu­rate to the pe­riod. From reed- thatched roofs to mud- dung walls to hand- forged nails, Eg­gers was ob­ses­sive about his­tor­i­cal fi­delity. The devil, fit­tingly, was in the de­tail.

“A witch rid­ing on a broom­stick is not a metaphor­i­cal truth for to­day. If we’re go­ing to be­lieve in that we need to be in a world where that was the case. And so that meant cre­at­ing to the best of my abil­ity a com­pletely au­then­tic, be­liev­able world. The goal was that this was a pu­ri­tan’s night­mare up­loaded into the au­di­ence’s mind’s eye.”

Cru­cially, Eg­gers wanted to ex­plore the cul­tural fault­lines that led to the hys­te­ria of the witch tri­als.

“At the time of the witch craze it’s all about this ob­ses­sion with the dark fem­i­nine,” he shares. “We have this idea of the per­se­cuted, in­no­cent earth mother and that is very true, but there was this preva­lent, ab­so­lutely in­tense idea of evil witches. They weren’t just some­thing that men in political and religious power thought ex­isted. The lay peo­ple, ev­ery­one, had this idea of the witch. And so the witch, in the early mod­ern pe­riod, is ev­ery­thing that men fear, their fears and am­biva­lences about the power of women, and women’s fears and am­biva­lences about them­selves and their power in a male- dom­i­nated so­ci­ety.

“We read sto­ries about women who we imag­ine would to­day be di­ag­nosed with some kind of men­tal ill­ness and they re­ally thought that they were evil witches who had mur­dered their own chil­dren. That idea is re­ally tragic and re­ally in­ter­est­ing to me. Un­for­tu­nately the shad­ows of all this stuff still live in the un­con­scious of to­day. As much as thank­fully we’re not liv­ing in that kind of so­ci­ety, this stuff can still res­onate, be­cause archetypes ex­ist.”

At the heart of this wilder­ness fa­ble is Thomasin, el­dest daugh­ter of de­vout Calvin­ists ex­iled to an iso­lated farm on the edge of brood­ing wood­land. When a baby dis­ap­pears in her charge she be­comes the lo­cus of the dark im­pulses that will tear the fam­ily apart. Eg­gers is quick to praise his young star, Anya Tay­lor- Joy, also mak­ing her cin­e­matic de­but.

“Anya is very charis­matic and mys­te­ri­ous,” he tells SFX. “You don’t know what’s go­ing on with Thomasin and as much as we shove the cam­era two inches from her face there’s still some­thing mys­te­ri­ous go­ing on there. That was cru­cial. Also with Anya it seems like there’s no way in hell she could be a good pu­ri­tan. That was cru­cial. Orig­i­nally I had planned on some­one a lit­tle more homely and awk­ward and then I re­alised that wasn’t re­ally go­ing to work. It needs to be some­one who ev­ery­one sees as the black sheep. Anya looks like a fairy princess alien. She doesn’t look like a stale bread good pu­ri­tan should. And her fa­cil­ity with lan­guage is re­ally in­cred­i­ble, es­pe­cially since she’s not a trained ac­tress. There was not a lot of coax­ing. She just gets it. I was su­per for­tu­nate to have her in the film.”

The di­rec­tor knew he was tak­ing his cast – in­clud­ing very young chil­dren – into some psy­cho­log­i­cally un­set­tling places.

“When I was in my early twen­ties the Kubrick­ian idea of ter­ror­is­ing ac­tors seemed re­ally ro­man­tic and fun,” Eg­gers ad­mits. “I don’t re­ally be­lieve in that now. We had a week of re­hearsal where we could re­ally trust one an­other be­cause when you’re go­ing into th­ese dark places I think it’s re­ally im­por­tant to have all the safety equip­ment nec­es­sary to get out of the crevasse again. That’s how we worked with the adults, with Anya. With the kids the younger they got it was more like man­nequin work, where they had a sani­tised, Dis­neyised un­der­stand­ing of what this story is. There was a lot of, ‘ Stand there, hold your mouth like this, widen your eyes a lit­tle bit…’ And then you throw a witch in there and a lit­tle blood and a lit­tle mu­sic and all of a sud­den it seems like they’re re­ally out of con­trol. But it was safe.”

One Kubrick in­spi­ra­tion Eg­gers ac­knowl­edges is the power of still­ness. The

lingers, slowly ac­cu­mu­lat­ing its dread.

Is slowburn his nat­u­ral style or just the one that suited this film?

“I tend to watch movies that are much less en­ter­tain­ing than movies I would like to make. This is Michael Bay pac­ing com­pared to some of the movies I like! I re­ally like The Shin­ing and that’s all over this movie – em­bar­rass­ingly so, I think. Even though I’m a lit­tle bit ashamed of it I think where the film is suc­cess­ful in a hor­ror way is be­cause of what I learned from watch­ing The Shin­ing a tril­lion times. Keep the frame still. There’s ten­sion in still­ness.”

We know his re­search is painstak­ing, his at­ten­tion to his­tor­i­cal de­tail metic­u­lous. How me­thod­i­cal is he in con­struct­ing his scares?

“Quite me­thod­i­cal, I guess,” Eg­gers smiles. “There are a cou­ple of jump- scares in the film and I think that’s kind of nec­es­sary. I don’t think that’s nec­es­sar­ily cheap if it’s the right mo­ment. The whole thing was very, very de­signed. I tried to work re­ally hard with re­straint. Even when we have a re­veal it’s dark enough and brief enough that the au­di­ence can fin­ish it with their own imag­i­na­tion and it can be more per­sonal and scary to them. This is a cliché but it’s true: when you see the mon­ster it’s al­ways dis­ap­point­ing. So while I have this ob­ses­sion with fairy­tale im­agery I want to be able to ar­tic­u­late a witch visu­ally, if only for 11 frames or how­ever long it is…”

The Witch has earned Eg­gers con­sid­er­able heat, win­ning him a di­rect­ing award at Sun­dance and the kind of ad­mir­ing noises that can quickly chris­ten a fel­low The New Voice of Hor­ror Cinema if he’s not too care­ful. He’s in line to helm a re­make of 1922’ s silent un­dead clas­sic Nos­fer­atu (“a mas­ter­piece”) and is now de­vel­op­ing his first stu­dio movie, a tale of me­dieval knights and the su­per­nat­u­ral – “Like

The Witch it’s the fan­tas­tic, mytho­log­i­cal, religious stuff of that world ex­ist­ing in a world that is tan­gi­ble and au­then­tic. I’m very ex­cited.”


A rest­lessly in­tel­li­gent man, you won­der if he’ll be con­tent to stay within the hor­ror genre. “Yeah, I re­ally want to make a schlocky ro­man­tic com­edy,” he dead­pans. “No, my primal nar­ra­tive has been the same as long as I’ve known my­self. We are al­ways in the act of be­com­ing our­selves – that’s Goethe, I think – but as we be­come more sec­u­larised it’s all about sci­ence and num­bers. Sci­ence fic­tion films are where we’re ask­ing in­ter­est­ing ques­tions but for me the dead speak a lot louder. So I’m in­ter­ested in the past. Com­par­a­tive re­li­gion and mythol­ogy and es­o­teric tra­di­tions and folk­tales and fairy­tales… This is what I spend my whole time on, my pro­fes­sional time, my free time… ex­cept for some time watch­ing Se­in­feld, with a beer.

“Fairy­tales are en­ter­tain­ing but fairy­tales are th­ese ar­che­typal truths. The ones that didn’t fall off the wagon of ver­bal his­tory are the ones that re­ally work and moral­is­tic, Dis­ney­fied ver­sions… well, I don’t think those are go­ing to be around in 200 years. I don’t think any­one’s go­ing to give a shit be­cause they aren’t truth­ful about a hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence. Real fairy­tales are like, ‘ That was great!’ And then you’re like, ‘ What the fuck was that?’”

It’s Finchy! Yes, The Of­fice ac­tor Ralph Ine­son plays Wil­liam.

Anya Tay­lor- Joy doesn’t find much joy as Thomasin.

Hang on, those kids are laugh­ing…

Slightly creepy kids, who’d have thought it?

Wil­liam gets his chopper out – but can he get wood?

That’s Black Phillip, the film’s dev­il­ish goat.

Thomasin is blamed for the witch’s malev­o­lent deeds.

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