Spookier than the Blair one?
"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.”
BACK TO THE PAST
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.