How Director Robert Eggers Made ‘The Witch’ into a Genuinely Creepy Feminist Fable
We spoke with the award-winning director about his gloriously scary new movie set in 1630s Puritan New England.
'The Witch.' Courtesy of A24
Forget all those dumb paranormal chillers and torture-porn slashers—or worse, those fake "found-footage" thrillers in which fresh-faced idiots run around in the dark, inexplicably chronicling their own slaughter with shaky camcorders. As solemnly disturbing as it is wondrous, a fantastic new horror movie dubbed "a New England folktale" and set around the year 1630 is not only the most anxiety-producing creep-fest to come along in ages; it also happens to be one of 2016's first must-sees.
About the only thing The Witch (or as it's sometimes spelled, The VVitch ) has in common with those previously mentioned scare-flicks is that it focuses on a teenage girl in turmoil in the woods. After a stoic Puritan farmer (Ralph Ineson) and his devout family of six is exiled from their township, they settle in the bleak gray wilds of Massachusetts, where it's all downhill after the failing of their first corn crop. Through the eyes of eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), we witness the mysterious disappearance of the clan's baby son, abducted by an evil hag in the forest who uses his gory innards as an ointment. It only gets worse as these God-fearing folk worry that heretic magic is tearing them all apart. And why are the young fraternal twins spending so much time whispering secrets to that billy goat? (Better still, can we start the first non-human awards campaign for cloven scene-stealer Black Phillip?)
Written and directed by first-timer Robert Eggers, who won the best director award in the US narrative competition at Sundance, The Witch begins as a psychological drama about ordinary people falling apart before the tension escalates grimly and slowly into balls-out horror. Most unusual is the film's rigorously authentic atmosphere and especially its dialogue—inspired by historical court documents, diaries, and prayer manuals—which immerses viewers in the era with a vernacular that sounds alien today: "Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?"
I recently sat down with the New England-raised Eggers in his adopted home of Brooklyn to talk about his work—or if you'd rather, vvork.
VICE: I can't think of another period film in recent history that's as uniquely impressive as The Witch. What were the humble beginnings of your first directorial feature?
Robert Eggers: After I made my first short film that wasn't terrible, people were interested in potentially developing a feature with me. Every time I read a script, it was a bizarre, too-dark, genre-less thing that no one wanted to make. I realized that I needed to make something that was in an identifiable genre that was still really personal to me, and that I wouldn't be sacrificing who I am or my values.
So I was like, "All right, let me go back to New England." If you've been to a rural town there, you know there are these farmhouses all over the place and hidden graveyards in the middle of the woods. Witches were part of my imaginary childhood playground, so I wanted to make an archetypal fairytale about the mythic idea of what New England was to me as a kid.
Were there any witchy tales or images that inspired you from your childhood?
We made up stories about our own witches, like some creepy lady who was probably just a hoarder living in a dilapidated house. I went to Salem as many Halloweens as I possibly could. Witches were really scary to me as a kid. I mean, the Wicked Witch of the West herself was terrifying and in so many of my nightmares. But in contemporary culture, the witch is just a plastic Halloween decoration that's not very potent.
So how did you make witches frightening again?
I needed to understand what the witch was in the early modern period and where these tropes come from. The black cat was a demon witch's familiar that would be sucking on extra teats on the witch's labia—that was fascinating to learn. The real world and the fairytale world in the average person's mind was the same world. The little old lady down the lane they were accusing of being a witch? They thought she could be potentially stealing children, cutting them into pieces, and using their entrails for various things. I'm not saying the witch trials were right, but you can see why people were so afraid. I wanted to create a super authentic version of the 17th century, so that contemporary audiences could believe in the witch again, the same way that people in that period would have.
VICE Talks Film with 'The Witch' Director Robert Eggers:
It's hard to believe this is only your first feature film. Could you talk about making this career shift?
I have a background in designing and directing weird, low-budget theater. I was doing a street-theater Faust, and a more experienced director doing a show at La MaMa saw my piece and wanted me to design her sets and costumes. I realized, "Ah ha! This is how I can make a living while I'm trying to get my career of the ground." I was making my living as a designer, set carpenter, or whatever would pay the bills. It was great because, compared to a lot of first-time directors, I had a lot of experience being on set. I knew what putting dolly track in the woods entails and how miserable that actually is.
And how did that production background then inform your filmmaking?
In the four years I was trying to get funding to do The Witch, I would try to get any farm-y, woodsy, dirty, rusty, crusty, creepy job I could get to inform this film, and to have the skills to figure out how to pull this off on a budget. There came a time when I was like, "Man, I'm starting to turn into a designer who wants to be a director, instead of a director who's designing on the side for money." Which was discouraging. But all this needs to be in the service of telling the story. I don't believe accuracy is good for accuracy's sake. [Francis Ford Coppola's] Bram Stoker's Dracula isn't accurate at all, but it's one of the best-designed films. It's transportive, but this was a film where I felt authenticity was crucial to the concept.
In your research, what did you find most revealing about language in that era?
One thing is that New England was the most literate part of the Western world, because you had to teach your children how to read. It was the law because reading the Bible—and having the word of God as something close and personal to you—was crucial to these Calvinists. Less than a hundred years earlier, people were being burned at the stake for translating the Bible into English. This movie is not too long after the time of Shakespeare where, yeah, Queen Elizabeth and King James liked [the Bible], but everyone did. Sermons on the street corner were popular entertainment, so sophisticated language is in people's ears. I would read a will from a farmer who could read but couldn't write and dictated his will, and it's beautiful and clunky and interesting. The Geneva Bible is a beautifully written book, and it's something they were obsessed with.
The sets and costumes are so rigorously designed, but this is a modestly budgeted indie, not a Hollywood mega-blockbuster. Were there any adjustments you regret having to make?
There are very few compromises, to be honest. I had really great investors and creative producers who believed in what I was doing. I mean, look, we couldn't afford all hand-woven cloth. Some of the cloth buttons are a little flatter than they should have been. With the animals, there were some shot adjustments. The goat was the most difficult thing I've ever had to deal with, ever. We were constantly tying the schedule in knots, much to the crew's dismay, to make sure it was always gloomy.
Similar to last year's Mad Max: Fury Road, with its strong female characters pushing back against the patriarchy and victimization, The Witch has been read as a sly feminist parable. Was that conscious in the writing?
Yeah. There's [documentation in the 1670s of] a young woman in Massachusetts named Elizabeth Knapp, who was possessed by the devil. She was a servant girl, the lowest possible place in the social totem pole there, and she started having fits. One easy contemporary explanation is hormones, but everyone was really concerned it was the devil. They bring in a minister, and she starts cursing at him in the vernacular, and he is completely terrified. Of course, she couldn't believe that she had the power to upset this powerful man, so it must be the devil.
There were women who believed they were evil witches in the cultural construct of the day, and that was interesting to me. The witch is a powerful archetype in that she embodied men's fears, ambivalences, and fantasies—positive and negative—about women, and women's own fears and ambivalences about female power and motherhood in that male-dominated society. You can't ignore that. You wouldn't have this mass persecution. You wouldn't have them inventing the idea that women are these anti-mother ogresses cutting up babies. I'm not a cultural anthropologist or a legitimate historian of comparative mythology, but given my limited views, I feel like primitive man must have been so intimidated by the idea that women were implicitly more powerful than them, that they spent thousands of years trying to contain that.
The Witch is anything but a traditional horror film, so whether it be in movies or in real life, what ultimately scares you?
You know, the darkness in human nature is terrifying. For me, satisfying horror actually confronts darkness instead of shining a flashlight on it quickly and running away giggling. I don't like a lot of horror movies. Like, there is the childhood part of me that loves Hammer horror and monster movies, but I don't fetishize bad movies. I think this movie embarrassingly reeks of The Shining , which was a movie that—until I watched it enough in my mid-20s to make it not scary anymore—was a really effective movie. I say all the time that [Ingmar] Bergman is the best horror director because he actually confronts darkness.
With the early success of the film, do you have your next dream project lined up?
I'm working on a medieval knight movie right now, so I hope that will be made. Right now, I have no interest in doing anything contemporary. I got enough of that every day of my life.
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The Witch is now playing in theaters nationwide.