This past February, horror aficionados were gifted Robert Egger's unique directorial debut, The Witch. Despite being a film-festival darling and the 2015 Sundance Film Festival recipient for Best Directing (Drama), The Witch is absolutely a square peg in the round hole of contemporary cinematic horror offerings. There's no torture porn, graphic gore or pithy young actors being mown down one by one. Rather, Eggers offers a dark, insular meditation on the actual origination of evil witch mythology circa 17th-century New England. The notion of mystical women in control of dark forces was very much believed by those who often lived within repressed, Puritanical conclaves that had a whole lot of issues in general with sin, sexuality and feminine independence. The Witch gives us a glimpse into this very real period of history.
In particular, Eggers dives into what happens to a Puritan family whose patriarch (Ralph Ineson) accepts banishment on their behalf. They leave their walled rural society to go live a far more pious life on the edge of the forest, serving their god through farming and devotion. But the land proves less than fruitful, and in a short span the verdant clearing goes brown with rotted corn and a lack of ample food sources. When newborn Samuel disappears, it sets off a downward spiral for the family as the middle daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), is suspected by the family members of being a witch and the source of their ills.
The Witch is an aesthetic masterwork, as Eggers creates a uniquely staged chiller that's far less about jump scares and body counts and more about the paranoia that comes from repression, patriarchal societies and the genuine belief of the populace of the time that the fairy tales of old were in fact reality. Blastr talks to Eggers about bringing his singular vision to the screen and his thoughts on the backlash of some audiences disappointed in what he was serving up.
In general, this is very anti-mainstream horror film. Despite the Sundance success, where you concerned that, once it was released, modern horror audiences weren't going to get it?
No. The funny thing is that no one wanted to make this f***ing thing, which I can completely understand why. (Laughs) I'm obviously glad it got made, but I could see why it took a long time to get financed. When we were going to Sundance, it felt like, "Who knows?" I thought if we got any kind of distribution, that's great. If we're playing in four screens, awesome! But it did well [at Sundance] and continued to do well in the festival circuit and even with genre audiences. So, for me, it wasn't a major concern by that point.
As with most great creative endeavors, this topic came from your childhood fear of witches. But when did it become a concept you wanted to actually build a film around?
It was over six years ago now. I had written a lot of screenplays that were too strange, and I realized I needed to make something in a more identifiable genre if I was going to get it made. The Witch was my attempt at doing something not strange. (Laughs) I thought I need to go back to what I know which is living in the 17th century ... ha, ha.
Well, you certainly know New England as a lifelong resident, but how did you immerse yourself in the intricacies of the era to make the film feel so utterly authentic?
Yeah, I was lucky in that because nobody wanted to make it, so I had a lot of time to prepare. I'm also lucky that the world is small. While an understanding of English Calvinism in the period was a large undertaking, and learning about 17th-century farming is fairly complex, it's not the Battle of Waterloo, you know? As I'm working on other period things right now where the scope is much larger, I'm realizing how comfortable the few outbuildings on the farm really are in my imagination. There was a time I could tell you about every object in their house.
You mention in the end title card that you used actual dialogue from journals and accounts from the time. The language is like Shakespeare in that your ear has to get attuned to it. Was that important to translate accurately?
I considered using it from the very beginning, and it wasn't too hard for me to get there. It took me some time to get a fluidity, but I have a background in Shakespeare.
Your background is in production design and costuming, so did you build the film from the ground up, aesthetically?
In some ways, yeah. I had when I was writing a dollhouse in my head of the farm and what was in it. Thinking, "OK, let's put them over here. And this goes there." Then working on the budget was helpful for me in the writing knowing how to contain things more affordably.
Did your production design and costume team of Craig Lathrop, Andrea Kristof and Linda Muir get what you intended from the start? And was it hard to hand off those duties to others?
I had thousands of images and so much research, so I was really meticulous. But they brought it to a totally new level. I have character sketches, which are some kind of costume design, and I had designs of the barn but it would be ugly of me to take it too far because it needs to be a collaboration. There's a point where, if I'm constructing the costumes myself, then the story can't be done. It came down to working with Craig and Linda ahead of time, especially for the budget. They came on before prep started and did a lot of work so we could feel comfortable that everything was going to be in place so on-set I wouldn't become a fussy production designer or be dirtying costumes in the moment.
Your lighting design is hugely important, with candlelight being a primary source, which makes the viewer lean into the screen. Did it work as you intended?
All the night interiors we only light with flames, but we had a gas flame bar that could create more fill if we needed it. We could also shrink it down if we had to, but it was all about the quality of light. I think the next time that I work with candle-lit stuff I'll try using less depth and go extreme chiaroscuro.
[Warning: Spoilers discussed from this point after....]
Was there ever a version of the film where the witches are never seen, and it remains more of a psychological question for the family and the viewer?
Not really. I certainly thought about it, as it's impossible not to. Some of my collaborators thought about it a lot more than I did. But It was important to me. Maybe it was in bad taste but it's what I liked. Also, when people like to accuse me having my cake and eating it too, just because I showed the witch doesn't mean she's real.
There is an argument that aside from Black Philip killing the father, the rest could be visions or nightmares of this religiously repressed and starving family seeing their fears personified?
It's real for them. Witches were real for people in the 17th century. Obviously, scientifically you can't argue that they were, but if you believe them to be true then they are still doing what they are to you.
In the last minutes, when Thomasin leans on the table was that ever a natural stopping point for the entire film?
No, absolutely not. There were definitely test screenings where people said I should end it there. (Laughs) But once I decided that was the ending in the writing process, I was very committed to it. And it wasn't until the edit, because we cut to black, for however long we do, that suggests an ending. But if you read the script you would never think that's a logical place to end.
Thomasin in the final scene leaves us wondering if she's finally giving over to the witches or if she was always in their thrall.
I won't tell anyone what I think, or what to think, but one of those two options is more interesting.
With the success of The Witches and projects now being put on your desk, do you see yourself staying small and independent with your storytelling so you don't have to compromise as much, or is there a way to create your unique vision within the studio system?
I'm developing a couple projects right now and hoping things don't get compromised in the midst of that. But, of course, one has to come in with a different mindset. The larger the scale, the more operatic the narrative needs to be in order for me to satisfy that budget and the audience it will take to make that money back. If The Witch cost $100 million, it wouldn't have done well. So, I am interested in more larger scale things, but I also desperately want to make very small, weirder than The Witch movies I'd like to make. There's even street theater I'd like to do.
Is Nosferatu actively in development?
I'll be as ambiguous as I can about answering that. [Laughs]
The Witch is now available on Blu-ray and OnDemand.