Robert Eggers on The Witch
Robert Eggers makes an instant impression with his first feature film The Witch, a movie steeped in the realism of a religious mindset in 1630s New England. Eggers takes the audience on a thoughtful and tense journey into a state of darkness.
A family living alone on a remote farm starts to come apart under the fears of their own limited beliefs. Animals seem to take on supernatural form. Members of the family, and there are multiple siblings in addition to the parents, accuse each other of spiritual corruption. Things come to a head on one fateful day and then, in an amazing midnight ritual in a foreboding forest, all is revealed.
Free Press Houston spoke to director Eggers in a phone interview. We discussed the methods used to achieve the verisimilitude of the story.
FPH: The film was originally titled The New Canaan-Woode Witch, and then the title was changed to The Witch:
RE: Basically these Puritan Calvinists looked at New England as a new Eden, a new Jerusalem, a new Canaan. New Canaan was spoken more in older versions of the script.
You mentioned in a previous interview how the characters were influenced by the Geneva Bible and how that was different from King James
It doesn’t differ a lot. It was an earlier version of the Bible. The Geneva Bible had a lot more footnotes. The Puritans liked that because there was more of it to read. Additionally some of the minor changes in translation were because they thought it was blasphemous – there should be only one king and that was God.
This is another quote you gave in an interview: “The witch embodied men’s fears and fantasies about women, good and bad, and also women’s fears and ambivalences about motherhood in a male-dominated society.”
Yes, correct! What is comes down to is splitting hairs about how you name the genre. For me it’s like, is Edgar Allen Poe not horror because there’s no jump scare? What I like about dark literature and horror is taking a look at what is dark in humanity, instead of shining a flashlight on it and running away giggling.
How did you achieve the level of historical detail?
I read a lot. I was working with museums and historians and even people in the living history community. I was relentless in trying to find more sources. Luckily it took a long time for the film to get financed and that gave me more time for research and make sure things were right.
I mean the whole point is accuracy, if people are going to believe in the witch they’re only going to get there if I can fully transport them to the 17th century.
There are images that [Nathaniel] Hawthorne created about the Puritans. There was a movement starting in the 1940s that was about changing those images. Like that they only wore dour colors. There’s plenty of evidence that they wore color. In our film we didn’t want color because that wasn’t going to help us any.
The events in The Witch are sharper than [Arthur Miller’s] The Crucible, which was placed about 50 years after the events in The Witch. They both exist in a world of verbal pronunciation peculiar to their time. Plus, some accounts of the historical record of the incidents that led to the witch-hunts are attributed to ergot poisoning as a cause of mass hallucinations?
I think by saying it was caused by ergot is not a good mystery, I think it’s too simple. It’s not to understand the mindset of the people in the Early Modern Period – the real world and the fairy tale world were the exact same thing for them. You don’t need ergot for people to see witches if they believe they exist. However I will say that the fungus growing on the corn in the family’s field is ergot.
How did you know what the dialect would sound like?
The language of the film is my interpretation. I can’t claim to say that it is correct. Historians have given it the thumbs up but it’s a recreation. I studied the grammar. There are books that get into that. I was reading primary source material and jotting down sentences, and I would put them in different categories. Writing was a process that came first as a collage then became more structured. There were things I left deliberately intact. Things like what the children say when they’re possessed.
As far as the accent the family was originally from Essex. I was trying to make an archetypal New England horror story and most of the people who came over here in the Great Migration were from Essex. The original intention was to use a recreation of what people thought the Essex accent sounded like in the 17th century. There are people like David Crystal and other linguists who worked hard to put these things together. But they sound strange, very pirate-y. They say things like ‘knice’ instead of ‘nice.’ You’re getting into that, you don’t need to know what the hell else is going on.
Ralph Ineson who plays William was the first one to be cast. I love his voice and I love his accent. Something about Northern accents, Yorkshire particular, have a grim sound. With shows like Game of Thrones and Downton Abbey American audiences are used to that.
I did a little research and discovered that the oldest timber frame house that still exists in New England was built by a Yorkshire man. He came here in the beginning of the Great Migration, didn’t get along with all these people from Essex and so he moved away from the settlement to his own farm.
I knew that teaching the children to speak an artificial accent would be horrible so we were looking for kids who were from the North. We worked with a dialect coach to get rid of any modern urbanisms out of the Yorkshire accent. But it’s definitely its own creation for the film.
Are all the actors English?
Kate Dickie is from Scotland but as you move further north it sounds a bit more Scottish anyway so it was a small adjustment for her. Anya Taylor-Joy sounds American in interviews. But she has kind of lived all over the place [Taylor-Joy grew up in England and Argentina.] and picks up any accent that is closest to her at that moment.
Was wrangling the animals difficult?
The hare was fantastic the raven was fantastic the horse was … a good old horse. The goat was allegedly trained. But the goat did what it wanted to do, and the goat made our lives a living hell.
How much of THE WITCH is a fairy tale?
I have to say it’s an inaccuracy for me to call it a New England folk tale because that just kind of sounded right. But it’s really more of a fairy tale. People talk about genre. Is this really a horror movie? A thriller with supernatural elements? Whatever. I don’t really care what you want to call it. But I think that if there is a genre it would be a fairy tale. For me pre-Grimm fairy tales do many things and one of the things they do very well is unconsciously examine complex family dynamics. That’s the thing I tried to turn up to 11 with this film.
The Witch, from distributor A24, opens in local theaters this weekend.
— Michael Bergeron