The Witch has been getting huge buzz since the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, where this unsettling horror film picked up a directing prize for Robert Eggers. We talked to Eggers, and he told us the insane amount of research that went into making a film that’s so scary, it crawls under your skin.
Eggers, who wrote the script in addition to directing, drew heavily from two sources while crafting his film about a Puritan family whose farm is next to a sinister forest: Folk tales informed the story’s broader strokes and deliberately familiar tropes. And also, historical documents ensured that The Witch’s depiction of 17th century everyday life—right down to the way the characters speak, eat, and dress—would be as accurate as possible.
Given the care that Eggers put into making The Witch’s 17th century setting feel completely authentic, it’s no surprise to learn that he has a background in production and costume design. That was his full-time gig as he planned The Witch, his first feature, over four years, reading historical accounts, visiting museums, and talking with scholars and people in the living-history community. But Eggers also studied fairy tales. Notably, however, he ended up subtitling The Witch “a New England folk tale.”
“If there’s any genre that this film fits into more than anything, even more than horror, it’s a fairy tale,” he admits, adding that “folk tale” simply sounded better as part of the subtitle. But he had a specific kind of fairy tale in mind—and it’s not the happily-ever-after type. “Pre-Disney, and even pre-Grimm, fairy tales aren’t moralistic and two-dimensional; they’re dark and enigmatic explorations of family dynamics. That’s a general interpretation, at least.”
He elaborates on this idea. “In the early modern period, the real world and the fairy tale world—for everyone but the extreme intelligentsia—were the same thing. People really believed that the old lady down the lane that they were calling a ‘witch’ was actually a fairy-tale ogress, capable of doing the most horrible things. It was very easy to dig into that and be obsessed with trying to bring the audience back to the 17th century and show them a Puritan’s nightmare. I wanted to bring them back to the time when a witch was a really powerful thing, and not a cheesy plastic Halloween costume.”
The Puritanical nightmare Eggers describes befalls The Witch’s family of seven—which soon winnows to six when the youngest member, an infant boy, goes missing while eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is minding him. She is blamed, and things rapidly go downhill for her from there.
But even before their loss, the family—who are among the first settlers in the countryside, some 60 years prior to the Salem witch trials—is clearly struggling.
“I thought that if this family was just off the boat, they would be that much more vulnerable. It feels like [patriarch] William is just a bad farmer. Even very experienced farmers would come over here and they didn’t know what the hell they were doing. The land in England had been cultivated for generations, and then this was stuff that hadn’t been touched, and it was very hard,” Eggers says. “The settlers had a really weird relationship with nature, because on one hand, this was like a new Eden, a new Jerusalem, and they were really pumped about it. But at the same time, it’s the Devil’s church. It’s the Devil’s domain. There were wolves, and as I mentioned, they couldn’t grow their crops. So there’s a real interesting tension there in the culture and all the writings from the period.”
The writings from the period were key source materials for Eggers’ script; he looked through such records as diaries, journals, and court papers. “As I was reading, I would find sentences and phrases that worked and I would write them down constantly. Then I would organize them into different situations where they might be used,” he says. “Earlier drafts of the script were these monstrous, cannibalized versions of other people’s stuff in a weird collage, which then got shaped into something that was more mine. However, there are some things that are absolutely intact. A lot of the things the children say when they’re possessed are supposedly things that children actually said when they were possessed, and so on.”
For the look of the film, Eggers found he had to use a little more creative license, since there aren’t many visual records of what New England farms were like in the mid-1600s (he likens woodcuts from the period to “trying to show 21st century life using New Yorker cartoons”). But he was careful to be true to the era as much as possible. “The house, and everything you see onscreen, was made using the correct materials that would have been used in the period. Very often, that meant using period tools and techniques to make the stuff. Not always—if we could use a chainsaw, we would. But if it wouldn’t look right, we wouldn’t do it. And this is not for the purpose of being a maniacal director-bastard. If the witch is going to be real again, we have to be transported to the 17th century. End of story.”
Though many viewers will recognize the actors playing the parents—Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie both appeared on Game of Thrones—the star of the movie is the angelic-looking Taylor-Joy. She happened to be the first actor Eggers saw for the role of Thomasin. “I thought, ‘Well, that’s too good to be true.’ So I saw however many other young women, who were all good, truly, but Anya was Thomasin. It was clear to me that Anya couldn’t survive in Puritan society. They would eat her alive. So that seemed right.”
Thomasin’s plight in in The Witch—interpreted via Taylor-Joy’s deeply sympathetic performance—draws out the film’s strongest theme. “I want anyone to interpret the film the way they want, Christians and Satanists alike [laughs]. But of all the themes, feminism bursts out of the screen. It bursts out of the subject matter.”
Speaking of the Prince of Darkness, Eggers—who says his next project is not a horror film, though “right now, I am firmly stuck in the past”—waves off all questions as to how the Satanic Temple came to sponsor special screenings of The Witch: “That’s between them and the distributor. I’d like to leave it at that.”
But he does have a theory about why Satan is enjoying a pop-culture moment right now. “I have my theories, but I’m going to sound like a New Age, crystal-worshipping weirdo if I get into it. I’m sure some people are saying the Antichrist is coming, the end is near! [Laughs] But I’m very thankful that witchery is in the air, because I certainly didn’t expect this film to have such a reaction. I’m very grateful. It’s a lucky accident.”
The Witch is in theaters February 19.
All images courtesy of A24