Hot off the Sundance world premiere of his lauded 17th century chiller and the subsequent US deal with A24 Films, director Robert Eggers is thankful that festival audiences “get” his feature directorial debut.
“I have spent so many years on this film,” he says. “It’s a big relief when people really appreciate what you’re trying to do.”
Eggers admits launching the film at Sundance was always his goal, but even more remarkable is that A24 had always been his top choice to distribute the story of a New England Puritan family who move to the edge of a spooky forest.
“I have been a big fan of A24 for a long time – the company is adventurous, clever and not afraid to take risks. That is very important for this film.”
Eggers, better known for his work in production and costume design, is keeping mum about his ideas for the release, but affirms something innovative is on the cards for a wide audience.
On researching The Witch
Deeming himself almost ‘obsessive’ when it comes to folklore, the filmmaker says the four years of extensive research conducted for his haunting tale is almost too in-depth to put into words.
“The kind of research I did here was wild and obsessive, almost disgusting,” he says. “I have always been into folktales and fairy tales and New England’s past, so with this film I wanted to create an archetypal New England horror story. Something that would feel like an inherited nightmare of a Puritan family.”
Eggers grew up in New Hampshire and says it wasn’t hard to visualise what life could have been like in the 1600s. He further explored his visionary ideas with a thorough reading of period literature, old diaries and letters, historic sources such as the Geneva Bible and Elizabethan witch pamphlets.
He also spent time spent at Plimoth Plantation, the living history museum based in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
What Eggers was surprised to learn in his research was “the blurry line that divided the real world and the fairytale world for many families. Everyday life was supernatural. In a sense, they were living their lives as a work of art.”
On the archetypal witch
While appalled by the way women were persecuted for witchcraft, Eggers admits to finding a fascination with the mythical characters as well.
“I can think back to my childhood when witches were real and terrifying. I wanted to highlight all of the fairy tale references we’ve all grown up with.”
The director refers to ‘Hansel and Gretel’ moments in The Witch - such as a lone figure running through the woods wearing a red cloak or the parents’ talk of leaving the children.
“If you read the plentiful sources available, modern audiences would be shocked by the power, the exoticism and the bizarreness that has been alluded to witches over the centuries,” says Eggers. “The question I am posing with this film is what does the witch motif mean to today’s society?”
Authenticity was key across all aspects of production, which meant casting English actors was an absolute necessity.
Harry Potter and Guardians Of The Galaxy star Ralph Ineson (who had recurring roles in Game Of Thrones and Ricky Gervais’ original series, The Office) was Eggers’ top choice for the lead role of William as it was his voice that reverberated in Egger’s head as he wrote the exacting script.
Once on board, his persona was an anchor for the rest of the casting. “We knew we needed the other actors to be able to convincingly portray a Yorkshire accent similar to Ralph’s,” says Eggers.
Lead actress Anya Taylor-Joy, who plays William’s daughter Thomasin, read the script the night before her audition and was so taken by it she almost didn’t make it to the casting call: “I was a wreck – it really affected me like nothing I have read before.”
The Argentinian actress based in London attributes her religious background to being a factor. “Quite a few of the lines struck dread straight to my heart – but despite that, I knew I had to do this.”
Eggers also had his eye on Scottish actress Kate Dickie and was a fan after seeing her in Andrea Arnold’s Red Road. With the three leads secured, Eggers and casting director Kharmel Cochrane expanded their search to schools across the north of England, determining it crucial that the youngest actors use their native accents.
“I kept thinking of the younger boys imitating accents and I thought that was just nuts,” says Eggers. “I didn’t want the authenticity of their performances to fall apart.”
On the filming
After a week of rehearsals, filming on The Witch took place over 26 days in Kiosk, a small, abandoned lumber town in Northern Ontario, Canada. It was a schedule Eggers insists could not have lasted any longer.
“We found a small open field [in Kiosk] that was surrounded by large white pines and hemlock and we knew it was the spot,” says Eggers.
But the hassles of working in an extremely remote location meant no wi-fi or phone service and logistical challenges for both cast and crew. Plus, Eggers notes, the uncompromising subject created an overall sense of foreboding on set.
“I tried to keep things as real as possible and these types of conditions certainly added to that,” says Eggers. “We didn’t use make-up unless natural elements like grass or mud were required. We had actual goats (that I don’t recommend to anyone) and I used original period pieces like hand-riven oak clapboards to sheath the structures, reed-thatched roofs and hand-forged nails.”
Other darker scenes shot in the woods required a 90-year-old woman to be covered in blood and filth – something that gets Eggers to shaking his head. “We could have used prosthetics – but we didn’t. It’s all there as you see it,” he says, still in disbelief that he actually pulled it off.
Taylor-Joy says cast and crew were like a family and gives credit to the rehearsal process for bringing ‘the family’ closer and instilling in them the resolve to get through the more terrifying scenes.
The two accredit a scene involving Harvey Scrimshaw (Caleb) as the most trying. Eggers attests to that being one of the hardest scenes to shoot, yet the fastest to edit as a result of their prep before the start of production.
On the technical specs
Eggers gives credit to his cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, who worked with him on his previous two shorts, for creating the overriding ominous tone of the film.
Using predominantly natural light for exteriors and a single flame fashioned from customised triple-wick candles resembling tallow candles for interiors, Blaschke used an Alexa Plus within a 1.66 aspect ratio to make the woods seem taller and the interiors more claustrophobic. 1940s vintage rehoused lens were used to further enhance the unique, at times distorted, look.
Composer Mark Korven was also key. Working closely with Eggers, he helped develop a score that fused 17th and 20th century classical music, incorporating unique instruments such as the nyckelharpa, viol and the waterphone.
The composer also brought in Christine Duncan’s experimental Element Choir to give voice to the forest and nature.
On What’s Next
Keeping in line with the mystical and supernatural, Eggers’ next film will revolve around wandering knights, angels and demons.
The medieval epic will be Eggers’ first studio project and is set up at Jeff Robinov’s Studio 8. While the director will not reveal too much, he adds: “It’s something I’ve wanted to do since I was a child. But I have to write it for an adult me.”
As with The Witch, producers Jay Van Hoy and Lars Knudsen of Parts and Labor will produce and WMA Global will represent international sales.
- The Witch screens again in Park City on January 29, 30 and 31.