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The Witch's director explains why our ancestors found witches so scary

Robert Eggers tells us about his research into the period, filming in the wilderness, and working with goats.

The Witch uses natural light to haunting effect. Here's a good example of that.
The Witch uses natural light to haunting effect. Here's a good example of that.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

When The Witch debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 2015, it became an instant sensation with both the press and festival attendees. Where had this deeply creepy horror movie about Colonial Americans dealing with a witch living in the woods surrounding their farm even come from?

The answer was (and still is) "from the mind of Robert Eggers." Eggers, whose credits before The Witch were mostly for production design, made his feature film debut (and won Sundance's directing prize) with the horror opus, which revealed a very precise eye for framing, a love of natural light, and a preference for lengthy takes that ramp up the tension throughout the story. His film works as a horror tale, yes, but also as a story of religious awakening and a psychological family drama.

Even better: Eggers based The Witch on real accounts from the time period, documented by people who thought they were dealing with witchcraft, the better to unnerve us with some of the things our ancestors actually believed were true. His film is a brilliant, immersive experience, a sampling of a way of life that may as well exist on another planet.

With all of that in mind, I recently sat down with Eggers to talk about making his first feature film, what he learned about witches from his research, and how to get a great performance from a goat.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

On witches: "Women were put on trial for giving children poisoned apples"

Awards Night Ceremony - 2015 Sundance Film Festival
Robert Eggers attends the 2015 Sundance Film Festival awards ceremony.
Photo by Clayton Chase/Getty Images for Sundance

Todd VanDerWerff: You wrote this based on period sources about what people really thought witchcraft was in the Colonial period. What was the moment when you read something or saw something and thought, "Yeah, that's gotta be a movie"?

Robert Eggers: It was the understanding that in the early modern period, the real world and the fairy-tale world were the exact same thing.

It was a bit abstract for me, even growing up in New England and reading about Salem, how the Salem witch trials happened. It was a little bit hard for me to wrap my mind around. But the more and more I read these period sources, the more I realized, wow, the real accounts of witchcraft are the same thing as the folk tales. Women are being put on trial for giving children poisoned apples.

If someone called you a witch, they really thought you were capable of doing all the horrible things the witch does in this film. That was just a fact, the same way trees are a fact and dirt is a fact. So that was like — okay, this can work. I know what the witch of the early modern period is, and now I just have to recreate the early 17th century and the mindset so that the audience can get into that too.

TV: Was there a particular detail or item you lifted wholesale to put in the film?

RE: There's many details that are specifically in there. Basically, when I was reading these things, it was like, what are the tropes that happen always? Those need to go in the film. What are the tropes that speak the most personally to me? Those need to go in the film.

And then what are the weird, strange, exotic things that speak to me and I don't quite know why. They feel right, but they're just a little bit removed, like the hare [which keeps popping up in the woods, possibly as a harbinger of the witch's presence]. Those definitely need to be in there.

Constructing the dialogue, I was researching period grammar and vocabulary, but also going through the primary source material, jotting down sentences and phrases and categorizing them into different situations where I might need them. The original version was this horrible, monstrous collage of cannibalized words of other people, which slowly was worked into something that became more my own language.

But certain things were very deliberately kept intact. Some of the things the kids say when they're possessed are things that kids allegedly said when they were possessed, verbatim. Many of the prayers are intact from Puritan prayer manuals, which had suggested prayers for certain situations.

TV: The Witch has been described as a feminist film, but it depicts a culture that's extremely sexist and anti-feminist. How did you weave in the elements of female power in the midst of that?

RE: I didn't need to weave it in, and I was trying to not do anything intentionally. It just happens.

The evil witch of the early modern period [represents] men's fears, ambivalences, desires, and fantasies about women and female power. And she also manifested herself as women's own fears and ambivalences about themselves in this male-dominated society. So I didn't have to try to do anything. It was already there.

On creating the film's world: "People don't know what the witch of the 17th century is at all"

Thomasin in The Witch
Anya Taylor-Joy plays a young woman accused of being a witch in The Witch.

TV: About 15 minutes into The Witch, you reveal that there really is a witch. And in general, when we're talking about this period, we're talking about the witch trials—

RE: Right. Where the witch ain't real, and it's a witch hunt.

TV: What prompted your desire to let the audience in on that right away?

RE: People don't know what the witch of the 17th century is at all. With a witch, it's a stupid plastic Halloween decoration, it's Harry Potter, it's Samantha [of Bewitched] twinkling her nose. I need to show you exactly what's at stake. I need to show you exactly what a witch meant to people in the early modern period right away, so you know what she's capable of.

TV: You're asking the audience to buy into a lot. You want them to buy into old-school witchcraft but also old-school Christianity, a kind we don't really practice anymore. How did you approach the question of getting the audience to buy that this is all real?

RE: It's not difficult for me to understand being a Christian or being religious. It was difficult for me to understand hardcore Calvinism, predestination, how that can be a hopeful thing. But when you read people's diaries — and there's a lot of very easy-to-access, very private religious journals from the period, so you get into people's super-private, deepest feelings about religion and their relationship with Christ — you're able to see how these are human beings, and they're just like you.

That was really illuminating, and I also really respected their rigor. I'm sure this is going to make me sound like a real schmuck, but I try to approach my work with the same rigor that they approached their religion. And I can really respect that.

But finally it comes down to, my philosophy is that it's not about recreating the dialogue and the sets or even making a good shot. What it is is that I have to be articulating and recreating my memories onscreen. It has to be as if I lived in the 17th century, and this is my Puritan childhood.

So the amount of obsession with accuracy was in order to have that kind of detail and atmosphere and that kind of specificity all over the place. If I can't express that kind of specificity, I can't hope to possibly transport an audience.

TV: There's a lot of material in the film about the operation of a farm like this, or how to live in this remote area. What were you taken by as you looked into how these people physically lived?

RE: It's interesting how primitive it is. There was this brief period where people were living in the Middle Ages in North America. That was interesting. These hovels they were building in this period were really shitty houses. [laughs] And closer to medieval homes. The walls are made of clay and dung and straw and stuff like that, along with the timbers.

These people who were very experienced farmers in England came over here, and they didn't know how to work this earth. They immigrated from England, where the ground had been cultivated for generations, but here they had to work with soil that was full of stones, and their cereal crops wouldn't work, and they had to learn to grow the corn that the native people were growing, and they had to learn to grow it [the natives'] way. All of that was very fascinating and made them very vulnerable. All the better for a tale of horror.

On filming: "I'm trying to make a witch movie. He's trying to be a goat."

The Witch
The Witch was filmed in an area of extreme wilderness.

TV: So much of The Witch feels like it's filmed with natural light, and shadows are such an important part of the compositions you've come up with. How did you arrive at the visual palette for it?

RE: [Cinematographer] Jarin Blaschke is a real artist, and he's incredible at sculpting natural light. We needed to make it look the way it would have looked, so we were using natural light as much as humanly possible.

Obviously, the night exteriors, we can't light with the moon with the Alexa Plus [a digital camera], but all the interiors are lit entirely with flame. I will say that historians would say [the characters are] burning way too many candles. That would have been very costly. But we needed a little bit more light.

TV: How did you find unmarked wilderness that would work for this?

RE: Originally, I would have wanted to have shot in Massachusetts or New Hampshire. Honestly, in southern New Hampshire, to find woods like that is the easiest thing ever. But in order to make the film and get it financed, we had to go to Canada. We could double our money, basically, if we shot in this one specific region of northern Ontario.

I was thinking, great, Canada. Virgin wilderness. No problem. But first of all, there's so much logging there that there's all these piddly little, tiny planted red pine forests. So finding a forest of any size was extremely difficult. But then, again, we had to find a forest that has a forest system that looks like New England, with white pines and hemlocks.

So this drove us extremely far, out in the middle of nowhere, to this really remote place. It made for a really magical setting. We were driving back in time to set every day. It was really good for the actors. It was really good for the atmosphere of the film overall, but it was very hard on the crew. It was very hard on production. It was very hard on infrastructure. It was tough.

TV: The cast has a really believable family dynamic. How did you build the power dynamics of that with the cast?

RE: I was really fortunate to be able to cast whoever I wanted, so I was looking for people who were great actors and suited the roles but were also good people and could really support each other and help each other, because the shoot was going to be trying, because it was going to be isolating and shitty. We also were going to be going to some really dark, heavy psychological places, and they needed to help each other get out of that.

So there was a week of rehearsals ahead of time, which is very generous for our budgetary level, but it was essential, because this family needed love, so that it could then tear itself apart. And on a practical level, the photography, the blueprint of the cinematic language of the film was so specific that it was nearly cut in camera, so people needed to know how to use the tools and milk goats and know their way around a farm and know their blocking really specifically, or we were never going to make our days.

But also it was creating an environment where the children were protected. The young children didn't really know, unlike the adults, who was really going into the darkness. It was more puppeteering and more mannequin acting and dance choreography.

TV: There are many scary elements in The Witch, but one of them is a goat. What were the challenges of trying to make a goat seem like it's possibly evil?

RE: Honestly, the goat was allegedly trained, but he didn't want to do anything but be a goat. So that was really hard. The other animals were incredible, truly.

I mean, I don't blame him. What does he care? I'm trying to make a witch movie. He doesn't care. He's trying to be a goat. But it filled me full of despair, let me tell you.

The Witch is playing throughout the country.