by: Jay Carlson – Editor-in-chief
The day before The Witch was finally unleashed in darken theaters for everyone to see I had the opportunity to sit down with the film’s Writer/Director Robert Eggers and the film’s star, Anya Taylor-Joy to discuss their experiences making one of the scariest films to come out in recent years.
Q: You’ve said a lot of it is based on folktales. Where did you find the material that you’re referencing?
Robert Eggers: It was worded in a way that was intentionally romantic, like in keeping with the rest of the film. I wasn’t in rare archives with parchment paper with white gloves on. You can get most of the primary source materials that I was working with on Google Books. In fact, the sources that were more rarified that I was using were more about creating the agricultural lifestyle and had more to do with animal husbandry and building the farmstead accurately. They’re out there. I started by going to the library and anything early New England related I took out. Of course there’s many contemporary historians who have compiled great selections of primary source “stuff” and they’ve edited them. Then I would say, it seems like a lot of stuff is coming from this source so I’m just going to get that and I would get that and get into it really deeply.
Q: You’ve said it’s like a pre-Disney fairytale. By that, you mean you went to the source material, the Grimm Brothers and tried to evoke that world?
RE: Yeah, very much. What’s very interesting for me is in the early modern period the real world and the fairytale world really were the same thing. There’s a few skeptics, but very, very few of the elite intelligencia. There’s not a question of do you believe in witches. A witch is a witch, a tree is a tree, a rock is a rock, like this is what’s going on. So, it’s really fascinating to read the accounts of real witchcraft, witches on trial and so on and so forth. These read like fairytales. There’s an Elizabethan witch who was accused of giving a child a poison apple and I’m like, this is perfect. I think in talking about genre there’s been a lot of discussion of is this really a horror movie? Which, I don’t really care what you call it, if you’re into it that’s good enough for me. I think the genre that it’s closest to are these early, early fairytales. Pre Grimm, because they were doing some Victorian sanitation of their own, the evil stepmother, not always but very often is the biological mother. These early fairytales, one of the things I love about them so much and I’m not unique in this thought, is that I see them as this unconscious examinations of complex family dynamics which I was trying to turn up to 11.
Q: I have a question about how all the pieces of the film came together, performance, cinematography, music, the story behind it. Where did the evolution spark and start rolling and what was the last element that made everything click into place?
RE: It’s all connected, you know? It took four years to get the film financed so I had a lot of time to think about what I wanted to do. By the time I had the final draft I understood what I wanted things to look like, what I wanted the photography to be like and even the music to a great degree. I wanted the music to be seventeenth century string instruments and percussion and Mark Korven said you need voices, which obviously makes such a huge impact in the film. I think that that was the last missing ingredient that was unexpected and not planned as any part of my original vision of the film in four years of creating this.
Q: Was there ever any reticence in your first feature being a genre film?
RE: Only in that I’m a snobby bastard, but no. I tried to make a lot of weird movies that I still think are in vaguely fantasy, dark horror, gothic… But no one wanted to make those films. No one would make those films so I was deliberately trying to make something that you could fit inside of a genre more easily because it seemed in the climate, this climate as an American filmmaker, a first time director that there was no way to get a film financed. BUT I’m happy, I love Edgar Allen Poe and I love dark Japanese plays about old women who are demons that kill priests. It’s ALL good.
Q: What was it like working with all the animals?
RE: In my years working with other people’s stuff and the couple short films I did, it seems to me that there are two ways, well three… CG animals which is a life away. Then there’s working really closely with your trainers to be really specific and create a controlled environment where nothing can go wrong, the kind of thing where you need a second unit in order to make that work. The hare and the raven were done that way. Then other animals you kind of have to go with the flow. (To Anya) You can talk about Charlie.
Anya Taylor-Joy: Ok, Charlie. The goat.
RE: Black Phillip.
ATJ: Black Philip. He had two modes. Charlie and I got along great. We really dug each other. He basically wanted to just lie in the sun and have his belly rubbed and we would hang out and it was all good. He hated Ralph Ineson (He played the father, William) on sight. They just hated each other mutually. It was so weird because he’d be so calm and chill, which is not what we wanted for the movie, and then he would see Ralph and literally it would be like horns down it was go time. Ralph had to lose a lot of weight for the movie and he had to really grapple with the goat. He ended up in the ER three times because Charlie just gored him. The fact that we got that performance is really a testament to our editor Lou Ford (Louise Ford) who is just amazing. Charlie was a fun playmate but not terribly great to work with.
RE: Yeah. The only diva on set.
ATJ: The only diva on set.
Q: The cast was predominately young. What was it like working with young actors? They gave such amazing performances.
RE: It was great. I like working with kids. People say don’t work with kids. Some kids are bastards, but so are some adults. The thing that made working with kids difficult is their hours are really short. So with our budget and everything it was hard. Really it was about keeping them safe and protected. They couldn’t really know what this film was. They had a Disney-fied version of what the story was. With them it was more puppetry and dance choreography and games to elicit these things. Harvey, who plays Caleb, in that possession scene couldn’t know the subtext of what he was saying and the movements he was performing.
ATJ: A lot people can’t comprehend that shooting the movie, there was so much love there. (To Robert) We created this, and created makes it sound like we did it on purpose, which maybe you did. For us it felt so natural. We all just really, really clicked. We loved each other and supported each other. So with the kids it was play pretend, it was fun every day. None of us are method, thank god, because that would have been awful. We went into work every day with complete kindness and love and support for each other and we went to some pretty dark places, but it was wonderful. I know the kids had a really, really good time.
Q: This was your first time acting. What was it like when you read the script for the first time? Did you know where that character was going? Were you surprised by the end?
ATJ: Goodness, I had a really big life moment for myself as a person at the end of the movie. We wrapped and obviously we were all really tired and I just got so incredibly depressed and I couldn’t understand why. I realized… I knew I was going to see these people again, we really like each other. But it was because I hadn’t realized that characters are real for me and they’re a big emotional part of who I am. I hadn’t realized at the beginning and during filming that Thomasin was a real person for me and she was a friend of mine. It was really sad that I wasn’t going to be able to get to see her again, if you know what I mean. So that was really surprising. It was just like, oh crap she’s real. That’s who she is for me. At the beginning of the film I was so desperate for Rob’s vision to come to life as he’d seen it in his brain. Rob was really, really great about that. (To Rob) I don’t know if you remember this but I used to pester you all the time. “But is it right?! Is it specific? I will fly myself and bring the right person to do this! This has to be perfect!” And Rob would be like, “Yes, I created her but you’re bringing her to life and she will be an amalgamation of that. She’ll be a collaboration.” That was just so incredibly wonderful to work with and it’s informed everything I’ve done since then.
RE: Anya’s Thomasin is different than how I originally saw Thomasin. I realized I was looking for the wrong girl when Anya auditioned. I was actually like, “No, that is Thomasin.” I hadn’t realized I had been mistaken because I saw her in a different kind of awkward than Anya is and much more homely. I realized when Anya came in, wow she could never be a Puritan. I believe her as timeless and I believe her milking goats and I believe her in this world but she would not cut it as a Puritan. So that was very exciting and it brought a lot to the role that was unexpected.
ATJ: I initially thought I was never going to get this role in a million years because it was written as plain. I was like, I’m pretty weird looking. I don’t buy plain from me. It was wonderful because the first day on set Rob gave me a script and he had changed the description to match me and I was like, “Yes! Let’s do this. Let’s kill it.”
Q: The film has gotten the Satanic Church’s seal of approval and I’m wondering if you have a reaction to that?
RE: It’s nice to have fans.
Q: (To Anya) what about you? You’re the face of a Satanic Church approved film.
ATJ: It’s nice to have fans.
Q: Ok, we can leave it at that.
Q: Is there pressure to follow-up a film that’s had this much critical acclaim and buzz since it came out at Sundance?
RE: Yes. In the four years of trying to make this, well it’s been six years since I started writing it… You have to believe in yourself even though you know you are… like… This is getting a little personal, but in any case, yeah of course. I’ve been working on the next thing for a little over a year now and definitely there is a pressure.
Q: What is the next thing?
RE: A medieval epic.
Q: (To Anya) How about you? This is the first thing you’ve done, is there pressure to follow it up?
ATJ: I will never think I’m a good actor. And that is cool because I love to act and it’s not something I could live without. I would act if nobody ever watched anything I did. It’s unfortunate, I just need to do it. If people continue to think that the stuff that I do is good, that’s cool. I just want to keep working. That’s what it’s about for me. It’s about the actual act of acting, rather than what people think about it.
Q: I’m sure there were a lot of difficult moments, but is there a specific scene or moment that was very difficult as an actor?
ATJ: Oh yeah, I have a very overactive imagination and I also have a lot of empathy for my characters. I really feel for them and I need to tell the story right. A lot of those difficult scenes were kind of cathartic to go there. The scene with Kate (Dickie, who played Anya Taylor-joy’s mother) was not. It was something we were both concerned about. We both knew that it was going to be incredibly difficult for the both of us, at the very beginning we just sat down and were like, “Ok, we know we’re going to have to do this. How are we going to handle it? How are we going to cope with it?” We just decided to really go for it and go for each other and reassure each other that like, “Hey, I want you to really attack me because I’m going to do the same to you.” I was insane. They kept yelling cut and Kate and I would just continue sobbing and just sit there like these hysterical women. It was crazy, but by the end of that day we sat down and gave each other a high five and we were like, “Yeah, cool. We did that.”
RE: It was pretty scary watching that and the crew was pretty astonished.
Q: You mentioned The Shining being a big influence but also Carl Dreyer. Was Day of Wrath a big influence for you?
RE: Yeah. I wasn’t necessarily trying to do a riff on Day of Wrath or anything, but in some ways it’s kind of the opposite of Day of Wrath. And I love Dreyer.
Q: You mentioned at the screening last night that the film was almost edited “in camera” and not a lot made the cutting room floor. Was a lot of the editing done in the script before you shot?
RE: My editor actually emailed me last night and she was like, “You’re using ‘cut in camera’ wrong.” We didn’t shoot chronologically and we weren’t shooting on film. So the definition of “cut in camera”… no. What I mean to say is there wasn’t any additional coverage or anything. Every shot, every angle is there. And also, even more than that. The blueprint that Jarin (Blaschke, cinematographer) and I were creating was such that the rhythm and the order of the shots… Unless it was a situation where we deliberately set up an exchange that was shot/reverse shot, you kind of needed to edit it in that exact order. If it wasn’t in that exact order, it wouldn’t work. Even if you think, “Oh, we’ll start with a wide shot, then we’ll move to a close up,” like you would. No. Actually if we designed it to start with a close up, it needs to start with a close up. That’s kind of what I mean.
I would say that we struggled whether or not to keep the family in the plantation. That was something that would have been costly to have them in the English settlement on our budget. During the test screening period there was like, “Yes Plantation,” “No Plantation”… It just bounced back and forth for a very long time. The only other thing that was really quite different is that there was more William and Caleb in the woods and less Thomasin on the farm in the early part of the film. We brought in more Thomasin.
Q: You’ve spoken about how difficult it was to secure the money for your first film. Other than that what was the most difficult aspect of the process?
RE: I mean really, yeah, the goat.
RE: Yeah, nature. We were so remote where we were shooting and ALL of the money was on screen. For our budgetary level ALL the money was on screen. The infrastructure was just not there and then, because we were so remote there was no cell service or wifi. Even where we had cell service and wifi in the town, it was terrible. We were constantly having to tie the schedule in knots to keep the shoot gloomy. We’ve brought everyone out of the house, we’re doing everything, we’re setting up and we’re ready to go and all of a sudden we see the sun coming out. The children’s hours are almost over, the goat is running amuck attacking Ralph, the dolly is sinking into the mud… Almost every morning I was in tears while making my coffee, before I had to pull myself together and come on set. It was not easy.
ATJ: We willed this film into existence. ROB willed this film into existence.
Q: Thank you.
ATJ: Thank you guys, so much.
RE: Thank you.
The Witch is in theaters now. Get out there and support a great film if you haven’t already done so.