ROBERT EGGERS INTERVIEW
Interview conducted by Becky Roberts
Sitting at his kitchen table in Brooklyn, production-designer-come-director Robert Eggers opens up to Horrotalk.com about his visually arresting directorial debut, The Witch: a colonial-set witch folklore horror that should be topping your to-watch list.
Becky Roberts: Witches have always had their place in horror – if anything, they’ve had a recent resurgence – but was it hard to get a more primitive, Old English folklore film made?
Robert Eggers: It was very hard. It took four years to get the film financed, which gave me more time to keep writing, researching and make it better. A lot of people passed because of the language. And those that were interested didn’t want to spend the money that needed to be spent to do it accurately, like to get the kids from the UK to North America for the shoot.
BR: The Witch is set in 17th Century New England, a period that clearly lends itself to the subject of widespread religion, Puritanism and witchcraft. Which was the genesis of the film’s idea: the time or subject matter?
RE: Actually I knew I wanted to do both. I wanted to make an archetypal New England horror story, so was always going to use that archetypal scoop: a witch. I’m from New England and grew up in a rural town on a dirt road, in an unpainted house surrounded by white pines; it’s all very close to me.
BR: The film states that dialogue was lifted from real documents and recounts. How important was that authenticity and how much research was required?
RE: During those four years I was researching like crazy, working with museums and historians – even talking to people in the living history community – to really understand the view of these English Calvinist Puritans; to understand agricultural practices that would have happened in England and how they changed when it came to New World.
It was a lot of work, and a lot of it was trying my hand at my own interpretation at the Caroline-era English. I have a Shakespeare background so I wasn’t too intimidated, but writing it was certainly difficult. I was studying the vocabulary, the grammar structure, the syntax, which is actually quite flexible. And then reading all this period primary source material really aggressively, jotting down sentences and phrases. I made a phrasebook where there’d be a section about farming, things you’d say to your children when chastising them.
So earlier versions of script were monstrous collages of other people’s work that needed to get honed in a way so that each family member [in the film] could have their own voice. Some was deliberately left intact, like what the children allegedly said when they were possessed and so on.
BR: I can imagine language was a big part of the casting...
RE: Oh yeah, if you couldn’t speak language right away you didn’t get a second audition!
BR: A few shocks and jump scares permeate what’s essentially an unrelenting atmosphere of dread, suspense and broodiness. Was taking the less-is-more road when it came to what the audience would see always the intention? And did you ever toy with the idea of not showing the witch at all?
RE: I think it was about getting that balance. I always wanted to show the witch; the real world and the fairytale world were really the same thing in the early modern period so having the witch be seen was important. You can still argue whether she’s only in their imagination or not, but the audience needs to see her. That’s crucial. The reason I show her right away is because the audiences today don’t know what a 17th century witch is, and they needed to know what she is capable of and what the stakes are right away.
BR: Was that in part to eliminate the idea that the character of Thomasin wasn’t the witch? Because it teases with that initially, then bins it early on...
RE: That was interesting. A lot of people believed she was a witch the whole time and they still like the film. So if that works for you and you like that interpretation then, like, happy birthday! Go with it. But that definitely isn’t how I saw it.
BR: Did you foresee there being people with different interpretations to your own?
RE: I thought that one particular concept [with Thomasin not being the witch] was quite clear, but other than that I was trying to leave things mysterious and ambiguous so people could bring their own interpretation to it. I love all the different interpretations and encourage people to dig in and see what rises to the top for them. Someone asked me if it was an allegory for Syrian religious refugees, which I certainly did not have on my mind!
BR: Mark Korven’s dramatic, weeping instrumental score plays a big part in creating that feeling of austerity. Often scores stem from ideas, sometimes it’s the scores that come first. How did it fit in here?
RE: A lot of my favourite films don’t actually have a score, instead using just diegetic sound to create atmosphere. Originally, I wanted The Witch to be like that, but realised that there were these heightened states of emotion – these dreamlike states – that I couldn’t articulate without music.
Mark and I really tried to keep the score subliminal, though we do have moments when the diegetic sound disappears and it's only music and image. I like those parts; when the score is kind of obvious and in your face its significance is more than half the movie.
BR: The Witch kind of wears influences on sleeve (and not in a bad way), with The Shining-esque lingering shots hand-in-hand with swelling strings. Can you talk about that?
RE: Sure. I do think it wears its influences on sleeve – thanks for saying it’s not a negative! And I do find it quite embarrassing myself. But as a first filmmaker, hey, I’m working on it.
BR: You’ve made yourself a career in production and costume design. Was the dream always to be a director?
RE: I actually started out directing theatre. I designed the stuff I directed and then found a niche for myself designing stuff for other people while I was trying to get a directing career going.
BR: ...a career in horror film directing?
RE: Well no... I do like horror, but if there’s a genre I really like it’s the past... if the past is a genre! But that’s probably what I’m most passionate about. I’ve been working on a medieval knight epic for quite some time so hopefully that will be seen.
The Witch is released in UK cinemas March 11th 2016.
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