Arriving with endorsements from Stephen King and some honest-to-goodness Satanists, Robert Eggers’ The Witch is poised to become the breakout horror hit of the year. Winner of the Best Director award at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, Eggers’ film is a meticulously researched, beautifully shot dark historical fairy tale with deep—and deeply unsettling—implications. Newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy stars as Thomasin, the eldest daughter of a deeply religious family who finds herself accused of witchcraft by those closest to her in 17th century New England. To shoot the film, Eggers and his crew re-created a 17th century frontier homestead using period materials and tools, a painstaking approach also reflected in Eggers’ use of imagery and dialogue drawn directly from historical texts. It’s a remarkable achievement, made even more remarkable by the fact that The Witch is Eggers’ directorial debut.
Just before the film’s opening weekend, The A.V. Club sat down with Eggers in a rather plush hotel suite in Chicago to talk about The Witch and his unique aesthetic.
The A.V. Club: You can’t help but see a political subtext to a lot of this movie. For example, it got an endorsement from a group called the Satanic Temple, which said it “departs from the victim narrative of witchcraft” as a “declaration of feminine independence.” Were you trying to make these kinds of political points in the story?
Robert Eggers: Yeah—to sound like a tool director type—“I was trying to present without judgment.” I was trying to figure out what “the witch” meant in the early modern period and depict “the evil witch” in a way that she would have been understood in the time. But without any agendas, feminism rises to the top.
AVC: And clearly some of these fears still resonate.
RE: In the early modern period, from the contemporary perspective, looking back, it’s clear that the evil witch is—it embodies men’s fears and ambivalences and fantasies about women and female power. In in that period, in this extremely male dominated society, the evil witch is also women’s fears and ambivalences about themselves and their power.
RE: You’re reading about a young woman who is freaking everyone out. She’s just a little nothing in this world. It can’t be her. It must be the devil. That’s tragic. In the end, the shadows of the past still creep into today.
AVC: Speaking of the historical aspect—you spent five years researching this story?
RE: Really, five years to make the whole damn thing. It was four years in writing and trying to get it financed. I was working as a production designer so it wasn’t full-time, locked in the library. But it was a hell of a lot of research.
So, the witch that I just discussed, again, it’s important to state that it’s the evil witch. But people understood that witches were truly a fairy tale, ogress, anti-mother, capable of the most horrible things. She really flew on sticks. If your children die, it could be a witch. If your crops fail, it could be a witch. So, how do I make that scary and real for an audience today? I have to really bring them back to the 17th century when that existed. I have to get all the details right in order for you to actually believe. It’s not just accuracy for its [own] sake.
AVC: Not as a fetishistic thing.
RE: I’m sure I have fetishized it. That’s not intentional, though. I’m trying in the film very much to be with our characters, not linger on things just to show the design or anything like that. I spend my own time getting excited about the saw chatter on the floorboards, but that’s my problem. I try to contain that and direct my energies toward the story.
AVC: So it’s more about trying to get people into that headspace of the characters.
RE: Yeah, we have to be in the Puritan world. Also, for me, the films that are the most atmospheric and transportive are films that are approached as memory. So it has to be, like, my memory in my Puritan childhood and the way my father smelled in the corn field that morning. Without the detail, [without] the hand-stitched everything, you can’t get there. You can’t do it. If we just slapped on some cedar fence posts from Home Depot instead of hand-driven clapboards—
AVC: It would be obviously cut by a machine.
RE: It’s different, yeah.
AVC: Have you always been interested in this subject? Because you’re from New England, right?
RE: From New England, yeah. My earliest nightmares were about witches, and witch nightmares led to an interest in witches since forever. New England’s past was always very much a part of my childhood consciousness. If you grew up in rural New England, it was unavoidable, with the dilapidated colonial farmhouses and so on. But I had my own idea of New England’s mythic past, and the woods behind my house seemed haunted by the past to me.
AVC: In the movie, the woods reminded me of this book that came out last year about the Salem witch trials by Stacy Schiff.
RE: Yeah, she does a great job.
AVC: There’s something she wrote in the prologue to the book, and I was wondering if it influenced the look of the film. She was talking about how hard it is for us to understand a world without electric light, and how dark it really was at night in the woods. Like a presence.
RE: Yeah, very much. The film is dark, exposure-wise as well as in subject matter. The DP and I spent a lot of time in recreations of these kinds of houses, trying to understand what it would really be like. The realization of the darkness is intense, and the sounds of nature and everything. As dark as it is, though, historians, I’m sure, would say that this family’s burning way too many candles! You’d maybe have one taper, but we were trying a little bit more.
AVC: Were you doing any Barry Lyndon kind of stuff, creating special cameras and lenses?
RE: Today, thanks to [Stanley] Kubrick and developments of technology, you don’t need, necessarily, special cameras for that. The camera that we use does work very well in low-light situations. But we were using all natural light, and the interiors were lit all with flame. The night exteriors were not lit by the moon, but other than that.
AVC: And you actually built the farm, right?
RE: Everything you see on camera is the authentic materials that would have been used at the time, and often we had to use period construction methods and tools to make it look right.
AVC: Do you think your attention to detail comes from your background as a designer?
RE: No. I mean, the ability to make this film on such a small budget came partially because of hiring [production designer] Craig Lathrop and [costume designer] Linda Muir, who are great. But it partially came because of my preparation going into this. Being a designer, with the nuts and bolts, and having that on-set experience, that’s what helped.
The thing is, I was always into costumes. I used to wear them to school until I got beat up for it. When I was directing theater, I used to design sets and costumes. Just because I knew what I wanted and I was around. Then I realized I could make a living designing for other people as I was trying to get this [movie] to happen. You know, I want to be a director when I grow up or whatever. So it’s just part of my overall approach in creating another world.
AVC: There are parts of the soundtrack, specifically “Witch,” that are reminiscent of the Suspiria soundtrack, with the wild voices and the drumbeats. Where were you coming from when you were trying to figure out the soundtrack?
RE: I realized there are emotional states in the film that I was trying to articulate and would just have been impossible to ever get near without music. Okay, so, the one main visual reference that is outside period is Goya. For me, Goya is not really late Romantic period. He’s just Goya and those are just goddamn witches. Those are like the witchiest witches of all time.
AVC: That makes sense, actually.
RE: Thank you. Good, I’m glad.
AVC: The scene where she’s crushing the baby and applying the blood. That’s very Goya.
RE: Yeah. And for music, I was listening to a lot of 17th century music. I was writing, and we used 17th century music, and 17th century instruments to play the music. But also I was listening to lots of dissonant, atonal 20th century stuff, and that was the first time music got to that place. It’s not about the 20th century. It’s about articulating some shit that no one else was able to do.
So we need to go there, and [composer] Mark Korven is great, because he knew about early music and he knew about that dissonance stuff, and we were able to create a really nice marriage. We used old instruments to do all this crazy stuff. And Mark also was insistent that we need voices, which was not part of my scheme. But in pre-production, he was like, “We should do this,” and that informed a lot of it.
AVC: Are there any film composers that you really like? Are you the kind of guy who listens to film soundtracks?
RE: That’s really interesting. I don’t listen to a lot of film soundtracks. I listen to a lot of classical music—really, quite avidly. But more recently, I’ve been listening to a lot of dark electronic music and ambient stuff. I became friends with some people in that world through The Witch, it’s opened my eyes up to some new things. But, I don’t know. Bernard Herrmann? I mean, a lot of my favorite films don’t have any music in them.
AVC: Like what?
ER: You know, like Dardenne movies. [Ingmar] Bergman, where generally the music is diegetic or just in the beginning.
AVC: It seems like you’re coming more from an art-film background than mainstream contemporary horror.
ER: I grew up on Hammer horror movies, sure, but I’m not a pure genre guy. I prefer [horror] in 19th century literature. That’s the part of the horror canon that I really like.
AVC: Gothic literature, you mean?
ER: Yeah. From [Edgar Allan] Poe to Arthur Machen, that stuff I really like. But I don’t fetishize bad movies and bad acting, so that part of the world of contemporary horror films, the part that has to do with in-jokes and meta references—I don’t really care. I don’t mean any disrespect, but this is not my bag. But let me tell you, if I’ve got the flu, I’m hanging out with Vincent Price and Peter Cushing.
AVC: Oh yeah, Price’s Poe movies are great.
ER: Those are awesome. I mean, they’re not! They’re not!
AVC: They’re not, but they’re cool to watch.
ER: That’s the thing. The films like that that really work for me, are only the ones that I really liked as a kid. This is such a bad idea, to even bring it up, but I didn’t get into [Dario] Argento until, or watch Argento, until I was an adult. And I’m kind of like… uh, okay? [Laughs.]
AVC: You weren’t that into it?
ER: It doesn’t—I just don’t feel transported. Obviously there’s so much powerful imagery in Suspiria, but look at Suspiria versus [Federico] Fellini’s City Of Women. I would love to see a Fellini horror movie. Well, “Toby Dammit.” That is close in some ways. Someone’s going to say, “What the hell are you talking about?”
AVC: If anyone knows, they’re going to be on The A.V. Club.
ER: “Toby Dammit” is what I wish Argento was. You know what I mean?
[“Toby Dammit” was Fellini’s contribution to the 1968 Edgar Allan Poe anthology film Spirits Of The Dead. —ed.]
AVC: What do you think of all these modern medical explanations for historical witchcraft hysteria and possessions—like ergot poisoning, or Lyme disease, or something like that.
ER: I doubt it. I think if you live in a time when you believe something is true, that makes it true. You don’t need ergot. However, what do you think is the fungus growing on the family’s corn in the film?
ER: That’s intentional. There are a lot of ways to skin a cat. But also, people talk about ergot as being an active ingredient in flying witch unguents. I think there are elements [of truth] to these things, but I think it’s more interesting that in the first house in Salem, where the children were acting the way in which they were acting, that their father had an account of the Goodwin children in Boston who would do the same things. I’m not saying those kids necessarily read that book, and were just pretending. I’m not saying that. But this is part of the culture. It’s part of the belief system.
AVC: On your website it says you have two movies in development: A medieval one called The Knight and a Nosferatu remake. Where are you at on those?
ER: Nosferatu’s far away. The Knight is closer than it’s ever been but, you know, things take time.
AVC: Would you make a contemporary film? Historical settings seem to be your thing.
ER: I get enough of today today.
AVC: You wouldn’t?
ER: Yeah, I don’t think so. Maybe someday. But right now, I just don’t care.
AVC: There’s nothing about the modern world that compels you that much?
ER: I prefer to go in the past to look at humans today.