The Witch may be Robert Eggers’ first feature length film, but he, along with the help of his spellbinding leading lady Anya Taylor-Joy, have crafted a piece of art that some filmmakers spend their entire careers trying to achieve. ‘
Set in 1630, the film follows the lives of an ultra conservative Puritan family, who experience the harshness of colonial life after being thrown out of their plantation. Forced to fend for themselves, the family attempts to start fresh, but just as they begin to grow accustomed to their new home, life begins hurdling obstacles at them; each bigger than the last. First, their crops begin to wither and die, then their newborn baby boy Samuel is mysteriously taken from their camp site. It’s not long before fingers are pointed, and they all point to Thomasin. The eldest daughter of the family, Thomasin has been swiftly making the transition into womanhood, lending to her increased sexuality, and making her a perfect target for her devout family to chastise. They call her the witch of the wood, but is there truly evil afoot, or is it merely superstition? Is there really an evil force terrorizing this wholesome family, or are they looking for supernatural answers to everyday problems?
I was fortunate enough to sit down with writer/director Eggers and star Taylor-Joy on behalf of Bloody Disgusting, and discuss this multi-layered exploration of Puritan values and Satanic activity. In the interview, we discuss the woods symbolizing the devil’s playground, the complicated family dynamic that occurs when Thomasin enters adulthood, and director Robert Eggers’ tireless dedication to the authenticity of colonial times.
Bloody Disgusting: Lately, in pop culture, there’s actually been quite a few depictions of witches lately in pop culture I feel, but most of the time, these depictions are more like American Horror Story: Coven, and display these modern day, sassy versions of witches. What made you want to take more of an old school approach?
Robert Eggers: So, I’ve had witch nightmares ever since I was a kid, but I think generally, like American Horror Story or not, the mass sort of culture idea of the witch as a classic Halloween decoration doesn’t mean much. And I couldn’t, even though I spent time in Salem as a kid, I couldn’t wrap my mind around how innocent women were actually being accused of witchcraft. Somehow, it just didn’t make sense to me. Maybe I was just being ignorant, but what I realized doing a small bit of research and then just got me so excited to dive into this is that in the early modern period, the real world and the fairy tale world were the same thing. If someone accused an innocent woman of being an evil witch, they really did think she was a fairy tale ogress, capable of doing all of the horrible things she does in this film, and that’s real, and that’s primal, and that’s intense, you know, if that’s what people are actually thinking. So, if that witch can become real again, then that’s going to be —
Anya Taylor-Joy: Scary.
Robert Eggers: Scary. That’s going to be powerful. So, therefore, I need to bring the audience back into the seventeenth century where that was real; back into the mindset of these English Calvinists where she was real like that.
Bloody Disgusting: Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie work so well in their roles as William and Katherine. Was there any advice in particular that you gave them to help their performances?
Robert Eggers: I mean, I was really fortunate that I got to cast whoever I wanted in this movie, so I just cast the right people. I did send everyone an email full of a bunch of documentaries and research and stuff, and who knows how much of it they actually looked at (laughs), or not. Ralph took it on in earnest. He was the first guy cast, and he was chopping wood outside his home in London, and growing out his beard —
Anya Taylor-Joy: He went hardcore.
Robert Eggers: — Getting famished, or, you know, losing weight, whatever, and Kate came on a little later, but there was a lot of times in the script where it says, “Katherine prays” and Kate says, “I need prayers for all that stuff” so I had a prayer manual by Louis Bayley called The Practice of Piety that I’d used for constructing the script. Kate had a digital copy of that on her iPad and she was constantly like, engrossed in prayer on her iPad (laughs).
Bloody Disgusting: There’s such an intensity to this film, and every shot is made with such precision. Anya, can you talk about what it was like collaborating with Robert on the set, and what it was like for you to take on this big starring role?
Anya Taylor-Joy: I never saw it that way, it’s really strange. It felt a little bit destined, and so I didn’t really question anything. It was my first time on a real movie set, so I didn’t know what I was looking at, or what was going on, or anything, and Rob really guided me through all of that and created this wonderful world that all got to play in everyday. Everything was so accurate that it just, it was our world. It’s not that there was little acting required, it’s just that if you really kind of like sink down into your character and you look like them, and you speak like them, and the house is there, and everything like that, it just kind of felt very natural. Rob’s a wonderful collaborator, and he’s also someone that really knows what he’s doing. You know, he’s marvelous to work with, it’s a real pleasure.
Robert Eggers: I think that like, and maybe other actors will chime in, but I think there’s only a couple of times when the sort of rigger of the cinematic language was like really disrupting the actors’ ability to do their thing. When it all comes about, just like, this is a really complicated camera movement and it’s all about hitting marks, not about story and emotion, that’s always bad, so it was also like a learning experience. You know Anya, this was her first film, so she was able to kind of go along with whatever, but it was interesting to learn how to work, because Ralph and Kate both have different techniques, so working with each of them and finding a way to do my thing while giving them everything they need to do their thing in their different ways was a good learning experience.
Bloody Disgusting: One thing I love about this film is, like you were saying Anya, how authentic it is. Like it really feels like you’re just stepping into this world in the 1600s, and I think a big part of the is the costumes. They’re so incredible, and they look like real clothes that people wore back then, and while doing research I saw that you, Robert, are actually a costume designer. So, coming from that angle, what was it like approaching the attire?
Robert Eggers: I mean, again, the whole idea is to really transport you to the seventeenth century, so every detail needs to be there, and even further than that, I need to be articulating this like it’s my memory of my childhood as a Puritan growing up in the seventeenth century. So that’s the kind of detail that I wanted. Linda Muir who did the costumes is incredible, but I knew what I wanted, I had done a great deal of research, I was working with museums and historians and people in the living history community to really understand how to make these garments. Like, I knew what they should look like, but then Linda was the one able to find the right materials and actually construct these things, but they are hand-stitched clothing, they’re made from patterns of clothing from the period. They’re the real deal.
Bloody Disgusting: The film’s authenticity can also be attributed to the dialogue, which is apparently taken from real accounts written by settlers living in the 1600s. What specific resources did you pull from, and were there any books or any other particular accounts you told your actors to read in preparation for their roles?
Robert Eggers: Well yeah, I mean I mentioned that Practice of Piety bit, that got a lot of use, you know anything by Cotton Mather, although some of it is from slightly later than the seventeenth century. I mean, all kinds of stuff. Even the Geneva Bible gets a fair amount of use, there’s so much stuff, but nothing I was using was particularly rare or hard to find, it’s all stuff that you can pretty much order on Amazon. The stuff in creating the world and understanding the agricultural techniques of England and animal husbandry were the texts that were a bit more weird and hard to find.
Bloody Disgusting: Another thing I found interesting is the idea that the woods are this evil place. I know in some forms of media, people will refer to the woods as the devil’s playground, because it’s supposedly the only place on earth that’s not baptized by God. How did you incorporate this method of thinking into your work?
Robert Eggers: These Puritans who came over here had a really weird relationship with nature, because on one hand, it was like a new Eden, and a new Jerusalem and all this kind of stuff, but at the same time, these really experienced farmers are coming over here and failing, because they didn’t know how to work this land. The land in England had been cultivated for generations, and this land had not been. When they came over here, there was a real problem in England at the time with deforestation, so when the English came over here and saw these huge white pines, they were like, “Hell yeah, cash crop! We got this and we’re gonna cut all this shit down”, but at the same time, there were these huge and overwhelming prideful and evil forests that you could not escape. So, it’s complex. You know I grew up in a house in the middle of the woods on a dirt road, and the power of the white pine forest behind my house was really intense for me as a kid and so that’s a big part of it. And you know, of course, how woods play out in fairy tales, like Hansel and Gretel and all that business.
Bloody Disgusting: There’s a parallel in this film between sexuality, and exposing oneself, and the gaining of knowledge that’s very interesting in the film. Can you comment on the idea of freedom of thought as shown through these parallels?
Robert Eggers: Well, the message of freedom of thought, I mean, I’m not saying that’s the wrong interpretation, but that’s very specific, more specific than anything I would have wanted to say, like, this is my message or intention or anything like that, but again, it’s perfectly legit. But I think, really my intention was to see how a family during the seventeenth century would have expected a witch to be, but in researching this, all these bits and pieces came out. I think very much that this film feels like a fairy tale, like these pre-Disney fairy tales I think are unconsciously these dark explorations of family dynamics, and that’s certainly what’s going on here, but I’m turning that stuff up to eleven and it’s kind of exploding.
Bloody Disgusting: Speaking of family dynamic, there’s a really interesting dynamic between Katherine, William, and Thomasin, as Thomasin gets older and kind of shifts into a more motherly role. How would you define their relationship, and would it be a stretch to assume that Katherine might hold some jealousy towards Thomasin?
Anya Taylor-Joy: I think there was nothing really in those times that kind of, you know, nowadays kids go to school and they know about hormones, and they know about puberty, and they know they’re going to grow up and there’s more of an understanding, whilst in those days, you just didn’t really talk about it. So I think there’s a lot of fear associated with Thomasin becoming a woman, because neither of them really understand that they don’t really know what’s happening. I think with Katherine, they have a very interesting dynamic, because I would agree there’s a tad of jealousy, but I think it goes beyond that, I think there’s spite. I think there’s sort of…there’s a lot of love there of course, because they’re mother and daughter. However, I think as time goes on, she’s the easiest one to be the scapegoat, so that’s just why Katherine goes for her. With William, I think it’s a bit of a different kind of dynamic, because in Thomasin’s eyes, he’s always been kind of her champion. He’s maybe even been the person who’s a bit more understanding about things, so I think as the film goes on, that’s pretty hard for her.
Bloody Disgusting: Something I realized after seeing the film was that although it seems like Mercy and Jonas become bewitched towards the end of the movie, but actually looking back on it, they seem to be singing songs about Black Phillip and talking about witchcraft all throughout the film, just quietly in the background. What is it about these little kids were so much more prone to the devil’s charms?
Robert Eggers: Um, what did William say? “They cannot contain their natural evils”? You know James Barrie talked about kids being evil selfish bastards and there is a way in which they’re beyond good and evil.
Bloody Disgusting: The Satanic Temple has put their stamp of approval on The Witch, calling it a “transformative Satanic experience”, so how do you two feel about their endorsement?
Robert Eggers: I would like to speak for both of us and just say that it’s nice to have fans, and keep it at that.
The Witch comes out in theaters on February 19th, 2016.
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