Now It’s Dark: Robert Eggers on The Witch
Read about Robert Eggers’s staggeringly accomplished first feature, The Witch, winner of the 2015 Sundance U.S. Dramatic Best Director Prize, and the first thing you’ll learn about is the writer/director’s obsession with authentic detail. As he has explained in articles like the one Filmmaker published when selecting him for our 2014 25 New Faces list, the writer/director developed his 1630s-set story of a Puritan family under attack by a witch living in a nearby forest from not just period fairy tales but diaries, court records and other primary source materials. He wrote his dialogue in the Caroline-era English of the Early Modern period. He chose his locations based on the specifics of their forestry, and he directed his art department to cover his hero set with clapboards hand riven from the specific oak prevalent at the time and imported from England.
Yet The Witch’s high degree of polish, specificity and historical accuracy — unusual for even a Hollywood film today, much less a lower-budgeted independent from a first-time director — is not merely the result of a near-fetishistic desire to recreate a time long since past. Rather, The Witch’s uncanny evocation of its period is in service to specific storytelling and character-based goals. It allows for a highly unique fusion of historical drama and arthouse horror in which the monster lurking offscreen is as much a storytelling antagonist as a representation of the cultural, religious and sexual anxieties inhabiting the minds of these settlers — anxieties that have hardly been vanquished in the centuries since, simply transmuted amidst our more present fears and tensions.
The Witch’s storyline is a simple one. A father, mother and five children live, isolated, on New England farmland. The family’s infant son vanishes one night while under the care of his sister Thomasin (a luminous Anya Taylor-Joy), the culprit either being some hysterical, murderous action on her part or a fleetingly glimpsed witch living in the nearby forest. The mystery — and the proximity to evil — slowly causes the family to implode even as the nightmare creates a deliriously warped coming-of-age for the teenage daughter. Eschewing so many conventions of the horror genre, particularly regarding physical confrontation, The Witch is defiantly bold, excitingly conceived and thrillingly dread inducing.
To speak with Eggers about his film, Filmmaker asked Robin Carolan, the Greenpoint, Brooklyn-based founder of Tri Angle records, whose doom-y early releases by groups like oOooO were tagged with the moniker “witch house.” In a 2013 New Yorker profile, Carolan said he imagined his label, the home of Haxan Cloak, Clams Casino and many others, as “a combination of Madonna, Björk and Warp Records,” to which writer Sasha Frere-Jones responded, “Though that’s an accurate enough description of Tri Angle’s records, it doesn’t rule out an awful lot of haze and avant-garde noise. The through-line is a dark sound, but one that is flexible and often surprisingly inviting.” Indeed, a willingness to embrace the darkness is what brings together Eggers and Carolan, as you’ll read in the conversation that follows.
The Witch opens in theaters in February from A24.
I think a good place to start is to talk about the film’s textures and environments, and how they impact the atmosphere in general. I was thinking about how, at certain points in the film, the woods and the witch feel like they become one. They’re both looming over the household in this very unknowable way. We’ll obviously talk about witches, but what do you think it is about the woods that, even today, makes it such an archetypal, disquieting, frightening location? There is something primal, this sort of Romantic awe of nature. When you’re stuck there, [in the woods], it is bigger than you. Where I grew up, the woods behind my house were very similar to the woods in the film. They were this fun, fantasy place, where every fairytale, or scenes from Star Wars, could be enacted. But then there was that feeling of “night’s coming.” Even though I was a 10-minute walk from my house, I felt completely susceptible to things in my imagination.
These English settlers who came over here, they were fucked. They were really experienced farmers, and they had been farming cultivated land for generations. And when they came here, they didn’t know what they were doing. The pines were totally enormous, and there were wolves everywhere. It was like this strange combination: a new Eden, a new paradise, a new Jerusalem, but then, Satan ruling nature. They were constantly trying to tame nature, to cut trees down and organize the fields and gardens in an almost mathematical way.
Talking about this sense of the unknowable, for a horror film, The Witch doesn’t do what I think a lot of horror films do now, which is very explicitly show you what you’re supposed to be afraid of — the ghosts, the creature, whatever it is. With The Witch, even when you do get a glimpse of what you think is the witch, there is always this feeling that you’re not quite seeing what is really there. Was it a very clear decision in your mind to keep the witch as this abstract thing? And did you ever feel resistance toward that decision? Yeah, it was totally, totally, three billion percent crucial. I mean, people always talk about not wanting to show the monster, to put it in stupid movie terms, but people do it all the time. I think Alien is an incredibly successful film, but even still, I hate that it looks like a guy in a rubber suit in the final full-body reveal. Again, this is a total cliché, but it’s true: what’s frightening in your imagination is personal and private and better than what I can do. I’m trying my best to dive in and dig up your unconscious stuff, but you’ve got to finish it — that’s how it’s actually going to be powerful. I loved Hammer horror movies when I was a kid. When I was sick, I’d crawl into bed and watch Christopher Lee, and it was a lot of fun. But I hated, even as a kid, being able to see Christopher Lee’s ankles. If you see Dracula’s ankles, he doesn’t have any power, you know what I’m saying? So the witch has power because she exists in the shadows and your imagination.
She’s in [the settlers’] minds, which is the most terrifying thing, in some respects. Certainly the easiest way into [the film] is [from the point of view] of a layperson in the early modern period — to believe what’s true within the context of the film. If you want to go to the next step, you can find ways in which it’s more complicated than that. But it’s okay to say that the witch is real, because that’s the thing — whether she exists or not, in a time period and a culture where they believe in [witches] flying on broomsticks as a metaphysical truth, then that shit’s real. When your kid dies and your crops don’t work and you can blame it on a witch, that witch is real to you. That was one of the most interesting things about the research we did — we know that witches don’t exist, and we’ve been taught about the horrors of persecuting innocent people. But, aside from the extreme intelligentsia, they did believe that the little lady down the lane was a Brothers Grimm witch who was cutting up children.
In keeping the witch very vague and abstract, and having most of the encounters with her be of the physical kind as opposed to the visual, would you say that ties in with ideas of sexuality at the time? Yeah. Sexuality, especially coming-of-age teenage sexuality, was not a popular topic in Puritan communities. Darkness is part of being human, and so is sexuality. And any time you have a dogma that puts a lid on those powerful things, they’re going to explode.
When you were making the film, did you ever think about how audiences would process the events of the film within a modern context? Or was it something that you were just completely not interested in? I guess one thing that a modern audience could do is put modern day events on top of it. You could say this is what’s currently going on in America with Muslims. As a culture, Islam is something that I think generally confuses most Americans, and now it’s kind of reaching this fever pitch of pure fear. Well, I am always drawn to the archetype. My intention is to do archetypal storytelling. Then it’s going to be able to resonate however you want to look through it, you know what I mean? You’ll be able to relate it to [any time period] because humans are always human. I certainly wasn’t like, “Oh, this is a story about X, Y or Z.” Like, you know, “The Crucible is about the McCarthy hearings.” But one thing that I was trying to figure out was why witches are important. They did resonate then, even though they don’t now. The way we think of witches today, certainly in the horror context, is like a joke, a plastic Halloween decoration without any weight. So again, why did we persecute these women? Why was the witch such an important archetype? And to realize that in the early modern period, not only did the witch [represent] all of men’s fears and ambivalences about women and their power, but women’s own fears and ambivalences about themselves and their power in a male-dominated society. So even though we’re not living in the 17th century, the shadows of that still exist all over the place in weird, subtle interactions. I’ve heard people call women “witches,” and there is a weight to that. I think that as much as we’ve progressed, our unconscious can’t escape that path.
You can definitely talk about how we’re scapegoating people today, and if that’s a reading people want to get into, I’m happy with it. “The family is a little church, a little commonwealth,” in this film. It is a microcosm for society so we can see how a witch craze could happen. But even more than that, [The Witch] is this weird story of a young woman on the lowest place in the social totem pole trying to just be, and how that’s clashing with this constructed society. Primitive men thought that women were more powerful than them, and they spent thousands of years trying to construct a society to compensate from that feeling.
To contain it. Yeah. And we’re still in this mess.
It’s interesting what you just said about how the family is a church in itself. The family in the film is so obviously obsessed with their religion, their beliefs, and the idea that these things keep them grounded, on the right path. Ultimately, I think they would view them as necessary positives in their life. But as the film progresses, it feels to me like their religious beliefs and ideals are actually what contribute to the suspicion and distrust that cause the family to implode. Is that something that you agree is going on in the film — the idea that religion, which is supposed to be this positive in your life, ultimately is a negative? I don’t want to judge the family. I actually care about them a lot. They are doing the best they possibly can. I think the tragedy is that what they think is best is horrible. I don’t think that religion is necessarily the problem; I think it’s dogma. I mean, it took a while [for me] to understand how this super-extreme Calvinism and pre-destination could be a hopeful thing for anyone. I just couldn’t wrap my mind around it [until] I read these really intense, introspective religious journals [the settlers] wrote about themselves. When you read these religious journals, you see real human people struggling, and you can find the compassion. But what’s really interesting is that Puritans are famous for not liking art, for not giving a shit about it. But they didn’t need it because the sacred and the magical was imbued in everything they did. Their lives were art from our kind of post-modern perspective. And that was really a cool realization. But then it’s like, oh yeah, but they’re also killing innocent people because of their messed-up beliefs. So it’s complicated.
I remember seeing The Crucible when I was pretty young. All I knew was that it was about witches. And then I realized, “Oh, it’s quite an academic piece. It’s not really about witches at all. It’s a political thing.” I felt really disappointed, because ultimately I wanted to see a mythic definition of a witch. Why do you think on some level the two of us have craved that more mythological version of a witch? The witch that you have depicted in your film, do you believe that’s something that could’ve existed back then? Or do you think it was just genuinely a complete fabrication in people’s minds? I think that there were women who believed they were evil witches. It’s not a hard stretch today, in this world of neo-Paganism and Wiccans, for us to acknowledge “white” witches [women who practiced “good” herbal magic] as existing. It’s like, “Oh, Earth Mother, la-la-la.” But to acknowledge that there were women that we would today say are mentally ill —
Like a form of psychosis — voices in the head. Yeah, but in their day, they were like, “I’m an evil witch.”
If we say that “black” [evil] witches from the past were maybe byproducts of psychoses, voices in the head, do you think that could be because when people are told they’re bad, that they’re not really supposed to be a part of society, that at some point something goes very wrong in the head and they basically embrace that? That they say, “Okay, you believe I’m this bad thing, so I’ll be that bad thing”? So maybe that’s an explanation for what could’ve been termed as a black witch. I think you’re right. A child or young woman who is being told, “The devil’s in you” — well, it’s like, “I’m a 12-year-old girl, I’ve got zero power in this society, and the most powerful person in the town, the minister, is telling me that the devil’s in me, and he’s reacting in these huge ways to what I’m doing. I don’t have that power because I’m nothing, but the devil does.” That’s reinforcement. There’s actually a Jacobean play called The Witch of Edmonton that is about a crippled old woman who lives down the lane. Everyone calls her a witch. They spit on her, and they kick dirt on her. Finally she says, “You know what? Fuck all y’all. Hey, Satan, make me a witch because I’m just tired of this shit.”
I know you’re very obsessed with detail, and you wanted the film to feel as faithful to the period as it could be, so that’s one reason for the dialogue being in Old English. But do you feel there is something in the rhythms of the language that adds to the overall experience of watching the film? Well, it was a really interesting period for the English language. Even lay people would get excited about language — not just Puritans, but ordinary people would listen to sermons on street corners. And for the Puritans, this was coming off the heels of the Reformation and the English Bible being legal. It was so crucial, and not just for the Puritans, to be reading the word of God in English, to have this personal connection with God through reading. And New England was the most literate part of the Western world; it was illegal for you not to teach your children how to read. The Geneva Bible is really beautiful — it’s good poetry — and, so, to have that rattling around in your head, whatever your social/economic level, it makes speech interesting. It’s interesting to have poor Yeoman farmers’ wills being written with a kind of clunky poetic beauty because of their familiarity with the Bible. I think from a modern perspective, it has this kind of fire and brimstone creepiness to it. And then, additionally, having the family be from Yorkshire —
There’s something about the North that just sounds — There’s something about the North that’s grim.
Yeah, but also, I can’t really explain more, but [the dialogue] always sounds more of the earth, more rootsy. Do you know what I mean? I agree. Well, it was important that these people seem like farmers and not Shakespearean actors, even though the language is heightened to our ears. I don’t finally know how authentic it is. It’s my interpretation of what’s authentic. I’ve had experts give me two thumbs up, but who knows? But I like it, and [it makes us] work a little harder as an audience because the film is just that much ahead of us. You have to be extra alert, which makes the atmosphere a little more strange and out of body. Or that’s the intention, anyway.
Within the film, you have put in these touches that have to do with mythology and the superstition around the time. So there’s like the recurrence of hare. You and I are geeks, so we know what that means. Right.
But a lot of audiences won’t know what that’s about. No.
So again, aside from that stuff in there that’s true to the period and is something that people believed in, did you also decide to place details in there to effectively throw the audience off, to have it be intentionally confusing for them on some level? Not necessarily, but in constructing my own original story, which is sort of a “greatest hits,” (Laughs) it’s like, what is always in every story? That’s got to be there. What are the things that are the most personal to me? They have to be there. And then, what are these things that are kind of weird and surprising and exotic, but somehow touch on something? These are the chords that are reaching toward archetypes that are almost forgotten about. If it’s successful, people are not going to know why the hare is creepy and affecting, but their ancestors knew.
Yeah, I mean, this is like, a really strange reference, but when I’m talking about this kind of thing in musical terms, I always think of that song “Milkshake” by Kelis. There’s this production element, a hand cymbal that comes in a few times throughout the song. It’s used so minimally, but if you took that part out of the song, the song would just lose something immediately. I sometimes feel like those small details become the most addictive parts. Well, yeah, you need that unexpected thing, otherwise it’s just like cookie-cutter boring crap, you know?
I want to talk to you about the music. You used period instruments. I think a lot of them are from Eastern Europe. It was weirdly a lot of sort of Nordic, Scandinavian stuff, which was just semi-accidental. I wanted to use only like a viol in a strange way. But Mark Korven, the composer, plays nyckelharpa, which is like a Swedish key violin, a hurdy gurdy that you bow. And it sounds like a viol, only the keys click and clack. It’s like the witch flying through the trees, or like bony fingers. It has this weird funerary thing I’d never heard. So, most of the score is played on a bass and tenor nyckelharpa. Then, in trying to find some other music for just the witch, we were having a really hard time finding something that was just the right kind of ancient, and then the hurdy gurdy player showed up with this jouhikko, which is a Finnish bowed lyre. It’s just like a slab of wood and some horse hair. It sounds almost like nothing, but it is very transportive and very ancient sounding. But yeah, we did use viols also, and some cellos and stuff. The only non-period instrument that we used was a waterphone.
I know that using those instruments has a lot to do with attention to detail and how obsessive you are about creating a period. I didn’t know if it was also a happy coincidence that so many of those instruments create these massively unnerving discordant sounds. Yeah, certainly, that non-vibrato kind of early music sound has something minimal and austere and creepy about it. To combine that with dissonant 20th-century music, we were really able to go crazy. A visual reference for the film that was outside the period, too, was Goya. He articulated the world of witches in a way that is, like, timeless. His witch paintings don’t look like Enlightenment or early Romanticism — they look like witches, you know? They’re outside of time, and I feel like some of the really great 20th-century dissonant classical music is the same. It’s like no one had gone to the level that people like Penderecki and Crumb had before. I originally wanted no music in the film, but because I was trying to articulate these really crazy experiences that we don’t experience normally, music was the only way, given my experience level, that I could possibly communicate that.
Well, the soundtrack weirdly sounds electronic. I know. It’s weird, right? Because of the budget level, we had to do a lot of sampling of the recorded instruments, and then just layer a live track up top. But it’s the waterphone that sounds electronic because that thing just makes the weirdest sounds. But sometimes the bass drones were constructed with wind and by burying microphones in the dirt to try to keep things earthy and organic, even if it might have more of an electronic feel. I wanted it to be of the earth — corpse-like and heavy.
That’s the thing. A lot of the stuff that sounds electronic, it still has that kind of scratchy quality to it. It’s less to do with melodics and more a textural thing. Much to Mark Korven’s despair, we were always stripping melody out.
When it comes to your fascination with folklore, would you say you believe that certain things did exist or maybe do exist? Or do you just appreciate and obsess over these things because it’s good fiction, good storytelling? Again, it’s kind of like whatever your society believes in to be true, it’s true. If you want to talk about what’s a metaphysical truth, it’s kind of complicated. Like, were women riding on broomsticks? Well, the way we think about things today, that is impossible. But maybe it’s just how we think about things today. I mean, I feel embarrassed to say that out loud, and maybe it’s totally bullshit — I sound really constructivist, like a freshman in college or something.
I feel like there is a kind of burgeoning interest in mythology or folklore, and I sometimes wonder why that is. Why are we attracted to these things? A really simple explanation is that on some level, we’re always drawn to the idea of magic, something that we can’t explain, something that isn’t scientific. But in those times, the apocalypse was imminent; it was something that they knew they couldn’t control, and they didn’t really understand why it was imminent, at least outside of religious terms. People these days are constantly saying, “We live in a terrible world. Things are getting worse.” It’s almost like an apocalyptic environment that is being cultivated and built upon. Yeah, constantly.
But I suppose the difference between the way people would view the apocalypse then and now is that now we have scientific proof that everything is going to shit, and we have more means to communicate with one another so that negative messages can be spread and built. Do you think that in some ways our interest in the old ways, our obsession with that dark material, is because it’s effectively just a more romantic way of contemplating something like the apocalypse, the dark stuff that we can’t necessarily control? (Laughs) It could be. I don’t know. It’s funny, too. What’s up with all the Bushwick witches and people with alchemical tattoos who don’t know what they mean and just think they’re rad? I mean, it is in the zeitgeist. People are drawn to it, and they don’t even know why. I mean, I’m lucky because [it makes] people want to watch the movie. (Laughs)
Do you think it’s because, effectively, we have a craving to go back to a simpler time, but we sort of forget how dark those times were? We cherry pick the things we like about those times because it seemed simpler, but we forget about all the darkness? One thing I’ve noticed recently with British TV is this obsession with the ’30s, or the ’50s. They are always represented as Golden Eras. Everything looks amazing. Everyone had manners. But then you sort of forget that if you were a criminal, or if you were gay, or a black person, or any kind of minority, you were completely written out of society. So do you feel like, in some respects, looking back on old ways is a sort of form of glorifying something? Yeah, I mean, I am nostalgic about a past that I never belonged to. And yeah, I have a very romantic view about living in a cabin in the woods and chopping wood and all that shit. It seems very satisfying. But I sit in front of a computer all day, so like, of course that seems great and romantic. But I think beyond that, I think there’s something within us that makes us want to go into the underworld — some people just want to spend more time there. I always wanted to play Darth Vader and not Luke Skywalker, you know what I mean?