Robert Eggers’ “The Witch” rode into Sundance on the second day of the festival to screen for critics and emerged as the early breakout hit of the festival with a buy from A24 and glowing reviews, including one from Indiewire’s Eric Kohn who called it a “uniquely spooky discovery.” The film makes its official world premiere tonight in Park City.
Bone-chilling, emotionally involving and exceedingly well-executed, “The Witch” marks the arrival of an exciting new talent. The writer-director already has his next film lined up with Jeff Robinov’s new production house Studio 8. Indiewire caught up with Eggers to discuss his terrifying debut feature. I’m from New England, and for whatever reasons as a kid, New England’s history and past was part of my consciousness. I was very aware I was from the place where the Pilgrims were from and the Puritans and witches. I thought an archetypal New England horror story could be really powerful. Going back and trying to understand what a witch was to a person in the 17th Century was scary, and I thought trying to present her as “real” could be really exciting.
When I was a kid, and I know this is a weird thing to say, but one of the things that disappointed me was when we’d learn about the Salem Witch Trials and the witches weren’t real. Now they have a chance to be.
Everything [in “The Witch”] is an extraordinarily authentic reproduction. There were years of research going in this to make sure everything was just so, and we worked very closely with this Smithsonian affiliated museum in Massachusetts and some of our props came from them. The farmstead was built in accordance to how they were built in that period. Everything you see on camera was made from the authentic material, which often meant having to use the authentic tools to make it right.
I spent a long time in the writing process learning the grammar structure and vocabulary and the writing of the period. I used primary source material as a way to really do some cool stuff. A lot of the stuff the kids say when they’re possessed are things according to Cotton Mather and Samuel Willard that children said when they were possessed, and so on and so forth. All of the prayers come from Puritan prayer manuals on how to pray, doctored into the needs of the film.
I hope people are surprised by how primitive the witch is.
I’m into dark things. This is the kind of stuff that I’m interested in. Fairytales, ghost stories, mythology, and religion – all of these often have super dark undertones and these are the imaginary landscapes I like to go in.
There were so many bizarre things that happened during the making of this film that we didn’t need anything supernatural. It was a wild shoot. These stories could go on for days.
We were dealing with these children for short hours and this plethora of animals and a naked 90-year-old woman covered in blood, so every day was just wild and the challenges were pretty epic.
I’m very super inspired by Golden Age fairytale illustration and many visual artists, and I think that’s kind of ultimately where I draw inspiration from. The two films that this owes the most to are “The Shining,” which I’ve seen more than any other movie, and also any [Ingmar] Bergman that there is really. Honestly, I find the dark places Bergman goes scarier than most horror movies.
I was not afraid of working with kids and I really enjoyed it.
The animals were even worse than I thought they would be. They were a nightmare. I would do it again, I definitely would work with animals again, but boy was that awful. I will say that the raven and the hare were super well trained and always hit their mark and did everything right, which was kind of a shock. But the goats were just, ugh! Oh god the goats!