The Scariest Movie at Sundance: How Robert Eggers Made the Horrifying, Historically Accurate ‘The Witch’A24
Horror seduced Robert Eggers. When he realized a truly terrifying image could burrow into a viewer’s mind and provoke a somatic sensation, he had a language to relay his own experiences. Eggers had a happy childhood plagued by anxiety. Horror movies were a chance to share the fun. There’s no lack of mental duress in his meticulous feature debut, The Witch, which has terrified and impressed viewers at the Sundance Film Festival all week.
“I wanted to have the feeling of everyone feeling sick to their stomachs and having this weight of guilt and shittiness and fear all the time,” Eggers says. “Horror is an important genre, but it needs to be horrific to have emotional power.”
Eggers isn’t messing around. Within the first 15 minutes of The Witch, his reimagining of a Salem-esque tale, a wrinkled hag pestle-and-mortars a baby into body lotion. The act is shocking and painterly, rendered with the eye of an old master. The film never lets up or implodes, steadily amassing dread with slow, painstaking psychological bloodletting. It’ll pay off for Eggers, who has earned raves for his unique take on puritanical faith and family. By the time he jets back to his home in Brooklyn, the director will have a dedicated congregation of his own. Sundancers already believe.
There are directors who talk the Kubrickian hyper-detail talk and those who walk the Kubrickian hyper-detail walk. “Aiming for verisimilitude” can amount to a day spent vetting facts on Wikipedia. Eggers is the real deal. The Witch is the recognizable accomplishment of a guy who paid his bills as a production designer, art director, prop stylist, and set carpenter. The scares are fortified by minutiae, history, design, and performance — a bedrock for the batshit insanity. Building a fully operational 17th-century farm isn’t the most logical move from a first-time director, but it’s the only way Eggers saw his story.
Set in 1630, against New England’s perpetual overcast, the film follows God-fearing William and Katherine as they break away from their community to start a life in wilderness. When the family’s newborn disappears in the worst game of peekaboo ever, suspicion arises that their eldest daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), could be dancing with the Devil in her off-hours.
Eggers spent five years researching, developing, and writing the script for The Witch. To forge his authentic colonial setting, the writer-director pored over historical documents at Smithsonian’s Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Massachusetts. According to Taylor-Joy, Eggers absorbed exhaustive tomes and primary source diaries, reaching encyclopedic knowledge levels. Eggers uncovered architectural notes to appropriately construct Ye Olde Cabin in the Woods and taught his crew era-appropriate farming techniques, just in case his characters’ farms ever needed to become fully operational. And then there was the damned topic of witchcraft, bubbling and brewing 60 years before the Salem trials.
“What was really interesting to me was [that] folktales, fairy tales, and reality in the early modern period were all kind of the same thing,” Eggers says. “So you have folk stories that are being told by laypeople, but they’re pretty much the same as the Elizabethan witch pamphlets, which were sort of like a tabloid newspaper of the day. And so there’s accounts of witches giving children poison apples, and they’re going to court for that, but that’s obviously a real fairy-tale motif.”
There are inaccuracies in The Witch that only Eggers and John Proctor would notice. They don’t keep him up at night … nor are they easily forgotten. To provide enough light inside the family’s colonial home, Eggers’s design team had to scale up the windows by 33 percent. Candles had to be triple-wicked for night shoots, with Eggers and his director of photography relying on open-flame lighting as often as possible. And while Plimouth Plantation made it very clear that English settlers harvested their corn like Native Americans did, by cutting the ears and leaving the stalks up, Eggers opted for the dampened look of corn shocks. “I wanted that iconic New England harvest look,” he says. “But we thought about it: This family’s starving. They don’t have a lot of crops to feed their animals. And since they did that same pyramid shape with their grain crops in England, why wouldn’t they do that?” Encyclopedia.
The son of an English professor, Eggers slipped through the education system with bad grades and a big reading habit. Hearing him wax poetic on the Geneva Bible and the way dialogue hovers around The Witch’s characters like mist in a gnarled forest, there’s an admiration for language on par with his visual panache. Eggers picked up the archaic English’s vocabulary, eventually finding a way to rewire it for his own diabolical needs. Eggers culled dialogue directly from Puritan prayer manuals and Cotton Mather and Samuel Willard’s accounts of New England “witchcraft.” “I would find and take phrases out and line them all up, and I had phrases that had to do with the Devil, and phrases that had to do with being happy, and phrases that had to do with being sad,” Eggers says. He discovered his characters through history, grafting real stories to his wide-open screenplay. “A diary entry would inspire a scene. Like, Katherine has this dream about being very close to Jesus that I thought was very beautiful. This was a Puritan minister’s dream that I tweaked and shaped to fit her character.”
Adapting the words was only part of Eggers’s controlled approach. He also had to teach his actors to speak it. Properly. According to Eggers, the family originally hailed from Essex before migrating to the New World, factually consistent with the Great Migration. “But I cast Ralph [Ineson as the father], and Ralph’s Yorkshire accent, Yorkshire attitude was so amazing that we decided to make the family from Yorkshire.” This didn’t mean fudging a detail. With Eggers, it’s about recalibrating. Hunting for evidence, the director discovered in Dedham, Massachusetts, the Fairbanks House, the oldest surviving timber-frame residence in North America. Its original owner, Fairbanks, was from Yorkshire and moved to Massachusetts with Essex people. When he couldn’t get along with the church, he moved his family outside. “So I was like, ‘Well, this is perfect.’ Way back when the family was from Essex, we talked about doing a 1770s Essex dialect. But it sounds insane. It sounds like a pirate. So we worked on creating a Yorkshire accent that was sort of free of some of the modern urbanisms, but that could suit this language.”
Don’t mistake The Witch for a ride in a park. With a few short films under his belt, this was still Eggers’s first feature, one he admits was overly ambitious. There’s a rule in film school when you’re just starting out: Don’t make movies with kids, animals, or on the water. They’re unruly. Eggers double-downed on the exact opposite approach. “I remember it hit me in preproduction when we were talking with the animal trainers. I said to Jay Van Hoy, one of the producers, like, ‘This movie is either gonna be great, or it’s going to be the worst thing ever made.’”
For a blood-gulping, youth-sucking, Satan-channeling witch to feel real, the world surrounding her needs to balance out the fantasy. This is not M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village — there’s no sense that the characters onscreen could ditch their costumes and walk out into the real world. Personal histories and points of view are tied to appropriated facts. “[The film] talks about the beginnings of America and the hubris that English settlers had — it’s really disgusting and horrible and embarrassing,” Eggers says. “But I can empathize with it, and found a key into really loving these people. Even though their worldview is that the privilege of being the chosen people is horrible, they’re still human beings with struggles.”
Eggers is comfortable in the past. There’s a thrill to the research. A distant timeline allows him to extrapolate his own family dynamics into a hellish Puritan household. And it’s just awesome — in the biblical sense — to leave behind horror’s modern tropes to see what happens when blood spills on a coif and petticoat.
“For me, it’s easier to go to the sublime when you go to the past, when you go outside experiences,” Eggers says. “This is like, super precious and disgusting and makes me want to throw up, but when you look at primitive religion, people putting on the masks and becoming the gods of the past and having that weight … I want to channel that weight from the past. For me, that’s cool. I’m not Christian, but when you go into a cathedral, you’re all of the sudden in a mythic time there. You’re not in today.”
Though The Witch won’t barrel through 2015 toward a Best Picture slot like previous Sundance darlings — expect Eggers’s precision direction and his Lars von Trier treatment of Taylor-Joy to rank among the most infuriating omissions when that conversation ramps up — its creative hustler is coveted. After The Witch played for Sundance’s industry patrons, boutique distributor A24 fought for and won the film’s distribution rights. A few days later, reports said Eggers signed with ex–Warner Bros. chief Jeff Robinov to direct his first studio movie. It’s described as “an epic medieval fantasy.” Back to the past for Eggers.
Modern horror movies aren’t part of Eggers’s vernacular. He sees the current incarnation as “sort of like a titillating teenage, masochistic sort of thing.” His filmmaking heroes are icons: Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Stanley Kubrick, and Ingmar Bergman, a name he repeats six times out of pure excitement. But when I ask Eggers how he separated The Witch from the contemporary crowd, how he’ll do so as his career takes off, he brings up the most logical topic: Japanese Noh. Because if you want to know how to “go there” — nightmare-inducing WTFtown — and still manage to say something, that’s where to look.
“From the way I understand it, and the way I’ve talked about it is that [Japanese Noh] is the earliest form of theater that’s still performed today,” he says, “and most of the most respected Japanese Noh plays are horror. Stories of people going mad and monsters. Medieval Japanese people understood how important it is to go to that place.”
Hollywood, please use your new encyclopedia wisely.
Matt Patches (@misterpatches) is a writer and reporter in New York whose work has been featured on Vulture, VanityFair.com, and The Hollywood Reporter.