Robert Eggers‘ first trip to Sundance was rewarded with a little thing called the Best Director award. Since then, he’s seen his New England-based independent horror film soar, earning a fervent critical backing and loads of support. But not everything has been roses. I chatted with the first-time director to discuss the years-long journey of making and releasing The Witch, the current state of horror movies, religious zealotry and the history of American witchcraft, the modern equivalent of witches, working with children actors to elicit believable performances, and how to deal with negative reactions to the film.
How you would characterize your experience with the film, from showing it at Sundance and getting such acclaim and winning the director award to being released then re-released in theaters. Now, it arrives Blu-ray. What’s that whole process been like for you?
Robert Eggers: Incredibly unexpected and beyond gratifying– terrifyingly so. But it’s great, I’m still, you know, it’s so hard to get a domain and this one was certainly very difficult to get it. It took a very long time. I am so grateful that there are people who care about it. It’s great.
What was your expectation making this film? What did you see in its future?
RE: I mean… I don’t know. I think that it was hard to get financed because of the language. It was hard to get financed because of the language, my experience level, and the amount of money it was going to cost to do it authentically the way I wanted to. But because the language thing, I kind of expected four screens and I would have been very happy with that. But it turned into something bigger than that.
In terms of the language, you definitely didn’t seem to compromise. There’s definitely a Shakespearian element to it where the language can be seen as a hurdle, but it’s also so decadent, and so rich, and so full of meaning. Can you talk about how you discovered the language? I know that you said at some point that you poured over these old journals. What was that like? Uncovering the keys to past ways of speaking and writing and then making it your own?
RE: I mean it was a very interesting time in the English language. Common people were interested in language. I mean, you know, King James and Queen Elizabeth liked Shakespeare’s plays and the ground was laid. In New England, during the period this film takes place that was the most literature part of the English world. Because English convents had to read their bible. In the previous century, people were being burned at the stake for translating the bible into English. So therefore, having the bible was so precious to them. You’ll find people who aren’t very educated and who are farmers who speak or write in a very interestingly poetic way because their ears are full of the Geneva bible, which is a well-written book. I have a background in Shakespeare and with this world, so it wasn’t too esoteric for me. It was something I was excited about. Even as a kid, it’s weird as an adult, but I was fascinated by the idea that their were people living in New England when Western culture was extreme primitive in regards to America. These people had grown up during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, and so, that’s what that would be like. That’s something that was always interesting to me. And yeah, I was collecting sentences and phrases from journals and diaries and anything from the period that I could. I was making almost a phrase book for myself that had different sentences for different situations. I took the time so it was my own voice, and more importantly, the character’s voice. So finally, it becomes my interpretation, my sort of invented language, but still the historians give it the thumbs up, so that’s nice.
Touching on religion, the movie is very focused on the idea of religious zealotry kind of gone off the hinges. The father character, William, he’s kind of driven mad by it. His biggest sin is pride. He feels as if he is superior to his peers which drives his family off into the woods where things don’t end up going so well for them. From a story-writing angle, where did you start the film? Was it with this idea of early settlers in New England contending with religion and belief or was it with this specific family? What was the first scene that you wrote?
RE: Yeah, I wanted to do something about witches in New England in this period during the very, very beginning of this thing, and I knew that it was going to be around one family. I think I had the view that the sort of scene where Caleb goes to the Witch’s hobble, that was a recurring dream that I had. So, I didn’t know that it was going to be Caleb. I think the first things I wrote was an idea of maybe a puritan father seeing a witch in the woods, and being turned on by it and walking home in the woods guiltily. That’s not much of anything, that scene in the movie, but I think that’s kind of the first sort of image that I saw.
Where are you from? I was trying to find it online, but are you from New England?
RE: Yeah, I’m from Southern New Hampshire.
I’m from Maine, so right on. Do you yourself come from a religious background? Was that one of the driving forces here?
RE: Yeah, respectively I prefer to keep my religion private. But, you know, I’m just interested in the past. I’m interested in how people operate in the past. In order to tell this story, in order to understand what witches meant and how people– these English settlers– taught them to be this misunderstood part of reality; like a witch is a witch and a tree is a tree and a rock is a rock. You have to understand their religion, because that’s everything to them.
Yeah. It gives context to these otherwise crazy beliefs.
RE: Yeah, I mean but it’s everything is for god. Everything is from god, everything is for god, and that’s like the end of it. You have to stay to that mindset to tell the story.
One of the interesting threads is that Thomasin and the twins and Caleb, they know about Satanism. They know what they do; what witches are known for. They talk about signing the book and dancing naked in the woods well before that is plays out on the screen. Which makes me wonder if these are the stories settlers are telling hovered around their campfires? And where do these stories originate from?
RE: In the early Modern period, the real world and the fairytale world are the same thing, so you’re not telling yarns as fiction about witches around the campfire. I mean it’s just a reality. When someone calls you a witch, they really believe that you’re capable of doing things fairytale witches can do. They’re not separate.
There’s not that line between fantasy and reality?
RE: Yeah. I mean, you know, they know that people can imagine things. They know things can be false, things can be wrong, but, you know, fairytale tropes existed in real life stories. At least in that sense, there’s like a conscious view of that. In Salem, when they had discovered that they were wrong and that they had killed innocent people, it wasn’t because they no longer believed in witches. It’s just that these women and men were not, you know real witches, and the devil was fucking with them. That’s the departure from fiction. But I would say that some of the imagery in the film with its pagan dancing and things, it is a little bit more the type of witchcraft stories on the European continent and not in New England. I was trying to keep it English and New English for the most part, but this stuff kind of worked its way in. However, I have found some evidence of these things kind of coming out of them because they’re archetypal, they sort of come out in the English stuff.
And that’s like one of the scariest parts of the movie is that this is all based on reality. Witch burnings were real, that was the law of the land at the time. Fear and religious fervor drove political decisions. Do you think that their is a modern day equivalent of witches?
RE: Well, you know, in some countries people are still burning witches. But, you know, yes. I mean for sure. We haven’t escaped the archetypes of the evil witch either or this film wouldn’t be effective. So, you know, I’ll leave it to other people to tell me about who the witches are today. Information about that in the movie would just be a distraction that no one would like.
There’s also this interesting feminist angle to it, whereas even today in America, there’s a cultural war being waged over women being equal to men. And then that seems very much like something that’s informing the characters in this: that fear of sexuality and that sexuality is like an evil and the empowerment of the young female.
RE: Yeah, I mean, we’re still recovering from that. We are. We have not come to terms with our past as a society fully.
As the characters in the film start to flirt with Satanism and going over to these witches covens, how is that represented to different age groups? Like for the twins and children in general, is that like the promise of sweet plums or candies? And for teenagers, is that just freedom? Did you have these ideas in mind as to like what is being put on the table for them or is it more universal for everyone?
RE: Yeah, I mean you find different things in different texts. Certainly, the butter and the dress and traveling the world is part of the Devil’s promises. A lot of times the instances these witches are on trial for are from very poor families. They’re servants in very low stations. The kind of protestants who accuse them are often very eager on promise of having their work done for them. But that was, you know, their lives were rough enough that it was worth it.
What was working with the kids who played the kids because they’re just so good?
RE: Working with them was great. They were great. They were a lot of fun. With them, you know, all this dark subject matter had to be sort of kept from them. They had a slightly more simplified understanding of the story, but, you know, it would have been too much. So, with them there was a lot of playing and sort of puppeteering and dance choreographies to get them to do those things. But they were delightful.
The performances from these children are so beyond their years. Caleb and Thomasin are just phenomenal in this film. You look at Caleb’s monologue scene where he’s talking to Jesus and it’s just so powerful. I feel like in so many films, the children actors kind of drag things down because they’re not up to snuff. But they’re just so on point here. What did you do to elicit such a phenomenal performances?
RE: It’s a lot of things. I had a good casting director. I had a UK casting director who helped me find the right kids. Each of the kids had their own strengths that were important. Like the girl twin actually has had the most acting experience of all the children, and she’s wise beyond her years. She’s is actually much older than the boy who is playing her younger brother, but she’s tiny. And she was young enough to just kind of be in the moment.She was able to kind of help him along and take charge. And with Harvey who plays Caleb, I really didn’t want someone to see him as a child actor. Because I felt like I needed a kid that was a kid I could believe was helping his father on the farm for real, and a lot of the kid characters didn’t have that. Harvey had had some acting training, but this was his first real thing. But I, you know, it was also a matter of protecting him. If he knew the sexual subtext of the stuff he was doing in that scene, he wouldn’t be able to do it. I was also in casting looking for parents, looking for the adult actors who were people and parents themselves, and they helped with all this. Particularly, Ralph was so helpful with Harvey for his death scene. He would try and help him with the physicality and the muscle control. It was a big collaboration because everyone knew that that scene had to be incredible for the rest of the film to work.
Yeah, it’s definitely a lynch pin moment. There’s been this emerging new wave of arthouse horror in the last couple of years where there have been a lot of these critically-acclaimed films, The Babadook and It Follows and this year, your film, The Witch. These are movies are focusing on characters and tone over someone pulling the shower curtain aside and jumping out with a knife. But I feel like there is a little bit of a conflict between people who think of themselves as horror fans but aren’t quite wrapping their heads around these movies and embracing them. There’s been some non-critical feedback from these people that the film isn’t scary at all. But from where I’m sitting, it is so terrifying on a psychological level– the idea of this devout family coming to pieces. Talk about that distinction between the two different forms of horror and how you respond to that reaction.
RE: I just think it’s frustrating for me. I have thought about this a lot. I think that in some ways, it’s a different language, you know? If you don’t speak French, you’re not going to enjoy a book in French. It’s not a language that you’re familiar with, and I think people are very familiar with these kind of temporary genre tropes, and they need the formula for them to feel satisfied. I think that’s fair enough. I think that if these kinds of horror aren’t horror, then Edgar Allen Poe doesn’t do horror. I’m not saying that this or the Babadook is Edgar Allen Poe quality, but it’s certainly a definitely a different kind of horror. And, you know, if it’s that horror, fine, but that is what I’m more interested in for sure.
100% agree. I see a lot of similarities with Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’, which also kind of suffers a similar injustice in that there’s this non-critical mass that claim, “Oh, it’s not a horror movie, it’s not a scary movie.” I believe it’s one of the scariest movie ever made because it’s real and grounded in something that’s horrifying on a purely visceral level. And here, I think you capture something similar.
RE: Well, thank you. I mean for me that’s all it is. Otherwise… look, I don’t think somethings are scary or evil. I don’t get scared myself, it’s what I do for work, but I try. You know, I might have had very, very scary dreams where people jump out of the dark and stabbed me, and that’s valid. But also, if someone drops a pan where they’re cooking, I can also jump. I don’t know count that as horror.
Yes! Agree. So, aside from yourself, who do you think is the most interesting horror director of today? Is there anyone who you try to emulate at all?
RE: Working today, I don’t know. Philippe Grand Drew, I admire him very much. I don’t think he would consider himself a horror director, but he’s the closest thing to one alive now that I really like. He is doing very experimental stuff. He’s pretty cool.
Next in the horizon, you have a Nosferatu remake, and I’d love to hear a little more on that, but do you see yourself continuing in the horror genre? Or are you going to cut your teeth and move on? Because if there’s one thing the genre needs, it’s an injection of fascinating voices, which seem to be few and far between unfortunately.
RE: I mean if people look at my films and they’re going to see the same kind of stuff. I’m into dark stuff. I like to tell a story through vehicles like fairytales and mythology. I think that I’m sure that’ll lead more towards horror, but who knows?
With the Nosferatu remake, can you tell me a little bit about that? Like what’s the angle? What recruited you to want to be a part of this?
RE: Yeah, I mean I can’t really talk much about it unfortunately. I’m very sorry. You know, I also think it’s kind of ugly, megalomaniacal, and offensive for someone in my place to be messing with that. So, my apologies. Like witches, which I’ve been into for a very long time, and while much like the film, it has nothing to do with this really, but I did an adaptation. I started in the theater, and one of the first things I directed was a stage adaptation of Nosferatu. And that was extremely expressionist and completely not what I’m doing right now.