‘The Witch’ Director Robert Eggers Tells Us How To Recreate A Dead Vernacular


That The Witch is a nightmarish exercise in paranoia has been much discussed, and deservedly so, ever since writer/director Robert Eggers won a directing award at Sundance last January. What’s gotten perhaps less attention is what a meticulously-crafted history buff’s wet dream it also is. In a film set in a pre-witch trial 17th century Massachusetts colony — a time period so naturally nightmarish that it lends itself easily to horror — the film’s dialogue is delivered in all its authentic thees, ye’s, and goodlies. It takes some getting used to, but there’s also a rhythm and a poetry to it, like a slightly more intelligible Shakespeare.

Everything in The Witch, from the spoken dialogue to the sets to the actors themselves — Ralph Ineson especially captures the look of a colonist barely surviving on his own bad farming — is so painstakingly realized that I half expected Eggers to be some greying man in smart eyeglasses and a tweedy suit. For him to look like a history professor, basically. Instead, Eggers, who grew up in New Hampshire hearing all kinds of colonial witch stories, turned out to be a younger guy in boots and a flannel shirt, with a beard and neatly trimmed rockabilly hair. More reminiscent of a bartender in a nouveau cocktail bar that smelled of pine than a professor.

The lesson: you don’t need leather elbow patches to care deeply about historical accuracy. With The Witch being re-released nationwide this weekend for a limited time, I got to pick Eggers’ brain about the lengths he went to recreate a dead vernacular, and why.

Were there any models that you had in terms of trying to recreate this sort of dead vernacular?

Yeah. I have a background in Shakespeare, so I’m sort of comfortable around this kind of language, but writing in it wasn’t easy. I studied the grammar and the vocabulary, and there are books that do that kind of stuff. But then it was really digging into primary source material and jotting down phrases — sentences of all different kinds of situations — then categorizing them. So then if I needed a greeting or a this or a that or a chastisement, I would incorporate it. There were earlier versions of the script that were disastrous, that felt like cannibalized collages of other people’s words. It took time to turn it into “me.” And there’s some stuff that, very deliberately, is left intact.

It’s a really interesting period for the English language. At that time, New England was the most literate part of the Western world. It was actually illegal not to teach your children how to read, because everyone needed to read the Bible. Which is interesting, because less than 100 years earlier, people were being burned at the stake for translating the Bible into English because of the whole reformation and flip-flopping between Protestant and Catholic in England. But at this time, you had common people, like this family, who could read and maybe couldn’t write, but dictated well, assuming the dictations are accurate. And if you assume that that dictated writing that survives is accurate, it’s like, wow, these people had a very interesting kind of beautiful clunky poetic way of speaking.

Other than Shakespeare, had you ever seen any other movies that try to do something similar?

Not for this period. I think Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is a little bit later and he — it’s more period than you’d expect. I think that in The Crucible, for example though, it’s later and they’ve dispensed with thou as the familiar form of you. So it sounds less exotic.

As you were stealing from primary sources to try to get the dialogue right, did you have any favorite things that you read in your research process?

There is a lot of stuff. I don’t know if it’s my favorite, but I used it a hell of a lot, which is Lewis Bayley’s The Practice of Piety, which was like a prayer manual. So the majority of the prayers in the film are from that book, in truncated form. I mean, they’re so long. These guys prayed so much, so often, all the time. I cut a lot out because it was getting too much, but they just did not stop. Kate Dickie [Lysa Arryn in Game of Thrones] who played Katherine, in the script, a lot of time it would just say, “Katherine prays.” So she was like, “I need the prayers for all those.” So she had a digital version of that book on her iPad, and she would just walk around through the cornfields on the set practicing this all day. It was really pretty cool.

Was part of your motive in making a horror movie set in this time period — was that partly because there’s something inherently scary about this historical period?

Yeah. The idea of the supernatural world being real in the past was something that was kind of crucial for me. For me, when we do supernatural movies that take place today, I find it just hard because it’s just like metaphysical truths that don’t work for anyone today.

So that’s part of it, but also people have asked, “Why is this 1630 and not the Salem witch trials?” And aside from the fact that I never could have afforded to have something with that scope, this is much scarier. [The English colonists of the period] are so much more vulnerable because they’d just come over here and didn’t know how to do anything. English farmers, who were really experienced, are coming over, and their crops are failing because the land was so different from anything they knew. So to have them be so vulnerable was interesting to me. The housing is primitive. When I went with one of the producers to a site as a recreation of these kinds of houses, he was like, “I had no idea it was this primitive. Wow, this is going to be a scary movie.”

I got the sense that all of the supernatural and the horrors in the movies are based on real fears that they would’ve had at the time. How important was it to give the sense looking at it from a modern perspective — there’s sort of a hint with the moldy corn like, “Oh this might like be a hallucination.” How important was it to give a sense to us as moderns, to maybe give us an idea of what really would have been happening, when they wouldn’t have known then?

It’s cool that you saw the ergot because most people don’t. I absolutely, one billion percent, do not think that Salem was because of ergot on the rye. But it’s fun to have these different ways of interpreting it, and I think — again, I sound like some college freshman, constructionist loser — but we live in a world with certain rules that are given to us by science. And we’re saying this is our best scientific understanding of things. But science really isn’t objective, actually. And today, science is our God, and I truly think that it’s not too juvenile to say that in 400 years, people can look back at us and think that some of the things we take as fact are pretty wacky.

So all these different pieces, from ergot to what’s in your imagination to what your belief system says exists — it’s all tied up in weird interesting knots. It’s what makes the subject matter really interesting to me. Dr. John Dee, he was the alchemist to Queen Elizabeth, and he was the Albert Einstein of his day, but in that time, when religion and philosophy was all tied up – he supposedly got a “scry stone,” a kind of crystal ball, that was given to him by angels [Editor’s Note: Just like the Red Queen in Game of Thrones, which I see as The Witch‘s nearest analogue in terms of using the supernatural in a historically accurate way].

This guy is the leading scientist of his age and he’s talking to angels and demons? And it’s like, how hard or easy is it to cross over to the edge into that? I don’t know.

This movie seems very much like a history dork’s wet dream.

For sure.

And when I think about people who finance movies, interest in historical accuracy is not the first quality that jumps to mind. How did you get people sold on this and get it made so seemingly free of compromise?

Honestly, I’m so lucky about the limited amount of compromise because my creative producers and the financiers really got it. But with the idea — and this is a little bit — look, I do fetishize this period stuff. There’s no doubt about it, but the way I film it shouldn’t be fetishizing it. It needs to be about the story and about the characters. But we need those details to actually be transported. Now, that’s what I kept kind of saying, “Look, the whole point is that we need to believe in the witch. We need to get into this world of these settlers, and we cannot do it if the world is not accurate.”

And I was saying like, “Not only that, even if it’s accurate, it needs to be so personal to me that this is me sharing my memories with you. This needs to be like I was a child growing up in the 17th century, and this is my memory of the day my dad and I talked in the cornfield.”

Without such excruciating specificity, I can’t make that moment personal, and I can’t create an atmosphere, and I can’t create something that’s transportive. And my collaborators understood that that was important.

Do you think it’s easier to get something this historically-driven, do you think it’s easier to sell that as horror? Do you think it’s easier to get that made in the context of horror movie? [I tend to think that, in general, it would be easier to sell a project in the horror genre than in others, because budgets are smaller, there’s more of a built-in audience, and horror movies generally seem like a safer bet, relatively speaking. But that’s just me speculating as a casual observer.]

No, it was super hard and no [chuckles]. And I think there are people who are excited and kind of grew up on Hammer Horror movies and have that nostalgia about it and kind of like, “Oh this could be sort of like a modern version. Cool.”

So that’s cool, but I think in general, people are really concerned like, “How is this going to relate? How are people going to relate?”

But the thing is, people are always the same. Whether they believe witches can fly or not, people are the same. And that’s what interests me about history. How far can you push culture and still see that, within those rules, people are acting exactly the same?

The Witch is out in limited engagements nationwide April 1. Here’s the new trailer, cut in honor of the re-release:

According to a recent interview in Entertainment Weekly, Robert Eggers’ next projects include “a miniseries about Rasputin, a reimagining of F.W. Murnau’s 1922 vampire classic Nosferatu, and a medieval epic called The Knight.”

Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.