Among the hundred little feats of filmmaking ingenuity contained within Robert Eggers’ debut film The Witch is this minor miracle: he stages a game of peek-a-boo that takes both the infant and the adult equally by surprise. “Adult,” though, would be a generous term for Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy, destined for greatness), the teenage heroine of the film subtitled A New England Folktale. She’s little more than a girl, confronting her first rumblings of womanhood and prone to outbursts against her parents. But the film’s setting, the 17th-century Massachusetts Bay colony, demands she work and live as an adult. With siblings to look after, crops to harvest, and prayers to be whispered, there’s hardly any room for her own sense of identity. An unseen consort of Satan recognizes her as easy prey, and slowly introduces demonic madness to a family living on the outskirts of the village.
If it looks like a supernatural slasher movie in period-appropriate garb, look closer. Eggers uses firsthand accounts of life in Salem Village as a basis for a quietly profound story about repression, coming-of-age, and temptation. Not that this is anything less than terrifying: With little more than the creepy, lifeless eyes of a goat, Eggers conjures fever-pitch intensity and chilling ambient fear. The Witch blew audiences at Sundance 2015 away, and then wowed a new wave of critics at last September’s Toronto International Film Festival, but at long last, public audiences will bear witness on Friday, February 19. His grand debut fast approaching, Eggers took a moment to chat with Uproxx about his childhood obsession with costuming, the paramount importance of paying attention to detail, and the imaginary dollhouses in which his films take shape.
For your first feature as a director, you didn’t make things too easy on yourself. Between the attention to detail in the costumes and sets, the choice to work with children and animals, both of which are sort of bugaboos for directors, and the colonial language, were you looking for a challenge to test your skills?
Weirdly, I was actually trying to write something simple! It got a little bit out of control. I was trying to keep it together with a single location and a small cast. I wasn’t concerned about working with kids. I worked with kids before as a designer on commercials, and I don’t think they’re any more difficult than adults. The only thing with the really little kids was, like, waiting for the baby to laugh. That wasn’t so bad. The difficulty working with kids is that they can’t work long hours, and rightfully so. But that can heighten the stress of trying to get everything on the clock. I really knew better when I was writing the script, but it kind of took shape that the animals became important, so that was definitely an obstacle to overcome.
As far as the historical aspects of the film go, do you think your background as a production designer specifically prepared you for the very detailed demands of a script like this?
I think that it did. Here’s the thing: I started out doing theater, I was always designing sets and costumes for the theater I directed. I was there, I knew what I wanted, and I’ve always loved costumes and others worlds, other times. I used to ask for costumes as Christmas presents. I used to wear them to school when I was a little kid.
Like what kind of costumes?
Oh, whatever. Darth Vader was a big one. Sometimes they’d be Christmas-themed, I was Scrooge one time. I wore costumes to school until I started getting beat up for it. It was always stuff that I had been interested in. And then I slowly realized I could make a living designing for other people while I was trying to get my start as a director. So, that’s where I have the most expertise in a professional setting, design work. Because this film is so small and specific, while I was writing and researching, I had the farm laid out in my head. With wills and inventories in my research, I knew just what they had, what would be in the house. In my imagination, it was like playing with dolls in a dollhouse. Perhaps my design background helped with that. It also helped when collaborating with Craig Lathrop, the production designer, and Linda Muir, the costume designer, to know where the best places were to spend our money. For example, in the meetinghouse early in the film, I knew that we couldn’t afford shoes for everyone in the scene. So when I was writing the script, I was realizing that it would need to be shot in a way that wouldn’t show anyone’s feet.
I’ll confess that I came to this movie with something of a unique perspective. I was raised in the town of Danvers, Mass. [in which the film is set] and worked for years at sites associated with the witch trials and hysteria. And I think you get something a lot of people don’t, which is that this was all a sociological occurrence as much as an occult one. I see both of those elements in the film, and I wonder how you balanced the witchy-horror material with the human component.
First of all, that’s super-cool that you’re from Danvers.
That’s the first time I’ve ever been told that.
Basically, my understanding of mainstream culture in the early period was that the fairy-tale world and the real world were thought to be the same thing, and that aside from the intelligentsia, people believed witches were actually doing things that fairy-tale witches did. From a modern perspective, we see that dark things that would cause them extreme despair — a child dying, crops failing, animals getting sick — those things weren’t caused by witches. Noting how despair feeds into that, and how whatever’s believed to be real is real, the supernatural stuff is always connected. There’s no need to worry about a balance, because they’re so connected. In the filmmaking techniques, though, it was all about restraint. What the audience has in their imagination is better than anything I can provide, so if I show a few things, I can coax a few things out of the audience’s imagination.
And that brings in the religious dimension, too. Villagers would ascribe these things to witches because Puritanism couldn’t allow for misfortunes happening for no reason, that’d be in defiance of God. Do you think The Witch is a Christian film? Or maybe on the flip side, expressing the hazards of zealotry and devout religion?
When I went to Spain, that’s all anyone wanted to talk about. Spain’s a very Catholic country, and everyone wanted to know if it was a religious critique. And it’s not. I’m not trying to judge the family or whatever. I wouldn’t choose to be a strict English Calvinist, let me tell you, but I’m trying to show them without judging. With the dogma that they adhered to, people were constantly aware of sin and original sin, and the response was to repress it instead of confront it. Things explode when they’re bottled up.
For Thomasin, this is a dark coming-of-age story, entering the occasionally dark and scary world of womanhood. The female aspect and the coming-of-age aspect, did these inform how you had chosen to tell a horror story?
It shaped the story I was trying to tell. It’s a horror story because it’s a story about a witch, but if there’s any genre I was aware of while I was writing, it’d be the genre of fairy-tale. The Witch: A New England Folktale. These are really interesting, dark ways of looking at family dynamics. A lot of fairy tales have young female protagonists who are trying to find their way through a strange world. The stepmothers before Grimm were usually just mothers.
You bring an understated touch to the horror genre with this film, a genre not always known for its subtlety. What do you consider to be The Witch‘s forebears in the horror genre?
It almost embarrasses me, how much this movie smells like The Shining, which is one of the few horror movies that I really love. Ultimately, what makes this different than The Shining is that I’m really going into moody atmosphere and darkness, whereas Kubrick’s film doesn’t really contain much visually that fits into the horror tradition. He exploits awkwardness, artificiality, but barely gets into horror stuff. It’s funny, Moviefone asked me what my five favorite horror movies are, and they were all very… rigorous. Except for Nosferatu, which was sort of a rough-around-the-edges indie movie of its day. I guess I like that, trying to build something that’s well-crafted. This film was almost entirely cut in-camera, because we didn’t have time to do it any other way. That was the only way to get this precise cinematic language, much to our editor’s despair. That didn’t make her job easier.
You mention Nosferatu, and I saw that you’re now working on a remake of Murnau’s film. How do you plan on making that your own thing?
That’s not until far in the future. It’s so presumptuous and egomaniacal and disgusting for someone to want to do that again. [Laughs.] But I’m working on a medieval knight epic currently.
The word “epic” alone suggests that this will be a bit more involved than The Witch. Is this a bigger operation?
Yeah. Yeah. I gotta be kind of cryptic about it, but yes, it’s definitely a bigger operation. A much bigger imaginary dollhouse.