In the Puritan horror film “The Witch,” director/writer Robert Eggers tells the story of a early 17th century family who is forced to find a new home when they are banished from their colonial plantation. After finding refuge on a plot of land, frightening incidences begin to happen to the family, all of which point to the terrorizing forest living beside them.
What drew you to this specific time period, the early 17th century, and what kind of tone were you hoping to create in this environment?
I grew up in New England. Its past is part of my consciousness. It’s hard to go back to New England and feel like it’s not haunted by its past. My earliest nightmares were about witches. I thought I could make a genre film that was personal. I liked the idea of going back to the very beginning of the great migration when New England was extremely primitive. This made the family very vulnerable. That’s a big part of it. In this century, the real world and the fairy tale world were the exact same thing. If I can bring the audience back to the 17th century, then “The Witch” can be real and scary for them. It was about doing everything I could to make that 17th century come alive and make a film that was ominous and dread filled and gloomy.
Was part of the process doing research on old folklore?
Yeah, I did four years of research with historians to make the film accurate. It was interesting reading the source material and to see how the folktales and fairy tales really were the same as real life. I wanted it to feel like an inherited nightmare. This film, in many ways, feels like a dark fairy tale. One of the great things about fairy tales for me – and we’re talking about the pre-Disney versions – is they are unconscious explorations of family dynamics and oftentimes the darkest ones. [“The Witch”] turns it up to 11.
Do you have any concern that Satanist churches have embraced the film and are even holding screenings?
I guess it’s good to have fans. (Laughs)
I interviewed director Tom Six a few years ago when he made the first entry in his “Human Centipede” franchise. We talked about how a lot of people he meets assume that he’s a deviant because of the movie he made. Have you found that people are watching “The Witch” and thinking you are that dark of a human being in real life?
Yeah, I mean, some of my wife’s extended family, when they saw the trailer, called her up and asked, “Are you sure you’re OK living with this guy?” (Laughs)
I think it’s so interesting that some people can’t separate a filmmaker from his or her work. Why do you think that is?
I think people should connect [me to “The Witch”]. This story is super personal. Whether this film is good or bad, it is very much me. I was scared of this kind of stuff as a kid. I walked around terrified and anxious all the time. I think by exploring darkness in my adult life I have control over it. In doing a horror film like this I’m trying to confront the dark side of humanity and take a look at it instead of just shining a quick flashlight on it and running away giggling like a lot of other films do. The dark side of humanity is something you just can’t just push aside.
Where did you find Black Phillip and where is he now? Did you find him a good home?
Ah, well, he’s back on the farm where he came from. [Actor] Ralph Ineson, who plays William, wishes that Black Phillip was in a goat curry. (Laughs) We were originally going to have three goats – a bucking goat, a rearing goat, and a goat that could stand still. But that all fell apart and we ended up with one goat, Charlie, who plays Black Phillip, who really didn’t want to do anything that we wanted him to do. It was actually a real nightmare. As difficult it was to work with him, I’m really glad we had a real animal instead of a CG one. But it was quite the horrific experience.
I know a lot of people who like horror movies, but won’t watch the ones that deal with possession. What do you think it is about that sub-genre that makes people more unsettled than watching the average “monster in the closet” type film?
That’s a really good question. I don’t know. I do think a lot of the times people who have a religious upbringing are affected more with that stuff. I know a lot of people who grew up Catholic and were scarred by “The Exorcist.” A hardcore atheist might not be affected as much.
Talk about casting actors Anya Taylor-Joy and Harvey Scrimshaw. Those two kids were incredible. What did you see in them that fit so well for “The Witch?”
Well, Anya just seemed like she wouldn’t do well in Puritan society. She also has a really enigmatic quality on camera. You really want to know what she is thinking, but you can’t figure it out. It was very important for the character. And Harvey had a really natural and timeless quality. He was very expressive and powerful. Unlike a lot of kid actors we looked at, he seemed like a real boy. I could believe him working on a farm and helping his father with carpentry. And both of them could speak the language. If you could speak the language of the film, then there was only one audition for you.