One of the hottest hits at the Sundance Festival 2015 and the Imagine Festival 2016 was Robert Eggers’ debut The Witch; a unique historical horror film. It’s the story of a Puritan family in New England, around 1630, who have a series of highly unpleasant experiences with the title character.
For Roffa Mon Amour Schokkend Nieuws reporter Julius Koetsier talked to director Eggers about history, filmmaking and feminism.
SN: You put a lot of research into making The Witch as historically accurate as possible. The characters even speak early modern English. Why was accuracy so important to you?
RE: I was trying to understand what the witch, in the early modern period, was. To really understand why that archetype has survived. The witch is no longer scary to us, yet innocent people were executed when they were accused of being witches. What was all the fuss about? In order for the film to be scary, we really needed to be transported back ot the seventeenth century. So without meticulous research, and without being grounded in this world, it wouldn’t be believable.
SN: Weren’t you afraid that the archaic language would be an obstacle for the audience?
RE:I was not, although that was one of the big problems with getting the film financed. The language is supposed to be transportive and help you understand how these people actually thought and expressed themselves.
A lot of the dialogue is taken from seventeenth century sources, like prayer books and court records. The scene where Catherine, the mother, is relating the dream she had about the Lord, actually began as a dream that a man had. We got it out of a Puritan minister’s journal.
SN: The Witch has a very unique tone. Were you influenced by any specific horror films?
RE: Not many. I think that my cinematic influences are clear, sometimes so clear that it’s embarrassing. The movie reeks of The Shining in a way that I find a little bit sickening. But I also think a lot of times, it would not have worked without that.
SN: Were those conscious references, or would you come up with a scene and then realise it’s a lot like The Shining?
RE: The latter. The episode with the sexy young witch was actually a recurring dream I had. But someone did an article with a side by side shot breakdown of my scene and the scene from The Shining with the woman in the bathroom, and it was pretty uncanny.
SN: You use a lot of natural lighting.
RE: I don’t like very stylized lighting. Why would I be bringing loads of lights out to the forest and overlight something? What’s great about color film for me is the subtlety of tone you can get. I wanted to create this twilight, nightmarish world. Also, they only had candle light back then, so why not just light a scene with that if we can?
"We haven't really escaped the shadows of the past."
SN: How would you say your witch came to be in New England?
RE: Do you know about the lost colony of Roanoke, in what is now North Carolina? The costume designer and I made up a far fetched story about her origins, coming from there, living with native people and finding her way through the woods. Of course that’s ludicrous and stupid and should never be talked about. But without some kind of ridiculous story like that, how the hell did she end up there?
SN: Would you care to elaborate on the feminist themes of the film?
RE: When you start talking about witches, you start talking about feminism. There’s no way to avoid it. The psychologist Marie-Louise von Franz, one of Carl Jung’s finest disciples, talks about the idea that in the Middle Ages, the church had no room for a goddesses, but the need for them was so strong that it will constellate, and you get things like chivalry, courtly love and the cult of Virgin Mary. The society discovers that real women aren’t being perfect goddesses, and you get dark feminine archetypes, leading to the age of burning witches. We haven’t really escaped the shadows of the past.
Going to school and learning about witch-hunts as a child, I understood it to be a conspiracy. I came away with the feeling that powerful men were consciously threatened by female power, so they called these women witches to shut them up and hang them. But in fact, the misogyny was so powerful, that they actually believed these women were fairy-tale witches. Which is pretty horrifying.