‘The Witch’: Robert Eggers on his directorial debut

Written by: Natalie Payan

Robert Eggers is a production and costume designer known for his work on the short drama “The Tell-Tale Heart” in 2008 and the short action film “Hansel and Gretel” in 2007. His first feature film as a director, “The Witch,” focuses on how witches and black magic tear apart a Puritan family in the 17th century.

The film won the Directing Award at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. The critically-acclaimed horror film appeared on the big screen on Feb. 19.

Here’s what Eggers had to say about his well-received film.

Being from New England and knowing the entire history of “The Witches” and growing up with all that, how do you think that you singlehandedly created almost the ultimate Puritan nightmare?

“You know, I just read a lot of books, really. I think what it comes down to is my philosophy: that if you are going to make a film that’s actually transportive, everything about it has to be so personal. It’s not enough for me to set up a shop with the DP and say that looks cool, and the light’s nice, and the set behind it is good. Every image in the film needs to be an articulation of my memory. It’s as if this is my memory of my Puritan childhood and what my father smelled like in the corn field that day. I mean, that’s sort of a little bit precious sounding, but that’s my approach.”

Have you always been inspired by folklore and fairytales? Did you want to just continue that and make that your brand of film?

“I guess. I wouldn’t choose the word brand, but my agent might. And, I don’t mean to be disrespectful or like a jerk about it, but, yes, this is the stuff that speaks to me and always has. And fairytales, folktales, religion, mythology, the occult, that’s what I spent all my time reading about when I’m not doing my work, though it ends up being my work anyway. But I’m probably more interested in that than I am in the film itself.”

What was the most shocking piece of research that you came across that you didn’t necessarily know before starting pre-production, and did that piece of information make it into the final film?

“Well, there’s some shocking details of about witchery that did not make it into the film. You know, that mainly have to do with genitals, and so that’s why they didn’t make it into the film. But I think all the other kinds of particularly shocking things did. That people, if they called you a witch, they really believed that you were a fairytale ogre that’s capable of doing the things that the witch in my film does. I mean, that’s the lifeblood of my film, and that was the most interesting thing, is really understanding the mindset of these 17th century English puritan Calvinists.”

What, to me, is the most difficult for “The Witch” was the very specific and very realistic portrayal of religious fanaticism., especially with that Calvinist background. What created that for you? Was it a specific upbringing, or was it something that came out of your research?

“Yes, I mean, you’re just really reading the primary source material. Reading people’s diaries and reading people’s journals. There is a prayer manual by a man named Lewis Bayly who is in England, but he was an English Puritan, and it was a manual on how to pray. It’s very helpful. And I did read lots of 20th and 21st century historians’ and theologians’ take on what this was about. There is a book also called the ‘Practice of Piety’ by a guy named Charles Hambrick-Stowe, which was also really, really very helpful. This guy, I believe he’s a pastor. And so, he was able to kind of take this Calvinist predestination and explain it in a way that seemed hopeful to me, which was very helpful. I’m not trying to condemn these people for being Puritans. It’s tragic to see that they’re making these kind of mistakes when they’re trying to do the right thing.”

You not only directed the film, but you also wrote it. Was that a difficult process for you to do both and to direct the actors at the same time?

“Oh, no, I mean, a writer-director is not the craziest combination. It took me long to write the scripts, and that was difficult. But it was fun and gratifying. And, certainly, on set there were some scenes that I was wondering, ‘Why did I ever write that? That’s going to be a pain.’ But, no, I went into this writing it and knowing that I wanted to direct it. So it was helpful. I think one of the biggest obstacles for a writer-director when you’re writing the script is to try to get your ideas on the page in a way that everyone understands because the subject matter can be so specific to you, and you need to find a better way to articulate that on the page. That’s an interesting obstacle.”

How did you balance what the audience saw and what was left to the imagination? Was there sort of a science behind it or was it just more your choice in the moment of writing?

“Yes, I mean, definitely, it’s go with your gut. But I think that there are some things, like if you see a goat talking, it’s going to just be ludicrous. And there’s no way in a billion years that you’re going to make that and not look stupid. I think, in general, you’ve got to leave things in the shadows. You got to leave things to the audience’s imagination. I don’t know what’s in your soul. I don’t know what scares you the most. You know, like if you’re approaching an older witch in your dream, the moment she turns around is usually the moment you wake up. Did you see all of her face or not? That’s got to be the approach. And, these monsters have power in darkness. Like if you have a monster under your bed, if you turn on the light, it’s not there anymore.”

How do you think the reactions that people are giving “The Witch” are settling with you? Is this what you were expecting, or were you not expecting this much of a reaction?

“I mean, I had to believe in the film on order to get it made. It took a very long time to get the film financed. And I needed to constantly, always believe that the film would find an audience. But I expected maybe four screens if we were lucky. So, to be opening wide and to have these kinds of extremely positive reactions from critics you know, I never [expected this] — not in a million years, not in a million years.”

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