By Sara Lynne Wright
THIS YEAR AT SUNDANCE, The Witch, produced by Jodi Redmond GSE '08, received the Directing Award: U.S. Dramatic and then was acquired by A24 & DirecTV (U.S. distribution rights) and Universal Pictures International Productions (foreign rights).
New England, 1630. William and Katherine lead a devout Christian life, homesteading on the edge of an impassable wilderness, with five children. When their newborn son mysteriously vanishes and their crops fail, the family begins to turn on one another. In his debut feature, writer/director Robert Eggers painstakingly designs an authentic re-creation of New England - generations before the 1692 trials in Salem -- evoking the alluring and terrifying power of the timeless witch myth. Told through the eyes of Thomasin, the teenage daughter (in a star-making performance by Anya Taylor-Joy), and supported by haunting camera work and an ominous score, The Witch is a chilling portrait of a family unraveling within their own fears and anxieties, leaving them prey for an inescapable evil.
Q. What attracted you to this film? How did you get involved?
A. I had worked with Robert Eggers, our writer-director, on smaller projects, and we’d been good friends for a long time. I love his taste. He’s worked quite a bit as a production designer, is a history and art buff, and we’re both fans of old fairytales. When Robert came up with the idea, I felt strongly that it could be a winner even before he wrote the script.
Robert grew up in a tiny town in New England. Since his childhood, the past of New England has been a huge part of his consciousness, and witches have been a huge part of his nightmares. Salem was nearby, and I'm fairly sure he would go there every year during Halloween. He wanted to create an archetypal New England horror story; a nightmare from the past that would feel like the inherited nightmare of a Puritan family, a place in which witches felt real and terrifying. That was really intriguing to me, particularly as I was familiar with that "childhood" place.
Robert and I talked about the fairytales of our youth, how they were as scary as any Hollywood horror film, not Disney-fied or watered down the way they often are today. I'm talking about the fairytales where you saw the drawing or picture of the woods and simply knew not to go into them. I like to describe this film as a hyper-realistic fairytale.
Q. What makes this story about a family of Puritans banished to the woods relevant to modern audiences?
A. Because this family is transgressing against and questioning one another, it’s falling apart. I think most people can relate to that.
You literally see a witch in the film, but the title is also figurative; fear has always had power to make people turn on each other. That power is one possibility for what the witch represents. These Calvinists believed absolutely in the supernatural, which is a foreign mindset to most of us. But this wasn’t long ago in the grand scheme of things, and most of our country’s still religious. This family is not much different from modern ones.
Audiences will see aspects of themselves within the characters. There’s the father who wants the best for his family, the teenager whose awkwardness and angst makes her pull away from and clash with her parents, despite the fact that she yearns for acceptance…Although they’re devout and they’ve chosen this dogmatic lifestyle, we hope the audience will come to have compassion and empathy for them. I certainly did through the development process.
Q. Can you talk about the source material you pulled from for this project?
A. Years of research went into understanding the everyday life of an English settler in early New England, from reading the Geneva Bible and Elizabethan witch pamphlets to revisiting fairytales to the director’s long walks in Massachusetts. One of the most interesting things that came out of the research was the idea that for people of the early modern period, there is a blurry line between the real world and the fairytale world. Everyday life was riddled with the supernatural. It was simply a fact. We knew the film would be most compelling for audiences if it felt real and particularly because there are so many fantastical elements, we knew that the audience had to be grounded in this world - the world of these Puritans - in order to make it come off as authentic.
A crucial aspect of the process was understanding the mindset of these devout Puritans. At first it was hard to relate to them; to understand how believing in Calvinism and predestination could be a gratifying and hopeful way of living. But when we read the diaries and letters that allow us to see their day-to-day stories of love, loss, living, and struggle, we were able to see a connection. In the extreme rituals of their daily lives and in imbuing daily life with sublime significance, they were in a way living their lives as a work of art.
The director became fascinated by the archetypal figure of the witch and its role in the early modern mind. The witch represented the darkness in all of us and became the answer to unanswerable tragedies, gaining power from despair. If a cow stopped giving milk, a crop was spoiled, or an innocent child died, the witch became a reason. She was the antimother. This terrifying fairytale ogress, who grounds up children’s entrails to give her the power to fly, was an easy scapegoat. It didn’t matter whether she was real or not, as long as she was real in people’s minds. The witch of this period is much more terrifying than we can remember.
We did a lot of research at Plimoth Plantation, a Smithsonian-affiliated living museum in Plymouth Massachusetts, with their staff (experts on the period), in their library, and within their structures in the colonial village there. This work was crucial in informing the script. We pulled quotations from period sources, some of which the director actually used to create the dialogue. A lot of what the children say comes right out of Cotton Mather’s or Samuel Willard's accounts of witchcraft and possession. Most of the prayers are truncated versions of prayers from a Puritan prayer manual. One of our historians, Jim Baker, went through the script to assure historical accuracy and point out any anachronisms and to find historical evidence to support the story points. The Sundance Institute support definitely encouraged us in the process. We had a first draft after about 10 months, but it was four years of work before we had a shooting script.
We built the farm from scratch, using the same materials the Puritans would have used. Thankfully, we found a production designer who was fanatically uncompromising about the creation of the sets as Robert was, which were actually closer to real structures than sets. Everything that appears on camera is made out of the correct building materials that a Puritan family would have used, and authentic techniques and tools were used wherever necessary. While we used modern technology like chainsaws and drywall screws to complete the set in a timely, cost-effective manner, it was essential to have things like hand-riven oak clapboards to sheath the structures (it’s unusual to have lumber shipped from Massachusetts to Canada, but we did), reed-thatched roofs, and hand-forged nails to make the world believable. We were using quite a lot of natural light, aside from night interiors lit by open flame (custom-made triple-wicked candles to look like the lumpy tallow candles that would have been used in the period), so it was especially important to maintain accuracy in production design.
Q. What was the casting process?
A. The two other main producers and I saw the power in casting the film without stars; something the director had wanted from the start. It’s hard to convince investors and producers of this, because it’s riskier and makes the film harder to finance. But because of the nature of the story, particularly the supernatural elements, the family couldn’t be people recognized widely as actors with dirt on their faces. They had to look like real Puritans.
Robert had been aware of Ralph Ineson, who plays the father, for years before he wrote the script. It was actually Ralph’s voice Robert imagined when he was writing the William character. Ralph’s commitment to the project set the tone for the entire cast and crew. He brought unwavering love and energy to the set every day and made me believe in actors again.
Kate Dickey was recommended by Daniel Beckerman, our Canadian producer. Then Robert watched a movie called Red Road that she was in and was hooked. During the shoot, he said he’d never seen such a dedicated and emotionally available artist in his life. In Anya Taylor-Joy's audition, she actually read the lines just as Robert had imagined when he wrote the script. It was electric; every flash of emotion came through her eyes.
We had a fantastic UK casting director named Carmel Cochran. We looked at child actors out of London but quickly realized that we needed to expand the search to schools in the North of England. It was crucial that the youngest actors were using their native accents or else the authenticity of their performances would fall apart.
Ralph, Kate, Anya, and the kids stayed in a tiny hotel together for the entire shoot, and had a week on their own together before the shoot, where they developed this trust and strong relationship with the children, work they did on their own that was invaluable. They were already like a family unit when they came to set. In this story, we see the family at their worst, so there needed to be a sense of underlying love.
Q. What was the biggest challenge in the development process?
A. Financing. The biggest question was how to get people to give us millions of dollars for a first-time, unproven director, a question many people are dealing with in the independent film world. We struggled with it for a long time. Then I found a fund in Canada we could access so we brought on a Canadian producer, Dan Beckerman. Then we went to Sundance’s Catalyst program and were financed soon thereafter. We could not have done this without Northern Ontario and Sundance.
Q. What were the biggest challenges with the shoot?
A. We shot in an abandoned lumber town called Kiosk in Northern Ontario, entirely overgrown with forest, in the Unorganized South Nipissing district, population eighty. We found a small open field surrounded by large white pines and hemlocks, similar to New England, and knew it was the spot for our film. The problem? It had no wifi or cell service. It was nearly an hour from where we were staying and our office. Not only did we have to get cast and crew there and back every day, but if we needed to check the weather (we were literally chasing the weather at each moment of every day) or see if someone had called, we had to drive an hour.
We were chasing weather the entire shoot, which was twenty-six days long. We would lay sixty to eighty feet of dolly track in the woods every day. Other challenges: The script was almost all exteriors, there were animals and child actors on set, complex practical effects (we didn’t want visual effects), stunts everyday, and high stakes emotional scene work.
I think we had pretty much all the elements that could go wrong with a film. Luckily, we had no issues with talent – dedicated, hard-working actors made it easier.
Q. What is the most valuable thing you’ve learned?
A. My last movie was micro-budget. I’ve never made a $4 million movie, so pretty much everything about this process felt new to me. Thank goodness there were other producers to lean on and work with. But I think the biggest takeaway for me was sticking with your gut. Ultimately, if you believe something should be as it’s written or produced a certain way, you have to stick to your guns. If we had loosened the reins at certain points, many more things could have gone wrong. Oh, and collaboration. That became my gift.
Also don’t work with goats. The trained raven and the hare were easier to work with than a lot of humans, but goats? Leave them alone.