The Witch | Robert Eggers and Anya Taylor-Joy On the New Horror Sensation
It’s one of the most talked about horror movies in years, and most people haven’t even seen it yet. Robert Eggers’ challenging, disturbing new film The Witch has been playing the festival circuit since the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, picking up praise and accolades, and even though it’s a challenging period piece drama without much actual violence, it’s now coming to 1,800 screens to compete with mainstream popcorn entertainment.
And with good cause: The Witch is a distinctive and impressive debut from Robert Eggers, who wrote and directed the film and took precise care to recreate the 17th-century Puritan experience on screen. The dialogue, the sets, the costumes are all very specifically chosen to help put audiences inside the world of an isolated family living on the edge of the wilderness. Pride, deception and paranoia take hold of the parents and children alike after the mysterious disappearance of their baby, and eventually witchcraft is suspected, possibly in collusion with the family’s goat, named “Black Phillip.”
I sat down with Robert Eggers and Anya Taylor-Joy, who plays the teenaged Thomasin, who becomes the scapegoat (along with the actual goat) in The Witch. We talked about the film’s historically accurate portrayal of witchcraft – or at least, the historically accurate widespread belief in witchcraft – and about why the goat was such a pain in the ass on set.
The Witch hits theaters this weekend on, February 19, 2016.
Crave: I’d say your film was great but I imagine you’re getting a lot of that today. I don’t want you getting big heads.
Anya Taylor-Joy: [Laughs.] Yeah, and we’d walk around all lopsided.
Has anyone had the gall to say, “I just don’t get it?”
Robert Eggers: Not in person.
This film has been doing the festival circuit for a while. I imagine you’ve seen a lot of reaction so far. What has surprised you about what people are taking away from The Witch?
Robert Eggers: Well I’m just surprised that it’s getting this kind of overwhelming reaction. Really, to be opening on 1,500 screens… I would have been excited about four. I had to believe that this film would have an audience but luckily there’s something witchy in the zeitgeist, you know? We’re lucky.
Anya Taylor-Joy: Yeah.
“I was trying to take us back in time to the 17th century, where the witch was as real for people as trees and dirt and rocks and the sky”
This is, in some respects, a drama with supernatural elements. I feel like there are some films in which the supernatural has subtext and some films where we’re not supposed to take it literally.
Robert Eggers: Mmm-hmm…
I wonder if The Witch is working both ways, and I wonder what your take is on that? Were you taking it literally as an actress, and were you taking it literally as a director?
Robert Eggers: I mean look, if the witch manifests herself physically or in your mind, whichever way it is…
Anya Taylor-Joy: She’s real.
Robert Eggers: It’s like, when you’re in despair, when fear takes hold, when the darkness takes hold, the witch increases in her power and becomes more and more inescapable. So it kind of works both ways. I mean certainly I was trying to take us back in time to the 17th century, where the witch was as real for people as trees and dirt and rocks and the sky. But from a modern context, it’s hard for us to take it literally. So you can look at it on whatever level you feel like, as an audience.
For you, Anya, what does the witchcraft represent for you and your character specifically? There are times when you’re rather playful about it and then obviously it goes in different directions from there.
Anya Taylor-Joy: I think that, like Rob said, it was real for them then, and I think that maybe Thomasin’s at an age where she’s getting a little bit older and maybe she doesn’t believe in it as much as Mercy does, but it’s still…
Wait, I take that completely back. The witch was real for them. So she can play with it but that doesn’t mean that she doesn’t believe in it. That doesn’t mean that that’s not an overarching thread, and that doesn’t mean that that’s not something… to be called a witch meant something so different in those days, and there were serious repercussions from it. Like, it’s kind of like a death sentence. It’s really bad. It’s bad, bad news. So I don’t think she’d ever take it lightly. The difference is that, you know, she’s a fifteen-year-old girl and she can play with her little sister.
We see the “witch hunt” idea in a lot of drama, and usually, it’s perceived as a form of mass hysteria. Everyone was completely wrong, all the time. Here, it doesn’t really go quite in that direction…
Robert Eggers: Look, check it out… in the 17th century, the real world and the fairytale world are the exact same thing. That’s the end of the story. Like, people really believe. If I accused you of being a witch, that means that you are a fairy tale ogress who is in league with Satan. You are capable of doing all the things that this witch in this film does, all the brutal, primitive things.
“I think it’s super great that Daisy Ridley is like the new Christ of one of the most popular religions. This is important, and that’s why the witch is important.”
This is what people thought. I’m not saying that this makes it okay but this is how the witch holocaust happened, because this is what people really believed evil witches were doing. It wasn’t just zealots saying, “Oh, that’s a woman with power.” I mean, certainly the witch represents female power, which is then turned into something dark by this male-dominated society, but the evil witch was a real thing in the minds of these people.
I guess that’s kind of my point. You’re looking at it from the perspective of history, and ingratiating yourself within a particular time, and historical context sort of loses meaning when you’re that deep in it?
Robert Eggers: Yeah, potentially. Potentially.
Is that what fascinated you about the project to begin with, or did you find that angle afterward?
Robert Eggers: It was weird because I kind of had like an instinct about it. Because you know, I grew up in New England. New England’s past is always very much a part of my consciousness. I felt like the woods behind my house were haunted by the past, I really did. But I’ve also, my first dreams I can remember are nightmares about witches, and even to my adult life I had these very scary dreams which were kind of like archetypal witch dreams.
So there was something about that that was always interesting to me, and when it came down to Salem and the way we talked about it in school, we were talking about witch hunts and the idea that people were accusing innocent people of something that isn’t real, it was hard for me to wrap my mind around it. So to really understand the world view of the early modern period, all of a sudden it had potency.
I guess you could say it’s in bad taste to exploit that as a genre film, but certainly I was trying to explore the witch archetype with as much respect as possible and really try to take a look at the darkness in humanity, instead of just saying “boo.”
I’m definitely not accusing you of being exploitative.
Robert Eggers: I don’t think you are. I really didn’t. I didn’t think you were at all.
You’re very intense.
Anya Taylor-Joy: [Laughs.]
But I was thinking, there’s some conversation about whether this even technically a “horror movie,” as if that label is incredibly important…
Robert Eggers: Right, it’s like okay, someone’s saying “It’s not horror, it’s a supernatural thriller” or whatever. I’m like, “Okay, so Edgar Allan Poe isn’t horror then,” you know?
I think the real line here is that it’s our anxieties come to life.
Anya Taylor-Joy: Yeah.
But because it’s so steeped in history, what were your thoughts about how it relates to the present day, specifically?
Robert Eggers: First of all, look… the idea of the evil witch was so massive in this period that its ramifications go throughout history. The witch, in the early modern period, was men’s fears, desires, ambivalences, fantasies about women and female power, and women’s own fears, desires and ambivalences about themselves and their power within this male-dominated society. It was such a powerful idea, again, that it’s gone throughout history. So the shadows of that stuff still exist today.
Look, female power, reclaiming female power in a positive way, or in any way, is still a struggle today. I think it’s super great that Daisy Ridley is like the new Christ of one of the most popular religions. This is important, and that’s why the witch is important.
And also, you know, in my opinion, Disneyfied fairy tales that are moralistic and simplistic aren’t going to survive time. But the classic fairy tales that are more enigmatic and mysterious, those are, because they’re just human. I’m not saying that this is at that level but it was certainly I was… [it was] a goal. So if it has any, any bit of that flavor, it’s going to be sort of human and relatable.
One of the tag lines is “A New-England Folktale.” Was that your idea?
Robert Eggers: Yeah.
Is that how he was describing it to you?
Anya Taylor-Joy: The original script said that.
How does that change it? What does that do to the story? How is the folktale version different than if you had done it any other way?
Robert Eggers: [Thinks.] I don’t know. Honestly, if I can be really honest, it’s bullshit. Because really it’s a fairy tale, not a folk tale. But fairy tales in that tradition didn’t really come from New England so “folktale” sounded like a better subtitle. So I was just being a disingenuous piece of shit.
What were your key pieces of research? I was talking to Kate Dickie and Ralph Ineson and they were like, “He knew everything.”
Anya Taylor-Joy: He does know everything.
He knows everything.
Anya Taylor-Joy: Yeah.
What was the key? What helped unlock this? What were the tomes or texts?
Robert Eggers: There was a lot of stuff. I mean, The Geneva Bible was literally a big one. [Laughs.] Lewis Bayley’s Practice of Piety was a big one. But you know, anything by Cotton Mather. There’s a lot of stuff that’s just easy to find. I mean, some of the stuff that William says in the beginning of the film is actually from a Puritan minister’s sermon, and some of the things that the judges say were things that judges said to Anne Hutchison on trial. So it’s smatterings of all kinds of things that are all pretty easily accessible. The texts that are weirder and hard to find have to do with animal husbandry and pigs, goats and poultry of the Elizabethan and early Stuart period. [Laughs.]
Very detailed. What did he make you do, Anya? How did he help you prepare for the role? Or was he just like, “You’re an actor, figure it out?”
Anya Taylor-Joy: No, he did, he gave me materials. Maybe because I was a naive actor, and I would never do that now, I didn’t go for them. I literally did not and it’s awful and appalling and I would never do that in a million years now. But I think there was something that was just connecting me to the character that kind of allowed us to pull it off, but I would never, ever do that again.
Robert Eggers: There was still, though, like a week of rehearsals which included how do you use the farm tools, how you milk a goat and that kind of thing.
Anya Taylor-Joy: Yeah.
Robert Eggers: Nuts and bolts kind of stuff.
“Fairy tales in that tradition didn’t really come from New England so “folktale” sounded like a better subtitle. So I was just being a disingenuous piece of shit.”
What do you feel it was that connected you to the character straight off the bat?
Anya Taylor-Joy: I think I just really understand what it is to feel like you don’t fit in, within your society, within your world, within your family, within whatever. I’ve always felt like an odd duck so I really understood that. The difference is that she really didn’t have the ability to vocalize it because of the site that she’s living in, and the fact that she’s a Puritan. So I think that there was just something about… I really understood I guess her loneliness and her feeling like an outsider.
Are you an actor who likes to keep that alive on the set? Were you isolating yourself from the other actors?
Anya Taylor-Joy: No. No, I’m a hugger and a lover and a dancer…
Robert Eggers: There’s your headline! [Laughs.]
Anya Taylor-Joy: “I’m a hugger and a lover and a dancer! Hey!” No, literally we had so much fun. We had so much fun making this.
I heard you had some goat problems.
Anya Taylor-Joy: We did. We did. However… so, the goat liked to sleep and it liked to attack Ralph and that’s not good, obviously. Ralph ended up in the hospital. It was awful. But I do have a very lovely picture of me and Charlie [the goat] just chilling out in the sun.
Were you aware of his sleeping needs when you cast the goat? Was it a big casting session to find the right goat?
Robert Eggers: It was, believe it or not. Charlie was sort of a last-minute replacement. We were originally going to have three goats: a bucking goat, a rearing goat and a goat that could stand still, that all looked the same. But it’s a long, complicated story and we ended up with Charlie who didn’t want to do anything but what Charlie wanted to do. It was hard. It was very hard.
Ralph told me he got roped into wrangling that goat.
Anya Taylor-Joy: Oh yeah.
How did that happen? Did he just seem like the right guy?
Robert Eggers: Well, you know, at the time they were the two biggest, beardiest guys around, so…
Anya Taylor-Joy: They went for it.
I hear that your next project is going to be Nosferatu. Is that still on the table?
Robert Eggers: Because it’s in such poor taste, and presumptuous, and egomaniacal, and ugly for me to say that I want to do that, the minute it hit the trades in a pretty big way… so not to say that it might not happen, but it’s in the future and I’ve got something else I’m working on right now.
“Sometimes you want to listen to a Mahler symphony and sometimes you want to listen to a Bach cello suite. One’s not better than the other.”
Can you tell me a little about that? Is it another feature?
Robert Eggers: Yeah, it’s a medieval epic.
Like, “Action! Roar!” or like, “Subtext! Roar!”
Anya Taylor-Joy: It’s going to be a Robert Eggers. [Laughs.]
It’s going to be totally Robert Eggers?
Robert Eggers: I mean, I’m writing it.
So yeah. Do you feel like you have your own stamp, your own style? Does that make sense?
Robert Eggers: Yeah, you only have what’s inside you. You don’t have anything else but that.
But do you ever think to yourself, “I’d better make this commercial?” Is there “Commercial Robert Eggers?” Is there a “Really Abstract Robert Eggers?”
Robert Eggers: I would say that I’d like to make something operatic that can be for bigger audiences, but I’d love to make a tiny, two-act black-and-white, 35mm, 1:33, strange movie as well. Because look, sometimes you want to listen to a Mahler symphony and sometimes you want to listen to a Bach cello suite. One’s not better than the other.
That’s true, but sometimes you want to listen to AC/DC.
Robert Eggers: Sometimes I want to listen to fucking AC/DC, yeah.
Top Photo: A24
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.