If Robert Eggers were your barista, you wouldn’t look at him twice. Once you realise this 34-year-old Brooklyn filmmaker is the writer-director of the creepy and spiritually intense horror film The Witch, then his black beard and handsome, Mephistophelean features make an altogether different kind of sense.
Set in the wilds of New England in the 1630s, The Witch is attracting praise for its uncannily realistic portrayal of a Puritan family cracking up under what appear to be demonic forces. Featuring intense scenes of demonic possession, a sinister black goat and a baby-stealing naked hag (played by 90-year-old actress Bathsheba Garnett), the film boasts period-perfect production design and utterly convincing performances from Brits Ralph Ineson (The Office), Kate Dickie (Game of Thrones) and newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy.
Eggers, whose previous works are short film versions of ‘Hansel and Gretel’ and Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, says he was as much influenced by Ingmar Bergman as by HP Lovecraft and The Exorcist. “I think Bergman is a better horror director than actual horror directors,” Eggers tells Time Out by phone during a lunch break from recording audio commentary for the film. “Because he is actually is probing what’s dark in humanity, and that’s what I think horror is.”
Robert, what was the spark that made you want to create The Witch?
I grew up in New England and New England’s past was always very much part of my consciousness. If you’ve ever been to a small New England town you see these dilapidated colonial farmhouses and graveyards out in the middle of the woods. I grew up feeling like the woods behind my house were haunted by the past.
So I wanted to make an archetypal New England horror story. Something that would feel like an inherited Puritan’s nightmare. Something that could reawaken forgotten ancestral fears.
The film is both a very believable portrait of the psychological breakdown of a hyper-religious family – but it also has overt supernatural elements. Was that always the plan? To have it both ways?
Yeah, it was always the plan. Some people accuse me of wanting to have my cake and eat it to. It’s probably a fair criticism! But I like the ambiguity. Whether or not the witch exists in the minds of these English settlers or whether she physically exists, she has tremendous power over them. She feeds off their fear and she feeds off their despair and they can’t escape her.
In the Early Modern period, a witch was just a given. She wasn’t something you just believed in. A witch was a witch like a tree is a tree and a rock is a rock. That’s the world I was trying to recreate.
Life is dark and dangerous for these people and their fear of God makes life even tougher. All they have to give them joy is their children. So it’s interesting that it’s the children who are targeted.
Witches are very much anti-mother figures, so a lot of the witchery is going to play out on children.
The scenes where children are possessed are especially creepy. Are these drawn from contemporary accounts?
You can look at everything that [Salem witch trials participants] Cotton Mather and Samuel Willard wrote on Googlebooks. And that’s where a lot of this stuff comes from. The second largest witch outbreak was in the 1660s in Connecticut, and a lot of the stuff the children [in the film] say where they’re possessed comes from that.
It took four years to get the movie made I believe.
After less than a year I had a script that I was pleased with, and my producing partners were pleased with, but nobody wanted to finance it.
What was the problem?
Some people were like: “Killing a baby on page five? No thank you.” And a lot of people were just like, “This is cool, but not for the price point. UK actors coming over here? Building everything authentically? It’s a waste of money.”
If I could have done it for cheaper but I could have made it sooner, but the film ended up costing US$3.5 million and we needed it. If I couldn’t really transport audiences into that world, then I couldn’t transport audiences into that mindset, and then the witch isn’t real and the movie’s not worth doing.
Can you give me an example of the kind of effort you went to to get the production design accurate?
The production designer worked his ass of trying to figure out how to fake the siding on the outbuildings, but he couldn’t do it. So those were made by a man in Massachusetts using the traditional techniques of hand-riving oak. It’s not part of the vernacular architectural tradition of northern Ontario [where the film was shot], so we had to get that shipped up from Massachusetts.
Is this a film that speaks to today?
If it’s not a film that speaks to today it shouldn’t have been made. I tried my best to do archetypal storytelling. That’s why you can tell a fairy tale again and again and it means different things in different periods and Freud can interpret it one way and Jung another and Bettelheim another, and Disney another.
Disney would flinch at the animals in this film. Where did you find such a scary-looking rabbit?
It’s a hare: and that’s the difference. There aren’t many scary-looking rabbits. But Google ‘European brown hare’ and they all look pretty wily... witches and hares go way back in western European folklore. It’s an archetype rattling around in our unconsciousness.
Black Philip the goat is pretty freaky too. How did you find him?
Charlie weighed 210 pounds. He had the biggest horns. So he got the role. He looks very like the goats in many woodcuts and engravings from the Middle Ages and Early Modern period having to do with witches. His breed is not the same that the English settlers brought to New England, even though it’s very close… we were just looking for something big and exotic and devilish.
Unfortunately, the only animal in the movie that is the correct breed was the horse. [laughs] He said, crying into his quinoa salad.
The Witch opens Thu Mar 17.