Looking at history in the rearview, the cultural mores of bygone eras tend to appear either quaint, or barbaric, or tragically loony. The Salem witch trials scored a hat trick by being all three at once. Maybe you can boil the horrors of that persecutory campaign down to extreme religious conservatism, a general and ill-advised acceptance in the existence of the supernatural, and, perhaps most of all, high public tensions wrought by overarching social division; whether over land disputes or parishioner rights, people in 1690s Salem Town were on edge and just waiting for an outlet in which to expend their frustrations. When local murmurings about witchcraft began to circulate among townsfolk, gruesome outbursts of blind zealotry were just inevitable.
Robert Eggers’ first directing and writing effort, The Witch, is all about the fears that fueled that period, though the film occurs about 60 years before Salem made its terrible contribution to New England history. The Witch places a Puritan family, exiled from their colony following a frank exchange of ideas about how best to practice Christianity, on the edge of civilization in 1630s New Hampshire. Left to their own devices, they establish their new homestead along a forest line that happens to be the den of—surprise!—an especially nasty witch, who proceeds to visit awful torments upon the group as they collectively lose their marbles.
The Witch is of a piece with It Follows and The Babadook, horror movies that made their first splash at the Sundance Film Festival and went on to dominate conversations about horror cinema in their respective release years. But unlike those films, The Witch is rooted in a very real and very specific time and place via which it gives its audience the heebie-jeebies. With some clever editing, The Witch could just be a sobering historical drama about the inescapable grasp religious paranoia had on settlers living in the 17th century. However fantastical the picture may or may not be—your mileage will vary in that department—the work Eggers and his lead, Anya Taylor-Joy, put into realizing these Puritan fears on film is breathtaking in its grim veracity.
Eggers and Taylor-Joy made a stop in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to screen The Witch at the Brattle Theatre, on a press tour that put them smack-dab in witch country. Paste sat down with the pair the day after the screening, when we talked about The Witch’s historical contexts, the thrill of showing a New England horror movie to a New England audience, locational authenticity, the heritage of fear, and the cultural reclamation of feminine power.
Robert Eggers: Were you at the screening last night?
Paste: No, I had a family obligation and I couldn’t make it, but…
Eggers: It was totally bonkers. I’m like, “Yeah, I’m back in witch country! This is great.”
Anya Taylor-Joy: I had to take an hour when I came home to be like, “This is amazing! What’s going on!”
So how was it at the Brattle? How did you find the experience of touring this in front of a New England audience?
Eggers: I mean … they were so pumped. And again, it’s witch country, people had all these really specific witch questions…
Taylor-Joy: They knew what Enochian was!
Eggers: Yeah! And people were telling me stories of the witch lore of the building, like, three buildings down … I mean, that’s fun.
Taylor-Joy: It was wonderful. It was an absolutely incredible experience.
I like to say this about Boston crowds, the New England crowds: They’re very savvy, and if they get you in front of them, they really love to pick your brain. That’s good. I wish I’d been there!
Eggers: No, no, of course.
So coming into New England, were you maybe more excited, or maybe a little bit more anxious, bringing this back to New England, just because of the locality?
Eggers: Well, we screened at the New Hampshire Film Festival so that some of my family could see it, because we didn’t know that this wide release was going to happen. I was very concerned that New Englanders were going to be mad that we shot the film in Canada. I was disappointed that we had to do that. However, it ended up being really great, because we had to be so isolated in order to find a forest system with enough white pines and hemlocks to possibly pass as New England…
Taylor-Joy: It wouldn’t have been the same.
Eggers: Well, we had to go way off the map in Canada to do that. So we ended up in this extremely remote place, which wouldn’t have quite been the same here. But in any case, when we were screening in New Hampshire—I knew this was going to happen—but people just kept raising their hands, saying, like, “My backyard looks like that! You could have just shot this in my backyard!” I was just like, “Sorry, guys!” [laughs]
I was thinking, when I was watching it, “I’ve seen that forest before!” Because it does come very close to matching certainly, in my experience, the southern parts of New Hampshire, or Vermont, or other parts of New England…
Eggers: Yeah. That’s where I’m from, so that’s what I was trying to articulate.
I would say that worked. I imagine there’s a lot of anxiety about that, because the entire thing is about authenticity, and if you can’t nail authenticity in the setting, you know? Was that the biggest challenge going in for you? Because you have so many other period details that you have to get right, and then you have to get the outdoors right, too.
Eggers: Sadly, most people are, you know, sitting on their butts in front of screens, and couldn’t tell a red pine from a hemlock if their lives depended on it. But yeah, certainly some of my friends were like, “Where are the oak trees? Where are the oak trees? What the hell?” But the thing is, we could only get this film financed by shooting it in Canada, and by shooting it in this one particular region. So, you know, my producers, they were saying, “Okay, well, we have this opportunity to do this in Canada.” I was like, “Well, I have to see if they have the right trees.” And they were like, “Rob, they have the right trees. Let me tell you right now, they do. If you want to make this film, they have the right trees.”
So let’s talk about…
Eggers: Let’s talk about trees some more!
That is what readers want to know about: trees. I mean, hey, trees can be exciting! But maybe not when you’re talking about The Witch.