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.
There’s more interesting stuff going on here. So, I know we’re in the February part of the movie season, but I’ve already noticed a trend in horror movies that have come out this year—there’s a tendency to totally upend the movie with some obnoxious twist that recalibrates the entire movie. It’s a dishonest tactic. But The Witch doesn’t do that. The Witch is very up-front. I was curious if you felt like that kind of forthrightness is an important quality for making maybe not just a horror movie, but movies in general.
Eggers: Twists 99.9 percent of the time do absolutely nothing for me. I don’t care. I just think, “Ugh. Come on, please. Give me a break.” And I saw Arthur Miller’s View From the Bridge on Broadway recently, and there’s a point in the middle of the play in which the narrator says, “You can see the end of this coming a mile away.” And all it did was make you more excited to see the predictable ending. So I don’t think that a twist necessarily makes anything better. We articulate the witch visually—also known as, “We show the witch” [laughs]—early on so that we can understand what the stakes are right away, because the audience doesn’t know what a 17th century witch means.
Taylor-Joy: That’s my favorite play!
Eggers: Is it really?
Taylor-Joy: It really is!
Eggers: It would be.
You’re talking about what a 17th century witch looks like, and there’s another trend in horror going back to maybe close to the last decade, where witches are slowly starting to become a modern pop cultural fixture, whether it’s a cheesefest like Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters—which, we’re not really going to that for authenticity—or American Horror Story: Coven…
Eggers: Lords of Salem!
The Conjuring, and yeah, Lords of Salem—things like that…
Eggers: Vin Diesel: Witch Hunter? I know that’s not what it’s called, but that’s what it should be called.
It should be! That would have been a much better title. So I guess I’m wondering if you have a take on where this new fascination with witches dating up to 2016 is coming from.
Eggers: I think—this makes me sound a little bit whatever, but I do think that we are, thankfully, trying to grapple with reclaiming feminine power as a mass culture. So on the one hand there are all these witches, and on the other, there are sort of these timid attempts at things like slapping armor on Snow White, and Alice in Wonderland, which really are just ruining fairy tales, but then having Daisy Ridley be the new Christ of one of the world’s most popular contemporary religions is kind of at the other end of all that, and I think it’s important.
I like that answer, for one thing. I’ve been doing a lot of research—I have books about witchcraft and Satanism piled up this high [indicated with hands] at my house, just to read about backstory and things to do with this movie, and female power comes up a lot. Feminine power comes up a lot.
When you were reading the script, Anya, did that element strike you? Was that something that pulled you in and made you want to do this?
Taylor-Joy: Well, I mean … I’m not gonna lie to you.
Taylor-Joy: [laughs] I don’t lie very well! But you know, I hadn’t read that many scripts when I first read The Witch. So I wasn’t well versed enough to think about things like themes, and also, Rob didn’t set out to write a feminist movie. It’s just that feminism jumps off the page, you know? The Witch is feminist.
Eggers: It’s intertwined.
Eggers: It’s unignorable. It’s the same thing with like, whatever, English Calvinism.
Taylor-Joy: It’s there. It’s bursting out of the script.
You can’t divorce one thing from the other.
Taylor-Joy: Exactly! But my experience reading the script for the first time was that my body shut down on itself. Before auditions and stuff I don’t really get nervous, because I’m pretty, like, “C’est la vie, if it’s for me it’s for me, if it’s not it’s not,” but this one, I was so nervous and anxious. Imagine me crawling up the walls with my fingernails and chewing on a dog toy. It was like that level of, “Ahhhhh! What’s going on?!”
[laughing] I want someone to shoot that now.
Taylor-Joy: [laughs] And I kind of sat down and I dissected it, and I thought, “What is it about this that’s making me feel this way? Because something is happening that I don’t understand.” The first thing was that I was confused by the fact that, like, it was only reading the script the second time that I realized, “Oh, this language is different from the way that people speak nowadays!” It felt very natural to me. It was a real way into the world, and it would have been wrong to have it any other way. You know what I mean?
The second thing was, I felt like the fear I was experiencing was not mine. It was not Anya’s, in the 21st century. It was not my fear. It was ancestral. I was brought up Catholic, and it was like this old, old fear, this primal fear, that was just passed down from generation to generation, and I had forgotten that I was afraid of these things from a kind of ancestral mindset.
Eggers: And it means a lot to me to hear that. Definitely one of my intentions was for her to feel, like, an inherited nightmare.
And that’s kind of what this movie, certainly for a New Englander, is. When you think about witching in New England—I mean, this is nowhere near the Salem witch trials, but that’s where my mind immediately goes. It’s one of our region’s most shameful histories, I think it’s fair to say.
Taylor-Joy: Well, I think a lot of people forget that this is real life. That was not a fairy tale. It’s easy to separate yourself from it, but what Rob’s really done is kind of, like, hold up this fear that lives within all of us, because as human beings, it’s all of our histories. He forces you to look at this and be like, “Remember this? You’re really, really scared of this, by the way.” Does that make sense?
Taylor-Joy: Thank you.
Makes sense to me.
I had my own kind of version of that experience just while sitting and watching it … man, who was it? Drew McWeeny at HitFix, out of Sundance last year, had the best quote about this movie, something to the effect of, “It feels like we’re watching something we should not be seeing.” And I think that is the absolute perfect way to describe it. It’s like you’re peering into someone else’s experience. Like you said, this is real—even though there is totally a witch in it, and the movie makes no bones about that; this is a reality of New England history.
Eggers: And it was their reality. Because of course, people are like, “Well, is there a witch, or is it religious hysteria?” Well, look at Salem, man. When they finally admitted that they were wrong, it wasn’t because witches don’t exist. It was just that those women, and a couple of men, weren’t witches. But maybe a couple of them were! And besides, the devil was there, you know, so.
I’m super interested to know, did you ever at any point while making this think, “Well, I could have a witch in this movie, or I could just leave the witch out and have the fear be the period hysteria about witches”?
Eggers: No. I mean, I think you can still interpret this film as being [about] a psychological witch. Even though you see her, I think you could do that. Which is cool! But no. Definitely there were conversations about it, but I always stuck to my guns. Plus, I really feel, and I may have already said this in this interview, that we needed to see that witch in the very beginning even if she doesn’t exist physically, because we needed to know what the stakes are. We needed to understand.
Taylor-Joy: Because for the family, that’s what the witch is. I think we have a very Disneyfied, sterilized version of what an evil witch is nowadays. For that family, in that time, it’s not the way that we look at witches, like, “Oh, witches aren’t real.” That was what a witch was, and that witch was capable of doing all of the things that the witch in our movie does. That was the fear of it, so Rob’s right: You needed to see her because you needed to be like, “Oh, they’re in trouble!”
This is what they were for people, whether they existed or not.
Eggers: Right—whether they existed or not.
Taylor-Joy: And it’s a terrifying thing. You need to be able to invest in their fear.
The sense I get from hearing the two of you talk about this is that it’s about finding a balance between history and these supernatural elements, as opposed to leaning more toward one or the other.
Eggers: Well, it’s about articulating the period understanding of those supernatural elements, but doing it, photographing it, articulating it with restraint in a way where you could say that aside from, like, three shots, anything supernatural that happens you could almost justify scientifically. Even the poison apple. It’s just small enough.
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has been scribbling for Paste Magazine since 2013. He also contributes to Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Birth.Movies.Death. You can follow him on Twitter. He is composed of roughly 65 percent Vermont craft brews.