The Witch: Director and Star Talk Puritan Horror

Filmmaker Robert Eggers and actress Anya Taylor-Joy discuss their brilliant new horror film, The Witch.

You would not believe it from just watching, but The Witch is the first feature film directed (and written) by Robert Eggers, who has made what could turn out to be an instant horror classic. The Witch is set in New England, in the 17th century, when belief in supernatural evil was just as powerful and repressive as belief in a vengeful Christian god. It is for defying the church of the latter than the farmer William (Ralph Ineson) and his family are banished from their community and sent to live on the edge of a forbidding forest, where it soon becomes apparent that a primal, malevolent spirit is preying on them – possibly through his teenaged and sexually flowering daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy).

The Witch is uncannily accurate – right down to the version of English that the characters speak – and unrelentingly disturbing. The story taps into ancient – and even modern – fears about nature, possession and black magic, coupled with the power of religious persuasion and sexual repression. It’s thoroughly eerie and atmospheric, and an incredibly confident debut from Eggers. We sat down with the young director and Anya Taylor-Joy – who is also quite amazing in the film – to discuss bringing this dark, dark fable to the screen.

Den of Geek: Can you talk about how this story came together and how it coalesced in your head?

Robert Eggers: I grew up in New England, and New England’s past was always very much part of my consciousness. I wanted to make an archetypal New England horror story like a nightmare from the past. If you could experience a Puritan’s nightmare firsthand, that’s what I wanted to do.

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The crux of this film is really understanding that in the early modern period, the real world and the fairytale world were the same thing. They really believed that witches were these fairytale beings capable of doing all the horrible things that they do in this film. And so, if I could bring the audience back to the 17th century and get into the mindset of these English Calvinist settlers, the witch could be real again and scary again.

The witch is also a symbol of feminine power, which gives the story a modern relevance.

Eggers: Yeah. I mean the thing is in the early modern period, the witch was manifested as man’s fears, desires, and ambivalences of fantasies about women and female power and women’s own fears and ambivalences about themselves within this male dominated society. It’s tragic that they had to create a witch in the common imagination as a symbol of darkness.

White witches existed too, but this evil witch and the belief in her as a real thing was so powerful that we had the little witch holocaust in Europe and all the things here with the Salem witch trials. And the ramifications have gone throughout time.

So reclaiming female power in a positive way, or in any way, is still going on today. I think it’s very important that Daisy Ridley is like the new Christ of one of the most popular contemporary religions.

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Anya, when you saw the script and you got into the auditions, what was your feeling about the story and the character of Thomasin? How did you react to it?

Anya Taylor-Joy: I hadn’t read that many scripts. I’d only been acting for about two or three months or something like that. I read it very late at night and I had my audition the next day. That’s sort of just the way I do things, like I read it the night before and then I learn the lines maybe five minutes before going in.

This script just completely terrified me. I was brought up Catholic and there were certain lines that literally struck dread in my heart and I was completely taken by. Going into the audition the next day, I was so nervous that I can remember calling my mom and being like, “I don’t know why I’m so nervous! I don’t know what it is about this. It’s scaring me, but in a good way.”

It felt big and it felt important. And it felt like a story that I wanted to tell. And it was the first script where I was like, “Actually, I think I might be able to tell this story.”

She’s “dangerous” because she’s on the cusp of her sexuality emerging, which was a potent weapon at that time. How did you find the balance between that and the innocence that you also still had?

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Taylor-Joy: I don’t know. It was almost as if it felt pretty destined.

I don’t think about things in such a kind of tangible way of, like, “I’m going to play the right level of this” or whatever. It felt really natural. It felt like I knew her and I knew how she would want me to tell this story and how she would want me to show how it was happening.

Let’s talk a little bit about the language and developing it accurately.

Eggers: It’s a really great period in history with the English language, because people were really excited about language. Shakespeare’s plays were still being performed at the time that this takes place; it’s not too far after his death. And common people went to the plays and enjoyed them. New England was the most literate part of the western world.

And it was illegal not to teach your children how to read because it was so crucial that you were to read the Bible in English and have this personal relationship with God. Less than 100 years earlier people were being burned at the stake in England for translating the Bible into English. So this was so important to them. So you’ll find wills of farmers who couldn’t write but could read. And they were dictated wills. And if we take them as accurate, they are clunky, but also kind of beautiful.

So basically I studied the vocabulary and I studied the grammar structure. That was time consuming. I went through a lot of primary source material and I would take sentences and phrases out all the time and I would organize them into different situations where I might need them. So there were earlier drafts that should never be seen by anyone. I mean they don’t really exist. They were just like these horrible cannibalistic collages of other people’s words which slowly got honed into something that was my own.

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But, very deliberately, there are certain things that are left intact, certain things that children say or things that children actually said that were possessed and so on and so forth.

further reading – The Witch: Period Horror with a Modern Edge

Was it challenging, Anya, learning to speak in that way?

Taylor-Joy: I love it. I mean it was an absolute privilege to be able to speak in such a beautiful and lyrical way. Actually, it would be more difficult to make the film speaking as we’re speaking right now than it would be in the way that it was. I never found the language to be a barrier. If anything, I felt it was a wonderful way into that world, if that makes sense.

When I read the script, I don’t ever remember thinking, “Oh. This is written in kind of an English that I don’t understand.” I never even questioned it. I was like, “Yeah. Sure. This is something that I understand.” And it’s a beautiful way to speak. So I’m really very lucky to have been able to speak that way for five weeks.

Eggers: For none of the actors, even the six-year-old, was there a situation where I was teaching people how to do this. I only cast people who could do it.

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You are not a novice in film, but you haven’t directed a feature before this. Did you feel confident going into this? Were there things that you didn’t anticipate going in?

Eggers: I was confident going into it. I truly was. And I’m glad that it took so long to get financed because I had more time to mature and not just prepare and research, but actually be more of an adult. I got married and I was more able to handle this.

The animals, even though I love animals, the goat was so typically difficult. Nature was a bitch. But I like that challenge. I really do enjoy it. But, wow, nature was not making things easy for us, let me tell you.

further reading: Best Modern Horror Movies

Anya, what were the most challenging scenes for you to do, physically or emotionally?

Taylor-Joy: The final scene with Kate (Dickie, who plays family matriarch Katherine) was horrible to film. We were so close and we became so close so quickly. We initially met and we were just friends. That was the way it worked. From Day 1, we were like, “That scene is going to be horrible. Let’s just agree right now that we’re going to do it. We’re going to go for it and we’re going to do it once or twice and basically just not hold back and really give each other permission to go to that place.”

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It was horrible, but, at the same time, when we were done we felt so proud because what you see on screen is so real. We really were crying and we were really struggling with that. I think that comes across on screen, and so we did our job.

Robert, I want to ask you a little bit in the time we have left about the aesthetics of horror cinema. It seems like you’ve watched a lot of the classics and have steeped yourself in the genre. What to you are the basic tenets that need to be in a horror film? I also want to put that in context of you possibly remaking Nosferatu, which is one of the all-time greats in the field.

Eggers: First, briefly, because it’s megalomaniacal and presumptuous and disgusting for me to want to do Nosferatu again, it hit the trades in a big way. It’s still going to happen, but it’s far away…Murnau’s film is a kind of rough around the edges indie movie. It’s also one of the greatest, most atmospheric films ever made. First of all, it’s more neo-Romantic than Expressionist. If you look at the other Expressionist films, even like Albin Grau, who designed Nosferatu, the film he did after that, Warning Shadows, he had more money, so everything was more Expressionistic. But here in Nosferatu there is these weird clash of like real locations and these expressionistic sets. It’s really kind of strange.

For me, the most important thing about a good horror story is actually confronting the darkness in humanity. Sometimes you need a jump scare to tell your story, but if the thing is just about boo, boo, boo, like I could say boo all day long but that doesn’t actually talk about what is actually horrific.

I mean, I find Lovecraft a bit tedious and a bit nerdy, but he knows the horror of the sublime, and that’s important. The other thing is restraint. You’ve got to have restraint. You’ve got to know when to show enough of what’s personal and scary to you as the author and then hold back so that then the audience call fill in the blanks with what’s personally scary to them.

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The Witch is out in theaters this Friday (February 19).