THE WITCH: Interview with director Robert Eggers and actress Anya Taylor-Joy

“It is nice to have fans.” That’s the line both director Robert Eggers and lead actress Anya Taylor-Joy gave me when I asked both of them directly about their thoughts on THE WITCH getting the Satanic Church’s seal of approval. While this quote had been instilled in them by whichever handler knew they should have a canned answer to that hot-button question, this was the lone moment in our interview that the duo seemed anything shy of personable, chatty, and heartfelt. I got to sit down with the pair the day before the Sundance and Fantastic Fest favorite has a wide release through A24, and they were a real pleasure to talk to.

Rather than the Disney version of fairytales you went to the darker and more classic tales of witches. What did you want to evoke from that world?
Robert Eggers: What’s really interesting for me is in the early-modern period the real world and the fairytale world really were the same thing. There were a few skeptics, but very very few of them, and those were in the elite intelligentsia. There was no question, “Do you believe in witches?” A witch was a witch, a tree was a tree, a rock was a rock. It’s really fascinating to read the accounts of real witchcraft—witches on trial—because they read like fairytales. There was an Elizabethan witch accuse of giving a child an apple. This is perfect. In terms of genre, there has been a lot of question if THE WITCH is a horror movie. If you are in to it, that’s good enough for me. The genre I think it’s closest to is these early fairytales. Very often in pre-Grimm, the evil step-mother is the biological mother. One of the things I love about these early fairytales is that I see them as these unconscious examinations of complex family dynamics—which I was trying to turn up to 11.
The film is incredibly cohesive. Between performance, cinematography, music, story, everything fits together. Which element first sparked the idea for the film, and what was the final element to come into place?
RE: It’s all connected. It took four years to get the film financed. I had a lot of time to think about what I wanted to do. By the time I had the final draft I knew what I wanted things to look like, what I wanted the photography to be like, and even the music, to a great degree. The biggest unknown thing to me was that I wanted the music to be 17th century string and percussion instruments. Mark Korven, the composer, knew we needed voices, which obviously make such a huge impact in the film. I think that was the last missing ingredient in the film.
What was it like working with the animals?
Anya Taylor-Joy: Oh, the goats. Charlie-Black Philip- had two modes. Charlie and I got along great. We really dug each other. He wanted to lie in the sun and have his belly rubbed, and we would hang out, and it was all good. He hated Ralph [Ineson, who plays the father] on sight. They hated each other mutually. It was so weird. Charlie would be so calm and chill, but then he would see Ralph and put his horns down, and start pawing the ground. Ralph had to lose a lot of weight for the movie, and really grapple with the goat. Ralph ended up in the ER three times because Charlie gored him. The fact that we got that performance is a testament to our editor Lou [Louise Ford], who is amazing. Charlie was a fun playmate, but not terribly great to work with. The only diva on set.
Did you know where Thomasin’s character was going, and were you surprised at the end?
A T-J: I had a really big life moment for myself at the end of the movie. When we wrapped, and we were all tired, I got incredibly depressed. I couldn’t understand why. I knew I was going to see these people again; we all really like each other. It was that I hadn’t realized that characters are real for me. They are a big emotional part of who I am. Thomasin was a real part of me and she was a friend of mine, and I was really sad that I wouldn’t get to see her again. That was surprising. At the beginning of the film I was just anxious to make sure that I was bringing Rob’s vision to life. He was really great about it. He was like, “Yes I created the character, but you are bringing her to life, and she will be an amalgamation of that collaboration.” That was incredible to work with.
RE: Anya’s Thomasin is different than how I originally saw Thomasin. I realized that I was looking for the wrong when Anya auditioned. I didn’t realize I was mistake. I saw her as awkward and much more homely. When Anya came in, I thought, “Wow, she could never be a puritan.” That was exciting, and it brought a lot to the role that was unexpected.
A T-J: I never thought, in a million years, that I would get this role, because it was written as “plain.” I’m pretty weird looking. I don’t buy “plain” for me. It was wonderful, because the first day on set Rob gave me a script that had the character descriptions changed to match me.
What is your reaction to the film receiving the Satanic seal of approval? Do you have a reaction to that?
RE: It is nice to have fans.
What about you, Anya? You are the face of this Satanically-approved film.
A T-J: (laughing) It is nice to have fans.
(Both also apologize for not really answering the question.)
No worries! We can leave it at that. You had mentioned* that there was not much on the proverbial cutting room floor. Did you feel like all of the cutting had already been done in the script before you shot?
RE: We didn’t shoot chronologically, and we weren’t shooting on film, so we weren’t technically “editing in camera.” What I mean to say is that we didn’t get any additional coverage. Every angle was there. Even more than that, the blueprint Jarin [Blaschke, cinematographer] and I created had the rhythm of the order of the shots. Unless we deliberately had a separate set-up for shot-reverse-shot, we only had one angle and you had to edit it in that order. If not, it wouldn’t work. If we designed it to start with a close-up, we only shot the close-up. The only other thing that was different is earlier versions had more William and Caleb in the woods, and less Thomasin on the farm.
Other than securing the budget, what was the most difficult part of the shoot?
RE: Other than the goat, just nature in general. We were so remotely located, and all of the budget was on-screen. The infrastructure was not there. And because we were so remote, there was no cell service and no Wi-Fi. We were constantly tying the schedule in knots to keep the shoot gloomy. We’d get everything set, we’d bring everyone out of the house, and then suddenly: Sun! The goat would be attaching Ralph. The dolly would be sinking in to the mud. Almost every morning I was in tears making my coffee, then I’d pull myself together to come on set. It was not easy.
A T-J: Rob willed this film into existence.
What is your next project?
RE: A medieval epic.
*At this point, I’d seen the director give two separate post-screening Q&A’s, one of which I reference here.

Deirdre Crimmins

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Deirdre (Dede) lives in Chicago (via Boston and Cleveland) with two black cats. She writes for Film Thrills, High Def Digest, The Brattle Theater, Rue Morgue Magazine, Birth.Movies.Death., and anyone else who will let her drone on about genre film. She wrote her Master's thesis on George Romero and is always hopeful that Hollywood will get its head out of its ass.

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