Persistence of Vision: Inside the Making of The Witch, a Horror Classic for the Ages

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Growing up amidst the dilapidated colonial farmhouses and graveyards that lined his neck of New Hampshire, Robert Eggers was plagued with nightmares as a child. Rather than ignore them, he started making up some of his own.

“My friends and I had our own folklore about the witch who lived down the street,” said Eggers. “New England’s past is always part of my consciousness.” This fascination with the occult has led, decades later, to one of the most celebrated feature debuts of recent memory. With The Witch, Eggers preys upon primal fears with elegantly spooky sophistication—an artisanal touch honed by years in theater and film as both a costume and production designer.

Eggers wanted to “upload a Puritan’s nightmare into the mind’s eye of an audience today. It needed to be an inherited nightmare.” He plunged himself into research to find out how to recreate that in exacting detail. Set during the Puritan migration in the 1630s, the film follows a family banished from their community for philosophical differences that are kept vague. What’s quite clear, though, is they have plenty to be afraid of. The Witch draws upon timeless anxieties as it follows the clan of seven into a foreboding forest to set up their farm, accompanied by their ominous pet goat, Black Phillip. Cast out during a brutal winter, the family, led by a righteous farmer (Ralph Ineson) and his wife (Kate Dickie) suffers from hunger, homesickness, budding hormones (on the part of teenage daughter Thomasin, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, and pubescent son Caleb, played by Harvey Scrimshaw)… and the distinct possibility that a coven of witches lives in the woods they now call home.

Actor Ralph Ineson plays William, the Puritan patriarch trying to maintain order in his fraying family

Actor Ralph Ineson (center) plays William, the Puritan patriarch trying to maintain order in his fraying family

The film prods constantly at dread and direness, with imagery of the wilted corn that the family’s pitiful crops yield, or the dead chicks they find inside just-hatched eggs. In his research, the writer-director found that the closer he stuck to the facts presented in wills, diaries and other documents of the era—in which witches were “as real as anything else” —the spookier his story became. “I don’t think that authenticity equates to good design,” he clarified, and yet, “I needed the world to be grounded in order for the supernatural stuff to actually be believable.”

Eggers also found opportunity in the serpentine language used by the Puritans, both gnarled and impassioned, that could entrance and inspire curiosity in an audience (if it didn’t bewilder them). “We had various historians give the thumbs up to the language, but it’s definitely my interpretation. It was a fascinating period because people had a real facility for this beautiful language. It had only been in the last 100 years that an English Bible was legal for use. In fact, in New England, it was against the law for you not to teach your children how to read.”

He created his own phrase book from all the passages he found in the writing of Cotton Mather and Samuel Willard, who faithfully chronicled the Salem witch trials. He channeled every description of emotional turmoil or Satanic superstition toward his characters’ plight.

“It sucks you into the story and creates a fantastical separation from normal life that really does transport you to a different world,” Anya Taylor-Joy said of the screenplay. She read the script for the first time the night before her audition, “sitting on my bed like a scared little bunny.”

Anya Taylor-Joy plays Thomasin. Eggers says of the actress: “Anya is someone who reels you in.”

Anya Taylor-Joy plays Thomasin. Eggers says of the actress: “Anya is someone who reels you in.”

Taylor-Joy found Thomasin, the protagonist, to be an evocative and sympathetic character. “She’s growing up in a time where nobody had any information. Now, if teenagers are crazy, people say, ‘Oh, it’s hormones. This is normal.’ Back in those days, female sexuality was feared, so it’s not just the family that’s scared of her growing up. She’s scared, too. She doesn’t know where she fits in.”

A major challenge for Eggers was, of course, “convincing financiers that a pilgrim horror movie in Jacobean English was going to be something that people wanted to see.” Prior to his feature debut, Eggers had crafted a distinctive style on shorts, which he showed prospective backers (His 2013 film “Brothers” is a notable stylistic precursor to The Witch.) However, “the price point for doing this the way it needed to be done was high for a first-time filmmaker. People wanted to do it for the half the amount because of my experience level, [but] I’m proud of the production value given the budget at hand.”

It would take four years—and, if you go by the film’s final credits, 23 producers—for him to realize his vision. The director found luck at the inaugural Sundance Catalyst program in 2013, which introduces investors to a small, hand-picked group of projects. The experience put him in touch with the Brazilian financier RT Features. Their support opened the door to others, such as Chris Columbus’ 1492 Productions and highbrow/low-budget maestros Lars Knudsen and Jay Van Hoy’s Parts and Labor, to bring the film to life.

While he clung on to an ever-comprehensive creative vision throughout the project, Eggers had to make one major concession: Despite a long-held desire to shoot The Witch in New England, where the story is set, financial reasons forced the production to Canada. Eggers ultimately settled upon the small town of Kiosk in northern Ontario, where the white pine and hemlock reminded him of home.

Cost efficiency aside, Eggers and his crew weren’t yet out of the woods. The remote location made communication with the outside world extremely difficult. Producers often had to race down a road and hike to the top of a hill to get cell reception. The February shoot also meant that in the weeks leading up to production, the crew had to haul out 10 trucks full of snow, and cover what they could with peat moss, so they could prep for what needed to look like a fully operational farm in autumn.

“We were constantly tying the schedule in knots to try to keep the weather gloomy,” said Eggers. “It’s something we couldn’t fake; we certainly didn’t have the budget to do crazy silking.”

Writer-director Robert Eggers recreates his gothic New England childhood fantasies (in Ontario, Canada)

Writer-director Robert Eggers recreates his gothic New England childhood fantasies (in Ontario, Canada)

The isolated locale had some benefits. The crisp, bitter cold practically wafts off the screen; there’s nary a snowflake in sight to pretty up the austerity of the picture. And with few distractions, the cast could give their full concentration to a week of rehearsals before the 25-day shoot. This week was crucial to developing a familial chemistry with one another, working with the animals that would populate their farm and learning period farming techniques. Rehearsals also had a major emphasis on blocking, specifically concerning a climactic scene in which the entire family is brought together in a single room that could literally be described as a house of pain.

Added Eggers, “The camera work was so rigorous, we needed to really be prepared. I was looking for people who were great actors but also good people. That was really important because the shoot was going to be so difficult as this family tears each other apart and goes into some really dark places.”

Blaschke, who has shot all of Eggers’ shorts since an adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” came up with the inspired idea to lock off the frame to an almost square 1.66:1 aspect ratio, making the woods feel taller and more imposing. In contrast, the inside of the family’s small house feels even more claustrophobic. For a group of devoutly religious characters, Blaschke reasoned, the effect emphasized the fear of what was above and what was below.

He also visited Panavision in search of lenses that would give the dreamlike feel that Eggers was aiming for, picking some 1940s-era Cooke lenses to use with an Alexa Plus. The Cookes “give a very round quality. It almost looked like a crystal ball—it smeared out-of-focus areas in the corners, [so] it was like looking through a porthole into the past.” The cinematographer estimates that 85 percent of the movie was shot with a 32mm lens; the rest on a 25mm or 40mm, with “maybe four shots on a 50mm.”

Blaschke and Eggers also were intent on using natural light throughout the film. Familiar with the simple, strong compositions that triple-wick candles (used on “Tell-Tale Heart”) could deliver, they lit many of the interior scenes in The Witch using the same beeswax candles, shipped from a maker in Alaska, as well as tea lights hidden just out of frame to give the image a burnished quality.

DP Jarin Blaschke holds a viewfinder up to The Witch’s entirely purpose-built set

DP Jarin Blaschke holds a viewfinder up to The Witch’s entirely purpose-built set

Using natural light, Blaschke said, was “a responsibility. The actors are all in these really period-accurate costumes, and we have sets made with traditional techniques… to then put out a Kino Flo would just be a betrayal.”

He’s not exaggerating about the sets. Goaded, perhaps, by Eggers’ own design background, production designer Craig Lathrop went to remarkable lengths to get period details right. Shortly before filming, Lathrop joined costume designer Linda Muir, Blaschke and Eggers for a trip to Plimoth Plantation, the living history museum in Massachusetts that replicates life in the original Plymouth Colony. Blaschke brought light meters to figure out lighting schemes with Eggers, while Lathrop took note of the architecture and the tools used to build such structures. He also visited many more sites, and consulted a local archaeologist about 17th-century farm life. Although he would outsource some jobs to a thatcher in Virginia who could supply a proper straw roof for the farmhouse, and a Massachusetts craftsman who built the hand-riven clapboard that lines its sides, Lathrop and his crew felled trees to build the rest of the set on location (with a few spaces on a soundstage), consulting manuals from Puritan times for guidance, and even using vintage equipment in some situations.

“We built the entire set, most of the furniture, most of the hand props,” said Lathrop. “We cheated wherever we could using modern tools, but where you would see it, we used the tools that they would have used, or very similar modern equivalents.”

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