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

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

Cinematography

While the crew was anxious to get every detail right, the cast was jittery about the hair-raising scenarios Eggers had created. In particular, Taylor-Joy recalls how she and co-star Dickie, who plays her mother, dreaded a scene in which the two, overcome with paranoia, violently take their frustrations out on each other.

“We decided we were going to not hold back,” said Taylor-Joy, who grew so close to Dickie that she is godmother to the latter’s child, “but it’s difficult to differentiate between when you’re shooting and the little in-between periods when they’re changing the shot. The crew had these two hysterical women crying and hugging and rocking each other, like, ‘I love you so much! I know! It’s fine. It’s fine. We can get through it.’”

Black Phillip presented some challenges, too. “The goat is so much an iconic part of witch lore,” explained Eggers, who threw the creature into his story after coming across goat references in the folk tales, fairy tales and recorded accounts of witchcraft he researched. “It treads a line between this exotic, half-forgotten stuff and a horror movie cliché. That’s why it was appealing to me.” Eggers then regretted this flourish when the animal proved a nightmare collaborator. “It was so much worse than I could have imagined. It was just really painful.”

With his limited budget diverted elsewhere, Eggers captured as much on camera as possible to avoid needing too many effects in post (“We were pretty well cut in camera, much to the editor’s horror.”) The first assembly cut was just 97 minutes, only five more than the finished product. One area he refused to skimp on, however, was the score.

Eggers and team shot The Witch on

Eggers and team shot The Witch on the ARRI Alexa Plus

“I realized that since I was trying to articulate things that are so outside of the normal, everyday experience, I really needed music to finish the images,” said Eggers. He began to think about mixing the 17th-century psalms that the family would know with dissonant 20th-century classical music played with instruments from the Puritan era.

The production put the call out to composers near where the film was shooting. Canadian composer Mark Korven stood out immediately. No stranger to freaking people out (having scored Vincenzo Natali’s mindbending thriller Cube), Korven could play the nyckelharpa, a Swedish bowed viola from the middle ages with an unrefined, earthy and organic sound that was greatly unsettling. Other instruments Korven incorporated included the hurdy-gurdy, the Finnish jouhikko (“an ancient, three string bowed instrument”) and the waterphone (“a couple of large, steel pans welded together, with rods that go around the circumference of it. You bow it with a very large bow, and you get squeals, and watery shrieking sounds”).

Korven also suggested that, to underline the perturbing presence of witches in the film, female voices should be incorporated into the score. He even knew who those voices should be: the Element Choir, “an all-woman choir which specializes in improvisation,” says the composer. “You give them very loose directions [such as], ‘Sing for one minute, get really loud, and just when you’re 35 seconds in, scream like a banshee for five seconds,’ and they’ll take it from there.”

“When this choir of women were singing, they were giving 110 percent, drooling and sweating and freaking out,” recalls Eggers. “The sound engineer was totally terrified.”

As a whole, The Witch has that effect on people. Since its premiere at Sundance 2015, where critics crowned it as a 21st-century successor to The Exorcist and Black Phillip became an instant Twitter meme, the film has been scaring the bejeezus out of audiences on the festival circuit.

“I didn’t think the reaction would be this strong,” said Eggers. “I only hope that it isn’t overhyped so much that by the time it’s released, everyone’s just disappointed.”

Only days after A24 announced the pickup of The Witch, Studio 8, the new venture from former Warner Bros exec Jeff Robinov, struck a deal with the director to helm The Knight, a fantasy epic set in medieval times, then another for a redux of Nosferatu.

“There’s so much going on in that marvelous head of his, I can’t wait to see what he’s got to show the world,” enthused Taylor Joy, who herself has reaped a whirlwind following Sundance, cast in the next M. Night Shyamalan film, Split.

Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson play the young twins Mercy and Jonas, respectively, whose antic torment their mother (Kate Dickie)

Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson play the young twins Mercy and Jonas, respectively, whose antics torment their mother (Kate Dickie)

Eggers is pleased to have taken his audiences to a place more or less untraveled by indie horror. “Transporting the audience to another world is just so much fun. I always wanted to be in another world. I wore costumes to school as a kid until I got beat up for it.

“I do want to communicate with other people and film is, arguably, the medium that exists today that can reach the widest audience. When I was doing theater in New York, I was always annoyed by the fact that no one was going to see it. I started doing street theater—we were just a bunch of dirty clowns, quite literally—because at least people got to actually see the work. There’s just really no point otherwise.” MM

The Witch opens in theaters on February 19, 2016, courtesy of A24.

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