It’s time to get to know Robert Eggers. The Witch is only his first feature as a director, but after scoring loads of critical praise and the Best Director Prize in the U.S. Narrative Competition at Sundance, there’s no doubt that the film will go on to wow audiences nationwide and possibly go on to become a horror classic as well.
The movie is set in New England in 1630, and focuses on a family of seven that’s banished from their colonial plantation and forced to live alone in a secluded clearing right alongside an eerie forest. When the youngest of the bunch, baby Samuel, vanishes on his big sister’s (Anya Taylor-Joy) watch, the rest of the family is left to wonder if witchcraft played a factor in his disappearance and if it’s the cause of various other misfortunes happening around the farm.
With The Witch getting a wide release on February 19th, I got the opportunity to spend some time with Eggers and Taylor-Joy to discuss their experience making the movie and how Eggers’ love of costumes as child paved the way towards his feature directorial debut. Read all about that, when improvisation came in handy on set, what the producers had to do in order to get a cell signal during the shoot and loads more in the interview below.
ROBERT EGGERS: I was alway sort of into not being in the world we live in. I was really into costumes as a kid. I would ask for costumes instead of toys for Christmas and I wore costumes to school until I got beat up for it.
What’d you dress up as?
EGGERS: Different things like Captain Hook, Abraham Lincoln, whatever I could kind of cobble together and was interested in at the time. But in any case, I always wanted to direct. I started in theater and I would design the sets and costumes to the theater that I did. I was doing street theater with a very extravagant costume design and masks and puppets and stuff, and a more experienced director saw that and she asked if I would do the sets and costumes for a show she was doing at La MaMa. So from there I realized, ‘Oh, I could make a living designing for other people while I’m trying to get my career together as a director.’ I spent all my 20s in that capacity pretty much.
And you did that kind of work on short films too?
EGGERS: Yup! Short films, theater, a few features, non-union commercials, I did set carpentry, I did prop styling, I worked on fashion shoots, all kinds of stuff, whatever was kind of around to pay the bills. [Laughs]
So at what point did you say to yourself, ‘No it’s my time to direct?’
EGGERS: Whenever I could beg, borrow and steal I would direct. Basically there was a time when it seemed like I could maybe actually start doing some decent feature films as a designer and I kind of realized I had to take a step back and focus on my writing. Luckily I got into doing more fashion stuff because in the print world, it was easier to make money on a short gig basically, and that was very helpful in being able to do my thing basically.
You can write a script and say, ‘I’m going to make a feature,’ but it’s different to say, ‘I am making a feature.’ At what point in the process did you realize you were really going to get to make The Witch?
EGGERS: The first short film that wasn’t bad, I had made that, there were some people who were interested in possibly developing a feature and I wrote a bunch of feature screenplays to which those people and others said no thank you. They were just too weird. And so I realized, okay, it looks like in this climate I have to make something that is more recognizably within a genre and so then I started working on The Witch. I mean, I also wrote scripts that I knew were crap and didn’t send to anybody. I wrote a lot. I wrote a lot, man.
Anya, what was your first impression of this script? Are you into horror?
ANYA TAYLOR-JOY: No! It’s really odd. But first of all, I know this isn’t part of the question but I definitely have to say it, the time that Rob had getting the finances and everything so show up on set. We got on set and he knew the movie we were making inside and out. It was incredible. It was awesome.
My first impression of the script was I read scripts the night before an audition and then I learn my lines maybe like 10 minutes before to keep it fresh, and it was a mistake to read it at night alone in my bed and I ended up getting no sleep whatsoever and then everything kind of like to the audition was sort of a process and a problem and I was like, ‘Why am I so anxious all the time?’ And it was the script. It completely enveloped me. I couldn’t understand, I couldn’t pinpoint what it was that just had gripped me so tightly, but it was really powerful.
How do you audition young actors for something like this? Do you give them the full script or just stick to PG sides and save the rest of the stuff until their parents are like, ‘What did I let them get into?’
EGGERS: Well no, their parents had to read the script and know what they were getting into and a lot of parents wouldn’t let their children audition for the film. The young children never had the full understanding of what the story was in order to protect them. But yeah, with the young kids there was sides, line readings where we would do some scene work but then there was also, especially with the littlest boy, a lot of improve – a lot, a lot of improve – and when we were finding children to be twins together there was a lot of having different boys and girls do improvisations together to see who had chemistry. It was finding kids who looked similar, but also had chemistry together. And the audition with Ellie [Grainger] and Lucas [Dawson] who play Jonas and Mercy, culminated with them improvisationally telling me Little Red Riding Hood together and the way they kind of like instinctually passed the torch from one person to the next to tell the different story beats was amazing. If you see the video, they know they were killing it. [Laughs]
That’s a great DVD extra right there! How about the scene when you’re talking to Mercy down by the water?
TAYLOR-JOY: That’s an audition scene.
That scene in particular! By that point in the film, I expected it from you, but to see someone as young as Ellie nailing dialogue like that is kind of incredible.
TAYLOR-JOY: Well, Ellie’s amazing because she was actually 9 when we shot the movie, Lucas was 6. She was like this tiny, little insanely wise person in this little gingerbread outfit, it was so cute.
EGGERS: It was very helpful for her to be a little older than him even though they were playing the same age and were the same height because she could help him along a bit.
TAYLOR-JOY: Exactly. I was very nervous about that scene. We shot that scene in week two and I was like, ‘You’re so little, I am very tall.’ And she was great, she was so gung ho about it and she was always just like, ‘If you’re hurting me I will let you know and we can do this.’ She reassured me on that day. She’s incredible.
EGGERS: She’s very professional.
How was the shoot overall? I think I read in the notes that you had 26 shooting days which sounds kind of insane when you have kids, animals, I assume weather challenges …
EGGERS: Yeah, for a $3.5 million budget 26 days is a luxury, but for what we were trying to accomplish it was pretty horrifying. There were many mornings when I was in tears when I was making my coffee because it just seemed like every day was an unconquerable feat and we were constantly tying the schedule in knots to try to keep shooting in the gloom. When you’re shooting a scene and the dolly’s sinking into the mud and the sun’s about to come out and the child’s hours are almost done and the goat’s running away, you’re just – you know. [Laughs]
TAYLOR-JOY: [Laughs] And we’re all dressed like puritans and it’s hot.
What about things like the hotel? Was it really far from that secluded area where you shot?
EGGERS: The town that we had our offices and where we built the sets and we stayed itself was very rural town. I mean, I’m from a rural town. My rural town was a church and school, but this felt smaller. [Laughs] But yeah, we were an hour drive to set. It was great for the actors and it was great for the overall atmosphere of everything, but it was very hard on the crew, it was very hard on production, but the film benefits from it in the end.
Are there any other tiny details that were especially difficult with this shoot that people might not think of?
EGGERS: I’m sure there’s a better nugget than what I can remember right now on the spot, but I think that having no cell service and no wi-fi. When you’re trying to make a movie in 2000-whatever, that’s a huge problem. So when we were doing all these massive changes, like changing the scenes around on the day to accommodate the sun, the producer is like driving 85mph down this dirt road to get out on the side of the road and climb the hill to the top of the thing that overlooks the stream so that he can get enough wi-fi service to say, ‘Okay, we need the different rotten corn. We need to get the rotten corn in quick because we have to do this scene.’
TAYLOR-JOY: We willed this film into existence. Or Rob willed this film into existence.
And now I must ask, where did the idea for Black Philip come from?
EGGERS: Goats are part of witch lore, and I’ll let you look that up yourself, but also goats are not a huge part of English witch lore because actually a goat farmer was an embarrassing thing to be in England. But in New England, people brought goats with them at the very beginning because goats can clear, they’ll eat anything. So it was more economical than a cow to bring over on a ship and then they were gonna clear everything. So I was able to incorporate this goat lore into this very easily because the family would need to have goats.
I think you need a Black Phillip action figure or Funko Pop toy.
EGGERS: People want plush Black Phillip big time.
I do want one! So now obviously the film was a hit at Sundance and it’s done very well on the festival circuit and with all the pre-screenings. Are you getting slammed with horror scripts right now?
EGGERS: That all happened out of Sundance. All the sort of horror sequels. You wouldn’t believe how may people sent me witch related scripts and I’m just like, ‘Why would I do this again?’
What was it about Nosferatu that made you think, ‘That’s the one I want to do next?’
EGGERS: Well, it’s actually not what I’m doing next. I think it seems very disgusting and presumptuous and megalomaniacal and offensive for someone in my position to say they want to do Nosferatu next, so I think that’s why it hit the trades in a big way. I still might do it, but not next. It’s a masterpiece and it really doesn’t objectively need to be done, but I’ve been obsessed with that film since I was a little kid. But, you know, Peter Jackson was obsessed with King Kong and we saw how that turned out. [Laughs]
As someone who is also obsessed with it, just out of curiosity, would you ever consider doing the remake as a silent film?
EGGERS: When I was 17 I would have wanted to have done that. I don’t mean to be saying, ‘It’s an immature idea’ or something, but I think that I love silent film and I think in The Witch you can see that in some places, in the places where there’s no diegetic sound and it’s just music and image, and I get the power of that but I think that if you want to watch a silent film of Nosferatu, [F.W.] Murnau already made a great one.