In the final days before the wide release of The Witch: A New-England Folktale, writer-director Robert Eggers and actress Anya Taylor-Joy are practically giddy. After nearly a year of garnering acclaim, awards and mounting anticipation on the festival circuit, they are ready to bring their film to the wider audience it deserves.
The film follows a family in Colonial New England that has been exiled from its plantation because of deeply Calvinist patriarch William's (Ralph Ineson) excessive religious practices. The clan encounters a new set of difficulties when a seemingly sinister presence, possibly from the surrounding woods, begins to make itself known through strange and violent acts, targeting each family member's individual weaknesses.
The Witch makes for a stylish and unsettling horror movie, but deeper down it’s also a psychological examination of America’s religious past. Eggers researched the subject of witches in 17th-century New England for four years before production began. When he speaks of “real witches,” it’s a reflection of his belief that the superstitions of history are every bit as real as historical fact. The film has enough respect for its Puritan characters to manifest their fears exactly how they conceived of them: the witch of the film is flesh and blood, it sees through the characters’ religious vanity, it embraces its animal nature and it lives in open defiance of what was deemed appropriate behavior for women of the day. The film reminds us that we are living with the legacy of our forefathers’ insecurities, which they projected onto their neighbors in the form of witch hunts.
Newsweek spoke to Eggers and Taylor-Joy in Boston near the end of the film’s promotional tour, which ended the following day, appropriately in Salem.
It wasn’t until last night’s Q&A that I realized many of my reference points for witches and witchcraft—Francisco Goya, Mikhail Bulgakov—were all European, not American. Is there a corrective aspect to The Witch with regard to how Americans perceive their history, about how our forefathers dealt with the occult?
Robert Eggers: Goya was definitely a touchstone, even though he is continental and outside of the period. But I feel like his Black Paintings particularly are of their own time. They're not late romanticism, they're just human and dark and amazing.
I think in some ways the film is corrective. It was to further my understanding. When we learned about Salem at school, the whole thing was confusing. Because the idea of the witch hunt is used as a symbol to describe people searching for something that's basically untrue, it cemented in my mind as a kid that witches weren't real.… I'd go into Salem as many Halloweens as I possibly could, and I was really interested in this stuff, but I was always disappointed that the witches weren't real. I know that's kind of a weird thing to say, but of course, in the period [of The Witch], the witches were real. Religious hysteria was also real. And in Salem, they realized they had made a grave mistake, but it wasn't because witches didn't exist. It was just that those particular women, and a few men, were not witches.
And so to really understand how the fairy tale world and the real world were the same thing in the early modern period and in North America, this was really crucial to understand. “You're an outspoken, powerful woman and I'm going to call you a witch, but in fact, I literally believe you are a fairy tale witch, capable of doing all these horrible things.” And it was horrifying, because if you were a member of what might be deemed an alternative religion, or ontology, who believes that evil witches only exist in the mind of the ignorant, my work with historians shows that the "evil witch" was such an important reality in the early modern period that we are still dealing with it today. And there is a lot of witchy stuff in the air right now so hopefully people are trying to come to grips with feminine power in a positive way.
The film's subtitle is "A New-England Folktale," which captures some of the ways it is distinct from conventional horror films. Was it a conscious decision to communicate some aspect of the film from the beginning, or to set it apart from films it might be compared to?
RE: I wanted to make an archetypal New England horror story, I did. But I don't want to get—like, a rose by any other name, you know what I'm saying? But I was very consciously trying to make a horror film, just so that it could be financed. [Laughs.]
Anya Taylor-Joy: But "folk" is romantic and fits.
In addition to the historical and spiritual insights, The Witch is also the story of a family— particularly of a young woman, Thomasin—as she approaches womanhood. Robert, what aspect of Thomasin did you find in Anya?
RE: Anya was Thomasin.… She feels timeless on screen. I believe her milking goats and in the world, but I don't see her thriving as a Puritan. Also, she has this very enigmatic quality on camera where you want to know what she's thinking, but you can't figure it out, which helps. The tension of the whole film rides on that mystery.
The audience’s understanding of Thomasin’s character is bolstered by the decision to show so early in the film that, yes, there is something in the woods. We know very early on that this is not a movie about wondering whether Thomasin is a witch or not. It's not that kind of psychological game.
RE: The reason to show the witch so early on is that audiences don't know what a 17th century witch was in the minds of these people. So people need to know, "Oh, this is what the stakes are" right away.
A T-J: And to be able to involve themselves in that fear, because the witch is real. That was their reality.… It was intense fear.
RE: Yeah, people talk about, like, "Oh, these are folktales, that they said to scare children to keep them out of the woods." No. William [the family patriarch], when he's denying that there's a witch involved, it's not that he doesn't believe in the witch. It's that he has so much pride that he doesn't want one in his house. And if his belief isn't pure enough, if he's not part of the elect, then he is susceptible to the witch.
In a way, it’s fundamentally hypocritical to be as devout in the way that he is, because he's so proud of it, when that's exactly the thing he's not supposed to be
AT-J: Lots of hubris.
RE: I mean, that's what made America. [Laughs.]
There's something about cutting wood to him that's not just functional.
AT-J: We have a lot of wood. [Laughs.]
A great amount of effort went into making the film appear from its characters’ point of view, not from a modern one looking back. I don't imagine there were any specific morals, but is there anything you hoped audiences would take with them?
RE: No. I mean, I was [assuming aristocratic voice] trying to tell it objectively without judgment. But things come out. Almost every interview, we're talking about feminism. But that's just exploding out of the pages of history. And you can't divorce the witch from feminism.
Robert, you come from a theater and design background. Anya, this is your first film, but you already have several exciting projects coming up (Luke Scott’s Morgan, M. Night Shyamalan’s Split). Did you always hope to expand into film?
RE: I always wanted to do film. And I still love theater. I'd love to do more theater. But I'm not an alchemist working alone in my cell for my own introspective whatevers only. I'm trying to communicate with other people about humanity and stuff, man! [Laughs.] And with film, you can reach a big audience.
AT-J: Movies were my first love. I love the theater, I'd love to work in theater at some point, but I grew up with movies being something that I just clung to. I'd get lost in these worlds over and over and over again, completely obsessively.… But I will say that having worked on this movie as my first movie, it's definitely set a tone for my creative soul. I can't do something that I would not throw myself under a bus for.