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'The Witch': Real and fairytale worlds converge in Robert Eggers' dark directorial debut

Anya Taylor-Joy stars in Robert Eggers' debut feature,
Anya Taylor-Joy stars in Robert Eggers' debut feature, "The Witch," which taps into 17th century witchcraft paranoia.

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Any guesses what "The Witch" might be about?

The movie's set in 17th century New England and chronicles the supernatural events that plague a family of devout Calvinists: one child goes missing; another becomes possessed; and even some of the farm animals begin behaving as if they're controlled by evil spirits.

"The Witch" is the debut film by Robert Eggers, who won a directing award when "The Witch" premiered at last year's Sundance Film Festival. When Eggers joined us on The Frame, he talked about his childhood — which was full of witch-centric nightmares — and the blurred line between reality and fantasy in the 17th century.

Interview Highlights:

Did you have parents who told you ghost stories in bed? I try to scare my children before they go to sleep.

[laughs] Well, be careful. One time before I went to bed, my father asked: "How do you know if you're awake or dreaming?" And I was absolutely terrified for three months, because I didn't know. And my parents didn't know what was wrong with me, but that was that summer.

There's a little bit of Hansel and Gretel in "The Witch" in that the young boy named Caleb ventures into the woods and stumbles upon a witch's house. When you were writing this movie, were you thinking about classic fairy tales? Historical records of trials? What are the influences that shaped your approach to this story?

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes and yes. Also, that moment with Caleb was another witch dream that I had. It's a cinematic cliché and an archetypal moment, but I had that dream.

In the research, the most interesting thing was that it was very clear in the early modern period that the real world and the fairy tale world were the same thing. That's just the end of the story. Aside from some members of the extreme intelligentsia, they were the same thing.

So witches were real, and if someone said you were an evil witch, you were a fairy tale ogress who was capable of riding on a stick, abducting children and doing all kinds of ungodly things.

But there's a specificity that you're after too, and it goes from the language in the movie — which sounds a bit like Old English — to the production design. How determined were you to be as authentic to the period as you could possibly be? Was any of that an issue for the actors?

It wasn't an issue for the actors because I only cast people who could do it. If you couldn't do it, you didn't get a second audition. [laughs] But basically, if you're not transported to the 17th century, and you're not in the mindset of these English Calvinist settlers, then the witch can't be real for you as an audience.

Sure, it's fun to go for authenticity for authenticity's sake, but that's not the point. The point is to transport you. It was years of working with historians, museums and people in the living history community to figure out how to do all of this stuff right.

The language is my interpretation of what a lay family speaking Caroline-era English in New England sounded like. Then I was in the primary sources, pulling up sentences and phrases and categorizing them for different situations where I might want to use them.

Were these transcripts from witch trials?

Transcripts from witch trials, but also journals and diaries. Lewis Bayly wrote this Puritan prayer manual, "The Practice of Piety," that was very helpful. It was a bit of a collage, but there are some things that are really intact —  the things that children say while they're possessed are things that children really said while possessed.

It's a really interesting time in the English language because New England was the most literate part of the Western world — you had to read the Bible, and it was against the law not to teach your children how to read. You had to have that personal relationship with God. A hundred years earlier, even less, you had people being burned at the stake in England for translating the Bible into English.

People who have excelled at genre films, they pay attention to sound design. I want to talk your approach. 

There was a lot of sound design in the film trying to make nature a character — this overwhelming Romantic nature that was just so much bigger than man. So we did a lot of work of creating textures of winds through branches. We did post-production in Canada, so some of the branches are actually hockey sticks clacking together. Originally, I only wanted to have sound design, I didn't want to have a score. But I realized very quickly that there are things in this film, places I was trying to go to, emotional experiences that you can't get to without music.

How did you meet Mark Korven, your composer?

Mark Korven is incredible. I wanted to have a score that was using 17th century music, 17th century instruments and super dissonant 20th century music. Mark was an expert in all of this stuff .... I was always trying to take away melody and I was also trying to make things sloppier all of the time.

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