Robert Eggers Discusses Filming, Archetypal Storytelling, and a “Happy” Ending for The Witch

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After winning best US Dramatic Director at Sundance with his debut feature and almost immediately being headlined as the director of the ‘new Nosferatu’, writer/director Robert Eggers became an industry name seemingly overnight. The Witch, his debut, has been heralded as the “Best horror film in a decade” and draws comparisons to Kubrick, Bergman, and countless other greats… But he’ll soon have Herzog and Murnau to compare himself to, too, when he conjures up his own vision of the legendary vampyre. 

A lover of the film myself (I scored The Witch at a perfect 5 stars), I was humbled to talk with Mr. Eggers about his Sundance Horror hit which gets its wide release on February 19th

the witch

In my review I talk about how Thomasin’s family suffers a sort of classic American Guilt,  part of that is the anxiety associated with a devout christianity, and the other to do with this denial and angst over stripping the native americans of their land. Was it your intention to make this family a sort of amalgamation of Pre-revolution American fears/guilt? 

It’s very archetypal storytelling, at least that was the intention, so yeah. They need to be a microcosm for society, and it’s certainly of a time. They’re very much like an archetypal family of the early modern period, and more specifically, early English Colonists in North America. So yeah, the rhetoric of the day said a little family, a little church, [and] a little commonwealth, so it works well for them to be a microcosm. 

Is that fair to make a connection between the aggressive wilderness and native american/colonization anxieties? Or are the decaying crops, and harsh environments more of what the family believes to be religious punishment as an effect of sacrilege? 

Yeah, I mean I think you can read into it whatever you want, and it’s valid. I mean these English Settlers had a really complicated relationship with nature, on the one hand they were coming over here saying this is a new world, a new eden, a new Jerusalem, but at the same time it was nature with devil’s church. So there was a lot of conflicting stuff here — and then of course the hubris involved, and then trying to conquer nature the way they wanted, and the fact that they felt they had the right to was despicable… And obviously they really were susceptible to nature. 

The Witch interview

I saw a Q&A (I believe it was right after the premiere of Sundance) where you kind of joke about the film having a happy ending. But I found some truth to that.. it’s at the very least liberating — it’s almost a sardonic, ironic, punchline in the context of its conservative eyes. 

I mean, yeah! Absolutely. I hope that people walk away with the same feelings they had when the rainbow shoots out of E.T’s spaceship [laughs]. 

What did you talk about conceptually with your cinematographer/art department? 

The whole idea, in my opinion, is [that] if you really wanna make a film transportive, and you really want the audience there, the whole thing has to be so damn personal. So I can’t just design a cool shot, I need to be articulating every frame as if it [were] the memory of my childhood. And I can own it with that kind of personal connection. This has to be my childhood when I was a puritan, and what my father smelled like that morning in the cornfields… So that is the rigor that went into all of the choices with the photography and in creating the very authentic 17th century farm and so on. 

It looked like you guys shot on the Alexa… 

Yeah the Alexa Plus.

It has a really timeless feel to it, did you shoot on vintage lenses?

Yeah, we shot a 1.66, and because of the native aspect ratio of the Alexa for use of scope, we were actually able to get more resolution than we would have shooting 1.66 with spherical lenses… And we were using vintage Cookes from the 40’s that were rehoused. 

The Witch still

Were the interiors all literally lit (Barry Lyndon Style) with natural candle light and fire? 

Yeah, all the night interiors are completely flame lit. First of all, this isn’t something we invented, it’s extremely common. But we had triple wicked candles, so each candle was three times as bright as a candle would normally be. And then often times we were hiding candles behind people or things to get a little bit more light — or using a flame bar off camera to augment stuff… but it still was all flame. 

This is a bit of a throw away question… But having written/directed the film and being there for the editing process, is this still something that haunts/affects you when you watch it? 

I haven’t watched the film since Sundance… And I only watched it once at Sundance. Actually I watched it at the New Hampshire film festival with my family, but I can’t stand watching this damn movie.

Just because you’re very technical and things bother you, or it scares you? 

Well yeah, obviously I’m glad that people are happy with it, and I’m proud of what we were able to do with the obstacles at hand at the time, but like it’s my thing, I just can’t watch it. 

Nosferatu

You probably get asked this a lot, but I have to ask about Nosferatu…. How are you going to go about something that was originally so beloved, and then was impossibly remade by Herzog into something beloved in its own right, and that is now in your hands? 

For a director in my position to say he’s going to do Nosferatu [it’s] really ugly and offensive and egomaniacal — and just in bad taste overall… And it hit the trade in a big way as a headline. But if I do do Nosferatu, in the future [because] it’s not what I’m working on next, rest assured, I’m not going to ruin Nosferatu. 


I really appreciated Eggers taking the time to chat with me about the film and his time making it. Don’t miss out on The Witch when it hits theaters this Friday, the 19th!