Toronto 2015 Interview: Robert Eggers And Anya Taylor-Joy Talk THE WITCH And Puritan Excess
At any moment in human history, no matter how civilized we may think we are, dark woods have a long reach for scaring us. The Witch viscerally demonstrates how easily fear and superstitions take over in early 17th century New England as a Puritan family tries to go it alone in the unfettered wilderness. The film favours long, uncomfortable, zooms into endless trees, as well as intimate family life in a cottage at the edge of those woods. You do not view the film so much as bear witness on the brink.
What ensues is a slow-burn, household collapse in the crucible of pilgrim stress: Failed crops, religious fervour and superstition, along with a healthy portion of hypocrisy grimly test familial and spiritual bonds. The Witch is gorgeous and grim, evoking arthouse genre classics such as Kubrick's The Shining, Bergman's Hour of the Wolf and James Marsh's weirdly historical fever-dream documetary Wisconsin Death Trip, while nevertheless being original in its own vision.
Previously working as a production and costume designer in theatre and film, these things serve director Robert Eggers well in making such a tactile, insular film. The Witch feels portentous and unfathomably large. Both Eggers and his young actress, Anya Taylor-Joy (in her first leading role) were kind enough to sit down during TIFF, bright and early in the morning. Crisply dressed for the film's Ryerson Theatre Red Carpet Premiere tonight, they patiently and enthusiastically shed a little extra light on their film, which has been burning hot on the festival circuit since its Sundance debut.
Below is a slightly abridged version of that conversation.
Kurt Halfyard: First off, congratulations on what is a very handsome and disturbing film
Robert Eggers: Thanks.
THE WITCH is an immensely detailed picture, can you talk about the balance of the folk lore and the historical when writing the movie and also when directing it.
Robert Eggers: The idea was to really recreate the 17th century, the way that people in the early modern period may have saw it. And the worldview of early English settlers might have thought the new world existed. Perhaps in 500 years people with think think, wow, in the 21st century people thought that science and numbers were god, how backward were they? Probably not, but it is conceivable. In this world, all that stuff is real.
I drew from things like the brothers Grimm, the golden age of illustration, is a big visual influence on me, for my whole life. In this period, the fairy tale world and the real world for most people, aside from the intelligentsia, were the same thing. That little old lady down the street who was schizophrenic was really thought to be cutting up babies, and riding on broomsticks. There was an account that I read of a woman put on trial for giving a girl a poison apple, even before and written stories of Snow White were published.
So when directing the film, for me, it was all the same thing, if there was any kind of balancing, it was about creating a restrained sense of the fantastical. Not try to show too much and let the audience complete both the image or the emotion about the otherworldly. Ultimately, I am disappointed when I see the monster entirely. But take something like Goya paintings, which are abstracted, your imagination is going to make them more effective and it is going to work better.
[*Without getting into spoilers*] There are two scenes in the film, one involving a very old woman, and one involving younger women. If you removed those two scenes, the film would be a very different film.
Robert Eggers: I don't want to influence how anyone sees the film, but there are hopefully many ways to read the film. There are ideas that much of the hysteria around the later witch trials was from ergot in the rye. The fungus is also an ingredient said to be used by witches unguents that allowed them to fly. And the families' crops in the film are rotten. I mean what is growing on that corn? But I think the idea that witches are real. That's fun! [*Laughs*]
Anya Taylor-Joy: I like the idea of witches being real!
There is an unholy stress on the central family in the movie. It plays very nice as a domestic drama, in particular, family secrets, and disappointments. But there is the idea of Thomasin coming into her sexuality in the middle of this stress. Could you talk about this, am I off base?
Robert Eggers: I don't think you are off base at all. I think that is delicate. I am more curious what Anya has to say. It is tragic for Thomasin, that she cannot find any power, any feminine power in that period was a negative thing.
Anya Taylor-Joy: You are right. It is peppered in very delicately. It is not a story, say in the scene where her younger brother Caleb glances at her breasts, about looking at your sister in that way, but there are no other boobs around and he is a growing boy. It is hormones. When your body is changing, and you have natural urges, it would be very scary for her. And even more scary to see how her family reacts to her. They continuously put her down in a period of life when anyone just does not know how to handle it. They are scared of her growing into a woman. It is a powerful transition, and was not accepted well in that era.
Robert Eggers: Thomasin is just not a very good Puritan. It doesn't work for her.
I might argue that none of the family are very good Puritans!
Anya Taylor-Joy: [*Laughs*] I agree, but some are trying harder than others.
With William's hubris with the towns elders at the beginning, his wife's guilt and failure in struggling to cope with the stresses of New England wilderness, the family situation in THE WITCH has some interesting things to say about fear and isolation and so many things.
Anya Taylor-Joy: Is Caleb the best? Yes. He might be.
Robert Eggers: If a Puritan were somehow to watch this movie, that might assign blame for what happens based on William's behaviour. Like if he was better, bad things wouldn't have happened.
[*Laughs*] A punishment for bad parenting?
Robert Eggers: I would not want to be that reductive, but that is certainly an aspect of it too.
You used to be a production and costume designer, and the production of the films key location, the farmstead on the edge of the wilderness has verisimilitude. With your debut feature, how much were you hands on with the production elements?
Robert Eggers: I started in theatre designing and directing my own stuff, off-off Broadway, street theatre kind of stuff, and someone saw one of my things, and asked me to design a show they were directing. Aha, now I can make a living as I am trying to get my first feature. THE WITCH took four years get financing. And Craig Lathrop, the production designer, did an incredibly uncompromised job, along with Linda Muir doing the costumes, especially dealing with me coming in all the time with new drawings. They redid these drawings better by a thousand. Because the film was contained mainly to the farm, I knew what I wanted in terms of family possessions and the layout of the house. I sort of had a doll house in my imagination, that I could play with while I was writing.
Kudos for working Julian Richings into THE WITCH a small role, his face is a national treasure and somehow right at home in an 17th century Puritan village.
Robert Eggers: It sure is.
On that subject, can you talk a bit about how you represent faces in the movie? For instance, the adults in the film are brutally haggard, Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie, rightly so, with the stress of their increasingly precarious situation. However, the children, while by no means are they depicted as precious, they do some mean things to each other in the film, and yet, they have a certain grace on screen. Thomasin in particular with her blonde hair and smooth, clean face.
Robert Eggers: Every was designed insofar as we wanted Thomasin to seem like someone who did not quite fit. And if you look at the earliest photographs of settler families, the parents do look like American Gothic: the crack-head version. But their children are beautiful and round faced, even though they are working on the farm, hard-living, and doing their thing. I'll ad that I also think William and Catherine are making sure their children are eating more than them, as their family is starving.
I am sure both of you have a plateful of opportunity after the early success of THE WITCH, could you talk about what is next for each of you?
Robert Eggers: I am developing a medieval knight movie, an epic fantasy...THE KNIGHT.
Anya Taylor-Joy: [*Whispers*] It's awesome.
Robert Eggers: I've been wanting to do forever and I'm very excited about it.
Robert Eggers: [*Laughs*] That would be nice.*
Anya Taylor-Joy: We'll see. [*Laughs*] I just wrapped a movie with Luke Scott called MORGAN. And I'm very excited at the news just announced yesterday at TIFF: I'm going to do a movie called HUNTSVILLE, with Shea Whigham.
Robert Eggers: That's cool.
Anya Taylor-Joy: Yea, it came out yesterday, man! I'm very excited! I feel badass.
[*Note, while both Robert Eggers and Anya Taylor-Joy were too gracious and polite to commit to an answer as the interview was wrapping up, it has come to our attention that Ms. Taylor-Joy has not *yet* been cast in THE KNIGHT. At this point the film still in early pre-production stages, but hey, that would certainly be nice if it comes to pass.]