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Director Robert Eggers On ‘The Witch’

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This year is off to a good start with "Bone Tomahawk" and "The Witch" (now playing throughout San Diego) serving up well-crafted horror tales that challenge expectations about the genre.

Show transcript

Beth Accomando: Welcome back to another edition of the KPBS Cinema Junkie Podcast, I'm Beth Accomando. Filmmaker Robert Eggers shot his period film The Witch with mostly natural light, that means when night falls on the edge of a forest you are confronted by country dark, a complete and utter blackness that can stir intense fear, because what lies before you is a vast and potentially terrifying unknown, that's the sensation he conjures up with his feature debut The Witch, here is the trailer.

[Clip playing]

Male Speaker: What went we out into this wilderness to find, leaving our country, kindred, our fathers' houses, for what? For the Kingdom of God. Let us pray.

Female Speaker: [indiscernible] [00:01:17]

Male Speaker: There is evil in the fort.

[End of clip]

Beth Accomando: Eggers draws on historical documents to create a film about what happens to a pious family made to live on their own at the edge of a forest, things go bad quickly, the crops fail, the new born goes missing and the little girl says there is a witch living in the woods. Even the family goat Black Phillip becomes a symbol of evil.

[Clip playing]

Child: Black Phillip says you are wicked.

Female Speaker: Does he really speak to them?

[End of clip]

Beth Accomando: Eggers creates a luminously beautiful film about the terrifying folklore of his native New England, he conveys not simply the terror of the unknown or of the supernatural, but also the terror that comes when fear makes people turn on each other. As with films such as Bone Tomahawk and We Are What We Are, The Witch challenges expectations about what we define as horror, Eggers delivers a stunning film about dread and the primordial fears that still lurk in our subconscious. I had a chance to speak to director Robert Eggers who won the Best Directing Award at Sundance last year. I was beginning to feel like my interview with him was cursed because it had to be rescheduled three times, but I finally got to speak with him, and I wish he could be out here for screening the film, because his move pushes the boundaries on how we define horror, but the interview was cut short by a publicist who had to bring him to another event, so I didn’t get to ask him as many question as I wanted about the horror genre and how his film fits or doesn’t fit into it, I did get to see his film and Bone Tomahawk at the Abertoir Horror Festival back in November of last year. So here is my interview with Robert Eggers.

You’ve based your film on historical documents that you found and I was wondering how did you find these documents and what about them made you feel that you wanted to make a film from them?

Robert Eggers: Well I grew up in New England and England’s past was always very much part of my consciousness, if you’ve been to a small town in rural New England you will know where I'm coming from, the dilapidated colonial farmhouses and graveyards in the middle of the woods and it seems to me that the white pine forest behind my house was haunted by pilgrims and witches of the past. So I was trying to make and archetypal New England horror story, that was my intention and then I went out, researching and finding stuff where I could actually do that, so it wasn’t as if I came across sourced material and then decided to make the movie, I pursued the material because there was an idea of a film that I wanted to create, I always had a very strong idea of New England’s missing past and the very, very beginning of New England, the very beginning of the great migration when western culture was so primitive here that certainly to a contemporary audience it would feel like the middle ages. So the materials that I used initially and certainly the ones that the story is drawn from, most of them are pretty easy to find, I mean I went to the New York Public Library, I live in Brooklyn now, I have for quite some time and anything witch related or New England related, I checked out and then kind of went from there and most of the sourced material that is used are things that you can get on Google books, there are certainly some compilations, some made my modern historians of more rare things, but I never, was in archives of some rare, some – I was never like handling parchment paper with white gloves, if you know what I am saying.

Beth Accomando: There is this sense of hysteria that's in the film in terms of how accusations start to fly, is that something that you feel is resonating for a contemporary audience?

Robert Eggers: Well, yes I mean I am trying to do like archetypal stories, that's the goal and if I'm succeeding archetypes are always re-constellating themselves, so this should work for any kind, certainly if I made film that only worked for people in the 17th century, then no one would like this thing. So it has to resonate now and I think that, it seems that there is lots of different themes that are resonating for different people today which is great, I like films that raise more questions than provide answers.

Beth Accomando: Okay, you brought up this idea of raising questions. So I'm curious, do you feel that as a filmmaker, did you have a point of view in terms of did you want the witches to be real or not because it seems like that has caused some debate in terms of, you know people come out with different interpretations of the ending.

Robert Eggers: I absolutely want different interpretations, I have my exact beliefs on everything, there is never to my knowledge been a question that I have seen out there or been asked that I haven’t had an answer to, I was very deliberate on what I show and what I don’t show, but I hope to kind of keep things opened, but you know certainly by showing the witch I'm not necessarily saying she exists, but I think that that's kind of the most basic, not necessarily basic, not meaning bad, but basic reading and I think that's great if you want to just go in there and just the witch is real and the whole thing is just the English Calvinists Puritans world view made real, I think that in itself is an interesting film, unless you don’t want to dig deeper.

Beth Accomando: Your film combines beauty and horror in a really interesting way, can you, and I mean it – can you – I mean it is a gorgeous looking film, can you talk a little bit about combining those elements and is that something that is sometimes troublesome for viewers in terms of how they grasp, because it doesn’t kind of fit into neat expectations about the horror genre.

Robert Eggers: I'm just trying to do a kind of story telling that I like, I think that where the composition can seem painterly and sings, that just has to do with partially the fact that we've articulated the 17th century world very authentically and very specifically, and so that in itself is suggestive of some things that are potentially more beautiful and [indiscernible] [00:08:04] is a real artist, is just excellent at lighting, he finds a kind of harmony in the available light by sculpting it the way he does and you know I think that making these kinds of creative works we are always trying to find some kind of harmony in chaos even if the story itself is chaotic.

Beth Accomando: Now you come from a production background in terms of costume and set design, because I can’t show people a visual clip of your film, can you talk a little bit about that visual style that you are creating in the film and how that comes across?

Robert Eggers: Sure, I think that the whole thing is, is that the film needs to be gloomy and oppressive, it is very void of color and then very-very little was done with color grading in post-production if you were there on set, you would have remarked by how little color there was in the costumes and by being very restrictive about only shooting when there was cloud coverage, even peoples skin when you don’t have much light on it and it is all grey, can become somewhat grey. But then in order to really transport the audience back into the 17th century back into the mindset of these people, I spent four years researching the period and working with museums and historians and the people in the living history community to make sure that the costumes were clothing and not costumes and all hand stitched, made from patterns of actually clothing and that the family farmstead, everything that appears on camera is made from the correct material that it would have been made from which are very often meant that in order to make it look right we needed to use the tools and techniques from the period to craft shutters and doors and [indiscernible] [00:10:05] certainly if we could use a chain saw or a screw gun we would, but if that modern tools would have somehow made it look not right, we couldn’t do it. Again this is not just because I come from a design background but because it is my belief that all those details add up to something that can truly be transported for an audience and the more of those things you let it slide, the more you have something that just doesn’t feel real even if the audience can’t articulate that's the wrong shape of the candle stick or whatever, enough of those things that makes something that feel phony.

Beth Accomando: Adding to the mood of the film is your sound design which was superb, how did you approach, because there doesn’t seem to be a hard line between, the difference between sound effects and the sounds of the environment and the music that's incorporated.

Robert Eggers: I'm really glad you feel that way, I mean certainly interdepartmentally there was more or less hard lines, but there is so much in the sound design where we are recording sounds of nature or in an audio booth with a [indiscernible] [00:11:20] with branches and twigs trying to make the sounds of the branches blowing on the trees, but I think part of why you might feel the way you do is because even with the percussion I was doing with Mark Korven the composer, we wanted the percussive elements to sound natural and stick like also and so that kind of approach was all over the place, so I'm glad that you feel they work hand in hand, but yeah certainly nature itself needed to be this overwhelming force always present in the film and music often times, I tend to like film scores that are really just supportive and don’t draw a lot of attention to themselves, but in this film there are certainly moments where all the diegetic sound effects disappear and we only have music. Music to kind of finish the image because I'm trying to articulate heightened states of emotion that we don’t get to very often I think, music can be very helpful in articulating how like dreamy nightmare-ish like states.

Beth Accomando: I'm curious as a filmmaker do you feel a film like this is difficult to promote because it seems that these days a lot of trailers want to tell the audience everything thinking that that's the only way to get them in and your film is so wonderful to go in not knowing anything.

Robert Eggers: It is complicated, if I hear about a film that sounds interesting I immediately try to run away, hide my ears, hide my eyes from any content related to it, because I want to come in pure and virgin like to the experience and so yeah like going through the marketing with this, there is a lot of things that I considered too spoilery, however I think that because this film is, you know people refer to it as a slow burn in compared to a lot of larger budget horror films, the pace and tone is very different, so I think actually some of the stuff, like the focus on Black Phillip the goat which is something that I was actually trying to diminish in the edit of the film, but that kind of focuses Black Phillip and having him become this internet meme and the twins also, I think it actually can potentially give a broader audience like more narrative things to kind of like grab on to and one day watch the film. So I think that it is complicated dance and certainly I hate being grounds for the height machine, but as you said this is the world we live in today.

Beth Accomando: I heard you describe the film as a puritans nightmare; do you feel that that's what you created?

Robert Eggers: Yeah I think that's not bad, but definitely that was one of intensions, like this needed to feel like inherited nightmare awakening ancient ancestral fears we didn’t know we had, even if our ancestors aren’t literally puritans, you know we are all sort of in North America, are faced with some of the same parts of unconscious of western culture, so yeah puritans nightmare I think is accurate and I think a puritan would certainly find this stuff to be nightmarish.

Beth Accomando: Well you talk about going back to these ancestral kind of root and one of the things about the film created really well is that sense of the unknown in the forest and that kind blackness, I mean it is kind of the way, more recently we've looked at place or something as being this thing out there we know nothing about, and I was just wondering when you were shooting the film was that, because you used a lot natural light correct, to shoot?

Robert Eggers: Yeah I mean almost entirely, in fact from the night exteriors, there's a couple [indiscernible] [00:15:30]

Beth Accomando: Because you really create that sense of that unknown quantity.

Robert Eggers: That's great, I love that you say that, because I do feel like the kind of films that are asking the kinds of question that I am attempting to ask in this film today tend to science fiction, there is not a lot of people who are sort of, and that's because the science and number is the new God and God is the old one, so you know…

Beth Accomando: Well and also I feel like we don’t have that same sort of sense of the unknown as it probably felt back then, I mean there are still things that scare us and there are still unknown things out there, but it seems like we've explored so much and have so much visual content and so much media coming at us, but your film really got to this, like may be even love crafty and kind of sense of that like the old ones of something out there.

Robert Eggers: Totally yeah, i mean he is someone who is searching to find the horror, the sublime in a similar more experienced way than me, but yeah I mean that's great. But you know it is interesting because I think that I was talking a young woman who I guess, she was a millennial who was telling me about having to be forced to camping on a school trip and the terror that inspired in her and her friends who spend all day long like on their butt in front of a computer and so I fixed it like in a way as much as we've explored all the world, there is still this overwhelming force with nature that people still can find mysterious in something that they have to come to grips with.

Beth Accomando: I'm also curious in terms of the promotion of the film, how do you feel about the partnership that's kind of come up with the satanic temple, do you feel that's kind of setting expectations in a way you like for your film or, I mean I am just curious because it is an interesting, I'm surprises that it hasn’t caused more controversy, but it seems like an interesting approach.

Robert Eggers: It is nice to have fans.

Beth Accomando: Of any kind is what you are saying.

Robert Eggers: That's all I'm saying.

Beth Accomando: Alright.

Female Speaker: Beth I'm so sorry to interrupt, but we are going to have to jump off.

Beth Accomando: Okay, alright, thank you very much.

Robert Eggers: Thank you, thanks so much for helping get the word out.

Beth Accomando: Sure I saw your film at Abertoir in Whales actually.

Robert Eggers: Oh wow, cool.

Beth Accomando: Yeah so it was great, thank you very much.

Robert Eggers: Thank you.

Beth Accomando: Thanks for listening to another edition of the KPBS Cinema Junkie Podcast, be listening for a special edition of the podcast on the film The Look of Silence which is nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary, I will be speaking with Joshua Oppenheimer about the film and it will be screening here in San Diego at San Diego State University for free on Tuesday. So till our film fix, I'm Beth Accomando your resident Cinema Junkie.

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Cinema Junkie

Satisfy your celluloid addiction with the Cinema Junkie podcast, where you can mainline film 24/7. This film and entertainment series is run by KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando. So if you need a film fix, want to hear what filmmakers have to say about their work, or just want to know what's worth seeing this weekend, then you've come to the right place