THE WITCH: Craft and film language of Robert Eggers
THE WITCH is a beautiful-mysterious horror film about a family, a “puritan’s nightmare” set in New England. It stars Anya Taylor Joy in her debut role as the daughter, Thomasin.
We caught up director, Robert Eggers while he was in Prague in pre-production for his next feature, Nosferatu. We discuss the challenges of a first time feature, his creative process, and the richness of THE WITCH.
G.C.C.: Did you initially set out to make a genre film?
R.E.: Yeah, after I had made this short film, The Tell-Tale Heart, which is my first short film, that’s not like a complete embarrassment. There were some small indie production companies that were interested in the idea of potentially developing a feature with me. And I wrote several screenplays that were some kind of strange, dark fairy tales, but also genre-less and very arthouse. Then I realized that if I wanted to get a film financed, I had to make something that was clearly in a genre. So, I kind of challenged myself - how do I make a genre film where I'm still maintaining who I am? I said probably this movie's going to be so tiny that I'm going to have to shoot in my parents backyard, you know, the proverbial my parents backyard. And so I figured, okay, I’m in New England. Which are the archetypal New England spooks? And there hasn't really been a New England horror story with witches, really, this is a great opportunity. And it's also something that I've been interested in since I was a kid. So, yes, I very much set out to make a genre film, which was something that at the time with being a super cinema snob, felt a little bit like a dirty word. But now, of course, it's weird because, seven, eight years after The Witch has come out, genre is like a word that I’m wedded to at this point.
GCC: It's funny because I didn't even remember it as a full on horror film. When I was thinking about it, I kept thinking about Thomasin and her character arc. It was interesting re-watching it again and seeing, oh yeah, it’s clearly a horror film. But there was all the family drama and it’s so theatrical.
RE: But I think the family drama is what hopefully makes it more horrific and not just surfacely horror, one hopes, you know, one tries.
GCC: Yeah, definitely. It’s scary with these tragedies and not knowing who to blame when they are all alone on that plantation. And every family member has their inner demons and conflicts both within themselves and with one another. Especially in the scene with Caleb and that whole build up. It's like, who is on trial here?
GCC: The language and the dialogue is very specific, which I personally enjoy because I love English literature and all that (old English), but did you have any concern that that specific of a dialect might be hard for people to understand? Or would be any issue? Especially the father’s accent.
RE: I knew it was an issue, but it was also something that was important to me and I didn't really care. It took five years to get well, four years to find financing. And we could have found financing much quicker had I calmed down on the language. There was some people who were interested in doing a cheaper version with simplified language in it and that was just something that I didn't want to do. I also remember that the guy who was looking to sell the movie at Sundance watched it and was worried that we were going to have to have subtitles and I think some, particularly a lot of American audiences, do have a hard time understanding it. But I think that hopefully the sound of it, there's this Puritan language which, you know forget about Shakespeare. I think people know early modern English by the bible. So the sound of what they're saying sounds very biblical and heavy and then they can get the gist, and it also makes it so the audience is a little behind and you really have to lean in to get everything, which I think hopefully puts you on edge a little more. Audiences in the U.K. generally don't have such a hard time with it, even though that's not how people speak today. But like you said, with Ralph, his accent is thick for an American ear.
GCC: Well, I'm so glad that you didn't change it, because that is one of the wonderful things about the film - the dialogue and the specificity of the Puritan dialect. Speaking of the dialogue and the writing - what's your writing process like? Alot of our readers are aspiring filmmakers so it'd be interesting to hear your process; like Joan Didion would have an ice cold Coca-Cola first thing in the morning when she started writing and Bergman wrote 3 hours a day in the morning and then he would have lunch (on Bergman Island) and then watch a film after. Do you have any writing routines or rituals that keep you grounded?
RE: Yeah, The Witch was a very different thing, but I try to write in the morning as early as I can muster with plenty of coffee. Ideally I would write in the morning and stop after lunch. But I think a lot of times I'm in a situation now with co-writers where we've been preparing what we're going to do and then we have to bang a bunch of stuff out that we've been planning on doing. And so we get a week where you're writing for 10 hours a day, which is pretty intense. But certainly with The Witch it would be generally, if I was working in a period where I didn't have art department work or set carpentry work or whatever, it would be waking up early in the morning, writing until lunch and then going into research mode in the afternoons.
GCC: So when does the research stop because, I don't know for you or even for people like me who love this type of thing. Are you researching during production and throughout production, too, or does that kind of stop once the script is locked?
RE: With The Witch it kind of stopped just because I had been working on it for so long. And frankly, the world is very contained. So I knew every object that this family had in their house, based on wills and inventories and blah, blah, blah. So The Witch was really contained. The Northman we didn't stop ever, even in post-production, I was double checking with the rune specialists that like the intertitles that are “runes” were correct. And so with that we never stopped.
GCC: Interesting, so you probably had a whole team for that on The Northman?
RE: Yeah. I was working with (the best), I'm so humbled and privileged and lucky. It was just awesome. But I had my pick of the finest Viking historians and archeologists working on the film, which was just so inspiring. And it made it work.
GCC: That’s so awesome. So with the co-writing process you were saying, now you're starting to co-write. What has that been like for you? Because you're used to just diving in on your own?
RE: Yeah I wrote The Lighthouse with my brother and I think that was maybe a good first person to work with because we know each other so well. And then lately, as you know, after The Northman I've been continuing to collaborate with Sjón on scripts that hopefully will one day get to see the light of day. It's so fun because you're constantly feeding off of the other person's creativity. And it's not competitive. It's just you keep topping up the scene and it’s a really, really enjoyable process. I just finished a podcast with Sjón right before I got on this. And he was saying how a film is a collaborative process and so it's great to start the screenplay as a collaborative process. And I think he's right. So I started doing it just as a means of survival. Like when, when we were working together I could only do kind of one thing at a time as far as trying to my own stuff, and trying to tell my own story. And now, just to survive in the industry, I have to have so many things going on because I think one movie's going to happen and it doesn't happen. And so I have to have something else that I could do instead.
GCC: Yeah. Thank you. I appreciate you sharing that. That's great insight and advice for creatives, not just filmmakers. You never know from one week to the next which project is going to get green lit.
GCC: Sjón - who is that?
RE: Sjón is an Icelandic poet and novelist. He's the man.
GCC: Film can be a referential art in a way. What do you look at for inspiration or do you ever try to shield yourself at some point of the process? I guess it still ties into the research aspect.
RE: Yeah I think in The Witch I had some kind of idea about certain times when I didn't want to watch films. But I'm not like that at all. I'm just constantly watching as many films as I can, and I'm usually hunting for something specific. I don't watch as many new films as I'd like to. I used to be a lot better at it. But I'm so fortunate to be working a lot, so. I usually have a kind of syllabus that I'm following and then during COVID, it made everything very difficult. When I was living in New York, even if I was doing a lot of stuff I could just go to Film Forum, go to IFC center, go to Regal or whatever and just see something and I can't do that now. It's quite frustrating. And then I was living in New Hampshire earlier this year…
GCC: …not as many theaters.
RE: But yeah I'm always watching stuff and watching things for different reasons. During production I'm not watching movies for inspiration at that point. At that point I know what I'm doing, we've planned it. If there is a serious problem and somehow watching a little sequence from something might help, and that’s something we might do that on the weekend, but that's pretty rare. But on the Northman, I watched every Terminator movie, even all the really, really bad ones. I watched like RoboCop and I watched all of Seinfeld, it was just stuff to kind of chill out a little bit.
GCC: So the production design - you started off as a production designer and every film you've made is essentially a period piece. Could you talk a little bit about your collaboration with your production designer? And also the costumes were so beautiful in The Witch and the color palette and everything. Were you looking at any paintings for The Witch? Well, now I'm getting into the cinematography, but every detail seemed so authentic. How true was it to the period?
RE: It was as true as we could endeavor to be. I think even with The Northman, there is a point at which the budget can’t do exactly everything that you ever want. And so you have to make some compromises. There’s all this talk that I built the boats out of this light, exact wood. And that's just not true. But basically with the witch, there were certain things that we couldn't use like hand-woven cloth for the costumes because we could not afford it.
We did use hand-woven cloth on many of the costumes in The Northman. Not all of them, but like anything that gets close to camera because we could afford to do it. So on The Witch, we were trying to find things that looked like they could be hand woven. Linda got samples from this guy, Stuart Peachey, who runs a 17th Century Farm on the CORNISH border. And we looked at his samples to try to find something close to that. Stuart also is an expert on the clothes of the common people in like the Elizabethan and Stewart era. And he's written a zillion tiny books, that stacks up to many phone blogs when you put it all together and that was our kind of Bible. And with The witch I did my own drawings of everything as well as supplying look books and research. But Craig and Linda always take it much, much further. Linda suggested different kind of trousers for some character that I never would have thought of. And it was a great idea and as much as I know what I want, and I'm very specific, the best thing is when your collaborator pushes you further than you can go without them. That's what's fun about collaboration.
GCC: Totally. I won't spend too much time on this, but there is this beautiful pale pink corset thing that Thomasin wears about a third into the film. What was that from? Is that a specific garment for anything? Or is that an invention from the costume designer?
RE: No, no, no. There's there's no inventions allowed. This is our best understanding from our own research and Stuart's research on what would be called a “body” rather than a corset, because Stuart discovered that there is actually a law that people of the social status of this family wouldn't be allowed to wear boning. So it isn't like an actual corset, but like a functional garment that just keeps your skirt up and whatever else.
GCC: Okay. So it functions more like a belt.
RE: It’s like a belt and a bra. A single belt and bra.
GCC: Thick belt bra combo. [laughing]
GCC: So the casting was amazing in The Witch all across the board. Do you work with a casting director? Everyone had such interesting faces, all so different, but you believed they were a family.
RE: Ralph was someone that I wanted. And then he came aboard, which was great. And then I worked with Kharmel Cochrane, who's a great British casting director, who I've worked with on all my movies. And she was aware of Anya Taylor Joy. It was the first tape that I saw and we still looked at like hundreds of young women. It was a lot of work to find the kids. Kharmel and I took a trip to the north of England to find kids and, Kate Dickie was, we had actually someone else was cast in that role and she bailed and it was actually our Canadian service producer, Daniel Beckerman, who suggested Kate and I was not, ashamed to say, aware of her work. And I saw Red Road and totally blown away. And she graciously read and was, you know, fantastic. And I hope to work with Kate many more times.
GCC: She was incredible, so intense.
GCC: What is The Witch about to you? What is the greatest sin in The witch? Because it's part folktale and it's part biblical. Each character is battling with something inside, there's the pride of the father and the lack of faith in the mother…do you have any thoughts around that?
RE: I don't have a message in mind when I'm making a film. I'm trying to, I was just trying to make the best movie about witches that I could almost a thesis of witches. And something that I had said a lot back in the day was I was trying to make a Puritans nightmare, upload a Puritans nightmare into a contemporary audiences brain and so it's about digging into their belief system and the way I see it if you believe something, even something, then it does exist. So if you believe in a witch, witches exists and obviously, witches arrive, so to speak, in times of despair, your child dies and there's no answer. It must be a witch. And then she feeds off your own internal demons, as you put it, and just, festers. So Yeah I think with a story everyone contributes to it. I suppose if William hadn't been so prideful to leave the plantation, maybe nothing would have happened [laughs], but obviously, it's story of a downfall of a family.
GCC: They say directors often make the same film over and over again. Do you know what that is for you? Are there certain themes that you're always exploring or revisiting or you don't really think about that?
RE: I know that I'm into fairy tales and folktales and mythology and religion and the occult. I know that there is a symbol that there is clearly a primal narrative that I'm repeating. Certainly in the first two films, a little bit less so in The Northman because it is based on and was is the Nordic, origins of Hamlet. In my films I have made and in the film I'm currently making, you see a lot of the same stuff and even in the three films that have come out everyone's naked and crazy at the end, and then two of them naked and dead at the end and they all end with fire after crossing a threshold. Of course, I'm not like “tick” this is where this part happens, I'm just writing something I think is unique, I think is original. I think I haven't done it before. And then I realize that I have.
GCC: It's funny I did start to see some parallels in The Witch and the Northman. Are you religious or spiritual at all?
RE: No comment. [laughs]
GCC: So what are you working on next? What's next for you?
RE: Hopefully I'm finally making Nosferatu that I've been trying to do for seven years and has fallen apart twice. So that's what I'm here for. So, fingers crossed, knock on wood and all that good stuff.
GCC: Yes fingers crossed.
GCC: Will you be working with Anya TAYLOR-JOY again?
RE: No, she's not on this one. But it's the same H.O.D.’s (heads of department) that I always work with, which is great. And it's very nice.
GCC: Oh, I had one question about Caleb. Who is Caleb channeling? Was he channeling a woman?
RE: Yes, he is. He's saying a bunch of stuff that children allegedly said when they were possessed that was from a recording that I I found. And so he's picturing being tormented by. [pauses] Hey, what's up, dude? [interrupted by his son] “Hi daddy” [says his son off screen] [continues] So he is picturing being tormented by big black dogs and maybe ravens. I don't know. And pictures of the witch crawling on him and all this kind of stuff. But, yeah it's all stuff that kids allegedly said when they were possessed by witches.
GCC: Thought it might have been a specific text from something that it sounded like he was reciting.
RE: At the very end is a sort of perversion of song of songs. Which was that in itself was like a version of something that I found in John Winthrop's, who was the first governor of Massachusetts. His religion, his diaries, a sort of weird like song. From his diaries.
GCC: Interesting. Well, I think we’ve covered a lot. We love The Witch, it’s a film that really stays with you. Your films are all so beautiful. I really want to ask you about The Lighthouse and have so many other questions, but I better stop here. Thank you so much, Robert.
RE: My pleasure. Good luck with it and I can’t wait to see it when it’s done.
GCC: Good luck over there with your prep.
RE: Okay, right on.
Dress from “In memory of Elizabeth Howe, Salem, 1692” collection by Lee Alexander McQueen (1969–2010). Velvet and satin, 2007/2008.
The Salem Witch Trials: Reckoning and Reclaiming, New-York Historical Society
"The Salem Witch Trials: A New Narrative” By: Bell Pendon
Living in New York City grants many opportunities to learn about American history. A certain way of discovering our history is a visit to the many museums around the city. One of the New-York Historical Society’s current exhibitions is The Salem Witch Trials: Reckoning and Reclaiming, open to the public until January 2023. This exhibition invites everyone to think about our roles in moments of injustice. Located in Joyce B. Cowin Women’s History Gallery and organized by the Peabody Essex Museum, this highlights the Salem Witch Trials’ history and influence on society by inspiring haute couture and the modern occult. The exhibition has three moving parts: prized possessions from the Salem Witch Trials, clothing from Alexander McQueen’s 2007 collection In Memory of Elizabeth Howe, 1692, and portraits from Major Arcana: Portraits of Witches in America.
This experience is truly like no other. Right before the entrance, music sets the tone and emphasizes the women pleading for their innocence in the background. Thus transporting the audience – it’s no longer present-day New York City but Salem, Massachusetts, in the 1690s. Walking through the materials gathered from the witch trials stresses the brutality of humanity, especially towards women. Innocent women and their families were subject to scrutiny, and many often risked their lives in defending their friends and loved ones from the accusations of witchcraft. From written letters proving the innocence of the accused women to the diary entries of the women's lives, these possessions assisted in understanding the sentiments felt during that time. It was intriguing to learn how these trials inspired modern collections, like Alexander McQueen’s in 2007. McQueen’s inspiration came from the wrongful accusation of his ancestor Elizabeth Howe, whose reputation he sought to reshape in a more positive light by reclaiming her name through his glorious interpretation of witches in haute couture. In McQueen’s collection, one of his gowns was staged in the middle of the room making it the central piece that immediately grabs the audience’s attention. The grandness of the gown was especially notable as it stood out from the rest of his collection, with its sleek black glimmering design. McQueen’s collection then transitions to portraits from the Major Arcana collection. This last section includes photographs by Frances F. Denny of modern witches around America and their variations of the occult. These portraits redirect the reputation of “witches” by uplifting their voices rather than silencing them. From nurses to tarot readers, these portraits showcase that witches are everywhere, fully empowering women and their magical spaces.
After experiencing the story and influence of the Salem Witch trials, the exhibition closes with an interactive portion which entails a notebook to write down one’s thoughts, feelings, and beliefs followed by a make-your-own-tarot card. Public exhibitions like The Salem Witch Trials: Reckoning and Reclaiming raise distinct narratives that we might otherwise overlook. Revisiting these crucial moments in our past allows us to understand our roles in shaping our history, whether active or passive. From the very beginning, this exhibition asks us to ruminate on our roles in moments of injustice, yet this experience also provides hope by articulating that we can change our narratives in history through our active engagement and modern creations.
Bell Pendon is an avid writer, art enthusiast, and nature lover. She is a media studies student at Fordham University. You can follow Bell on Instagram @belliedona
"I really like to pick stories of survival...how people survive
no matter where they live... People create life...fall in love...eat...
Somehow life pushes us to continue and search for hope and survival even when there is no hope..."
-Blerta Basholli, writer and director of “Hive”
[From an interview with Stephanie Gardner on June 14, 2021 in Prishtinë, Kosova]
Sometimes a film has the ability to transport us to another time and space. Blerta Basholli’s 2021 triple-award-winning Sundance film, “Hive,” brings us to a small village in Kosova in 2006.
Kosova is a small, landlocked nation in Southeast Europe, formerly an autonomous region in ex-Yugoslavia. It is one of the newest independent states in the world, gaining its independence in 2008. From February 1998 through June 1999, Kosova was embroiled in a horrific war, fought between ethnic-Albanians seeking the freedom to live openly as Albanians on their Kosovan homeland, and ethnic-Serbs with the Yugoslav army, seeking to control the territory of Kosova and remain in the Serb-dominant Yugoslavia, which was in the process of breaking apart.
The Albanian-Kosova made film “Hive” opens seven years after the war ends. “Hive” is based on the true story of real-life Fahrije Hoti, expertly played by Kosova-born-Albanian actress Yllka Gashi. Fahrije is an entrepreneurial-minded woman who starts selling homemade ajvar (a red-pepper condiment popular in the region) to support her family and help her community thrive in post-war Kosova.
“Hive,” takes us directly into Fahrije’s world in Krushë e Madhe, an old-stone, Albanian village in Kosova, which experienced one of the worst massacres of the war, leaving nearly all the town’s women widows. Seven years on, many of the men are still missing. Bodies have not been returned. And of those that have, many have not yet been identified.
Unlike many films from this former Yugoslavia region, Basholli is not directly making a war film. Only through brief radio and TV spots in the background do we hear bits and pieces about the war that this town is still recovering from.
Many international audiences may come in with little-to-no knowledge of this tragedy. This should not matter, as the film is not meant to be a diatribe of the war, rather, an intimate portrait of a family and village dealing with the day-to-day realities of the aftermath.
While you do not need to know a full history of the war, a basic knowledge of the genocides that happened throughout the region which left many Muslim families without husbands, sons or fathers, can greatly elevate your emotional connection to the story.
“Hive” is set in a village that experienced one of the war’s many ethnic-cleansing massacres. The Krushë e Madhe massacre occured on March 25, 1999, the day after NATO bombed Yugoslavia in attempts to end the Serbian attacks on Kosova. Yugoslav forces entered the village, separated men from women, then killed 241 ethnic Albanian civilians, mostly men and adolescent boys, while countless women were abused and raped. Today, there are still missing bodies and tensions remain high between Kosova and Serbia, a country that still does not recognize Kosova’s independence.
To me, “Hive” is a story of human grief.
No matter where a viewer is from, it is safe to say that most can identify with love, loss, and grief.
At the start of the film, we have been dropped into the middle of Fahrije’s life, who fearlessly jumps into the back of a truck filled with unidentified bodies and desperately searches for her husband. Like most of the men in the village that were killed in an act of ethnic cleansing, Fahrije’s husband never came back, nor has been found these seven years later.
Fahrije is on a quest to know what happened to her husband, to find and identify his body so that the family can move past their unlikely hope that he might walk in the door one day, somehow escaping the massacres. Not having a body to identify leaves the grief dangling in the air with no room for inner peace. Without this resolution, it is very difficult to move on. Fahrije knows she might never get catharsis yet she will try, as she also knows she needs to carry on, one way or another.
We know that these women and the community at large are grieving, and that they need to survive somehow to take their lives into the future; to give their children a chance to have a future.
Our shared human experiences can connect us across cultures. This is the power of cinema. Through this quest to emotionally process the blows life deals us, is how I personally connect with “Hive” and other films such as Aida Begić's “Snow” (2008), which tells a similar story of war-widows from Bosnia; or Lucrecia Martel’s “La Ciénaga” (2001), from Argentina, which makes you feel like a fly-on-the-wall of a dysfunctional family. These films concentrate on an emotional journey rather than spoon-feed you plot points.
We get to know the characters of “Hive” through their various relationships with grief. Fahrije deals with her grief internally and through the actions she takes to put her life back on track, such as earning money to buy school books for her kids. Her teenage daughter grieves by believing that her father will return, rebelling against her mother as teenagers are prone to do, and holding on to the few keepsakes that remain from her father’s life.
Having been turned away from all other options, Fahrije manages to sell an old table-saw belonging to her husband in order to have seed funds to start her ajvar business. Fahrije’s daughter sees this as her mother trying to erase his memory. Simultaneously, Fahrije’s father-in-law insists the table-saw not be sold, in part to appease his temperamental granddaughter, but also it is his own way of grieving; not giving up on his son who never came home. The father-in-law is elderly, wheelchair bound and not able to work to provide funds for the family, yet he maintains status as the patriarch leaving very few options for the family to bring in an income.
One nice aspect of this film is how delicately Basholli plays the relationship between Fahrije and her father-in-law. It would be easy to turn him into the antagonist representing all the other men of the village who scorn Fahrije for her actions that they deem unfit for a woman. While he disapproves of Fahrije’s actions as a woman-in-charge, there remains a tenderness between the two through their shared bond for their missing loved-one, and by the end, there is a subtle shift of his dominance to the situation.
It amazes me how calm Fahrije’s character is throughout the film despite many very frustrating obstacles that follow her everywhere. Fahrije does not say much within the film, her actions speak louder than words. Basholli directs these silent moments nicely, and it gives us time for reflection to soak in the emotions: a simple hand sweeps across dust in the dark old shed, for instance.
Fahrije is the only woman in her community to accept an offer to learn how to drive. Driving, she sees, as a means towards an income. A way to get to and from jobs in the city. A practical choice through the desire to survive, in a community where traditionally, women do not drive. It is not law, rather, a social custom that has become normalized over the years.
She faces abuse after abuse for this simple act and even more so when she sets out to start her own business. Fahrije is called a “whore” by neighbors; rocks are thrown at her; and other women who were previously friends, now disassociate themselves with her.
What makes this film so powerful is Fahrije’s almost silent defiance against the patriarchy of her village, which perhaps reflects the villagers’ fear of change. Fear to move on from the horrors they’ve been through. Perhaps progress means moving on, which means you’re “abandoning” those you lost. There is a conflict between the desire to remember and the necessity to move on. Fahrije has her own private resistance towards this fear. Through this constant resistance to what others think and do, she perseveres.
Though this feels nothing like a mainstream movie, it uses the classic Hollywood-storytelling model to give our heroine a mission (to run a community-based ajvar business) from which the character immediately faces obstacles. At first, almost no one supported Fahrije’s decision to drive and start her own business. Once she overcomes one obstacle, a bigger obstacle takes its place, such as when the village men violently throw a rock that breaks her car window, or when her father-in-law does not allow her to sell the saw, or when he refuses to give his DNA to aid in the process of identifying his son’s body.
By the end of the film, I am left in awe of Fahrije’s relentless perseverance. She takes everything in stride and even when the entire village is seemingly against her, she pushes through with the foresight to know that only she has the power to chart her own path, to pave the way so her children can grow up with love and opportunity as opposed to hate and repression.
As a human race, I believe we’re drawn to stories of perseverance. It adds perspective to our own lives, and nearly everyone can relate to having a dream and facing obstacles. When we see others struggle, and not just struggle but persevere, it gives hope and determination that we too, can endure through difficult times.
Blerta Basholli is proof of this endurance. She grew up during the Kosova War and was a teenager when it ended. She saw the power of filmmaking to tell her stories and made her way from Kosova to NYU Tisch School of the Arts and back again. She is dedicated to telling stories of strength and survival; stories that represent her Albanian-Kosovan culture. This legacy will doubtless inspire the next generation to continue to seek out storytelling as a mode to deal with all the love, joy, grief and atrocities that life brings us.
By Stephanie Gardner 10.27. 2022
You can follow Stephanie @stephaniegardnerfilms