Wicked Horror recently had the occasion to discuss The Witch with director Robert Eggers. He opened up about the painstaking attention to detail that went into bringing the film to life, what is and is not historically accurate about the film, and his level of involvement with the set and wardrobe design. Eggers also offered us an exclusive update on his planned remake of Nosferatu.
The Witch is written and directed by Robert Eggers. It stars Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, and Lucas Dawson. The Witch follows a New England family in 1630 as they navigate accusations of witchcraft, demonic possession, and other unspeakable evils.
Wicked Horror: The film has incredibly elaborate set pieces and costuming. What was your level of involvement with the film’s set design and wardrobe?
Robert Eggers: So, yeah. I worked very close with Craig Lathrop, the production designer and Linda Muir, the costume designer. It took four years to write and research and get this film financed. I spent a tremendous amount of time on my own and working with museums and historians and people in the living history community to really understand what was going on here. And so, I had the farm laid out and planned in my head. Before Craig came on board I had done drawings of all the buildings and different elevations. And I had costume sketches of all the characters before Linda came on board and a very good understanding of how all these things are constructed. I think some of the historians that collaborated with me might disagree with this statement but I think I could write a pretty crappy book–at least–about seventeenth agricultural practices. But obviously I had thousands of images and pages of research to give to Craig and Linda before they came on board. But of course their expertise and years of experience is much greater than mine. And certainly at that point when I was passing the torch onto them they took on so much more of their own research to bring this to a level much greater than I would have ever been able to accomplish myself. Certainly my drawings were left behind for more sophisticated things. But, yeah, I’m in there with Linda having arguments about what are the right buttons and what’s the right kind of leather for a jerkin. And with Craig, the right kind of saw chatter on the floorboards. Very involved.
Robert Eggers: The language certainly has gotten thumbs up from historians. I have a background in Shakespeare and I’m not really intimidated by that kind of language, though writing in it was certainly difficult. I had to study the grammar and the vocabulary and that took some time to understand the grammar structure–the difference between when you use thou and when to use you. I also then read tons of primary source materials and I would kind of take sentences and phrases and categorize them for different purposes, things about farming, things that you would say when you were chastising someone. And so earlier versions are these sort of monstrous collages of other people’s words that I would slowly hone into my own voice and individual voices for the characters. But certain things were kept deliberately intact. Things that the children say when they are possessed or that they allegedly said when they were possessed and so on and so forth. It’s a really interesting period in the English language because even common people were interested in language. In fact, New England was the most literate part of the Western World because you had to read your Bible in English. That was a really important thing. As far as the actual accents. The accents are not period correct. Originally the family was going to be from Essex because most of the Puritans who came over from the great migrations were from Essex County. And I was working initially on using what historians would say would be a reconstruction of an accent from that area from that time. But these accents are very strange. Like knife is pronounced K-nooif. And really, I felt that if we did get it right, no one was going to be able to understand anything anyone was saying and we were definitely going to need subtitles. And a lot of people feel like they wish this film had subtitles as it is. Additionally, in order to get the kind of naturalism I was looking for, it was gonna be impossible because we were going to have to be teaching children how to do these weird, phony, exotic accents. Ralph Ineson, who plays William, was the first person cast. And I love his Yorkshire accent. And so I did a little bit of researching I discovered that the oldest timber frame house in New England was built by a man from Yorkshire who moved to Massachusetts at the beginning of the great migration and he didn’t get along with all these people from Essex, so he moved his family away from the settlement to create their own farm. So, I said, ‘This is perfect. This is our story.’ So, the family became from Yorkshire. And the kids are from the North of England. We basically just had a dialect coach around to create a consistency without any modern urbanism that was recognizably Yorkshire.
Wicked Horror: I read where you used fire and candlelight to illuminate the production, so as to be historically accurate. Did you use any artificial stage lighting at any point in time during the shoot?
Robert Eggers: Yeah. The night exteriors are certainly all lit with a condor. The Alexa Plus is great but we still can’t light with the moon with that camera. So, that stuff is all lit. There are a few day interiors where we used some HMI but all of the night interiors and certainly all of the day exteriors are all natural light. We would never ever, ever, ever, ever, ever dream of using a light in the day outside. That would be disgusting.
Wicked Horror: Your commitment to authenticity is highly commendable. I don’t think I’ve ever spoken with someone so determined to make such an authentic period piece.
Robert Eggers: I want to say two quick amendments. The whole point of this is not just to stroke my ego but to actually transport the audience to that world and without that kind of specificity, I don’t really think you can do it. And if we can’t be transported to the world, we can’t be transported into the mindset of these English Calvinists. If we can’t be in the mindset, then we can’t believe in the witch. So, that’s like the purpose of this. Also, there are some things that are not authentic but I want to know when I’m breaking the rules to help the story. For example, the family has a garret in their house and most likely, they never would have bothered with this so early on because of the amount of time and effort to pitsaw all those floor boards would be insane. Or the cost to buy them from a front tier lumber mill–kind of crazy. And even if they did have a garret, the children wouldn’t have slept up there. It would have been used for food storage and tools. The little children would have slept in their parent’s bed and the others in straw mattresses on the floor. But it was really important to me to have that iconic moment of the children overhearing their parents. I think that we needed additional location to make it more visually interesting and the architecture of that thatched gable inside was very striking compared to the hall downstairs. But I knew. It wasn’t just arbitrary. I knew what I was doing very deliberately.
Wicked Horror: Well, the last question I have for you pertains to your planned remake of Nosferatu. We haven’t heard much about that in recent months. It that still something you are actively pursuing?