Interview: Robert Eggers – The Witch

Robert Eggers - Larry Busacca/Getty Images/AFP

Writers/director Robert Eggers is the brains behind A24’s The Witch. Set in New England during the 1600’s, The Witch tells a horrifying tale of family, religion and witchcraft.  Eggers, who is as smart as he is funny,  sat down to talk about horror films set in the past, what movies scared him as a child, and what makes good horror.

You talk about a lack of information in the 1600’s and it reminds me why horror films set in the past work well. Now, someone has a cell phone or is on Google trying to see if anyone else is being haunted. The isolation and lack of information, what’s real and what’s not, adds a sense of horror that doesn’t exist in modern horror films.

Robert Eggers: I agree. For me, it was essential to go back to the time where everyone believed in an evil. It wasn’t even a belief, it was a given like a tree is a tree or a rock is rock. That’s just how it is. It was fun to go back to the very beginning of the Great Migration. It was a brief period in North American history where it was almost like the Middle Ages in North America. The parents in this film would’ve grown up under the reign of Queen Elizabeth. It’s weird to think about that as American. These were English people who didn’t know how to do anything here and were totally vulnerable and totally screwed because they were extreme religious refugees who were obsessed with this ideal.

What movie scared you as a child?

RE: Part of this with stuff I know came from Margaret Hamilton. Today, it’s laughable.  But at four years old when Dorothy is in the witches’ castle and she’s talking to Auntie Em, she sees Auntie Em in the crystal ball and the witches face appears. I was like [expletive] that! I watched Hammer horror movies and Universal stuff because stuff like Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween scared me way too much. I would kind of look in Fangoria but I couldn’t handle it.

What do you think goes into making good horror?

RE: It all depends. I’ve had journalist come up to me and say, “This is not a horror film. This is psychological suspense thriller with supernatural elements”. That’s cool, whatever you want to call it. Edgar Allen Poe, is that not horror?  If he’s not, that’s ok. I’m not trying to be disrespectful or split hairs, but who knows. What’s interesting to me and what I consider horror is actually trying to explore what’s dark in human nature instead of shinning a quick flashlight on it and running away giggling. That’s paramount to me. As far as filmmaking goes, it’s about having restraint. I can’t look into your soul and I can’t know what’s scary to you. I hope that by using what’s personal to me, I can create these images, hold back, and you get to fill in the rest yourself. That’s the idea.

What’s interesting to me and what I consider horror is actually trying to explore what’s dark in human nature instead of shinning a quick flashlight on it and running away giggling

Horror is a shared experience. I don’t know what’s scares you, but I know what it’s like to be scared. There’s a good chance we’re all scared of the same thing. The unknown is scary…

RE: That’s part of the restraint. It’s keeping it in the shadows. When the monster is out of the shadows, it doesn’t have power anymore. I say this a lot, in those old Hammer horror movies, you can see Christopher Lee’s ankles because his cape was too short. I don’t want to see Dracula’s ankles. He doesn’t have any power. His cape needs to go on into the shadows for him to have power.

When you talk about the film’s deeply religious family, there are two sides to that coin. If I believe in God, the other side is something else. Your film explores that and I know that’s something people don’t like to talk about.

RE:  Young said, and if it wasn’t Young, it was Anthony Hopkins in a bad horror movie, “Just because you don’t believe in the devil doesn’t mean you’re safe from him.”

Did you have a favorite scene?

My favorite scene is a scene that no one cares about. Near the end, William wakes up and it’s one shot. I’m proud of that shot and the performances. It’s great. If I saw a still from that scene of a dirty farmer waking up, I’d say “That’s a movie I want to watch.”

The Witch opens on 2/19