After possessing audiences and winning the directing award at Sundance last year, Robert Eggers’s haunting seventeenth-century folktale The Witch opens nationwide today. Set in an unspecified part of New England—five decades before the Salem witch trials of the 1690s—the film centers on a devout farming family whose lives take a turn into tragedy and hysteria after they leave their plantation and move to a secluded valley edged by woods. Drenched in anxiety and terror, as the threat of witchcraft begins to poison the family’s faith and relationships, Eggers’s film is part black-magic horror and part psychodrama—a Vermeer come to gothic life, thanks also to the precise and arresting compositions of cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, a frequent collaborator of Eggers’s.
The filmmaker began his career as a stage director and designer in New York, including at the East Village’s La MaMa theater, before shifting his focus to movies. He’s made two short films in the dark fairy-tale vein—adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” and the Brothers Grimm’s “Hansel and Gretel”—but The Witch is his feature debut, and it establishes him as a unique new voice in American cinema. Eggers swung by our office this week to chat about his film and his lifelong affinity for the macabre.
Tell me about your interest in the supernatural.
I grew up in New England and have always been obsessed with witches; the earliest dreams of mine that I can remember are about witches. So I thought that I could make an archetypal New England horror story, and that would be something that could be very personal for me and effective. If I’d made my first film when I was seven, it would have been a period piece, you know? So it’s always been a part of me.
It’s easy to see how your experience directing actors for the theater would lend itself to the intimate environment of The Witch.
I like small films, anyway. There are some scenes in this film that are short, imagistic, montage-type scenes, but generally we just let them play out. Does that come from theater? Maybe. I’m obsessed with Ingmar Bergman and Carl Dreyer, but they both came from theater, so it might be all wrapped up in that same kind of stuff. We had to have a week of rehearsals because the cinematic language was so rigorous and structured—it was nearly cut in camera. So the actors had to be prepared and learn how to be a family. This family had to have love in order for us to care and invest and be moved when they tear each other apart.
Do you think of the film as more of a horror movie or a familial drama?
I’m happy to call it whatever people want me to call it. It’s about the family. One of the things I like about classic fairy tales is the same thing I like about myths: they explore complex family dynamics. The family drama is the most interesting drama; that’s why Hamlet and King Lear are generally the most lauded Shakespeare plays.
The visual language of the film is very enchanting, and allows us to really succumb to the atmosphere you’ve created. How did you work with your cinematographer to bring this ominous world to life?
Jarin Blaschke is a real artist, and we’ve been working together for quite some time. So it’s the old cliché that we have a shorthand, but we do. I really love and trust his work. We both feel that the only way you can transport an audience—with something like this where you’re creating another world—is if every frame is like we’re articulating a personal memory. It has to be like, “This is my Puritan childhood. I remember the way my father smelled in the cornfield that morning.” Every frame needs to be imbued with a level of personal attachment and understanding.
Is there a different kind of pleasure that you get from being a film director, compared with working in theater or designing?
Even with film, the audience needs to finish the work, and I think that’s particularly true with things that are dealing with the supernatural or the sublime or horror or the unknown. Particularly with that kind of stuff, you’ve got to use restraint so the audience can finish it. With theater, it’s even more working with the actors and the audience to build something collectively. In cinema, I can articulate my dream imagery with more specificity, I can guide you with specificity, which of course as a director feels good, because I can be sure that I’m showing you what I want to show you. I’m not an alchemist in my cell doing an introspective thing, I’m trying to communicate what it is to be a human being with other human beings. And cinema is still the best way to communicate with a large audience.
Is there a particular part of the filmmaking process that you enjoy the most?
Being on set can be torture, but it’s also fun. It’s like being in Disney World for me, especially when everything I’ve done is period. It’s always transportive, and I get to build my imaginary playground in three dimensions. I like being immersed in a world like that. If it wasn’t just silly, I would have wanted the crew to dress like Puritans the whole time.
Will you continue to make films in this genre?
The past is the genre I am most enamored with . . . if that’s a genre.
What is one movie you saw recently that really blew you away?
Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s Pharaoh.