TIFF Interview: Robert Eggers and Anya Taylor Joy Talk The Witch

In 17th century New England, not even a goat can hear you scream.
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As noted by TIFF’s Artistic Director (and film programmer) Cameron Bailey, writer/director Robert Eggers’ feature film debut takes an obvious page out of Kubrick’s book as it focuses in on a family troubled and torn apart by mysterious supernatural forces. But instead of The Overlook Hotel and the harsh winters of Colorado, Eggers has set the action in 17th century New England, at a point in time when religious superstition and new world isolation combine to create an ominous air of paranoia that sets both the main characters and audiences on edge.

At the heart of The Witch is a teenager and societal outsider, Thomasin (played superbly here by newcomer Anya Taylor Joy). After her parents are exiled from their rustic but bustling village, the family sets out and settles on the edge of a dense but seemingly empty wood to start anew. But when the crops start failing and the family’s youngest child goes missing with no explanation while in Thomasin’s care, the small clan descend into a state of constant suspicion and finger pointing. Is their misfortune simply bad luck or is it witchcraft at work? Have the family’s twins become possessed by evil or is it the fault of a goat with the devil of an agenda?  No, really. With meticulous period detail—from its use of language to the buttons on the Puritan villagers’ coats—Eggers’ eerie folktale proves a solid and consistently uneasy ride for horror film fans.

We had the opportunity to sit down with the man behind The Witch as well as the film’s leading lady, Anya Taylor Joy, to discuss their atmospheric entry into this year’s TIFF programme. Read on to find out what they had to say about their creepy crowd-pleaser.

Emma Badame (TMS):  The film’s tagline calls The Witch a “New England Folk-tale.” Given the sense of connection that part of the U.S. seems to have with its past, can you explain what is it about their history with witches that continues to fascinate?

Robert Eggers:  You had this extreme religious culture coming into [New England] and, though this makes me sound a bit of a new-age crystal worshipper or something, you can still feel the shadows of that past today. But I think in our contemporary culture, marketing actually has a lot to do with the fascination. I mean I went to Salem every Hallowe’en when I was a kid and it was “witch, witch, witch, witch, witch” but [the witch trials] didn’t even happen in Salem. They happened in a place called Salem Village, which is now called Danvers. But that said, it’s very similar to me heading to London, England for the first time — thinking about Charles Dickens — and then seeing Dickens all over the place. So I think there’s some of that projection in play. But at the same time, Dickens is all over the place in London so … it goes both ways.

TMS: The period detail is the film is incredibly meticulous. What kind of research did you get up to while writing the screenplay?

Eggers: It was tons and tons and tons of reading, you know, of everything. From primary source material from different people to try to understand the early modern period, the different versions of English Calvinism, the kinds of people who moved over here, to things that helped me understand the agricultural life. My bookshelf is full of things like The English Husbandman, written in the period. But I’m sure if I were to try and start a 17th century farm, I would definitely die.

Anya Taylor Joy: But you know everything so …

Eggers: Well, I could write a crappy book on the topic, I suppose. A shoddy one, anyway. So it was a lot of stuff to go through. We also worked with a lot of excellent museums and some real experts in the field as well.

TMS: You wrote the film’s screenplay. Was it always the plan that you would step behind the camera and direct this story as well?

Eggers: Yup. Yes, it was.

TMS: Anya, when you first had a chance to read through Robert’s screenplay, what were your first impressions of Thomasin? What about her jumped out at you?

Taylor Joy: I was just overwhelmed by the script, really. As important as Thomasin was to the story, the thing that really hit me was all of the themes he was touching on and how everything was going on at once. But when I did get to thinking of Thomasin, I really just thought of someone who didn’t fit in. At all. Robert says that about her as well. Thomasin just isn’t a Puritan. She doesn’t belong to that world. So it’s very interesting to see her struggle to deal with the world she’s stuck in. That was fascinating to me. But to be honest, there was so much going on in the script that I was a bit overwhelmed. Imagine the way you reacted seeing the movie. You remember? That was me reading the script. I saw it so clearly and all I could come up with was, “Holy Jesus, this is intense!” So that’s a really long way of letting you know what was going on in my head. (laughs)

TMS: Robert, I know you’d directed short films before but in taking on your first feature, was there anything that surprised you along the way? Unexpected challenges?

Eggers: Nothing really did surprise me, honestly. I was lucky that I had a lot of freedom here and could cast who I wanted … things like that. So it was the same as on the shorts, just on a much larger scale. The one big difference was that I’d never had to deal with or been so reliant on animals before. So that was challenging. After speaking to the animal trainer for the first time, I just put my head down and wondered what I’d done. I just thought, “this is never going to work.” So I’m just really glad we got something … anything … there.

TMS: Well, there is that old showbiz adage that you should never work with children or animals … but you had both.

Eggers: Yes! Yes we did.

Taylor Joy: He started strong. He really went for it.

Eggers: Children are … well, let’s just say there are many adults that are way harder to work with than children. The only issue when filming with children is they have shorter hours. But animals? They’re a whole ‘nother level. I don’t blame the goat for being stubborn and not wanting to be in the movie. I get it.

TMS: Well, that’s just him being method. That’s what a goat does.

Eggers: Yeah, yeah. Exactly.

TMS: In describing The Witch, TIFF lists Kubrick and Bergman as clear influences on the film. Are they actual influences on your work? Who else do you look to?

Eggers: Well, I like both of them! They’re good! (laughs) I talk about Bergman so much that it can get to be kind of embarrassing but I really do love him. Mornau is another one of my super faves. Really, I like a lot of dead people.

TMS: Considering the reaction you had to Robert’s initial script, Anya. What was it like finally getting to see it with audiences? First at Sundance and now here in Toronto.

Taylor Joy: On my goodness. After the first time I saw it, I was dead silent … for once in my life. I didn’t speak. I couldn’t speak. I was just a bit overwhelmed, really. It was the first time I’d ever seen myself on screen so there was the initial impression: “Wow! My face is really big and out there!” So it took me a little time to get over that. Then when we actually got a chance to see it with an audience, it was insane. We were all holding hands, feeling the energy of everyone around the room. It was surreal, unbelievably surreal, to see people reacting the way we wanted them to. That was a big fear of mine — that people weren’t going to understand certain aspects of the story. But everyone got it. It was the best feeling in the world.

Look for The Witch to hit theatre later this year or in early 2016.

Emma Badame is a Londoner by heart and a Canadian by circumstance. Currently based in Toronto, the unapologetic film, television, and theatre nerd finds time between bouts of fangirling on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to be a digital content producer and film journo, writing for Cineplex.com, Cineplex Magazine, MuchMusic.com, CTV.ca and more.

(Image courtesy of TIFF)

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