Neither had been to the theater before, but for Robert Eggers and Anya Taylor-Joy—the director and star of The Witch, which bills itself as A New England Folktale—premiering their film at the Brattle was like returning home. “Witch country,” they called it, before noting the delight they felt at fielding the audience’s highly specific questions. Their film is similarly particular: It watches, with an unblinking gaze inherited from the silent cinema, as a Puritan family is violently dissolved circa the 17th century. Father William (Ralph Ineson), mother Katherine (Kate Dickie), daughter Thomasin (Taylor-Joy), son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), and two younger siblings cast themselves out into the wilderness after finding that their chosen community doesn’t meet their proto-fundamentalist standards. But in isolation they’re picked apart, psychologically and physically. The blame for the troubles goes to the goat—we mean that literally; his name is Black Phillip—but Eggers finds his horror in Taylor-Joy’s stony face. The picture itself circles around issues of institutional sexism (within religion, within communities, within culture, within the home), but her performance dives directly into it. Taylor-Joy plays early scenes with a hardened manner that’s clearly been instilled in her by male elders, and retains that visage until it’s much too late. By the time her performance widens to allow shrieks and shouts and emotive facial expressions, judgments have already been levied, and spells already cast. We talked to the pair after their Brattle debut, focusing on the way that Taylor-Joy helped the material to develop on set. It’s a controlled performance, in many senses of the phrase.
What’s Rob like as a director?
Taylor-Joy: Rob really took me under his wing and taught me what it was to be an actor. I knew I wanted to act, but I didn’t know what I loved about it. And Rob showed it to me. He was incredibly patient. As an actor, it’s your job to hop into the brain of the director and understand whatever it is that they want. I hope I did.
One of my favorite memories was—[to Rob] I don’t know if you’ll remember this—we were doing a scene with the whole family. And Rob walked in, completely silently, and just smoothed down Kate’s face. And all of us just said, “Got it. Totally understood. We know what we’re doing now.”
Eggers: It’s funny, because she’s saying. “It’s the actor’s responsibility to get what the director wants,” but it’s my responsibility to find the right way to work with each of those actors. And everyone requires different kinds of techniques … the children, on the other hand, need to be protected from all this stuff psychologically. So, you know, talk about technical acting—working with them is like puppetry and dance choreography, more than anything else.
It’s probably the same with the goat, right?
Eggers: There’s two different ways of working with animals that I’ve encountered over the years. One is working really closely with trainers really far ahead of time, knowing that the animal is at an intelligence level where you can train it. That becomes about creating a really controlled environment to get exactly what you want, so that everything is right on. With the raven and the hare, that’s how we proceeded.
But then there’s other animals, like cows, and goats. With them, they’re just going to do their thing. It was really a nightmare working with the goat. Yeah. But even though it was painful, I was so glad we didn’t have a computer-generated goat.
I’m not sure the movie would’ve worked, if you did.
Eggers: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
Even watching the film, and maybe the goat is part of this, I got the feeling that the cast and crew must’ve conjured a sort of “method atmosphere” during the production.
Taylor-Joy: Ralph and Kate and I really talked about this while we were in London for the film awards. This [film] would have been so different if we had shot it anywhere near normal life. [Ed. note: Production of the film took place in Kiosk, a rural location within Ontario, CA.] We literally cut out everything. We didn’t have our families. There was very little Wi-Fi or cell service. We were living together, we were eating together every day—we only had each other, all the time. I saw that as a positive, because we all really liked each other. But now I see … in the film, you need to see the unconditional love that runs throughout the family, to be able to fully invest in their breakdown. And luckily, we got that part down, I think.
Rob, you and your cinematographer chose to shoot this film in the 1.66:1 aspect ratio [as opposed to standard contemporary ratios, which are wider.]
Eggers: It was probably [cinematographer] Jarin [Blaschke,] if I know Jarin. But it was so long ago. Jarin and I both like old aspect ratios, and we had a big conversation about it years ago. Looked at these Dürer engravings of the apocalypse, which are all vertical frames, and very epic. And Jarin loves Romantic painting. And the shorts I did with Jarin were all 1.33:1. With The Witch, we needed something in-between [1.33:1 and traditional ratios.] We wanted to still have the height, so the trees would have their power.
Because we were shooting on the Alexa Plus and the native aspect ratio is 1.33:1, we had more resolution [shooting 1.66] than we would have if we shot 1.85. We were using spherical lenses—obviously—but they were these Cooke lenses from the 40s that had been rehoused, which gave things a very interesting look. It’s funny, we were at Plymouth Plantation on a research trip, with our production designer Craig Lathrop. He said, “1.66? You’re chopping the size of the frame up.” And I said, “No, Craig, we’re making it taller.” And back and forth and back and forth.
Anya, on a scene-by-scene basis, what’s Rob’s directing like? How would you work, from the start of a day’s work to the finish—what’s it like to be blocked by Rob?
Taylor-Joy: I’m still a very instinctual person. And back then, I was working only on instinct. So I guess I would just show up, and we’d talk about it for one second, and then we’d do it. But that’s just my memory of what happened. I don’t know if that’s what actually happened.
Eggers: Everything was very meticulously blocked, beforehand. But the idea was: Prepare, prepare, prepare, prepare, prepare, so that it would allow for some flexibility on the set itself.
The cinematic language of the film is ultra-specific. We shot-listed the whole film. My editor just emailed me to say, “You’re using [the phrase] ‘cut in camera’ wrong,” but I’ve been saying that the film is almost entirely cut in camera. And what I mean by that is, there is no additional coverage in the footage. Each shot is by design. In fact, there were times where we’d be editing a scene and trying to do it instinctively. But then we’d go back to the order we had in the original shot list, and it worked much better. So that’s all I mean to say [with that phrase.]
However, Caleb’s possession scene is one where Jarin and I threw up our hands. Even though I wrote it myself, when you get to the set and you’re staring at it, you realize it’s 11 straight pages of screaming. We realized we couldn’t do this without the [deeper involvement of] the actors. It’s a scene we all found together, the most collaborative scene.
Taylor-Joy: Harvey is 12 years old. Even when we were filming it, he didn’t really want to touch me in any way, you know … he’s a kid, in that sense. So when we were talking about what we wanted out of that scene, we couldn’t really state it so point-blank. He couldn’t know.
Eggers: He couldn’t know the subtext of the things he was saying or the positions he was in. And so I’m very grateful to Ralph, and Kate, and Harvey’s parents, in working on it with us … This might be a little precious, but our approach was that everything has to be personal. This has to feel like we’re articulating a memory of our Puritan childhood. What our forefathers felt like in the cornfield on a given day—down to that level of specificity.
THE WITCH. RATED R. NOW PLAYING EVERYWHERE.