To tell his first story on the big screen, New Hampshire native Robert Eggers knew he needed to hire actors who would be largely unfamiliar and capable of uncommon intensity. They also had to be nice people, he says.
“We were going into these dark, emotional places, and we had to trust each other and be good to each other,” says Eggers, whose debut feature film, the unsettling Colonial-era folktale “The Witch,” opens Friday.
It’s not hard to imagine the filming of “The Witch” as a psychic ordeal for all involved. Based on familiar tropes from the annals of New England’s witch hysteria but utterly convincing in its fidelity to the era, the director says he conceived the film as “a Puritan’s nightmare, uploaded into the audience’s mind’s eye.”
It’s a nightmare, all right: After a family is banished from their Colonial settlement, they’re bedeviled by mysterious forces as they try to establish a home on the edge of a forbidding forest. As the casualties mount, the family begins to suspect one of their own, and their collective sanity suffers.
Although the setting is not specifically identified, Eggers says that in his mind, it’s the woods of present-day southern New Hampshire, where he grew up.
“Being from a rural town in New England, you’re around these dilapidated Colonial farmhouses and family graveyards in the middle of the woods,” he says. “For me, New England’s past has always been part of my consciousness. You kind of had the feeling the woods were haunted.”
Anya Taylor-Joy, who plays Thomasin, the family’s eldest daughter, spent part of her childhood in Argentina, where she often wandered off to explore in the woods.
“I’ve always been a tomboy,” says the 19-year-old, who seems on the verge of a Hollywood breakthrough. “The Witch” arrives with heightened anticipation, after its auspicious debut at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, where Eggers won the best director award.
“I have an active imagination,” says Taylor-Joy. “I’d go into the woods to look for the witches, the mythical beings.”
She’s calling from Los Angeles, where she’s sharing a temporary apartment with costars Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie, who play William and Katherine, the family’s deeply pious, fiercely independent parents. (Both of the actors have appeared as recurring characters in “Game of Thrones.”) Though they shot the film almost two years ago, the small cast and crew have retained a “family atmosphere,” says Taylor-Joy.
The experience of making the movie “is so burned into our memories,” she says. “It’s changed all of our lives.”
It was imperative, Eggers says, for the film to “create a family that loves each other — so they can tear themselves apart.”
The director, who has a background in Shakespeare, dug deeply in archival documents for inspiration while writing his script. It took him several years to recruit producers who would back his vision, he says. In the meantime, he traveled widely in Canada to find a location that would resemble Colonial New England. (The team eventually settled on a remote area outside Mattawa, in northeastern Ontario.)
No mention is made of Salem, despite perpetual interest in the city’s witch trials. Most recently, WGN America has renewed its Gothic drama based on the witch trials, and Pulitzer Prize-winner Stacy Schiff just published a new book on the subject. Additionally, a book that belonged to a witch trials judge recently brought more than $200,000 at auction, and in January researchers reported pinpointing the true site of the Salem hangings — behind a Walgreens.
“I realized that because the witch today is a plastic Halloween decoration, it was crucial to go back and make the most authentic re-creation of the 17th century I possibly could,” the director says, “so the witch could be real again for audiences.”
During preproduction, Eggers kept a phrasebook of grammar and vocabulary he plucked from the historical record.
“When I first assembled the draft, it was a little like a collage,” he explains. “Then I slowly honed it. That Old Testament Geneva bible language can be chilling in the horror movie genre setting.”
“Corruption, thou art my father!” bellows William, who has raised his family to believe they are “children of sin, all.”
The dialogue is thick with linguistic anachronisms, and it can be hard to keep up with in spots. That, says Eggers, was by design.
“It makes the experience transportive,” says the director, who is working on a remake of the vintage horror classic “Nosferatu.” “For viewers who don’t read a lot of Jacobean literature for fun, if you’re a little behind what they’re saying, I think it makes you focus on the story a little more.” The sensation that the viewer is fully immersed in the family’s world adds to the tension, he says.
“I like films where I have to work a bit. If it’s too easy, I personally get a little bored.”
Taylor-Joy says she was in awe of Eggers’s accumulation of expertise about the Puritans, their daily lives, and their occasional bouts with witch-related hysteria.
“He’s an incredible encyclopedia of knowledge,” she says. “You’re well aware he knows his [stuff].”
Eggers spent time at Plimoth Plantation, studying the reenactments and researching clothing patterns to ensure his film’s period authenticity. The opening scene, in which the family is banished from the community, was shot there, says Taylor-Joy.
“Robert has tapped into something a lot of people forgot they were afraid of.” The woods are dark, in more ways than one.
James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.