Robert Eggers has dubbed his first feature film, The Witch, as "The Revenant, Jr."
That’s not to suggest an ego check is in order, however. On the contrary, Eggers is equating his film to Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Oscar-nominated epic because of the absolutely brutal shooting process.
"Honestly, there were just problems all the time," Eggers says. "We were constantly tying the schedule up in knots because of weather—we needed it to be gloomy, and we couldn’t betray that. And the crew was really upset all the time because the schedule was just bonkers."
The Witch follows a Puritan family in their new settlement after patriarch William (Ralph Ineson) breaks ties with their previous colony. What seems like a fresh start instantly collapses when the family's baby, under the ward of the eldest child Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), disappears. As the threat of supernatural malevolence closes in, the fabric of the family is slashed to pieces, and Thomasin is thrown under an accusatory gaze of witchcraft.
The Witch has been well over four years in the making, with research claiming a vast chunk of that time. Eggers pored over 17th century diaries and documents to inject historical accuracy into his film—he even opted for his characters to speak in the Essex dialect of the time. Executing that level of authenticity shouldn’t go without merit—The Witch is an immersive, cinematographic beauty in the grimmest, most ominous way possible. That said, Eggers was working with some of the most unpredictable forces in filmmaking: nature, children, and animals.
"The scene where Thomasin is doing laundry and she’s getting water, even that location was very difficult to get to. There was a marsh and the dolly was sinking the whole time," Eggers recalls. "And then of course the goats. I was afraid we didn’t have the film because the goats were so difficult to work with. Originally, there were supposed to be three goats with three different skills: a bucking goat, a rearing goat, a goat that was good at standing. But we ended up having only one goat whose skills were napping or attacking Ralph Ineson."
What terrified Eggers the most, though, is one scene in particular, arguably the most pivotal scene in the film: Caleb’s bewitched possession. WARNING: MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD.
Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) is the second oldest child and becomes fraught with worry of damnation after his baby brother goes missing. The Puritans believed strongly in predestination, the foreordaining of salvation for some and hellfire for others. During a trip in the woods with Thomasin, Caleb is separated from his sister and stumbles into the clutches of the witch, returning home a few days later naked, feverish, and completely dazed. He’s laid down to rest and as plans are in the works to seek help in the nearest town, Caleb shrieks himself awake, bringing Thomasin; his twin younger siblings, Mercy and Jonas; his mother, Katherine (Kate Dickie); and his father, William, by his side.
"I was afraid of the scene—everyone was afraid of the scene," Eggers says. "The scene is like 11 pages—the longest scene to shoot."
Eggers and his cinematographer Jarin Blaschke each created a shot-list for the entire film, i.e., wrote out a full log of scenes, but this scene in particular presented a unique challenge. "We came together and compared notes, and that scene, we were like, we can’t [shot-list] it because we have to work with the actors," Eggers says. "It really was everyone coming together to make that work."
In convulsions of physical torture from an unseen ailment, Caleb’s mouth clenches shut. William uses a knife to pry his teeth open, and Caleb coughs out a bloody apple with a bite mark—a sign that he truly has been bewitched. The young twins immediately accuse Thomasin of witchcraft, which she passionately denies. William grills his daughter, but it’s to little effect when, while praying above Caleb, the twins allegedly forget how to pray, blaming Thomasin once again and sending the family into hysterics.
"On paper, it just seemed like a lot of yelling," Eggers says. "So that was definitely the most collaborative scene between me and Jarin and the actors more than anything else."
It’s a unique scene in the structure of it alone. All six of the main characters are together in the same (and very small) room, but it’s nothing like a quiet family supper. Every family member is engaged in a heightened sense of fear and panic, which Eggers and the cinematographer carefully magnify in measured doses.
"You break the scene up into movements and climaxes, and you try to build each piece really carefully," Eggers says. "I think coming from a theater background, it was easy enough to block the scene, but Jarin was incredibly helpful in this scene in particular [by keeping] track of all of these characters in a way that’s not betraying the cinematic language that we set up in the rest of the film."
Thomasin’s fate is all but sealed. She’s been accused as a witch, and, of course, there’s little to no vetting process in such a slanderous and potentially deadly claim. But there’s hardly time to wonder what will become of her as Caleb’s condition eerily plummets from a chaotic seizure to what one can assume to be a either a fit of delirium or a moment of religious ecstasy. Arms outstretched, eyes cast upwards, Caleb slowly sits up, reciting snippets of a prayer from John Winthrop, one of the Puritan founders of New England.
From a diary entry by Winthrop:
"O my Lord, my love, how wholly delectable thou art! Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for his love is sweeter than wine: How lovely is thy countenance! How pleasant are thy embraces! My heart leaps for joy when I hear the voice of thee my Lord, my love, when thou sayest to my soul, thou art her salvation. O my God, my king, what am I but dust! A worm, a rebel, and thine enemy was I, wallowing in the blood and filth of my sins, when thou didst cast the light of Countenance upon me, when thou spread over me the lap of thy love, and saidest that I should live."
"A lot of scenes started with 'that's interesting.' I'd read something and be like, 'That’s interesting—that's evocative. Maybe I’ll start writing a scene around some evocative language,'" Eggers says. "That 'kiss me with the kisses with his mouth' was very striking to me. With some more research, I realized it's from the Song of Solomon that Winthrop is appropriating. It's very common all through the Middle Ages and the early modern period for people to appropriate biblical language in their own way. But this kind of mystical, erotic relationship with God is something that was very interesting, to say the least. And I think that especially from a modern perspective, we really wonder is he saved or is he not saved? And that’s a question that the parents are asking themselves."
Caleb’s bizarre moment of clarity was done in a single take to draw out the tension of the moment, which also highlights the immense talent of actor Harvey Scrimshaw. As Eggers mentions, it’s difficult to decipher whether or not Caleb is saved: His joyous prayer that ends in a near orgasmic state could be a bewitched mockery of religion, febrile nonsense, or actual salvation—dense ambiguity tasked to portray by such a young actor.
"We knew that if that scene didn’t work, the rest of the movie was not going to work. I was talking to the adult actors, saying we really need to drill the hell out of this because it’s all coming down to Harvey’s performance. Of course Harvey totally nails the scene, but he was working with his dad, [and] he was working with Ralph and Kate on all kinds of muscle control," Eggers says. "So finally we came together to do this thing, but it was really like everyone’s input went into that scene, and it was exhausting. Especially because some of the tone of Harvey’s performance, he needed to be naive of what that tone was, if you catch my drift. Ralph was using soccer metaphors to help coax some of that out of him."
Caleb’s death at the hands of witchcraft signals a dynamic shift in the film. At this point, some family members have consoled themselves into thinking the baby’s disappearance earlier on was caused by a wolf or some other animal snatching him up—but facing witchcraft dead-on is the final rift that sets in motion the last, and certainly bloodiest, scenes in the film.
"What’s interesting in researching this was realizing that the 17th century real world and the supernatural world were the same thing—people really believed that evil witches were doing these things. That was part of the accepted reality of the day. So it was interesting to try and make witches scary and potent again," Eggers says. "The biggest thing that we’re trying to do in making the film transportive, aside from the world creation, is Jarin and I talked about how this has to be our memory of a Puritan childhood. We need to remember what dads smelled like in the cornfield and the way the mist the was like—it needed to be that personal in order for us to communicate this."
The Witch opens Friday, February 19.