When you first see Robert Eggers he cuts a very contemporary figure—in the way that a minimalist workman’s aesthetic is contemporary these days. His thick brown hair is cut with a light fade, and he sports the requisite well-kept full beard. He wears a black denim shirt with black denim jeans. He looks like he could be a graphic designer at a hip San Francisco firm, or a carpenter making furniture out of found wood in his Brooklyn “space”. He looks like he wears leather accessories and works with his hands.
And that last part is true. Robert Eggers is used to doing a lot of work with his hands, but not in the hopes of selling you furniture or software. He uses his hands to build imaginary worlds on stage and screen that will engross and sometimes even scare the life out of you, which is exactly the effect of his debut feature-length film, The Witch, a brain-bleeding psychological horror piece centered around a Puritan family living in Massachusetts about 60 years before witch panic engulfed New England.
“I’ve always sort of wanted to be in another world,” says Eggers, who wrote and directed The Witch. “I used to ask for costumes instead of toys for Christmas.”
Eggers’ star began its rapid ascent last January at the Sundance Film Festival, where The Witch premiered to great acclaim. It was so well received, in fact, that Eggers won Best Director honors in the festival’s U.S. Dramatic competition, joining a coterie of recent winners that includes Cary Joji Fukunaga, Ava Duvernay and Jill Soloway.
“To understand why the witch archetype was important and interesting and powerful… we had to go back in time to the early modern period when the witch was a reality. And the only way I was going to do that, I decided, was by having it be insanely accurate.” Robert Eggers
The Midnight section is where horror movies normally play at Sundance, but what Eggers had put together was something different, a character drama that unfolded like a nightmare—the kind so real it keeps you shaking long after you wake. The meticulously constructed set, brought to life after five years of researching, writing and development, is soaked in cold, gray fear. The recreation of farm life in 1630s Massachusetts is so complete it pulls you into the pocket universe that exists inside the characters’ minds. As you experience their fear, you experience your own. The barrier between you and the people on film disappears, and their terror consumes you. And that is how you make a scary movie!
“For me, if I really want to transport an audience, I can’t just say ‘This is a cool shot,’” says Eggers, “Everything in the frame really needs to be like I’m articulating my memory of this moment. Like, this was my childhood as a Puritan, and I remember that day my dad took me into the cornfield and what he smelled like. And if you’re going to be articulating a memory, the dust and the stitches on the clothing, they have to be right.”
Before he was writing and directing his way to indie film glory, Eggers was paying the bills as a production designer, prop stylist and carpenter. He worked on TV shows, short films and “experimental theater” projects while designing sets and costumes for his own ventures whenever he could make time. And the visual palette of The Witch—along with Eggers’ fascination with folklore and fairy tales—is evident in his early shorts, Hansel and Gretel and The Tell Tale Heart. The latter is based on the story by Gothic writer Edgar Allan Poe, which is appropriate for a man who describes himself as a “Romantic, with a capital R.”
Despite a predilection for cravats and what he calls a “fetishistic” approach to designing The Witch, Eggers is far from precious in conversation. He explains that shooting in northern Ontario—a place where, he dryly notes, “hand-riven clapboards aren’t part of the vernacular of the architectural tradition”—meant having to fly in a thatcher from Virginia and a carpenter from Massachusetts to accurately recreate the first-period design elements. Then, with a delightful self-awareness, he adds, “I mean, cry me a river, right?” (He revisits this phrase several times.)
When discussing his dogged pursuit of authenticity and what figures inspire him most, Eggers touches on the Dutch Golden Age of art, Flemish painters, “shocks of corn” (when you see those teepee-shaped cones of corn in a field), the Italian director Luchino Visconti, the legality of boned corsets in 1630 (a mildly controversial topic), Stanley Kubrick, Danish filmmaker Carl Theodore Dreyer, Spanish painter Francisco Goya, “Hammer Horror” films, Elizabethan witch pamphlets and more.
I also ask him about Ingmar Bergman, who Eggers frequently cites as a big aspirational influence on his work. Bergman is a cinema legend so it’s easy to just say, “He really inspires me,” because he sort of inspires every serious Film Person at one point or another. So I ask him to clarify what he admires, specifically, about the Swedish master of stage and screen. “His technique is unseen,” explains Eggers. “Every single frame is filled with so much empathy for the characters in his films that it’s really incredible. You can watch a scene and realize only later, ‘Holy shit! That was one shot that seamlessly moved with three different characters’ subjective experiences of this scene and I had no idea!’”
Eggers is quick to disclaim that he in no way has “absorbed any of Bergman,” adding that “The Witch is very ‘Look at a director make his first feature!’ And I hope that I can eventually grow out of that.” And yet, Eggers’ Witch certainly wages the holy war at its center on the “soul’s battlefield,” the milieu in which Woody Allan once described Bergman exceling beyond any other filmmaker. In the words of Allan: “When the area of concern in cinema shifted from the external world to the internal, Bergman developed a grammar, a vocabulary to express these inner conflicts brilliantly.” And director Michael Winterbottom said that at the heart of Bergman’s films: “It is a very simple approach to filmmaking, an idea that if you record things honestly enough and in enough detail, even in situations that seem un-dramatic, there will be the ability to move people and show what is going on behind the surfaces.”
So, while he may not be the late great Bergman, Eggers certainly used emotional honesty and strict attention to detail to pull the skin off his characters and examine the raw flesh underneath. And despite the high-brow vision board that clearly exists in his mind, Eggers never comes off as pretentious. His encyclopedic of knowledge is entirely functional. His early career, steeped in practical creative skills, informed his actually pragmatic approach to filming a period piece.
The Witch isn’t a phablet decked out with a giant Totoro case and a Flo’Rida ringtone. It’s an iPhone set to vibrate. It looks simple, even underwhelming, compared to its more ornate counterparts (Crimson Peak, anyone?); but every single element is designed to serve a purpose so specific that each one collectively disappears when stitched together.
The end result is so real it becomes fact, freeing audience members to suspend disbelief and fully explore their fear.
“So much has been made of the authenticity of this, and of course that’s important to me, but authenticity for the sake of authenticity doesn’t really matter,” says Eggers. “To understand why the witch archetype was important and interesting and powerful—and how was I going to make that scary and alive again—we had to go back in time to the early modern period when the witch was a reality. And the only way I was going to do that, I decided, was by having it be insanely accurate.”
The end result is so real it becomes fact, freeing audience members to suspend disbelief and fully explore their fear. This kind of painstakingly invisible design has produced some of the best horror cinema of all time, movies where the source of your terror is rarely seen but ever-present. Think Alien, Jaws, Psycho and Picnic At Hanging Rock. And Eggers belongs to a class of filmmakers resurrecting that aesthetic of intricate minimalism, relishing in the delights of hidden evil with movies like Let The Right One In, The Conjuring, It Follows, and The Babadook.
Alex Holmes worked as production designer on the Australian hit The Babadook from 2014, a sort of fairytale come-to-life/haunted house thriller that twisted audiences in knots as a mother and her son descend into paranoia. Much like The Witch, Babadook kept sightings of its titular villain extremely limited; the environment had to contribute to the mental decay of the characters, in the absence of a visible monster. You had to feel as though the Babadook was constantly over your shoulder, even if you never saw it.
“We needed to present such a stylized, psychological, almost dreamlike space,” says Holmes. “A space that felt inherently frightening but was still somehow grounded in enough ‘reality’ to keep our audience engaged on a real level.”
Holmes and his team were tasked with creating a surreal space, whereas Eggers aspired to historical recreation, but their central challenge—to create a sick playpen in which to entertain and horrify viewers—was the same. Both films were meant to evoke psychological terror over site-based scares. That meant manipulating color and light. Holmes created large rooms overtaken by shadows where the Babadook could lurk, while Eggers filmed exclusively on cloudy days and illuminated interior night shots with nothing but 3-wick candles (not period-appropriate, sure, but they needed the light boost from the extra wicks). The audience should never be allowed to escape the threat of evil, which starts to live in every inch of the frame.
And like Eggers, Holmes emphasizes that any stylization had to be justified. Neither The Witch nor The Babadook would be effective if it descended into cartoonish-ness. Both movies were also built on tight budgets, and the constraints allowed both creative teams to focus their finite resources on the meticulously constructed but limited sets, namely the house in Babadook and the farm plot in The Witch. Some comments from Holmes even sound interchangeable with Eggers. “This was a film that was using the genre to talk about serious and deeply emotional issues while at the same time being an exercise in myth making,” says Holmes. “[The director] wanted to create a film that hit those emotional notes honestly, while at the same time giving the audience a heightened experience beyond realism that dipped into and appropriated a whole tradition of fairytales, myth and horror films. But at its core, our stylization had to have emotional and psychological logic.”
Visual language lays a foundation for emotional communication in any movie. It’s a visual medium, after all. But that principal applies tenfold in the horror tradition, where the environment is as much a character as any person on screen. At its most successful it is a genre of particulars. It’s nearly impossible to come up with anything new that’s going to frighten people, so the best scary movies are the ones that take widely known tropes and give them a unique spin. You don’t have to reinvent the metaphorical wheel, but you do have to consider every last detail to prove that you care.
So I ask Eggers what his advice is to young genre filmmakers, and after using the words “work” and “prepare” literally 10 times in a row, he goes with some conventional wisdom: “This is a cliché that so many people say but don’t adhere to, which is that what you have in your imagination is more powerful than what I can ever give you. So much of it is what you do not see,” says Eggers, before adding one last tip about good on-set styling. “The monster has power in darkness. It doesn’t have power in the light. You know, I love Hammer horror movies and Christopher Lee as Dracula, but you see his ankles. Like, his cape’s too short, and that’s not okay. He loses his power there.”
So now you know. If you go the The Witch looking for those gotcha! ankles, you won’t find any.