Everyone’s talking about “The Witch.” It’s hard not to understand why when the film, which first debuted at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and tells the story of a family plagued by evil in early 17th-century New England, is picking up splashy endorsements from the Satanic Temple. The brooding, creepy atmosphere conjured by director Robert Eggers owes plenty to the design and photography, the latter courtesy of lenser Jarin Blaschke. Natural light and plenty of gloom give way to a textured film as beautiful as it is unsettling to observe.
I’d like to start out by hearing a little about your background. I know you’ve done extensive work in short films, but how did you first come to the gig? Did you go to film school? Were you into photography at an early age?
My mom gave me my first point-and-shoot camera when I was probably 10 years of age. I started by just shooting my friends playing basketball, and then I started to take pictures of stranger things. And then my mom gave me her old ’70s Nikon that she hadn’t used for, whatever, 25 years. It was a small town in Oregon and there was a community college, so in high school I went to photography classes up there and I got into it more in depth. I mean, the pictures were really boring for a long time! But I knew then that I had to do something related to that. I left my town at 16 to go to film school in New York City at the School of Visual Arts. I did that and got out and, you know, they don’t really guide you after that. You’re just kind of on your own. I didn’t have any mentors. I didn’t know anyone in the business. I just had three short films that I put on my VHS reel. I just started very slowly meeting people, responding to online ads at the time, people needing people to shoot their short films. And I fell in with Columbia grad students and I shot a lot of Columbia grad films because they don’t have a cinematography department. Within a certain circle I was the kind of go-to person to shoot. So then those films started going to Sundance and I finally got my first feature. And it was kind of like starting over, because I was shooting these big-budget shorts. Some of them were a quarter of a million dollars, and then I was shooting a feature for less than a quarter of a million dollars. So I had to readjust again.
So how did you and Robert Eggers come together?
He reached out to me in late 2007 because he was shooting, I think, his second short film. He was very young and I think he found me because I was up on some website with someone else, with another d.p. he was told to look at that he wasn’t so interested in. But he saw my name up there, too, and I had this really exotic name I guess — so I’m told. He said, “Oh, let’s look at this guy. He’s got an Eastern European name. I wonder if he’s any good?” The film was “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and I wasn’t really sure what to make of it. Just the fact that it was “The Tell-Tale Heart,” I thought it was some sort of class exercise or something. And also he was like 23 years old, I think. But then I read it and it was pretty intelligent and there’s no voiceover. It was the least cliché version of that you could imagine. So I figured I’d meet with him and immediately came to find that he was an encyclopedia of sorts and knew and cared deeply for Poe and his world and his imagination. Rob shared a lot of those same qualities and knew a lot about the time period in which it’s set and Poe’s life and what this house would be like. It was well beyond anything I was expecting. So I shot the film and we’ve been friends ever since.
Given the aesthetic and the period specificity of a project like “The Witch,” was there ever any consideration to go analog with it, to shoot on film?
Absolutely. I mean for the first four years, five years, absolutely. Rob and I would shoot film every time and certainly for what he does, which is work that’s going back in time. So yeah, it was always considered, and early on I think we figured that we wanted 1.66:1 (aspect ratio). I was trying to figure out, you know, “I guess it would be four-perf to do that. You can’t do it on three-perf.” You know, figuring that out. It didn’t work out that way just given the budget. Though three and a half million bucks for a first-time director is pretty good. These days it’s like $200,000.
You mentioned the aspect ratio. What was behind that philosophy and going into that framing? What was the visual storytelling goal there?
Well, it’s more timeless. It’s a shape that goes back further into our history. I mean you don’t really see a lot that’s 1.85:1 before, you know, the 1950s. That’s a shape that you didn’t see in the arts until very recently. That timeless quality was attractive. Also it was just going by my gut. It just felt right. It also had benefits of being able to make the house a little more claustrophobic and also show more height of the trees looming over the characters. And you could still have the whole family in the shot and have it work out. Rob loves 1.33:1, too. Our first two shorts together were 1.33 and he just, you know, he loves it. So hopefully we can do that again.
It’s interesting with all the talk of “The Revenant” shooting with natural light lately, you also used natural light for this film. What kind of limitations does that decision tend to impose?
Well, we’re juggling around the schedule all the time. Most people use natural light for exteriors, unless you’re bringing out HMIs for sexy backlight or whatever. But we didn’t have the resources in the grip department to take a crane and fly a 40-foot silk or muslin over the whole set. So it had to be gloomy. On our 25-day shoot and with the resources we had, it just wasn’t gloomy. It wasn’t going to look gloomy. You can’t do that in post convincingly. So we were just juggling around the schedule. As far as the interiors and all the candlelit stuff, I don’t know. In a way it’s kind of freeing, actually, because you don’t have to emulate anything. It’s like, “Well, they have candles so let’s use candles.” It gets to the point and then you’re just concerned with the basics of lighting, of how to build the shot in depth and how to use these different tools. I mean the candles burn down quickly and you have to replace them but other than that, you know, you’re not worried about how to make something try to look like something else. You’re just going for the real thing.
Do you think the decision to go digital in the end was helpful, given the way you were lighting the movie?
A little bit. I mean, I would have loved to have that analog palette and texture on it that, again, is more timeless. But sure, it buys me an extra two-thirds of a stop, which certainly helps. On “The Tell-Tale Heart,” Rob and I shot that with plenty of candlelight and that was 500 ASA film stock and that was fine. We had to stage people up closer to the candles and I was still trying it out and less confident. So backgrounds, I would have light bulbs on flicker generators and things. But yeah, I’d love to do it on film again next time to push it further and make it even. Rob said to me that he would like less candles lit, you know, if you can believe that. And the historians actually said things like, “Well, a poor family wouldn’t have had so many candles burning at one time.” But I think it only happens in a few scenes where there are too many candles lit.
Did you guys take any inspiration from art or films or other photography?
It’s hard to say because I’ve known him for, I guess, over eight years now, and part of our friendly chit-chat is just sending art back and forth. So I’ve kind of come to know his taste very well, and vice versa. And I’ve gotten into artists through him and he through me. I feel like we’re kind of working out of our gut. We’re still somewhat young so maybe some of the references in retrospect come to the surface as far as things that we just like. People talk about “The Shining” and this movie but yeah, we both like that and there are parts where that I think it’s visible, perhaps, in the work, which is kind of embarrassing. Oh well. But I do think it came out of us. He had a look book but it was really just more for a feeling for a team at large, you know?
And was there any discussion about camera movement and how that would speak to how you were capturing the story visually? It’s often more unsettling when it’s locked-off and still.
Until it came time to write out the shot list I don’t know that that ever was talked about in an overt way. The scenes are thought of as whole things. So what we do is he goes off and makes a shot list and I do the same and then we kind of meet and build these things together with both of our ideas. But at least on my end, the shots just kind of came out of me and what sort of felt right. I think perhaps we tend to do movements on the Z-axis, you know, less lateral. We do lateral moves, too, but I think things that kind of pull you toward things against your will — hopefully that’s the feeling sometimes. I think I read a review somewhere that said the camera never moves. I’ll take that as a compliment, but we were building track all day long every day and the cameras constantly were moving. So the impression is that there’s kind of a stillness to it or that the moves are invisible, I guess. At least for that person, I feel like we did our job in some ways if you don’t really overtly notice it.
So what kind of things are you interested in shooting going forward? Do you think this relationship with Robert will continue?
I look forward to working with him again and I hope the feeling is mutual. He’s just one of those rare people that you connect with. I mean I like movies that — I like to be transported. That’s one of the great pleasures. Working in filmmaking is kind of, I feel, like an antidote to my life because life is this chaotic thing and you get to sort of pare it down and distill it and make a version of life that makes more sense. And you get to explore all these things you want to explore, and working with Rob definitely does that in a purer sense than you normally get.