×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Sundance: ‘The Witch’ Director’s Tale of Horror is Gravely Authentic

Raised in a tiny New Hampshire village, population approximately 400, Robert Eggers frequently let his imagination stray to the rural area’s occult past — a sensibility that feeds into his Sundance-bound directorial debut, “The Witch,” a remarkably authentic, period horror movie set among a family of superstitious Puritans, circa 1630.

“In the town where I grew up, there were lots of dilapidated old colonial farmhouses and graveyards hidden in the middle of the woods,” recalls Eggers, who liked to make up stories about local ghosts and spooks with his friends as a kid. “The Witch” may as well be one of those creepy alternate histories come to life, fleshed out with rigorous, period-appropriate details: The devout Calvinist characters speak in arcane, half-forgotten expressions; they work on a painstakingly reconstructed early-17th-century farm; and they live — and die — by beliefs true to the time.

“I don’t necessarily think that period accuracy equates with good storytelling,” Eggers explains, “but here, we needed to believe in the witch, and the witch is as real for us as the dirt under their fingernails and the mud-dung walls of their house.”

Ah, the mud-dung walls — just one of the details Eggers was determined to get right. The helmer, an admittedly obsessive fellow who previously made ends meet working as a production designer on other directors’ indie features, has an eye for the little things that give the film both its atmosphere and authenticity. Like using “trunnels” in place of nails when constructing the main house. Or locating special artisans to make the clapboards that sheathe that building.

“They have to be hand-riven with a froe out of white oak or red oak or they just don’t look right. We had to find artisans in Massachusetts and fly them up,” says Eggers, who spent long hours in the Plimouth Plantation library doing research and enlisted British historian Stuart Peachey for added credibility.

Through it all, the director would picture the world like a little dollhouse in his head, complete with little doll clothes, forks and knives and so on — “even though there were no forks in 17th-century European dining,” he says, quickly amending his own analogy. “You would use a spoon, and then you had a knife that you would carry with you at all times, which also served as your dining knife — for this economic class.”

Audiences probably won’t notice such details when they watch “The Witch,” but they serve to lend the film its uniquely unsettling tone. “I wanted the film to feel like a nightmare from the past, like an inherited nightmare that a Puritan might have had,” says Eggers, who has other projects up his sleeve that also trade on such detail-oriented world-building. “I’m not interested in the world that we live in today. It’s nice, but I find it kind of boring. I’m looking at fairy tales and ghost stories and myth and religion.”

More Film

  • Atlantics

    Emerging Talent From Gallic Cinema

    Variety is teaming with Unifrance, an agency that promotes French cinema around the world, to focus attention on four emerging talents in the French movie industry as part of Unifrance’s “New Faces of French Cinema” program. Here Variety profiles the rising filmmakers: Justine Triet, Eléa Gobbé-Mévellec, Hafsia Herzi and Mati Diop. Mati Diop Born to [...]

  • John Hannah Reunites With ‘The Mummy’

    John Hannah Reunites With ‘The Mummy’ Actors for Horror Pic ‘Lair’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    John Hannah, Corey Johnson and Oded Fehr will star in “Lair,” billed as a socially conscious horror movie about an LGBT family embroiled in one man’s attempt to prove the existence of the supernatural. The trio all appeared in the successful franchise “The Mummy,” and their new picture goes into production later this year. Katarina [...]

  • Loving Vincent Animation Oscars

    Adult Audience Animation: Cannes Panel Talks Big-Screen Strategy

    CANNES–A panel of leading animation industry executives gathered during the Cannes Film Market on Sunday to shed light on their strategies for the theatrical release of adult-oriented animated features. It was a timely conversation at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Five of the 28 animated projects in the Marché du Film are adult audience-focused, including [...]

  • Lea Drucker poses with the Best

    French Filmmaker Axelle Ropert Readies 'Petite Solange' With MK2 Films (EXCLUSIVE)

    French writer/director Axelle Ropert is set to direct “Petite Solange,” a film that will star Léa Drucker and Philippe Katerine, who won the best acting nods at this year’s Cesar Awards for their performances in “Custody” and “Sink or Swim,” respectively. MK2 films will handle international sales. Haut et Court has acquired rights for French [...]

  • Dutch FilmWorks Moves into International Sales

    Dutch Film Works Moves into International Sales (EXCLUSIVE)

    A major new international sales outfit is coming to market. Dutch Film Works (DFW), one of the largest movie distributors in the Benelux region, is moving into film and TV sales. DFW general manager Angela Pruijssers will spearhead the sales effort alongside Charlotte Henskens, who will join from Amsterdam-based Fortissimo Films, where she is director [...]

  • Gullane Taps The Match Factory, Bitters

    Gullane Taps Match Factory, Bitters End for Karim Ainouz’s ‘Neon River’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    Gullane, the Brazilian producer of Marco Bellocchio’s Cannes competition player “The Traitor,” has linked with production partners for anticipated projects by two of Brazil’s highest-profile auteurs: Karim Ainouz and Fernando Coimbra. In further news, Luiz Bolognesi, writer-director of Annecy winner “Rio 2096,” is leading “Senna,” Gullane’s biggest movie project to date, a live-action biopic of [...]

  • Harvey Weinstein

    Harvey Weinstein Feature Documentary ‘Untouchable’ Bought by Hulu (EXCLUSIVE)

    Hulu has snagged the U.S. rights to “Untouchable,” the feature doc about disgraced media mogul Harvey Weinstein, in a seven-figure deal, Variety has learned. The film, directed by Ursula Macfarlane, had its premiere at Sundance. It offers the inside track on the rise of Weinstein and his subsequent fall, amid allegations in the U.S. and Europe [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content