After receiving a raucous reception and the Directing Prize in the U.S. Competition at its Sundance premiere, Robert Eggers’s debut film The Witch has proven to be a far greater success than he could have ever anticipated. We spoke with him about how he got to this point, his route from a career in art and production design for fringe theatre, into making short films and finally financing a feature.
SP: Could you tell me about your early career? How did you transition from working in art and production design into filmmaking?
I grew up doing theatre. I was always into the design aspects of it, even when I was acting. Even before theatre, I was very into wearing costumes when I was a little kid. I’d wear them to school, even if it meant I’d get beaten up for it. When i moved to New York, and started directing Off-Off-Off-Broadway and street theatre, I was designing the sets and costumes for the stuff I was directing. A more experienced director saw one of my street theatre pieces, and asked me to do the sets and costumes for something at the MOMA. It was then that I realised i could make a living designing for others, whilst focusing on getting my own career going. It started with theatre, dance and eventually film, and also non-union commercials and some TV. Eventually I settled mostly doing print and fashion stuff, sets and props for that world. I did anything, all the time, however I could make money. I did set carpentry, repaired theatre curtains, whatever was around.
All the while I was writing and directing whenever I had the opportunity, and the time. In the middle of all this, I had made a short film that wasn’t terrible, and somehow some people became interested in developing a feature with me. But each time I would write a feature screenplay, it was too strange and nobody would want to make it. In this climate, I realised I would have to do something in an identifiable format in order to get it financed and potentially seen. That’s why I came up with The Witch, which took four years to get financed, with me continuing my design work in between.
SP: Did you find that you had to do less of your design work in order to devote more time to your own personal projects, or did you always manage to find the balance between the two?
It was always hard, because I had to pay my rent. If you want to do this, you have to spend so much time on it. I was living cheaply, and whenever I would get a good paycheque through, I’d take some time off to write. Then I would quickly run out of money, and scrabble to find some more work. Sometimes I would have a stint where I couldn’t focus on my own work, because I was getting too many jobs that I couldn’t really say no to. There came a point where it looked I was going to be able to design for decent feature films, independent stuff. I hadn’t really done that because it took too much time away from my projects. I was occasionally working on student films, right up to the year The Witch got financed, but committing to larger projects would have really eaten into my time.
SP: You felt that if you became a full time production designer for larger features that might become your career? And that you may never get to realise your own projects?
Yeah, I didn’t want to do that. So then I was lucky to get into stills photography. There is no union in that world, so every once in a while I could decently paying work, and fast. The level of craft in the independent world is extremely high, and everyones expectations are similarly high, so creatively it was really satisfying.
SP: Do you continue to feel a connection to the independent world? Do you still feel that thats your world?
The two films I’m currently developing are big. They’re in the studio world. But, I still really want to make a black and white chamber movie on 35mm in 1:33. Theres other small films I want to make, and I’m still interesting in making street theatre.
SP: What role did your short films play in getting a feature made?
I made a short Hanzel and Gretel, which played at one film festival. It was really really terrible, and should never be seen by anyone.
SP: Is it available online anywhere, or have you buried it?
No one can find it. I’ve made sure that no one can find it. That was my first film. I did everything and it sucks. i brought in an editor in to try to save it, but he couldn’t do anything. Then I made The Telltale Heart, which will be online in June this year. That was the first collaboration with Jarin Blaschke, who shot The Witch. That was a short film that was legitimate, and even though it is primitive and clunky, I’m proud of what I accomplished for where I was. And then, through the course of trying to get The Witch made, there was a time that it had been so long since I made The Telltale Heart I was told that investors are going to want to see something more recent. This was also the first year I was making something slightly resembling an adult living as a designer and I had saved up money that was going towards my marriage and honeymoon. All of that money went into the short film.
SP: Its fine now, that’s that where the money went?
It’s fine now. At the time it was rough. Thanks to my wife for being understanding. That was a proof of concept short. It’s called Brothers. It doesn’t have the same story as The Witch, but it takes place in a barn in the woods, and it has kids. That one has its merits. It was funny because by the time I was finished with that film, it looked like we were fine with investors for The Witch anyway. It ended up being a proof of concept for myself, proof that I would be able to make The Witch, and that I wasn’t just a snake oil salesman.
SP: How has your work in production design factored in how you direct? How involved are you in all the various elements?
Creating another world has always been one of the most interesting things to me about directing. I’ve always done my own sets and costumes, not because I wanted to be a designer, but because I knew what I wanted. With the exception of one play I made, all of my personal projects have been set in the past. I’m obsessed with the past and understanding how things worked, and how and why things were done. That means that design is going to have to be an important element in the work I do. With The Witch, when making such a small film, it was very helpful in the writing to know everything that the family had, all of their possessions. I had an imaginary dollhouse in my mind, and I could block things out and work things out that way.
I also did a lot of drawings. I always do very elaborate lookbooks. I had the world drawn out before I brought in the designers (Craig Laithrop and Linda Muir). I think they enjoyed working with that specificity. As controlling and obsessive as I am, when I was a designer I liked directors who were like that, who knew what they wanted, even if that meant a little bit less freedom for me creatively. Its satisfying to work with someone who knows what they want, I think.
SP: This meticulousness, this obsessiveness, that level of detail, where is it coming from? Is it from research, your imagination, or a combination of both?
It’s research. But, the theory that I have, is that for a film to be actually be transportive, every frame needs to be as if I am articulating my memory. It can’t just be a cool shot. It has to be my memory, the purest distillation of childhood memory. The way my bed smelt, the light over the cornfields, how the dust landed on the kitchen floor. If I am going to have it to fit the memory, that means a lot of research in order to feel familiar enough with the farm to feel that I grew up on it. This takes a lot of work.
SP: Whats the source of your interest in witchcraft? Is it cinephilic, is it literary, or does it stem from somewhere else entirely?
The earliest dream I can remember is a nightmare about a witch. I’ve always been interested in witches. I am from New England, where all this witchery took place, and as a kid I was always aware of the history of this place. Like so many kids in New England, the woods behind my house always seemed haunted, and to me, they always seemed haunted by the past. We went to Salem right before the film opened, and everyone had strong ideas about the place’s past in the same way that I did. It was fun to see I was not alone in that.
SP: A lot of modern films rely on references, homages, but this film kind of exists in its own right. Would you consider yourself a genre director?
Yeah, I guess I am a genre director, by default. I’m trying to do my own thing. The approach is my memory, but I’ll find myself quoting The Shining or something, even if this wasn’t the intention. I like Shakespearean irony, but I don’t like irony the way that its used in a lot of contemporary horror.
SP: Does this mean that you are also seen as a genre filmmaker now? Are you expected to make horror films? What flexibility do you have in terms of what you want to do?
I like folktales, fairytales and myths. I like religion, the occult and various other kinds of dark subject matter. This lends itself to being in the world of fantasy and horror. If later down the line, I continue to have the opportunity to make films, hopefully I will be able to be my own genre, rather than having to conform to genres we know well. Currently I’m still trying to carve my way, so I think I need to explore known forms before I can break away from them. Both because I don’t have the talent to do it the other way round, and because no one would finance it.
SP: What was it like to get such a positive reaction so early on? Was this a bad thing at all?
It was totally shocking, I didn’t expect it at all. It took four years because no one wanted to make a pilgrim horror movie with early English dialogue. That made me think no one would want to see one either. There is something witchy in the air, so I’m very grateful for that. I was hoping to be on 3 screens in the U.S., and at our largest we were on 3000, so that was quite a shock.
This was originally posted on the Shooting People blog.