Robert Eggers’ brilliant New England horror The Witch is finally released in UK cinemas tomorrow, and it’s already got the kind of reputation most genre films can only dream of, and with good reason: it’s brilliant.
Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie star as a Puritan couple who leave the safety of a plantation to start a new life for themselves with their children. But life is hard, so much harder than they expected, and after a tragic event befalls them, they begin to wonder if there’s something evil afoot, and if their teenage daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) may have something to do with it…
We got the chance to speak to Ineson about why he had to stop reading the script, the hardship of filming on location, and why he’s pleased that audiences don’t leave happy…
How did you get involved with The Witch?
I was sent the script and a look-book that Rob put together, with visual imagery and the design in the film, just before Christmas 2014. I started reading it and thought ‘This is absolutely amazing,’ really loved it, loved the character, but I’d just been on a really bad run of casting and I’d lost out on a lot of parts that I’d wanted. It was just before Christmas so I thought I’m not going to be able to do anything about this until the New Year anyway, so I put it in a drawer because I didn’t want to get really obsessed about it and not get it, so I put it away for a couple of weeks.
But then when I did pick it up again, I was astonished by it. I immediately felt a connection with the character of William and just thought it was a stunning piece of work. I felt very privileged that Rob had sought me out for it.
It’s a very atmospheric, intense film. Did that come across on the page?
Yeah, I had to put it down; I was a bit overwhelmed by it. It’s not often that you get such a physical reaction from a script, but at one point I was sat reading it and I just had to stop and go and sit with my wife and have a chat and watch a bit of telly and calm down a little bit because it was just too intense. Very powerful to get that from a script.
William’s conflict is fascinating, as he’s got these very strict Puritan values but he’s obviously got tremendous love for his family and children.
Yeah, he was a great character to play and one that I really liked in a strange way. I kind of liked him and identified with him on so many levels that it was possible to play him without seeing his flaws, which hopefully brings out that he’s very proud and has a prideful way of looking at things, that’s what he’s about. Wanting to be the best and wanting to be seen to be the best.
I didn’t realise quite how ridiculous some of his decisions are because I was looking at them through the prism of William, I had a lot of sympathy with his yearning to provide this idyllic world of them away, with good crops and lots of livestock and lots of fat healthy children running around, just to prove that he does it right, he is the best Puritan, he is rewarded by God for doing it right. And he interprets everything that happens to him as being a punishment from God, obviously because he’s not doing it right, he’s not praying hard enough or whatever. It’s a strange world to be in.
We spoke to Kate Dickie and she was telling us how important the rehearsal time was…
Oh it was incredible, because of how small the cast is and the claustrophobic nature of the whole project. Firstly I got together with Kate, because I was involved in the casting process with Rob. The moment I met Kate in the audition it was insane. An immediate, really powerful connection I’ve never quite had with another actor before. So that got off to a great start and I was so pleased when Rob chose Kate to play the part. I was so delighted when he chose Kate because we had this very intense connection.
And so then going out to Canada to film it, in this tiny town with 2000 people, staying in this tiny hotel. I think there was only two other rooms in the whole hotel that weren’t us and the kids. So it was like our house and we lived together for about a week and a half before we started shooting, we had all this time to rehearse and eat together, and just running scenes and talking to the kids in an informal way so it doesn’t feel like work. The intensity of that family unit had to be there for the audience to invest in it falling apart. They have to believe that there was something really really powerful back in England and that it’s slowly fallen apart as this great adventure’s gone on.
What was it like working on a film with so much attention to getting the period details right?
I’ve never worked with that kind of design detail, and I’d never realised how it affects you as an actor so much. You get used to making lots of mini-compromises as an actor to make things look good for the screen, that’s just what the job is essentially, but playing with the costumes that we had that were all hand-stitched, every single piece of it…The stockings that I wore were made of wool from the actual breed of sheep that were on the Plymouth Plantation! Actual pilgrim sheep’s wool made my stockings!
The shoes that we wore were single shank shoes so they weren’t right or left; they were proper period single shank shoes so your feet broke them in. All these things, incredible detail and it really did make it incredibly easy to immerse yourself in it. The set there, the house and the way the farm was built was perfect, and you really could let go. You weren’t tripping over lights, it was all naturally lit and candle lit so it took away a lot of the things that take you out of character and you could really get down into it.
The cold really seeps off the screen, was it tough shooting in that environment?
It was, but what’s the Smiths lyric? I can laugh about it now but at the time it was terrible, something like that! Looking back at it a lot of that hardship contributes to the feel of the film. I was talking to Kate about it and we decided that we really couldn’t have done it if we were going home at the end of the night, going back to our families and that sort of thing. It was the isolation of it and the fact that we were all thousands of miles away from home, living in this place in the middle of nowhere and driving out to the middle of the woods, working a very hard schedule.
It was very short shoot, and it was very cold, especially at the start, and I had to fight the goat a lot of times. About a week and a half into shooting he managed to gore me in the ribs, so for the rest of the shoot, more than half the shoot, I was in a lot of pain with all that. Which again looking back kind of helps a lot of it, you kind of think it was a real, real struggle and I remember a lot of it was physically very hard work, especially with rib injuries! So a lot of these just kind of add to it.
Sometimes you can only fake a certain amount of it. If we’d gone to five star hotels or gone back to wife and kids of an evening you just wouldn’t have had that kind of haunted intensity that is in the film.
What was it like, having gone through that, to see the reaction to the film at Sundance?
It was really surreal, it was wonderful to be out there. I’d seen the film for the first time the day before it had its first press screening, just me, Kate, Anya and Rob, and we were still slightly reeling because it’s a great film and we were really happy and freaked out by how it turned out. So the next day the press screening was on and it really went off. It was wonderful and crazy, all these reviews coming in every ten minutes.
It is one of those ones that gets such a silent reaction as well. It’s not like they burst into applause or cheer at the end, it’s just “Oh my fucking god, I feel like shit!” Everybody just looks vaguely drawn and haunted at the end of it, which I know Rob loves. There was one review saying that they loved the film but they never wanted to see it again and I think he really quite liked that, the fact that it managed to traumatise the reviewer to that extent.