Few horror films this year have been as eagerly anticipated as Robert Eggers’ The Witch, and with good reason. It’s a beautifully made, intensely atmospheric and deeply scary film about a pilgrim family who strike out on their own in the New England woods with terrible results. As more and more tragedies befall them, they begin to wonder if this is more than the hardships of frontier living and God testing them, or if there is a darker power in their midst…
The film stars the fantastic duo of Ralph Ineson (Game Of Thrones, The Office) and Kate Dickie (Prometheus, Red Road, also Game Of Thrones) as the two parents William and Katherine, who begin to believe that there may be a witch amongst them. It jumped to the top of our watch-list after it became the most buzzed film out of Sundance last year.
“People were vocal at Sundance!” laughs Dickie. “Like shouting and gasping, and a certain bit with me, a man was just going ‘No! No! No!’ It was so exciting to even be showing at Sundance and we didn’t even imagine anything beyond that so it was lovely that it went down so well, it really was.”
We took the chance to talk to the actress about playing the fear of God, the importance of period detail, why witches are no laughing matter, and why she’s a huge fan of Alice Lowe.
What initially drew you to The Witch?
I guess it was the script. When I read the script I just really, really loved it immediately. I loved the authenticity of it and the way it transported you back to that time, and I loved the whole imploding of the family dynamics. Ralph had been cast, so I auditioned with Ralph which was a real treat, and we just had a fantastic connection. And I loved meeting Rob. So all of those things combined made me very excited about the project.
Katherine’s obviously a character who’s going through a very difficult time, and that Puritan guilt really adds to that…
She’s incredibly strict about her religion but it was interesting to explore the way her comfort in her religion just started crumbling more and more. To the point where she was struggling to recover any of it. I know that Katherine’s probably quite unlikeable and it’s quite hard to feel sympathy for her at times, because I went down quite a hard route with her. There’s not a lot of affection, not a lot of anything coming from her apart from hardness.
But it just breaks something in Katherine, and she knows she’s being like that but she can’t find a way out of it. She doesn’t have God to rely on like she always does, our go-to place of comfort and someone she would get guidance from, she doesn’t hear his voice anymore. So she’s very lost, which doesn’t necessarily make her the most easy to understand of characters but I felt that it was a truthful way to go with her.
The family bond is very important in the film; did you have much time to rehearse?
We had a week of rehearsals before we started shooting so we all went out a week early. It was amazing, we’ve talked about this a lot actually, what would this been like for us if we’d been somewhere in the UK and all going back to our own homes at night, or even going back to different hotels, but the fact that we were all there on our own somewhere in the middle of nowhere away from all our loved ones, we did really become this raggle-taggle family. We all a cry at one point, we all got homesick, and we just pulled together and that week of rehearsals was invaluable to the shoot, in finding those relationships between us. We had to build the family before we broke it apart and that was a really great opportunity and a great foresight from Rob.
It must have helped a lot to have so much accurate detail on set to work with.
Oh God yeah, we were so spoiled! So spoiled! I mean, they built the house using traditional methods of the time! Literally, because they realised that if you used modern things it wouldn’t leave the same markings on the wood and it would be too smooth. So yeah, the house was built, the costumes were beautiful and all this attention to detail just makes your job so much easier and a lot more enjoyable.
I got really obsessed with the prayer book of the Puritans. There were wee bits of the script where Katherine’s praying and I went through and found specific bits of prayer that I felt were right for that. Even though you don’t know what I’m saying really, I didn’t want it to just be [nonsense noises]. Rob introduced me to a lot of these things, he had so much research at his fingertips. He was amazing to work with.
Given that Robert was so specific with costumes and set design, did he have a very clear idea of what he wanted from the actors?
Yeah, he did, he was very clear. But he didn’t put it upon you, he just made it the right atmosphere for you to find it. And he was so clear in his writing and clear in the way he directs, there’s a lot of clarity about Rob, and no matter what question you had about that period, oh my God, he’s like a walking encyclopaedia. It makes you feel very safe and it makes you feel brave and courageous to make certain choices that you maybe wouldn’t in lesser hands.
Did he give you anything specifically to research?
No, I wasn’t given anything to watch or read. Something that kept coming back to me during was The White Ribbon, the Michael Haneke film, that movie, that fear, but that wasn’t from Rob. Rob let us know things he’d be looking at but he never forced anything on us. He never said “Go and do this, it’d be really good,” he’d just say “This is really interesting,” and if you asked him he’d say “This is really good.” He would sporadically send you images which I love. Where the hell he finds them, really bizarre, disturbing images of half-man, half-beast you would get in an email. All sorts of breastfeeding things! He was really good for source material but it never felt like homework. He let you discover your character yourself.
The film is very harsh and cold, and the family breakdown is so affecting, but there is a fairytale element to the horror as well. Were you conscious of juggling those elements at the time?
It didn’t feel like that at the time because we didn’t really look at it as a horror, as a cast. To us it was a family breakdown, this family falling apart at the seams, and I think that was probably the best way we could have done it. We did think about the witch, but the thing is that witches were so real in those times.
Women were being burned for real, so it’s so different than what it is now with the way we think of witches. It just wasn’t like that then. They were a very real and true fear. So yeah, it didn’t feel tricky. I’m probably looking back at it now and thinking “Oh wow, oh gosh, we probably were walking quite a fine line and we didn’t realise it.” But again, because we were in Rob’s hands, he was just so clear and so knowledgable that you just always felt safe and you didn’t worry about making mistakes because you knew he knew it inside out and back to front. He would keep you right if you did something that maybe jarred. I hope that’s what happened, anyway! That’s what it felt like to us!
It’s difficult to watch a film being objective without going “Oh my God, why did I make that choice, oh no, I’ve ruined the film!” But we felt in great hands and there was a great sense of trust from the start.
You’ve been involved in some really high-profile genre things recently, with this, Game Of Thrones, and Prometheus, but there’s definitely been a balance with dramas as well. Do you deliberately look for kinds of material or is it character based?
Yeah, I know! I just kind of stumble along! I’ve just been lucky in things I’ve ended up being involved in. I just have to go by instinct with scripts, sometimes I can never explain to anyone why I want to do something or why I don’t. I just read scripts and if the character jumps into my heart I phone my agent and say “I have to do this somehow, I have to get this because she’s there now and I have to look after her.” I guess every actor’s like that, you just read something, and whether you’ve got a connection to the writing, or the story, or the character, then that makes me want to look after them very protectively and give them a voice.
You always get into things wanting to do the work, and then if they become bigger than you’re expecting it’s always a bit of a shock, because I go, “Oh shit, yeah, people are going to watch this now!” I kind of forget that part of it! I just want to make them! I find watching them excruciating, that part of it’s very difficult, so I just like to focus on the work and then pretend it’s not coming out!
Has it been interesting to move from something like Game Of Thrones or Prometheus with these massive budgets and sets, to something like this which doesn’t have unlimited resources?
Yeah, it is actually. When I did Prometheus I spent the first few weeks so frightened I could barely speak, because I just couldn’t work out why I was there! And I kept thinking “Someone’s going to notice me soon and go ‘Who are you? What are you doing here?'” So once I got over that, I realised that for me as an actor, I don’t have to think about budget.
All I do is look at my part, and even when something’s really big scale, it’s just what you’re used to but a lot bigger, so I just focus in on the very small details and not worry too much. But I’ve enjoyed having different experiences because different budgets bring different things. A small budget, I love them for that, the fact that it’s a small crew, not lots of people’s opinion, and then bigger budget you’re looking at the way people don’t have any constraints on making sets and costumes and how many drafts there are. So they’re equally fascinating to me, they really are.
Finally, we just have to ask about Alice Lowe’s pregnant revenge movie Prevenge! How has it been working on that?
Oh, she’s brilliant! I had the best day ever with her on set! I was so chuffed to work with her because Sightseers, is one of my favourite films ever. I keep raving about it because I love something that makes me howl with laughter one minute, and then having the rug pulled and thinking “How could I ever find that funny?” and just being so shocked. Sightseers was everything I love. I was obsessed with her afterwards because I just thought she was so amazing, so I couldn’t believe my luck, I was very nervous meeting her but she’s so lovely and it’s a really interesting film, and a really interesting premise as well. Working with Alice was an absolute dream, a real dream for me.
The Witch is released in UK cinemas on 11 March. Keep up with the latest genre news with the new issue of SciFiNow.