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New Hampshire Director Sifts His Home Soil



Valley News Staff Writer
Friday, March 18, 2016
Director Robert Eggers, a New Hampshire native now living in Brooklyn, worked as a designer in television, theater, film and dance, before making his feature film debut in 2015 with The Witch , which won the award for Best Director of a dramatic feature at the Sundance Festival in 2015. It was also awarded the Sutherland Award for Best Debut Feature at the London Film Festival.

What follows is a lightly-edited email interview with Eggers :

Valley News: Where did you grow up in New Hampshire, and when did you leave? Did you think you would set your first feature-length film in New England, or was it the subject of witches that was more the draw? I know your previous, shorter films have dealt with Hansel and Gretel, and Edgar Allen Poe, so is The Witch a natural continuation of what you’ve already been doing?

Robert Eggers: I grew up in Lee, N.H., and my family lives in Epping. I left in 2001 to (attend) an acting conservatory in New York City, and I’ve been living and working there ever since. Although, I came home a few times: The Tell-Tale Heart , Hansel & Gretel , and another short I directed, Brothers , were all filmed in New Hampshire. 

New England’s past has always been part of my consciousness and witches have always been part of my nightmares. You can’t help but notice the old dilapidated Colonial farms and hidden graveyards in the middle of the woods, so it was hard not to feel the presence of the past. Who didn’t feel that the woods behind their house were haunted? With The Witch , I wanted to go back to my childhood imaginary playground by creating an archetypal New England horror story. I wanted to create a film that would feel like an inherited nightmare of a Puritan family, something that would hopefully awaken forgotten “ancestral” fears. 

I do think it is a progression, but not necessarily an intentional one. Fairytales, mythology, religious, ghost stories, the occult… I have always been drawn to this stuff, and continue to be.

VN: At what age did you become interested in seriously researching the Puritan experience in New England?

RE: I was always interested in it. I loved going to Plimoth Plantation as a child. B ut it was six years ago when I began my research on The Witch , that my research became truly “serious.”

VN: What is it about the Puritan experience that has so dominated the American imagination, even though the Spanish, Dutch and French, and later English Quakers, were also crucial to the exploration and settlement of North America? Is it just the way American history has been taught, or are there other elements in play?

RE: New England has some of the oldest roots of white Western culture in North America. Therefore, there are more ghosts of European culture in New England, and puritan ghosts seem more grim from a modern perspective. I think Hawthorne helped cement that.

VN: The film is rooted in a realism — clothes, speech, sets — that we rarely see in American films or television that have been set in this period. Why was it important to have that degree of authenticity, apart from just wanting to get it right?

RE: The audience needs to be completely transported to the world of the film — and the mindset of these English Calvinist settlers in order to believe in the witch as a reality the way she would have been understood in the period. The more detail that is missing, or is false, the less an audience will be able to believe and invest.

VN: Did you use primarily U.K. actors (at least Dickie and Ineson) because the Puritans were English transplants, or is that just coincidence? Was there a dialect coach? All the actors are good, but I thought Harvey Scrimshaw was amazing in some of his scenes. How did you find him?

RE: The film is set in 1630. This family is right off the boat from England. I needed U.K. actors to get the dialect right. The small children especially needed to be speaking in their own accents. We had a great U.K. casting director and we scoured the North of England to find children. That’s how we found Harvey, who is fantastic in the film. He had done a little acting before but nothing to this extent.

We did have a dialect coach smooth out the accents. Only two of the actors were actually from Yorkshire, the others (aside from Anya Taylor-Joy) were from Northern counties close by. Anya grew up in London (and Argentina) but has a knack for dialect work.

VN: Did you shoot in Canada for financial reasons? There are some parts of New England that could have stood in for 1600s Massachusetts.

RE: Yes, it was for financial reasons. I truly wished we could have shot in southern New Hampshire, but sadly there is no tax credit in the state. My short films I shot here were so small and inexpensive (and non-union) that the tax credit doesn’t matter, but for a feature film it makes a huge impact.

We scouted in Massachusetts as well, and they do have a good tax credit, however the financial incentives from Canada were so extreme that it was truly the only way we could have gotten the film financed. Sad as it was for me not to be shooting at home, it was a great experience up north.

VN: There have been numerous theories about why there was such a visceral fear of witches during that period, both in Europe and in the Bay Colony. How did you talk to the actors about it? 

RE: The characters had to know that witches were real. In the early modern period, people didn’t “believe” in evil witches, they understood them as a reality like trees and rocks. It was only a few members of the extreme intelligentsia that questioned their existence. The skepticism portrayed in The Crucible is great for that play, and for its intentions to talk about a communist witch hunt , but is not accurate to the mindset of the time.

VN: One of the interesting elements of the film is its ambiguity about whether there are witches. We believe that the characters believe in them, but the viewers also begin to wonder themselves. Did you want to keep it ambiguous?

RE: Yes.

VN: The film reminded me a little of Bergman’s Virgin Spring , in the way it treated questions of religion and faith, vengeance and violence. Has Bergman been an influence?

RE: Bergman is my favorite filmmaker.

VN: The film really evokes the human fear of the unknown waiting out there in the woods. Did you do anything on set to instill that fear of the woods beyond the family’s small patch of settled ground?

RE: It was crucial to keep it gloomy. I think the sound and the music and the pace in the edit all help to try and make the woods seem all powerful and ominous.

VN: Would you set any future films in New England?

RE: I have a full slate at the moment, but would love to do another New England film. I have at least two I’d like to do. Hopefully, I can even do another one in New Hampshire.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.