“I would not have wanted to have been a puritan.”
The argument as to whether or not Robert Eggers’ The Witch is a horror film goes on, inexplicably, but instead of getting bogged down in the fight we’re simply going to ignore it. One, because it’s a stupid argument, and two because we decided to use that time to listen to Eggers’ commentary track instead. (And three because others are far better prepared to fight the idiocy.)
The film is his feature debut, and after making a splash at this year’s Sundance and having a successful limited theatrical release the movie has come home to Blu-ray/DVD.
The disc includes a making-of featurette, but the supplement highlight is the commentary track where he breaks down the production with both an affection for his cast and crew and a deprecating tone for his own contributions.
Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary track for The Witch.
The Witch (2016)
Commentator: Robert Eggers (writer/director)
1. Distributor A24’s logo is followed by five from various production companies/investors, and he intentionally added “a lot of black” afterwards to help viewers forget about them.
2. He used the ‘double-V’ spelling of THE VVITCH because the large-typeface was often used in period writings. “I thought it was nice and transportive.”
3. The film was shot in Mattawa, Ontario. He had wanted to film in New England, but various “tax incentives and other financial reasons” made Ontario the best choice for their needs.
4. The meeting hall where the family is cast out of town was built in a derelict lumber mill.
5. The people occupying the hall are divided by the sexes, as it authentic to a Calvinist community in the 1630’s, but Eggers points out some young boys on the male side who in reality would have been with the women. “Because we had so few settlers I wanted to distribute the sexes completely so that would be more clear.”
6. The POV shot from the rear of the wagon as the family exits town was one of the few shots actually filmed in Massachusetts.
7. Parts of the production were hampered by swarms of mosquitoes and black flies causing the crew to have to wear protective gear. “This is one of the few scenes where the kids were crying because of all the bugs,” he says of the shot where the family first gives thanks for the plot of land they’ll be calling home.
8. The first shot of their finished homestead is one of two angles they captured. The unused one looked better, but he “liked this one because it looks more miserable.”
9. The corn stalk cones in the field aren’t necessarily period accurate, but he chose them for their iconic New England visual appeal. “There are reasons why I think it’s plausible that the family might have done that.”
10. The script originally opened with the peekaboo scene between Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) and the baby, but he felt they needed “more scope and understanding of the family’s past.”
11. The witch running away with the baby is actually the film’s makeup artist, Traci Loader.
12. Eggers praises the production design of the interior of the witch’s hovel saying it’s loaded with historical detail in its clay pots, engravings, and more, “but of course you see none of it because it’s so dark, but it was a really cool set.”
13. One of the biggest digital effects in the film is the erasing of modesty garments, specifically in the scene of the old, naked witch making baby scrub. “This particular shot was troubling for many, and I think that those nice CG guys in Toronto will forever hate me because of that shot.”
14. He loves the design and decoration of their house interior. “I spent so much time researching the wold of the 17th century and had such a clear idea of the house, but they exceeded my expectations. I cried when I saw it for the first time.”
15. They spent a lot of time laying down (and picking up) dolly tracks for the tracking shots in the woods. “The grips put up with a lot of torture.”
16. The rabbit’s name is Dizzy, and her trainer was sixteen years-old. “Dizzy was very cooperative.” He adds that if you Google “witch and hare” you’ll understand the rabbit’s meaning in the film more clearly.
17. “Every scene with the goat was very difficult to shoot,” he says upon Black Phillip’s (played by Charlie) first scene. “I don’t know if you can train a goat. I just don’t know if you can.”
18. Charlie is on a leash in the shots of the goat in proximity to the kids, but it’s been removed digitally. “Occasionally goat wranglers’ hands have been CG’d out.”
19. Ralph Ineson, who plays William, lost thirty pounds for the role “doing yoga, not eating, and chopping a lot of wood. We cheered every time he chopped a log.”
20. The horse is an authentic breed to the period unlike the goats and dog.
21. The shot of Thomasin on the horse (with the horse below frame) while Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) proudly retrieves a full trap was shot without the presence of a horse. It was too dangerous to bring the animal into the marshy area, so Taylor-Joy is actually sitting on the 2nd Assistant Director’s shoulders.
22. The dying dog was accomplished with the real dog laying on the ground with guts and blood on it. “I learned that trick from Days of Heaven.”
23. Sarah Stephens, who plays the young sexy witch, is “an Australian swimsuit, lingerie, former Victoria’s Secret model who was really great.” Scrimshaw probably agrees as this scene was reportedly his very first kiss.
24. He acknowledges that the family is burning entirely too many candles all the time.
25. Eggers wishes he had written an additional scene of tenderness between Thomasin and her mother (Kate Dickie) as he feels it’s a little one-note as it stands. More kindness early on would have made the later coldness stand out more.
26. The shot of Katherine (Dickie) cutting Caleb’s temple to bleed out the madness features CG blood. “It looks damn fucking perfect,” he says, and I honestly can’t disagree with him.
27. The cast had one week of prep time together to help get them accustomed to each other and the animals.
28. The shot of the twins, Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), laying motionless on the bed was difficult because Dawson was sucking on a hard candy and would lie about having swallowed it. Each time the camera reached their faces he would be screwing around with the candy. “Finally I had to put my fingers in his mouth and pull the damn thing out.”
29. The final shot of the scene where Caleb is buried left every parent on set in tears.
30. The shot goes out of focus briefly at 1:11:53, and the 1st assistant cameraman “was beating himself up about it constantly,” but Eggers thinks it adds to the weirdness.
31. All of the supernatural moments are shot at a slightly higher frame rate, “27 or 29.”
32. The scene of the raven feasting upon Katherine’s teat while she imagined it was her suckling baby was accomplished in one take thanks in part to a very well-trained bird. “Kate was wearing a prosthetic breast, obviously.”
33. His favorite scene in the film is the bit where Ralph (as William) awakens to realize “oh fuck, my life is shit.”
34. Everything spoken by the devil, including the infamous bit about living deliciously, was taken from old texts.
35. The devil’s costume is an elaborate, custom-made creation featuring gold, jewels, spurs, cockerel feathers, a beaver hat, earrings, “and all this shit, you don’t see any of it. You barely see Wahab [Chaudhry] who’s the most handsome man you’ve ever seen in your life playing the devil here. I mean he was devilishly handsome.”
36. The movement of the witches writhing around the fire was based on Japanese Butoh dancing. He found a famed Butoh choreographer in Toronto named Denise Fujiwara who “had a group of women of all different ages, shapes, and sizes who were down to be naked and down to be witches,” and she choreographed their scene here.
37. Several of the costumes were rented from Italy, but they had to be modified as “Italian fashion from the 17th century was a little bit more loud.”
38. Eggers likes the end credit music better than he likes the entire movie.
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“When this first screened for an audience at Sundance there was a nice gasp there that I was very pleased about.”
“It was really miserable shooting this. We were all dressed like bee keepers.”
“It was the belief that the active ingredient to make them be able to fly on their sticks was the entrails of an unbaptised babe.”
“I like this scene. It feels good. You can smell the world.”
“This is the worst shot in the film. Hate it. It sucks. The DP hates it even more.”
“Sometimes I wished we CG’d her earring holes out, but maybe that’s getting insane.”
“I keep saying how great everything is, but by the way I can’t stand watching this movie.”
The Witch is a moody, atmospheric film, but there’s plenty going on beneath the surface making for an experience that grows denser on repeat viewings. Much was made leading up to the film’s release about the strides taken to ensure authenticity throughout production whenever possible, and Eggers’ commentary points out where that worked and where it didn’t. It’s a good listen with anecdotes, information, and very few lulls. Also, you bet your ass The Witch is a horror movie.