'The Witch' Stars and Director Talk Possessed Children and Animals in Horror Film
- Category: Interviews
- Created: Friday, 19 February 2016 09:05
- Published: Friday, 19 February 2016 09:46
- Written by Lupe R Haas
As the saying goes in Hollywood, never work with children and animals for your first feature. Writer-director Robert Eggers ignored that by working with three young children and a handful of farm animals including an unruly goat in the disturbing new horror film THE WITCH. Given the subject matter, Eggers had to put on his kid gloves, and handle them delicately especially for the possession scenes. Eggers and film’s stars talk about working with those challenges including the four-legged kind.
In THE WITCH, a Puritan family exile themselves to a isolated, rural farm in a New England circa 1630. Their faith and devotion is disrupted by a primal horror lurking in the nearby woods. Legends has it the witch kills children or possesses them. The English farmer, his wife and five children are about to experience an unknown evil. Strange things begin to happen — animals turn malevolent, crops fail, and one child disappears as another becomes seemingly possessed by an evil spirit. Family members accuse teenage daughter Thomasin (Ana Taylor-Joy) of witchcraft, charges she adamantly denies.
The most shocking thing about THE WITCH is that the children are victims of the unknown evil from the woods. Some of the film’s most harrowing sequences involve four of the young actors and teenage actress Ana Taylor-Joy. Eggers says it was difficult finding parents who would let their children appear in THE WITCH given its sensitive nature. He brought on U.K.-based casting director Kharmel Cochrane to find child actors who could play Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and younger siblings Jonas and Mercy (Lucas Dawson and Ellie Grainger).
On set, Eggers didn’t expose the children to the dark nature of the film and protected them by delicately handling them.
“We didn’t go to any dark places with them. With the youngest kids...they had a Disney-fied idea of what the story was.”
For a scene involving the witch appearing to one of the young actors, Eggers directed the youngest child Lucas Dawson through physical instructions, and never exposed him to the dark elements or witches. To achieve the horrified look, Eggers instructed him throughout the scene.
“I told Lucas, ‘open your mouth. Don’t blink. Just breathe. Breathe a little faster. Little faster. Little faster.’ To make him look scared. But it was just me, him and a camera. It was that kind of thing.”
THE WITCH stars Ralph Ineson (Game of Thrones, Guardians of the Galaxy) and Kate Dickie (Prometheus) play the parents, and credit Eggers for his handling of the child actors. Kate says the kids didn’t know what kind of film they were making.
“The kids were never aware of the film we were making. Lucas thought we were rehearsing for a play, and kept asking around ‘when do we do the play.’
Kate’s co-star Ralph Ineson calls Eggers “the puppet master.”
“He (Lucas) thought the rehearsal was everyday. “It was a more fun thing for them.” “Robert was a great puppet master. He would be next to the camera, there wouldn’t be any witches or anything, and instruct him with hand movements. He would guide him like a puppet master. So we got these incredible performances out of them, out of the kids. They were never scared.”
In the film’s most harrowing sequence, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) returns to the family cabin after disappearing into the forest, slipping into a religious ecstasy that turns demonic. His family members, including Jonas and Mercy, watch in horror at his shocking transformation. What could have been a traumatic scenario for the young cast members instead became a symbol of the cast and crew’s intimate bond. Ralph and Kate worked hard from the earliest days of rehearsals to cultivate this close-knit union with the child actors, alleviating any stress they might have experienced during the demanding possession scenes. Eggers needed that scene to work, but the delicate nature of the sequence had him worried.
“It was a collaboration for a super crucial scene. We rehearsed it the most, and I’m extremely grateful to Ralph and Kate who drilled with him a lot. His father also helped. They were just working, working, working because if that scene didn’t work the movie would be over at that point.”
Unfortunately for Eggers the animals were less cooperative. Given the Puritan family were on a farm, the production required a handful of farm animals, but some of the animals also have pivotal scenes in THE WITCH. The goat is the biggest star on four legs in THE WITCH, and he was a diva. Eggers originally planned for three goats for different purposes. One for bucking, the other for a rear-end shot and a standing goat, but only Charlie ended up on set, and all he wanted to do was sleep and attack actor Ralph Ineson. “I don’t blame him for wanting to be in the film, but it was not easy,” says Eggers.
For another scene, a raven is picking at Kate Dickie’s breast. A prosthetic breast plate protected the Scottish actress from her winged co-star, but it didn’t go as planned on set.
“It’s not the best thing for your nipples. It was the freakiest thing I have ever filmed in my life because the raven was big. The raven managed to wreck the prosthetic. I wanted to be a little more loving with the raven but I was kind of scared. It was mental.”
“Mental” is the best description for THE WITCH. THE WITCH opens in theaters February 19.