Director Robert Eggers on the success of THE WITCH
For an independent horror film that only cost roughly $3.5 million dollars to come out and not only receive near-unanimous critical ovation but also gross over $33 million at the worldwide box office is something of seismic event. Not only does it lend legitimacy to the genre, but it proves that you can make this type of movie with elevated production value and themes and not be remanded to a few niche theaters in New York and LA. Thus was the case with first-time director Robert Eggers‘ THE WITCH, which took the festival circuit by storm before A24 gave it a well-calculated release.
However, as with any breakout art horror film (THE BABABOOK, IT FOLLOWS) there will always be an inevitable backlash, and in this case it was general audiences who were either bored by THE WITCH‘s slow-burn pacing or befuddled by the character’s use of antiquated Old English. For whatever reason, the film wound up with a crushing 55% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes (vs 90% critical approval) and a lousy C- via Cinemascore.
Now that THE WITCH is available on Blu-ray, DVD and On-Demand we had the chance to talk to Eggers about it’s incredible success, the backlash and the projects he has coming including THE KNIGHT his Rasputin mini-series and a remake of NOSFERATU.
SHOCK: THE WITCH did extraordinarily well at the box office for a low budget horror film as well as for an arthouse film. It’s a big success story. How does that feel?
Robert Eggers: Gratifying and surprising. (Laughs) It feels good and Im glad that theres some people who have seen it.
SHOCK: Does the success feel disproportionate to where your goal was? Does it feel right about where you wanted it to be? What did you envision when you were making it?
EGGERS: I mean, I expected it would be playing on four screens and I wouldve felt that that was a victory. So certainly, this was beyond my greatest expectation.
SHOCK: There was a bit of a discrepancy between critical response and audience response. Do you think marketing the movie as the scariest thing since sliced bread did it any favors?
EGGERS: You know, I know that A24 was trying to do their best to sort of represent what the film is, while heightening the genre aspects. And I didnt personallyat least with the actual trailer trailers, I think that they made sense. And I also personally -though I dont care what people call it, truly, whatever people want to call it, its fine with me- but I always did see it as a horror movie, although I suppose that my views and tastes are not very mainstream. (Laughs) I learned how theres certain tropes that people really need and want and certain structures that makes them feel satisfied and to really enable them to enjoy the experience of the genre movie in a way that is not how I think. So that was interesting to learn. (Laughs)
SHOCK: It’s less jump-out-of-your-seat scary than it is this instrument of dread that stays with you after it’s over.
EGGERS: That was very much the intention. The things that actually scare me are things that personally harm me. I dont think jump scares are evil. I think that in fact, sometimes, theyre great, and I even tried to have a couple of them in the film. Ive had nightmares where people have jumped out at me and stabbed me suddenly and its fucking scary, but at the same time if someone drops a china plate in the other room when Im on my computer, I also jump and I dont think thats horror or whats powerful about stories that is exploring darkness and human nature, you know what I mean?
SHOCK: Exactly. If you take something like THE SHINING, the scene where Jack takes the axe to the door and Shelly Duvall is in the bathroom, Kubrick couldve done it where shes in the bathroom for a minute breathing heavy and all of a sudden the axe pushes through the door and everybody jumps. He doesnt do that. He shows Jack picking up the axe, pulling it back to swing…
EGGERS: Yeah, and the camera moves back to swing. Yeah, and you jump every fucking time he hits the door, yeah.
SHOCK: Yeah, its scary enough.
EGGERS: It is. I mean, I think its scarier because that mania and relentlessness of that moment is so much more intense than a little one-off. But again, really, jump scares are not evil, they serve a purpose, but it doesnt even come down to that. I think that even just getting the storytelling and the cinematic language… For me, very fast paced films that tell you everything I find boring because theres no mystery and I dont have to work at it. But other people find a bunch of Puritans standing around praying in a shot that never ends boring. And I understand that, too. (Laughs)
SHOCK: Sure. What was the most interesting response you got to the film once it opened, either from the audience or someone in the industry?
EGGERS: I mean, its been really cool because Ive gotten a lot of emails from film nerds like myself, but also Wiccans and witches and neo-Pagans and historians, even a Calvinist minister, who all liked the film and had very differing interpretations, and thats been really interesting and fun.
SHOCK: You’ve said you have no intention of making a sequel, but are there other people who might have proprietary rights to the film that could feasibly go off and crank out The Witch 2: Black Philip’s Revenge?
EGGERS: You know, I was so desperate to get the film made, I dont even remember. I think we are in control, but you know what? Even so, if someone wants to do The Witch 2: Thomasins Revenge, happy birthday. Who remembers all of the PSYCHO sequels, you know what I mean? Whatever. Its fine.
SHOCK: If for some reason somebody did that, you wouldnt be like, Oh, youre raping my thing, or whatever?
EGGERS: Well, I would prefer they didnt. You know? But whatever. Its not the end of the world. Doing something that I dont believe in is much worse for me than someone else fucking with my stuff. Its fine. Its fine.
SHOCK: Has the film’s success made it easier to get your next project, the medieval knight movie, made?
EGGERS: Well, THE WITCH has opened up all kinds of doors and I hope I can live up to the kind of opportunities that have been presented for me, so yeah. I mean, the fact that this medieval knight thing is even on the table… First of all, getting THE WITCH made was a victory. Second of all, the idea I would make another film would be a victory, but I never thought I would be involved in something on the scale of this. So I just didnt think it would be in my stars.
SHOCK: So THE KNIGHT is going to be an exponentially bigger budget and bigger scale than THE WITCH was?
SHOCK: Is it easier knowing that you were so successful at THE WITCH doing it your own way that production people are kind of taking a step back and just letting you do your thing, or is there more hierarchy to deal with on a bigger film?
EGGERS: There is really hierarchy, but I think there was on THE WITCH and even with the extremely generous and creative producers and investors that I had on that, there was still other peoples money and I care to have conversations. But yeah, also its as much gambling on the fact of like, am I a snake oil salesman? No. I’ve done one thing that’s not crappy.
SHOCK: If I had to guess I would say THE SEVENTH SEAL would be your favorite knight movie, is that true?
EGGERS: I dont know. I dont know. I think thats a good guess. I think its a very good guess, but I dont know. I actually think thats one of [Ingmar Bergman’s] lesser films. The dialogues really good, but its veryI dont know. Compared to the stuff he was doing after 1960, it just feels very much like a high school play and it doesnt have the depth of his more mature work. But its cool.
SHOCK: Its definitely cool. Its not as deep as something like FANNY AND ALEXANDER or PERSONA.Do you have other knight movies that youre into?
Eggers: Yeah, Im sure I do. Im sorry that Im being so evasive.
SHOCK: No, its okay. I dont want to tip it into being like, Oh, he likes this, so thats what the film is going to be.
EGGERS: Yeah, because thats the whole thing, you know?
SHOCK: It was recently reported that Doug Jones is going to be starring in some sort of remix version of NOSFERATU. Will that put a cramp in your planned remake?
EGGERS: No. Respectfully, no.
SHOCK: And youve already said that thats a little bit of a ways off, right?
EGGERS: Yeah, I mean, Im developing that and Im developing the knight thing and well see. But yeah, well see.
SHOCK: What is the status of your Rasputin series? Is it a calculated move to jump right into a TV series after just having made your mark as a feature director?
EGGERS: I mean, I guess. I think that there has been so muchIm not at all special in noticing that. Its been like this for however many years, that theres stuff you can do on TV that works very well. And this whole idea of sophisticated limited series is really appealing because you can tell a story in a longer format. Rasputin is something that takes some time to do right. And so, it was exciting, because it’s something Ive been interested in for quite some time. And so, to have the opportunity to do it in a long format is pretty exciting. Even the Klimov version from the 70s, AGONY, which is great, theres supertitles all over the place showing where everyone is so you can keep track of it all, so yeah.