It is the 17th century, and a Puritan family living on the outskirts of civilization is about to experience genuine horror. A family of religious exiles, overcome by pride and paranoia, ripped apart by tragedy, are the subject of THE WITCH, a horror film from Robert Eggers that has been celebrated since its premiere at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, and is finally coming to theaters this weekend, on February 19, 2016.
Robert Eggers may have written the screenplay, directed it, and imbued the story with mind-boggling period detail, but it is the actors who had to live it. I sat down with Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie, who play the beleaguered Puritan parents in THE WITCH, for an extended two-part interview last week. In the first half, we talk about their new film, goat wrangling (“Black Phillip,” a black farm animal, plays an important role in the witchcraft of THE WITCH), and why this period-specific tale of 17th century woe resonates with them in the 21st century.
Blumhouse.com: This movie is incredible. You’re hearing that a lot today, I imagine.
Kate Dickie: [Laughs.]
Ralph Ineson: People do seem to like it, yeah.
KD: It’s going down well with people on the whole.
BH: It’s interesting because you would think this movie would feel a little esoteric to people. Was that your thought when you were making it, that you were making a weird indie?
RH: It’s a strange one because looking back, that’s exactly what we should have thought. But it didn’t. It kind of chimed so strongly with me – the characters, the story, right from the start – that I kind of thought, it’s got to have a broader appeal. It’s got to. It can’t just be this…
KD: Because it’s not just a kind of horror. The whole family drama, this family falling apart and all their different relationships and dynamics and all the different tensions… you get that in every family, so although it’s an old tale and an old story, a lot of family things don’t change either.
BH: The goat, for example. I think everyone has to deal with a goat at some point, right?
KD: I don’t think I did. I had the raven, not the goat.
BH: I want to hear that story. What?
RI: Oh, that goat…
KD: Ralph was our main goat wrangler, and Ralph got put in hospital a few times.
RI: Three times I got put in the E.R.
BH: Did it kick you, or…?
RI: It gored me.
BH: It actually gored you?
RI: Yeah. Well, not a “gore” because a gore would be the wrong side of the curve [of the horns]. But the outside of the curve is kind of like serrated, so I’d sort of take it – whoop! – like that, rip up there.
BH: So it headbutted you but the horns are serrated so it still cut in…
RI: It cuts in, yeah. It managed to detach the tendon from my rib down here, in about the second week of shooting, so for the whole rest of the time I was eating painkillers like Smarties and kind of rattling around.
BH: Did you get hazard pay? That’s crazy.
RI: Low budget indie, as you say! You can’t do that. You can’t get stunt doubles. You can’t get hazard pay.
BH: I was going to ask if the goat was a diva, but I think it might just have been evil now.
RI: Yeah, I think he was. He was lazy and he was a bit evil.
KD: And a bit unprepared for his work! [Laughs.]
RI: That was dumbest part is that he hadn’t been trained to do the specific things that he needed to do for the movie. So I had to basically try and drag him into places to do various things, and if he was supposed to be angry with me I had to make him angry.
BH: Are you credited as “Goat Wrangler?”
RI: No. I should be.
BH: Had you experience with goats?
RI: No, not a goat.
BH: They just trusted you’d know what to do?
RI: And he was huge as well. I mean I’d had to lose 30 pounds to play the part, so I was kind of at my weakest and skinniest anyway, and the goat was 14 1/2 stone, which I guess is about 200-210 pounds, and I was 170 pounds. So he’s on four legs and he weighs considerably more than me, and I’ve got to move him! And I’ve got to drag him around, and move his head, and he’s throwing me away. It was ridiculous. A ridiculous way to earn a living.
BH: W.C. Fields said to never work with animals or children and children. Were the children easier to work with?
KD: The children were fantastic.
RI: The children were easier.
KD: The children were amazing.
RI: Most of the animals were alright, in fact. It was just the goat. And everybody loves him! Everybody wants to know. “Black Philip, oh my god! Black Philip, he’s amazing! Oh my god!” You know. Oooh… [Shakes his fist in anger.]
BH: “If you only knew.”
RI: If you only knew what I went through to make him look that good.
KD: It’s true!
BH: You mentioned that when you first read the script it resonated with you. What was it, exactly, initially?
RI: For me, and it sounds strange, but the thing that immediately resonated with me was the decisions that this guy makes, under pressure. It’s on him because of the decisions that he makes. And he makes a lot of these decisions through pride, that he thinks are decisions made through the glory of God. As a father of children, self-employed father, [you] have to make decisions for your family, and you have to live by them, and you have to drag your family through situations and the consequences of the decisions you’ve made.
That just really resonated with me, with William and his family, the fact that he’s taken them across to New England from Yorkshire, to be the great conquering Puritans who conquer new worlds and spread the world of God. That’s a very hard thing to ask your family to do, and a lot of it has to do with the pride of him, this kind of devout Christian. So it was, yeah, it was the pressure that’s on that character, and the decisions and the way he doubles up on his gambles all the way through. He does one thing, it’s not working, “Okay well if I just do that then I’ll fix that and I’ll make that happen.” It all fucks up. That’s what appealed to me.
BH: What about you, Kate? What appealed to you originally?
KD: I felt like I was in a Grimm’s fairy tale. I stepped into Hansel & Gretel or summat. Just the detail of the script. And the same for me, because we didn’t really feel we were making a horror, or were aware that it was a horror. It wasn’t. It was like making a drama that horrifying things happened.
I was very taken by the familial relationships between the mother and daughter, and the mother and wife, and that kitchen sink drama bit of it, really. And just how little women, [the] choices they had. You couldn’t make any choices for yourself then. It was either you deferred to your husband or you deferred to God. So Katherine’s not a great Puritan in it, actually, because she’s constantly “why this, why that.” She’s not just accepting God’s will because she’s so grief-stricken, and I enjoyed all these little elements.
I enjoyed the fact that the relationship between Katherine and Thomasin is very tricky. Thomasin about to become a woman, me getting to the end of my child-bearing time. [Thomasin] has lost the baby. I can’t have any more. [Thomasin] can have children. So many layers, I just thought, [gasps] “I want to explore this woman! I want to be her.”
BH: I think about a movie like this and you’re right, it’s not really a horror movie, but it certainly taps into a lot of anxieties.
BH: And I think what’s interesting is that young people are going to look at it and see the film from the perspective of these angst-ridden kids who are trapped in a stifling household, and anyone who has kids is going to think, “Oh, these god damned kids.”
BH: Do you talk about that? Do you think about THE WITCH from the perspective of the other characters, or are you focusing on this purely from the parents’ perspective?
KD: We had many talks about all the perspectives…
RI: Yeah, I think to create a workable and believable family like that you’ve got to spend some time together, discussing it. We had a week of rehearsal before we started shooting as well, where we kind of lived where we lived for the whole shoot, as a family in this tiny hotel […], a seven bedroom hotel. We as the family lived in this, the whole time we had a week’s rehearsal. So we really went through everything from everybody’s point of view.
KD: Yeah, we did, didn’t it? Though we were playing it from your point of view, there were so many things, like… as much as I could see [William’s] struggle as a father, trying to do the best for the family, every character’s got their own kind of dynamic going on. Troubles. I like that. Each character was rounded on their own, and nobody was filling in or moving the plot along for any reason, you know?
RI: I think it’s got to be like that, so the audience can invest in the family…
KD: …and care…
RI: …and care when it all goes to shit.
KD: So you do feel anxious because you care about them, rather than going “Oh well.” You know?
BH: I think a lot of the investment – especially when you’re watching it, I don’t know about filming it – is the period detail, in terms of the dialect as well as the production design and costumes. Was any part of that difficult for you, or complicated in any way?
BH: You guys are just great.
KD: No, but I think also we’ve both been classically trained so you have experience in Shakespeare and Greek tragedy and different types of language.
RI: It just lends it to it, as well, the kind of austerity, the Puritanism from William’s point of view. You’ve got to talk like that. You’ve got to talk in that fire and brimstone way.
KD: And not in that familiar way that we do now. There’s still that formality [in THE WITCH]. It would be much harder not to do it in that language. That would have been much harder. How do we make these real when they speak like this and they look like that?
RI: Some of the lines are just amazing. It’s just amazingly written. It’s just got some great lines, my favorite being, “Did ye make some unholy bond with that goat?” You can do ten careers and never get a line that good.
KD: It was beautiful language to speak, and felt very natural actually, because it was written well with the right rhythms. It wasn’t just looking pretty. So as you would enter it, the rhythm of the beautiful language just takes you through and it doesn’t become an issue.
Tune in tomorrow for part 2 of our interview on www.blumhouse.com!