The Historical Accuracies of The Witch Part 3 (Dialogue)
Article by Aaron Haughton
Last year, Robert Eggers floored audiences with his chilling tale of 17th century folklore, The Witch. However, it wasn't solely the Puritan nightmare that wowed the crowds, but Eggers' painstaking attention to detail and the film's historic authenticity.
Being a production and costume designer before turning writer/director, research is no new concept to Eggers. He researched the film over the course of four years while simultaneously juggling costume design and other projects, going so far as to work directly with museums and historians, who helped compile an expansive collection of primary sources, which comprised of volumes of period fashion, animal husbandry, agricultural techniques, firsthand accounts and journals, religious texts, and folklore.
This research permeated the screen in various shapes and forms, be it the dialogue, the dress, or the very farm the family resides on, all of it necessary for the final product. It helps to suspend any disbelief, helping the audience to lose themselves and become transported to 17th century New England.
As Eggers mentions in the Salem Panel Q&A, which appears on the film's digital release, “I was trying to understand how the Salem witch trials happened, how the witch holocaust in Europe happened, and, I think, because today, when we think of evil witches — and I’m not talking about white witches and Wiccans and contemporary witches — but when we think of evil witches, it’s as if it never existed… But to actually understand that in the early modern period for everyone, except for a few people in the extreme intelligentsia, the real world and the fairytale world were the same thing, and if someone called you a witch, they really thought that you were a supernatural being capable of doing the things that the witch does in this film. So, if I’m gonna get audiences to actually go along and accept that, we have to be transported to the 17th century, we have to be in the mindset of the English Calvinists, or it’s never going to work.”
With that in mind, I've done some digging of my own and broken the film down into 5 essential categories, delving into the accuracies and research that make each piece feel so very real. This week we'll explore the historical accuracies of the film's dialogue.
- Eggers had a background in Shakespeare, which made stepping up to the old English dialogue less intimidating. While going through source material, he would jot down the lines and phrases that stood out to him, categorizing them into situations where he might want to use them in the film. Eggers used these phases to Frankenstein together the early versions of the script until he could later hone the language on his own.
- “It’s an interesting period, because New England was the most literate part of the western world, it was illegal to not teach your children how to read because reading the bible was imperative,” explained Eggers in an interview. “You’ll find dictated wills of farmers who could read, but couldn’t write, and assuming the dictation is accurate, they have a really interesting, beautiful, but clunky way with words because they are reading the Geneva Bible, which is a really beautifully written text.”
- Eggers found the writing of Cotton Mather to be particularly useful with regard to dialogue. Mather was obsessed with writing down any account of witchcraft. Whether it be a court testimony or other form, Mather synthesized the accounts into narratives, which often times turned out to be the account of the father. Eggers incorporated several of these accounts because it contained authentic elements.
- For Eggers, gigging into the creation of the Puritan mind-set involved really trying to wrap his head around extreme Calvinism and what that’s all about. Part of that involved understanding abstractions like predestination and reading the Geneva Bible. "I had to read the Geneva Bible cover-to-cover and read the gospels quite a bit to get into that world. Reading these religious texts and these personal diaries was a great way to get an understanding of these people as human beings. They’re just like us, even if their worldviews are very different."
What do you think? Did the dialogue work for you, or did it make it difficult to slip into the film? We want to know. Share your thoughts and feelings in the comments section below, and as always, remember to viddy well!