Magazine article American Cinematographer

Conjuring a Coven

Magazine article American Cinematographer

Conjuring a Coven

Article excerpt

The Witch transports us to 1630s New England, where Puritan settlers live in perilous conditions and abject fear of the supernatural - particularly witches, whom they believe to be everyday folk transformed by a deal with the Devil.

Following an ideological clash with the church, William (Ralph Ineson), Katherine (Kate Dickie) and their five children are cast out of their colony. The staunchly pious family travels to the edge of a dark forest, and the group is soon beset by misfortune. The parents' newborn son and then their eldest, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), disappear - both while under the watch of eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), whom the parents come to suspect of witchcraft. Tragedy and paranoia soon begin to tear the family apart.

Director of photography Jarin Blaschke collaborated with firsttime feature writer-director Robert Eggers in painstakingly re-creating the period. The 2015 Sundance Film Festival jury took note, honoring Eggers with its U.S. Dramatic Directing Award.

Blaschke had previously shot Eggers' short-film adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart-which, like The Witch, displays the director's fondness for American Gothic - as well as Brothers, which similarly explores the dread of the unknown in the woods.

Blaschke spent his early years in Northern California and the desert town of Bend, Ore., before studying film at New York's School of Visual Arts. He cut his teeth shooting Columbia University graduate films. His first feature was director Anthony Tarsitano's middle-age drama Calling It Quits, followed by Geoff Ryan's post-war Fray, Macdara Vallely's mother-daughter tale Babygirl, and Leah Meyerhoff's experimental coming-of-age story I Believe in Unicorns.

Like many of his peers, Blaschke cites the late Gordon Willis, ASC as a prime influence. "I connect with how he did things simply and well, in terms of distilled coverage and the purity of his lighting," Blaschke says from his Los Angeles home. As evidenced in The Witch's artfully spare aesthetic, he notes that he prefers "pure thinking, and doing things in a direct, effective way - not trying to adorn it with too much stuff."

Blaschke met New Hampshire native Eggers when the director was searching for a local cinematographer in his adopted New York. Eggers was impressed with Blaschke's reel, and the pair bonded over discussions about animators the Brothers Quay and Golden Age illustrators such as Harry Clarke and Arthur Rackham.

"Those fairytale illustrators come through in the imagery in The Witch," says Eggers in a separate interview. "They're in our blood." The director also acknowledges the influence of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, shot by John Alcott, BSC. Indeed, camerawork in The Witch is occasionally Kubrickian, with static frames and the subtle, unsettling use of zoom lenses.

The Witch also shares Kubrick's preferred 1.66:1 aspect ratio, but Eggers says that's mere coincidence. "We wanted to be really intimate in the family's house, but also have the trees be extra tall," he explains. "Also, the taller frame gave us more resolution and a little more of the characteristics of the old lenses we were using."

The filmmakers' research brought them to Plimoth Plantation, a Massachusetts living-history museum that exhibits a 17thcentury Plymouth Colony settlement. It was there that they studied family inventories and Plimoth's re-created structures, which provided the basis for the family farmhouse that production designer Craig Lathrop would ultimately build with period-accurate hand-riven oak clapboards and reedthatched roofs.

Though their initial preference was to shoot in New England, the production opted for Canada to take advantage of financing opportunities, including the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund. Dense forests with white pine and hemlock trees were essential, and after months of scouting, a suitable location was found outside the abandoned lumber town of Kiosk, 250 miles north of Toronto. …

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