LOGLINE: In 1630s New England, after a dispute with the church of his village, a devout father takes his family to live in the nearby woods where his newborn son is taken by a witch.
WRITER/DIRECTOR: Robert Eggers
SCRIPT BIO: Robert was a production designer and costume designer with no major credits to his name. IMDB has him listed with 15 production design credits mostly of which are short films. This script and the film are his debut as writer/director. The film has strong word of mouth and won the Directing award at 2015 Sundance Film Festival.
I won't ruin the story of this film for you. I'll give you the setup then deconstruct the script, but again, in the deconstruction I'll be careful not to give away the story.
This film sounds incredible. It sounds like a really unique piece of cinema, from a really unique voice. It will be well worth seeing, if not at the cinema, then definitely on VOD.
We meet WILLIAM the father of a family at a special clerical meeting. He wishes to live by the word of the Lord, and he disagrees with the doctrine the local church teaches.
The church clerics decide to banish William and his family from the safety of the city walls, but William is only to happy to leave these heathens to their false practice of religion.
William takes his family - Wife - Katherine, Thomasin - eldest daughter, Caleb - eldest son, Jonas and Mercy - twins, and Samuel their new born baby.
Yeah, there's a lot of names there to remember, but it becomes easy to recall who everyone is pretty quickly.
Thomas is feisty, she has her own way, and is quickly blossoming into woman hood. Her brother Caleb is a little more naive than her, but a good person at heart, learning the way of God from his father.
The twins are young and mischievous, while Samuel is but a new born.
William takes his family deep into the woods of New England. This is a place that has not been touched by the hand of man. Here in the woods, they find a clearing and set about building shelter and a new life from scratch.
We join them some years later when their work is done. William is no fine craftsman by any standard. The houses they have constructed are meagre at the best. They grow corn, but a fungus plagues their crops.
One day, Thomasin is charged with the care of Samuel. During a game of peek-a-boo, she closes her eyes, then when she opens them, Samuel is no where to be seen.
Thomasin then sees a Witch wearing a red riding cape disappearing into the woods. In her arms is Samuel.
I'll leave the story exposition there. Suffice to say that it doesn't play out how you would expect it.
I'll get into that more...
If I didn't know that this was such a successful film, I don't think I would have liked the script. This story is incredibly execution dependant. But right from the word go Robert does things differently - he shows that he has a different way of looking at things.
He starts his script with half a page note to the reader about how he envisions seeing this script. That can work in your favor, but it can also work against you. Here, you can see that Robert has a very clear vision for his story. And the most important thing is that he is working against the grain of hollywood films and he's really clear that he KNOWS he's doing that.
A lot of writer/directors will eschew hollywood's rules, but so many don't do it knowingly, they do it through ignorance. There is no ignorance when it comes to this script.
I haven't seen the film yet, but I will do a review in the coming month when I've had the chance to see it.
The concept here is actually pretty damn solid. A witch in 1630s New England terrorizes a family trying to live off the land.
It's not the most unique concept - but I'm trying to think of the last horror film that was even close to this idea, and nothing springs to mind.
That's when you know you have a great idea. If your concept sound like something we've seen a million times, BUT WE HAVEN'T - then you're on to something.
The execution of this concept could go in a myriad different directions, but interestingly Robert chose to write the story as if it really happened.
I'll get into his execution of the concept in the structure section.
CONCEPT RATING 9/10
CONCEPT TIP: Just because something SOUNDS like a cliche, doesn't mean that it is. When you're thinking up your film concepts, don't be so quick to dismiss ideas simply because they feel like they've been done before. The Witch sounds like a cliche, but I defy you to name ONE film that is entirely about a family dealing with a witch in 1630s New England.
Form really applies to spec screenplays that the writer wishes to sell to a production company.
When you are writing the script and you KNOW you will be directing then there are different form rules.
Typically in a spec you don't direct the actor or the camera. But when writing to direct it's often imperative that you write down your shot choices as you go.
If you're going to do this, my only advice would be to remember that film making is a collaborative effort - you will have to get at least 20 people to read your script if you're going to get it made.
So it's fine to write extra things into your script for yourself, but remember that others will have to read it, so don't bog it down with over direction.
I'd advise writing two versions of the script.
The first being a straight spec script, that you can send around to the heads of departments, then when you have script lock - go through and do another draft, where you visualise the script and write in acting and directing notes.
FORM RATING N/A
FORM TIP: See above.
This is where Robert went waaaaaay off the reservoir. But this is WHY this film works. Had Robert tried to shoe-horn this script into the traditional hero's journey structure, it wouldn't have felt real.
When you move away from the traditional structure you must use different techniques to keep the story moving. In The Witch, Robert uses a great slow build sense of horror and dread.
It almost feels like you're watching a fly on the wall documentary of what it was to be a frontier family in the 1630s.
But this frontier is very different to the wild west frontier. Here there are no open plains and "Indians" (native Americans) there are the wild woods, and out there, just beyond the trees, lives anything and everything your mind if capable of imagining.
STRUCTURE RATING 7/10
STRUCTURE TIP: If you're leaving the hero's journey behind, be sure you understand how to create tension on the scene level.
CHARACTERS & DIALOGUE:
This is where The Witch excels. You can tell that Robert has done a shit load of research and read real accounts from actual documents from the 1630s.
The dialogue is superb. It actually sounds like people would speak back then, and not a made up version of how we think people would speak back then.
The characters are also immensely well rounded and created.
Every character pops off the page.
I found it very interesting also that the Mother of the family is the strongest character. I think many other writers would have written the Father as the strongest, but this family is very much run my the Mother - as most family's are.This creates a fantastic sense of reality.
CHARACTER AND DIALOGUE RATING 9/10
Again, this is where The Witch excels. Even if you don't like this script or film, there's no denying Robert has a HUGE VOICE.
VOICE RATING: 10/10
VOICE TIP: Intelligence. If you approach film making with integrity and intelligence it should shine through. There are sadly far too many people making films and writing them that aren't really in it for the love of film, there doing it "'cause it seems cool."
Real life example - a rich young Russian girl attended my masters in film course. When I asked her why she wanted to do her masters in film, she thought on it a beat then shrugged and said, 'it just sounded cool.'
No word of a lie.
I asked a successful agent why he was in film and he said, "I don't really care about film, I just want to make a shit-ton of money"
This film was made for $3.5USD
In its first week it's done almost $9mUSD
For an indy sundance feature. That's killing it.
This film works because of Robert's approach to film making. He cares about film. He cares about the story he wants to tell. He cares about the characters he wants to create.
All that shines through in the finished product.
OVERALL RATING: 9/10