The Witch: Outdoor Settings on a Low Budget

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The Witch: Outdoor Settings on a Low Budget

In the script, The Witch, panic and despair envelops a farmer and his family when the youngest son suddenly vanishes. The family blames the eldest daughter who, as she nears womanhood, is thought to be a witch.

In the script, The Witch, panic and despair envelops a farmer and his family when the youngest son suddenly vanishes. The family blames the eldest daughter who, as she nears womanhood, is thought to be a witch. The film is inspired by New England folktales, fairytales, and myths surrounding 17th century puritan life. The Witch was made for a budget of $4 million, and grossed $40 million internationally. Director and writer Robert Eggers consulted many period texts as well as American and British museums for an authentic feel, even using much of the writing in primary and secondary sources as the dialogue for the film. The film premiered in 2015 at the Sundance film festival to rave reviews. A24 and DirecTV Cinema acquired the distribution rights intending to do a small theatrical debut but due to positive reviews, the studio decided to give the film a wide release. As one of A24’s few wide releases and their first horror outing, the film was able to receive some more commercial success. The film received a 91% on Rotten Tomatoes, and an 83 on Metacritic. However, the critical reception was far more positive than the general audiences, with audiences giving it an average C- score.

Unlike most low-budget horror, the majority of The Witch’s scenes take place outdoors. Due to the thematic and narrative content of a pastoral farming family afraid of the woods, it makes sense that 60.2% of all scenes take place outdoors. The outdoor location was a difficulty for the production, as they couldn’t find an ideal vast field in contemporary New England, and instead had to go to a remote portion of Canada. The 39.8% of indoor scenes for the most part couldn’t be built on soundstages or other locations either, as they were ramshackle buildings which provided a clear view of the surrounding location. There are 14 characters in the film, which includes the main family of seven, the titular witch, the devil, as well as several townspeople and local government members. Thomasin, William, Katherine, and Caleb are the most significant characters, with twins Mercy and Jonas trailing behind. Though the film often shares perspectives, Thomasin is our main character, so it makes sense she comes up as most significant. While the witch is fairly important, she never actually speaks during the film and she takes many forms throughout the screenplay. The remaining characters are largely insignificant, as they only appear during the beginning or end of the film. The action and dialogue breakdown of the film is typical for what you’d find in most horror films, with a 64.9% to 35.1% split in favor of action. Horror films will often privilege action over dialogue as the supernatural unfolds in the story world.

Scenes 23-33 comes up as most significant, and it is in this range we learn of Katherine’s and the family’s general dislike of Thomasin, which only grows worse as the film progresses. The second most significant batch of scenes are 12-19, and a lot occurs during these pages. In this grouping of scenes, we see our introduction to the witch, as well as her killing the youngest son, and then we also have Caleb and William venturing into the forbidden forest. It’s interesting to note that the two more significant scene ranges take place towards the front-end of the story. Scenes 53-62 come in third, which brings us Caleb’s return from the witch and ultimate death, as well as an increase in the tension among the family members. The witch accusations leveled at Thomasin also increase ten-fold during these scenes. Finally, 72-76 comes up as the fourth most significant. These scenes bring us several deaths and begin to heighten the supernatural elements of the story.
When you look at the action and dialogue by scene, you can see a pretty clear three-act structure. What’s interesting though, is that the three acts seem to be grouped close together, with a large portion of set-up and resolution given to the first and third acts. While, as in most screenplays, action and dialogue often peak alongside each other, at scene 76 there’s a particularly heavy action sequence. This sequence features the deaths of both William and Kathrine, the former due to his lack of strength while the latter dies due to her insanity. Neither are able to successfully carry out their roles of parents, and the script punishes them in return. Scene 13 also serves as the largest action sequence without any dialogue, and it is in this scene we are introduced to the witch and witness her killing the baby. The script also features a number of “montage” sequences, or groupings of very short scenes. In The Witch, these sequences are largely used to showcase traveling to and from locations— many of them being adventures into the woods.

Looking at the number of appearances by top characters and the dialogue breakdown by character charts, we’re able to make several interesting observations. First off, although Caleb is listed as fourth most significant, he has the third greatest number of appearances at 14.7% of the script, yet his dialogue percentage correlates almost perfectly as he comes in fourth with 13.5% of all dialogue. As a result, Caleb would likely be relegated to the role of a supporting character, one who appears more than they speak. Inversely, Katherine would be a driving character. She only appears in 12.1% of the screenplay but compromises 18.6% of all dialogue. The most interesting bit of data here though can be gleamed by looking at William and Thomasin. While Thomasin leads in number of appearances with 25.3%, clearly denoting her as the main character, she comes in second in dialogue with 23.6%. William on the other hand comes in second in terms of number of appearances with 16.3%, but has the vast majority of dialogue with 33%. While this certainly makes William a strong driving character, acting as not only the primary caretaker of the family, it also shows a weakness in many screenplays. Female characters are often given the short shrift, regardless of whether they’re the main character. While Thomasin’s dialogue and appearances only have less than a 2% difference, there’s no reason William should have nearly 10% more of the film’s dialogue. Yet for this film, there’s a case to be made that this effect was intentional. As we are in Thomasin’s shoes for much of the film, the audience ends up sympathizing with Thomasin’s inability to be listened to. Her family’s refusal to give her side of the argument becomes increasingly frustrating as it only results in their deaths. It’s also interesting to note that Katherine suppresses most of Thomasin’s dialogue, instead of a male presence and that Katherine’s a female character granted more dialogue than average.

And although the primarily outdoor nature of the film caused some production troubles in terms of finding a suitable location, the production budget was kept down to the largely stationary nature of the film. Only three locations are used just once, despite the chart showing otherwise. You’ll notice that this is the result of the scene headings taking on a sort of elegant variation in which the same location will be expressed in slightly different terms. The main locations of the film are then the farm/clearing, the woods, the farmhouse, the goat shed, the witch’s hovel. The farm/clearing is also home to both the farmhouse and goat shed, while the witch’s hovel is located in the woods. By placing the three primary indoor locations within the same space as the main outdoor locations, the film was able to further conserve its budget. The entire cast is also present in all principal locations, so extra scheduling and secondary units were unnecessary.

Although many productions seek to shoot primarily indoors to keep budgets low, by shooting in a singular outdoor location The Witch was able to maximize its $4 million budget to yield massive returns. Furthermore, despite revolving around the supernatural and occult, The Witch featured relatively few moments with necessary CGI. The only two moments requiring hefty CGI are the final shot and in the middle of the film when the witch flies off on her broom. The latter was even revised in the finished film to allow a simple toy stand-in so that the budget would be used instead to give room for the several live animals on the farm. With such heavy importance placed on both the horse and goat in the film, it’s evident the director chose to shroud some of the more mystical scenes in darkness or reduce their screen time to allow for a greater portion of the budget on the animal characters.

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