By JENN ADAMS
WITCH HUNT feels unnervingly prescient. The new horror film from writer/director Elle Callahan imagines an alternate America where witchcraft is illegal and women are hunted. That is to say it feels like a more overt version of our current reality. WITCH HUNT comes on the heels of historic reckoning with sexual harassment and violence against women where progress feels painfully slow. Women are disproportionately leaving the workforce in droves while their rights to bodily autonomy are systematically stripped away. And in the midst of this oppression, those in positions of power constantly complain about the “witch hunt” of natural consequences they endure. Callahan dares to show us what a witch hunt would actually look like today. Suffice it to say, it’s a lot worse than getting banned from Twitter.
Caire (Gideon Adlon) is a teenager struggling to find her place in a world that views women as dangerous. Raised by her headstrong mother, Martha (Elizabeth Mitchell), the two must protect young witches Fiona (Abigail Cowen) and Shae (Echo Campbell) from a system designed to destroy them. Callahaan’s film is a blunt metaphor for the misogyny and oppression women encounter every day. Shocking modernizations of barbaric punishments and tests for witchcraft are compounded by the excuses made to support them. But WITCH HUNT is also hopeful in its depiction of women who will stand up to protect each other even in the face of murderous opposition. RUE MORGUE sat down with Elle Callahan as well as star and executive producer Elizabeth Mitchell to discuss the film’s inspiration, it’s timely message, and the experience of creating this poignant story of matriarchal empowerment.
Elle, You wrote and directed WITCH HUNT. What inspired you to want to tell this story?
EC: I’ve always wanted to tell a story about witches and I started doing a lot of research into the actual nitty gritty history of witchcraft in America and in Europe. I was fascinated with the fact that it was so normal 300 to 500 years ago to just accuse your neighbor of being a witch and then there would be an actual witch hunter that you could hire. They would question and persecute these women and then burn them at the stake and that was just totally normal. Growing up we learn the Salem Witch Trials were this weird blip and everyone just kind of went a little crazy, but no. In Europe it was totally seen as normal to burn women for being witches just because they were either different or if they were educated or they had a lot of money. They didn’t have a husband or [they were] sneaking out at night to see a boyfriend. You could just be accused and put to death for that. It was so normal and it just blew my mind. I took all that real historical witch stuff and just plopped it into modern day. It fit in weirdly well and the story just kind of fell out of me from there.
The opening scene of a woman being burned at the stake and the sink test were very upsetting to watch. What was it like to write and film scenes like that, a modern day version of these barbaric rituals that actually happened to real women?
EC: It was hard. They were very difficult to film. Sadie [Stratton] who played Fiona and Shay’s mother who’s burned in the opening did an amazing job, but it was a very emotional scene. We had Abi and Echo there who were playing her daughters and Sadie has her own daughters in real life. Channeling a mother dying in front of her children and then trying to warn them and help them escape the same fate is a very emotionally charged scene. It was also the first scene we shot for the entire movie. So yeah. It was a very fun but difficult and emotionally heavy day. I think as women we know our history and the world we still live in, but luckily Sadie is an amazing actress. It was a heavy day but she really pulled it off. I’m grateful that she’s playing that role.
One of the things I was really struck by was the compassionate and positive depiction of witches and witchcraft. How did you approach telling that element of the story?
EC: Witchcraft is one of those things where it’s women having power. It’s power that’s not derived from their relationship to a man so it was really important to me to show that it was a positive thing. But like any kind of power it’s what you do with it. The witch hunters are afraid of this power because it has the possibility to be bad, but I think that most of us, women especially, are good and they will use that power for good when given the opportunity. So that was my intention to show that.
I love Claire’s arc of discovering how powerful she can be. Did you draw on personal experience with that role and how did you approach developing the character with Gideon?
EC: I think there’s a lot of me in Claire. Gideon picked up on that right away. She asked me in our first meeting, “Are you Claire?” And I thought, “I mean maybe a little bit.” You know Claire’s coming to terms with herself and her own strengths and weaknesses and also trying to be accepting but also to fit in at the same time. And it felt like a very relatable journey. And then Gideon put her own spin on that and took her own experiences and added those to Claire’s character. So Claire to me when I watch her on screen is like a mashup of me and Gideon. It’s like if we had a little baby that’s Claire. [Laughs] I think Gideon did an amazing job. She’s such a fantastic actress and such a strong protagonist. It’s really hard to be the face of an entire film because you have to make sure the audience is on your side the entire time. But she really pulled it off. She’s such an amazing talent.
She was fantastic. And one of the things that I found interesting when looking at her story is the group of friends that she has. I think aside from the actual witch hunter, a lot of the adverse reactions to witchcraft come from female characters. I wondered if that was meant to reflect the represent in that there is still a lot of pushback from women against strong female characters.
EC: Oh totally. I find my frustration with the world comes a lot from the internalized misogyny that we’re raised with. Claire’s friends in this film, they’re just echoing what they’re taught. They want to fit in and they want to be safe and live as well. And for them to do that they have to kind of echo these sentiments that don’t really lift up their gender as much as they should. Because at the end of the day we’re all just trying to survive. It takes a lot of courage to kind of go against the grain and speak up for what’s right. Claire’s own arc is standing up to the witch hunters and things like that but she also stands up to her friends which I think is a lot more difficult especially when you’re a teenager. So it was really important for me to include that because a lot of the struggles that I think we face as women come from other women that are scared. We should be lifting each other up.
Yes we should. As a mother of a young boy I found myself drawn to George and Corey in the story and I wonder what role you see for men and boys in this kind of alternate version of our world, and what would you hope for them as they grow up?
EC: We are the next generation so it was important for me to include young boys in it as well and to see the influence that the older males and females have on them. Corey and George in the film don’t have as much at stake because they can never be accused of being a witch. They’re curious and they can flop back and forth and ask questions but, I’m hoping that showing them being raised in an environment with strong women that are teaching them better morals will raise them to be men that won’t hunt witches.
Well, speaking of being raised by a strong woman, what drew you to Elizabeth Mitchell for this role?
EC: She is just honestly the best human ever. She’s so experienced and so kind but so knowledgeable. I learned a lot from her. I grew up watching her on Lost so when I had the chance to work with her I was so excited. She really brought this calm quiet strength to Martha’s character that wasn’t there as much on the page. She really brought that to the role and it played well in the story. I think women are so strong and calm in my experience. I really don’t like the roles of women that are seen painted to be super hysterical. So Martha being this quiet confident presence I think was just so fitting and really a role of women that I was really happy to represent in the film.
Elizabeth, what drew you to this project and to the role of Martha?
EM: The first thing I heard about it was the script of course. I was sent the script. And then I heard that Gideon was attached and I read the script and was absolutely drawn in immediately. [I] had that kind of wonderful feeling you get when you read a character and you think, “oh yes, I understand her. She makes sense to me.” And then, Gideon I just think is so talented and such a gift of an actress. And then I talked to Elle. We had a skype phone conversation and I immediately fell for her vision and what she wanted to do. For how specific and caring and intelligent she is and the way she wanted to tell this story. I was pretty much immediately all in after that. [Laughs]
What was the collaborative process like?
EM: You know we collaborated quite a bit, but at the same time, which I really love and it’s actually one of my favorite qualities in a director, she knew exactly what she wanted. But she was very respectful and very collaborative in the way she would speak to us. She always knew what her hopes were for it. And if we brought something to it that was different than what she wanted she was incredibly graceful about it. She’d always be like, “Yeah. Let’s try it.” And after we would be like, “Yeah that worked” or “Yeah let’s go back to the way that it was.” So it was a really fun process.
The script was fantastic as it was and we did a little bit of improv mainly just surrounding any time we had set difficulties or we had to move things around. She was always really open to that but the vision is so much hers and you can tell because that’s usually when you get a clean product. When there’s not that many cooks in the kitchen. When the director knows exactly what she wants but she’s also kind of willing to sway in the breeze and let actors play. She did all of that beautifully. She managed to just kind of do all of those things and do it with such a great spirit. I can’t say enough good things about her. I really thought she was terrific.
You also served as executive producer on this project. What was that experience like?
EM: When we were negotiating for it it was something that we brought up because I had always wanted to do it. I’d always wanted to just be a little more a part of it and that really was my role in it. A little bit more a part of it. I got a little bit more information. Occasionally I would buy quite a lot of food for the crew. Healthier food cause I’m a mom. [Laughs]. And basically just had those conversations with everybody. Kind of on the way to work talking about the ideas about it. What our thoughts were but I think that it wouldn’t have mattered if I was or wasn’t. I think Elle is one of those people who is not threatened by other ideas. But at the same time fully has her vision so she was collaborative with everybody and even when things got really stressful when we turned out to have a bat infestation. [Laughs]
EM: The bats would swoop, they would do their thing but instead of completely breaking down she would sit there and she would think and we would go off and shoot something else. And if we didn’t have everything down because it was a scene we had to pull up from a week from then she was like, “well let’s just see what we can do.” And it was always so fresh and interesting because her vision was so pure. But her heart was so open to things happening. She wasn’t rigid. It was really hilarious and great. [Laughs]
I imagine that on a set with so many younger actors that’s the kind of energy you want. What was it like working with them?
EM: Oh, I loved it. I mean Gideon, Abi, they’re both so good. And they’re both so incredibly talented and they’ve been doing it for a long time. I was in awe of how unbelievably prepared they were because it’s so just so nice to see. You’ve got these young beautiful women and you think that youth would be exuberant but maybe not prepared. Completely the opposite. Completely prepared. They were all so exuberant but they were incredibly vulnerable and collaborative and we had great talks.
It got pretty cold at night and we would have one little heater and then all the actors in coats around it. We went pretty deep and I think that reflects in the show with the comfort that we had with each other, with the ability to be vulnerable. With that environment that Elle created, we all felt like we were just there to do work that felt important to us. In some ways it was just achingly beautiful. I remember watching Abi talk about her sister and I remember her like looking up and watching in her mind her little sister. The pain and the joy of having the entire responsibility for this little creature and such a lovely actress as well. And I thought, you know this is why we do what we do, for these moments of truth. It was lovely.
That was a beautiful moment. And along those lines, one of the things I love about this movie is how many women worked on it and were involved with it. What was it like working on a set with so many women and how did it compare to other projects you’ve been a part of?
EM: Well I feel like for the last three years that’s all I’ve done. [Laughs] Outer Banks wasn’t that way but Outer Banks was fairly balanced. But First Kill that I just finished, same thing. So many women. [Laughs] So many women, so diverse, so exciting. But I loved it. I think your set and the way things go is really how the people at the very top handle it. You have Elle and you have Gideon and you have Abi and you have all of these strong women creating an interesting and a great work environment and I loved it. I mean that would be the way to do it all the time wouldn’t it? [Laughs]
EM: There wasn’t any posturing and there wasn’t a lot of ego. There was a grace to it that, I don’t know if it came from everyone being female but it did resemble my family, which is as I would say a profound matriarchy. [Laughs]
I love that! Throughout your career you’ve played so many strong and inspirational female characters. I first remember you as Dr. Kim Legaspi on ER..
EM: Oh I loved her!
But also Dr. Juliet Burke on Lost and more recent roles on The Expanse and in The Purge franchise. Do you see Martha as a continuation of this tradition and how did you approach developing her character?
EM: Oh my goodness what a beautiful question! I love my heroes. I don’t always get to play heroes. I’ve played quite a few antagonists as well, but I love my heroes. I think we all have that need to be the good guy. We think we are. And all my bad guys think they’re good. And in this case Martha really is the hero of her story but she would never see herself that way. She quietly and competently does the scariest things because she knows that she has to and she knows that’s the right thing to do and I love that about her. I think that we posture goodness so often and try to make people convinced that we’re good and I think that she’s a true hero in that she doesn’t. No posturing anything. She’s pretending to be one thing while doing what she knows is the right thing even though it could cost her everything. So I love that.
As far as how I prepared for her, it was just such an honor to be in her shoes for a bit. Having a child and wanting to protect them is not an alien emotion for me. It just gets heightened by the circumstances. Then you have the need to be a chameleon because you have to hide who you really are and that was just interesting. It’s what you’re going after and what your obstacles are. She had to be something else in order to be who she is and I thought that was fascinating. So we just played with it and Elle let me improv like crazy! [Laughs] We would come back to where we were and it was really fun. So that’s how I approached it with a great deal of reverence. Only because I thought she was terrific.
And as far as continuing my fun headstrong women there’s quite a few I’ve felt are heroic and good. I think that Dr. Legaspi is one and Dr. Volovodov on the Expanse is one. [Laughs] I love them. I just find them to be women that I would want in my life, that I would want to be around, that I would want to emulate. So they’re fun for me. They always feel really good and I just try to live up to them.
Martha is such a strong mother and she feels called to not only protect her own children but to protect the children of others. I think she sees a larger way of protecting her children by making the world a safer place. Did you draw on any personal experiences as a mother or as a woman in the world right now when you were approaching this role?
EM: You know it’s interesting. I’m the oldest sister and I have a son. And I have always felt incredibly protective towards women because I’ve got two younger sisters. I had an amazing grandma and she had two sisters and an amazing, strong mom. I have always felt like a protector of women. And then when I had my son I decided well I just want to protect people. You know, do no harm. [Laughs] So I think that part of me that wants to reach out and hold people, that wants to create a buffer so that people aren’t hurt and aren’t damaged through aggressive and or microaggressive actions probably bled very much into the way that I wanted to play Martha. That wanting and that needing for the world to be a safe and beautiful place for people was always very much in my mind from being an older sister and being a mom. From the day my son was born you all of a sudden think “Ok well let’s just get this together. Let’s make this better.” [Laughs]
That’s the spirit that I found in Martha, but a quiet graceful strong spirit that I thought was beautiful.
EM: Yeah, I love that about her. She’s welcome in my house anytime.
I wanted to ask about Thelma and Louise because it plays a rather significant role in WITCH HUNT. Claire describes the message of Thelma and Louise as hopeful and I love that reframing of the story. Do you see the same message of hope in WITCH HUNT?
EC: Yeah I do. I mean, I hope. [Laughs] I intentionally kept the ending very open so that you as an audience member would have to kind of put your own feelings into it and I’m hoping that you take the more positive route. However you react to it is more a reflection of what you think of the world now. But yeah. I always thought of Thelma and Louise as a hopeful movie and it was also one of those stories where it was about two women who are just going for it the entire time. [Laughs] No holding back which you don’t see often so I really wanted to include that in this story.
Elle this is your second horror feature after writing and directing Head Count. What is it about horror that speaks to you?
EC: I like horror because there are no rules. You can really do whatever you want. If you want a character to fly they can do that. If you want them to turn into a monster they can do that. You can explore a lot more deeper stories and kind of hide them in the genre. WITCH HUNT is about much more than witches but it doesn’t feel like it’s punching you in the face with it’s message because you’re also enjoying the story about magic. So I just find that it’s genre films, horror that are the closest to just unbridled imagination and that’s what I want to do. I just want to be imaginative and tell fun stories.
Are there any other subgenres you want to tackle?
EC: Oh I don’t know. A dark comedy would be fun.
Elizabeth, you’ve done quite a bit of horror as well. You’ve done sci-fi horror, dystopian horror, supernatural horror. I could probably make an argument that Lost and V are horror adjacent…
EM: Oh, absolutely! Of course you can!
Is there any other subgenre you’d like to tackle that you haven’t sunk your teeth into yet?
EM: Oh you know, it’s so funny. I started in this world as a comedian and a singer so it’s hilarious to me that I’ve ended up being this hard ass antagonist or protagonist. But usually with a very underground humor. Like you have to really watch me to see it then you’re “oh there it is.” [Laughs] I think every dramatic actor always says “well I’d love to do comedy” which is true. I would. But I also have this yearning to tell the truth. So I think that’s one of the reasons we’re drawn to horror movies and we’re drawn to sci-fi and fantasy. It’s because we are allowed to tell the absolute truth under crazy circumstances and I think that there’s some joy in that.
My favorite characters have been sci-fi characters because women are always allowed to be so strong. Women were allowed to say what’s on their minds and I feel that way about horror too. I mean those were the genres that allowed women, especially when I was beginning, to actually speak their truth. For some reasons given a fantastical situation, we were given that latitude. Now it’s stretched to other things and I think that’s really exciting. [Laughs] But yeah, I love to do anything in this business as long as I get to tell the truth in imaginary circumstances. And also work with actors that I can just watch. One of my great joys is just listening and seeing what happens when my character reacts to someone else’s. It’s like flying. [Laughs]
WITCH HUNT is now available on in theaters, on demand, and degitial from Momentum Pictures.