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"The Witch" director: Shooting in Northern Ontario 'a great experience'

The director of the recently released feature film, The Witch, says producing the project in the north was a great experience and is recommending other American film-makers do the same. Robert Eggers told BayToday.
“The Witch,” a horror flick filmed in Northern Ontario which opened in theatres across North America Feb. 19 was shot in Northern Ontario. Director Robert Eggers says the experience shooting in the area was a great experience. File photo.

The director of the recently released feature film, The Witch, says producing the project in the north was a great experience and is recommending other American film-makers do the same.


Robert Eggers told that shooting in Kiosk, just outside of Mattawa was "great".

The Witch
, a horror flick filmed in Northern Ontario which opened in theatres across North America Feb. 19, came in at No. 4 at the box office this weekend, making $8.7 million from 2,046 theatres.

The plot follows a 17th century Puritan family encountering forces of evil in the woods beyond their New England farm.

The film won the "U.S. Directing Award, Dramatic" category at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

"We had tremendous support from the community," said Eggers. "The whole crew and actors have very fond memories of being in Mattawa."

Part of the success was getting the right actors to work in a remote location.

"I was very lucky in getting to cast who I wanted to cast. I was looking for good actors but also good people. People who aren't going to be fussy about silly things. Everyone cared about the film and the story and they were happy to be in a small town. Ralph Ineson and Anya Taylor-Joy live in London and are used to the finer things in life, but they were just excited to be making the film," Eggers explained.

In fact, the director says having all the crew and actors in a small community, as opposed to a large city actually helped everyone bond as a team, and that's reflected in the film.

"Absolutely," continued Eggers. "All the actors were living at the Voyageur together and they got to be a close family. We became very close on this shoot in a way that we may not have on another shoot.

"It definitely is reflected in the performance. It was crucial for me that this family needs to love each other. The family ends up tearing itself apart and going into some very horrible places emotionally, and in order for us as an audience to invest in the family we actually have to care about them, so we have to see that they care about each other. So the time we spent together up there was crucial.

"I think that had we shot this in New England, which was my original intention, anywhere that would have looked like this would have been much more populated, and I don't think we could have been quite as close as we became by shooting in northern Ontario," Eggers said. 

The film received $1 million in assistance from the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund, and that played a large part in the decision to come north.

"Very much so. We were shooting in northern Ontario because we could afford to do the film the way we wanted," he said.

Julia Bennett, media co-ordinator with the Ministry of Northern Ontario Development and Mines says, “Since 2003, the NOHFC has played a part in more than 140 film projects in Northern Ontario. “Production of 'The Witch' contributed more than $2 million to the northern economy.”

The Director of Economic Development for the Mattawa-Bonfield Economic Development Corporation,Jeff McGirr believes The Witch is the first feature film shot locally to be released across North America.

McGirr says the success of The Witch is creating more interest among filmmakers in coming to the Mattawa-Bonfield area, with North Bay included.

"What we are finding is the film industry, like a lot of niche industries, is very small and tight-knit. A lot of producers and directors know each other and word of mouth is actually travelling and we are getting contacted by more and more directors, producers and film scouts and they are taking a look at our area to see how it may suit their scripts.

"There's an immediate economic impact for the hospitality industry in feeding people, catering and putting them up in a place to stay, building supplies to build all the sets, actor and extras jobs. When The Witch was here they spent upwards of half a million dollars in the community in six weeks. So that's a major impact. They took two of our accommodaters and  rented their whole facility for the better part of six weeks."

Even so, there were some difficulties that you wouldn't find producing a movie in a larger centre. For example, in Kiosk there is no cell service or wi-fi.

"For a film production being made in the 21st century that was not easy," stated Eggers. "But we were making a film that took place in an isolated farmstead in the 17th century so it all kind of helped with the atmosphere of the film."

And Eggers says the whole experience has left him with a positive feeling for Northern Ontario.

"I've been recommending to other filmmakers in the states that they should do this." 

Jeff Turl

About the Author: Jeff Turl

Jeff is a veteran of the news biz. He's spent a lengthy career in TV, radio, print and online, covering both news and sports. He enjoys free time riding motorcycles and spoiling grandchildren.
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