The Witch in the Window is an elegantly-made and deeply moving family drama wrapped up in an occasionally terrifying haunted house tale. It’s the type of film which plays really well with a festival crowd, particularly a horror audience who usually expect some blood-spilling and things going bump in the night. But Witch has zero of the former and very little of the latter, yet it succeeds in still being a deeply unnerving experience, whilst also balancing an unexpectedly moving and authentic father/son relationship as its emotional beating heart.
Past collaborators and good buddies Andy Mitton and Alex Draper have created a really impressive and unique genre offering, and we managed to sit down with them over closing night drinks to briefly chat about how they achieved what they did on a minuscule budget and with a measly 12 shooting days.
HeyUGuys: Where did the idea for The Witch in the Window originate?
Andy: I knew I wanted to make a haunted house movie and I knew I wanted to make a movie with Alex. I’d left Los Angeles and was going to be directing for the first time on my own. I went to school in Middlebury College, Vermont where Alex also studied and where he is now the professor of theatre. It’s sort of my happy place and where I’m most comfortable. It seemed like if I could make the movie in that area and in one location, I’d be able to drop anchor and focus.
I called Alex and said what if we did this together, took the production to Vermont and let some of the students from the film and theatre department work on [the film] for under the line, and get some experience on a real movie. You find me a creepy Vermont house, I’ll write a movie for you. It came together really fast. I called Alex about it in the fall, I wrote it in the winter and we shot it in the spring. It was a quick process and a really joyful one, compared to all my other experiences of making movies. It all went according to plan.
So the actual filming was a kind of an intimate, family-like affair?
Yeah, and you get that when you shoot on location. I’d made a previous film, YellowBrickRoad, on location and you get that feeling like all the cast and crew are in it together. Then I made a film in Los Angeles where everyone goes home at night and your crew can shift from day to day and you just don’t have that feeling of togetherness, so I wanted that back and that was part of the plan [with The Witch in the Window].
Alex, the relationship between your character and your screen son is really fantastic. Straight away you could feel a real warmth between the two of you and there’s an emotional truth there. How did you nurture that connection off-screen?
Alex: Honestly, a lot of it was in the script. Also, we were just really lucky that [co-star] Charlie [Tacker] was amazing. He’s a great playful, mischievous kid, and he’s also very sweet and grounded. He and I and Andy were in that house all day and everyday [for the shoot] so it got very comfortable in all the ways that a real relationship between a father and son is. You can have a lot of fun, but sometimes you have to say “hey, now’s not the time for play – there’s 17 people on the production who are gearing up to shoot a scene.”
And he was really sensitive to that side of the production?
Yeah, and I think he really liked the story, too. The more we got to know the characters during the 12 days that we shot, the more stuff would change. A lot of that had to do with just being with one another all the time.
The jumps and the scares in the film are just as effective, if not better, in those scene which take place in daylight. That’s something you never really see in horror films, yet it works so well. Was there any trepidation on the writing process in taking that leap?
Andy: I think because I’d set YellowBrickRoad mostly in the day and a lot of movies I respond to in regards to how real they feel, even something like Deliverance, are mostly set during daylight hours. The night is so useful for horror people because there’s a veil of mystery to it, and the idea that you’re usually alone and reality can bend. But if a character see’s a terrifying figure in the sunlight and they’re witnessing this with another person next to them, you’re breaking those rules down a bit and suddenly there’s a grounded feeling to the supernatural, for me. It felt new and exciting, but from a budgetary viewpoint, it’s also cheaper (laughs). You’re not setting up 10k lights all over the place.
We had a few night shoots and we were able to pick our battles there and get them right. Justin Caine, who was the director of photography on the film and a total hero, is such a smart person when it comes to harnessing natural light and controlling it, because it could have looked bad in lesser hands. It just feels real and like we’re there. That’s what we get to do in indie films – play off the mainstream rhythms. Audiences are more curious and open to different things in cinema than they usually get credit for from the studios.
All bets are off for the characters when the witch appears in broad daylight. There’s no escape or respite from her at any time in the day.
Yeah, you can pull the rug out from an audience because if you have 45 minutes where the film is carefully paced and you’re getting those bumps in the nights, the audience isn’t expecting that [daylight] scene. It puts the viewer on new footing where they’re not sure what might come next. There are scares in this movie which are based on patience, playing the long game and trusting that the audience is gonna be there. It felt like a leap of faith for us and we didn’t know it worked until we saw it with people.
The Witch in the Window will be available to stream on Shudder from 18th October