In a modern America where witches are real, and witchcraft is illegal; a sheltered teenager must face her own demons and prejudices as she helps two young witches avoid law enforcement and cross the southern border to asylum in Mexico.
Elle Callahan shares screenwriting and directing insight about her upcoming fantasy, horror, thriller Witch Hunt. The movie stars Gideon Adlon, Elizabeth Mitchell, and Christian Camargo and is produced by Defiant Studios.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Nanea Taylor: Let me gush just a little bit. I loved it! I think it was so brilliant how you touched on modern-day societal ills, but you tied it up in a neat pulsating thriller and horror bow. How did you come up with the concept?
Elle Callahan: I've always wanted to do something with witchcraft, and I got this book on the history of witches, and as I was reading it, I learned there were Witch Hunters three hundred years ago. It was a normal job for them to go flush out witches from a town and burn them alive. It felt so matter of fact; it was just crazy to me. When I learned about the history of witches before, it seemed like it was this frenzy and that people were out of their minds. But it was just a normal way of life to be able to accuse your neighbor of being a witch, and then that person is persecuted for witchcraft. The primary victims were women who were just not considered to be living within the confines of patriarchal society. Whether they had money, didn't marry, or were sneaking out at night to meet a lover, they could be accused of witchcraft. So, I thought, why don't we modernize this? What would it look like if we dropped this fad into today's society? When I was writing this three years ago, I was frustrated with the way of the world, and it all kind of fit in pretty naturally to our modern-day society. As the last couple of years have played out, it kind of fits even more, unfortunately. I didn't set out to write something that was supposedly so topical. I think it just bled through to my writing. I hope that it felt organic because it was just cathartic for me to just kind of place it into today's society. It was basically how I thought our country would handle the concept of witches if they popped up overnight.
Nanea: You also directed Witch Hunt. What was your biggest challenge in bringing your words to life?
Elle: Oh god, I think just from the practical standpoint, Witch Hunt is an indie film, and so, you want to make your dreams come true. Everything that you write, but in practicality, you have to make sure that everything is safe and you're doing everything the right way for your cast and crew. This film has a lot of guns, fire, we’re drowning people, and people are falling off a building. And so, capturing that magic but also making sure that everyone is doing it in a safe and controlled way was the biggest challenge for us. Just because to do something safely takes time. But I was also trying to capture that magic. I wanted to work with actual practical fire rather than doing it in VFX because I think it looks better. But with that comes a lot of hoops that you have to jump through. And as a director, you have to decide, do we want to spend the time here to have a real fire? Or do we want to spend it later doing something else? So those kinds of decisions were hard, but I think it worked out pretty well in the end.
Nanea: When you wrote the script, was there a particular scene where you said to yourself, I can't wait to get on set to film this scene?
Elle: Yeah, I think probably the scene, in this world, girls have to do what's called a sink test to attend public school. This means that they have to be strapped to chairs with oxygen tanks basically and dropped to the bottom of a pool for two minutes, and if they float to the top, if they're like unnaturally light and bring the chair up, then they're witches. Then they would be persecuted as such, but if they stay at the bottom, then they're proven not to be witches, and they're able to go to school like normal girls. This is a horrifying thing to do. You're drowning women, which they used to do 300 years ago without the oxygen tank. So back then, if the women didn’t float back to the surface, they died drowning. But hey, you know, they were finally deemed to be a normal human. They wanted to keep the girls alive in this world, so they gave them oxygen tanks, but it's a horrific test for a girl to go through. That's just a normal thing you have to do if you want to go to public school. You have to prove that you're not a witch, so you have to get dunked in a pool for two minutes. See what happens. When I was writing this scene, I was like, this is going to be crazy, and I can't wait to do this. We had amazing actresses who were so psyched to perform this scene as well. They were I think maybe more excited than me because it was something so kind of wacky. It was still based on history that everyone knows about because we all learned about the Salem Witch trials in school.
Nanea: There were so many moments that had me on the edge of my seat. I have to give you kudos on your directing, but I also have to give kudos to the entire cast, especially to Christian Camargo, who played the lead agent, who appeared to take joy in hunting down and killing witches. He played the role so evilly good. To bring your characters to life, how was it working with all the different actors?
Elle: Well, Christian and I spent a while with his character, talking about how the best villains believe that they're the heroes. His character sees himself as being the hero to the American people for flushing out these witches. Who, in his mind, are practicing witchcraft, which is inherently evil and dangerous. He sees himself as the good guy because that's what he's been taught, and that's what he believes. And so, he does find joy and satisfaction in doing his job right and keeping people safe from what he believes is bad magic.
Our main character, Claire, who actress Gideon Adlon plays, is going through this arc of struggling with trying to figure out if magic is good or bad. Her mother is telling her that it’s not bad. You're just being told that in what do you do with it, and as you know, being an impressionable young teenager with who's being marketed to every which way—being told that this power is something to fear. Claire has to come to terms with and make the decision for herself. So he (Christian) basically represents everything that she's being taught, so she has to go against that. And yeah, all of my actors were absolutely amazing. They definitely brought themselves to the roles and the characters that I wrote. They took those characters and made them their own and so much better than I could have ever imagined. As a director, you're just kind of there to help the actors in a way that basically creates an environment for them to do their best work. They're the ones who are doing all the work. I'm just there to kind of facilitate a safe, good experience for them.
Nanea: As a director and writer of Witch Hunt, what do you wish the audience takes away from watching this movie?
Elle: I guess my intention is for people to see this film and see how it mirrors our world today. Obviously, magic is allegedly not real, but I think the struggles that the women go through in this movie are, to me are the struggles that we're dealing with on a daily basis. And it's something that we've been dealing with for years and years and years. You can see the magic as a metaphor for just women holding any type of power, whether that be education, money, or influence. I hope that comes across, but also as a writer, I hope that the conversations that are had right after people see the movie is around how they think the movie ended because I like to leave my endings open to the audience. I hope that they are swayed towards a more hopeful interpretation because that is what I feel.
Nanea: I’m not going to give it away, but I loved what you did for the ending. Hopefully, there will be a part two. Do you have any advice you would give a screenwriter who is thinking about directing their first film?
Elle: Don’t be precious with it. I think with this movie, I rewrote the script probably over 70 times. You know it was originally set in the northeast, in a small town, and it was a lot more Salem feel, but I didn't feel very connected to it because I didn't live there anymore. I grew up in that area, but I didn't live there anymore, and everything that I write and direct I need to feel connected to. I changed the location to California, where I was living at the time. And it felt more much more organic to me, and I felt a lot more connected to the characters, so I think it took me a while to be able to go back and start over. Because once I write something, it takes so much to write a script, it takes so much out of you, and at the end, you're kind of like, OK, I'm so proud of this. But sometimes, you need to completely go back to the beginning and rework everything, and that was really hard for me. It’s a hard thing to do because you put so much effort into something, and then to kind of scrap it and go back; that’s a hard pill to swallow. But I had to do that a few times with this movie, and in the end, it made it so much better. I guess, don't be precious with what you write, because they're just words, you know, they're free. They're unlimited.
Nanea: Awesome tip. I love it. What's up next for you?
Elle: Good question. I have a script I really liked that I've been working on about a really fun monster. During the pandemic, I was not that keen on writing anything about horror because the world was so horrific. But now that I think I'm a bit more hopeful, I'm returning to the genre with a newfound fondness. I have a new monster that I'm excited to hopefully share with the world when the time comes.
Nanea: Well, I'm excited to see whatever you work on next. I truly enjoyed watching Witch Hunt. You had me wondering how you were able to successfully mesh modern-day societal problems around a world where having magic is seen as a problem.
Elle: I try to write what I would want to watch. I know people who try to write what they think many people will want to watch, and I just write what I would like to watch. I'd want to watch a movie about witches in the modern-day, and these are the kinds of things that would scare me.
Momentum Pictures will release the thriller/horror film, WITCH HUNT in Theaters, On Demand and Digital on October 1, 2021