Witch Hunt’s Elle Callahan chats with Loud and Clear about the timeliness of her harrowing horror thriller and the influential artists who have inspired her.
When witches have made appearances in mainstream entertainment in the past, these films have almost always been fun and fantastical – think along the lines of family-friendly fare like Harry Potter, Hocus Pocus, and Kiki’s Delivery Service. However, with her horror thriller Witch Hunt, writer-director Elle Callahan (Head Count) dares to delve deep into the darkness of this mystic subject matter, setting her story in a modern America much like ours, only with one distinct difference – witches walk among us. However, their use of magic most certainly isn’t met with open arms. Instead, those who practice witchcraft are persecuted and targeted by the government – drawing painful parallels to the way the disenfranchised and downtrodden are treated in our world today.
We were lucky enough to chat with Callahan about the scorching social commentary in her script, the genre auteurs who influence her as an artist, and her filmmaking pursuits post-pandemic (including possible follow-ups set in the Witch Hunt universe).
The Long-Awaited Premiere of Witch Hunt: Pushed Back by the Pandemic
To start, I wanted to ask about the “journey” Witch Hunt has taken over the past year, because originally, the film was supposed to premiere at South by Southwest 2020. What was it like to find out that the festival would be canceled and your entire release plan would be delayed?
Elle Callahan: Obviously, it’s devastating as a filmmaker to have the entire festival circuit shut down, so it was pretty disappointing, but there were bigger things happening in the world, and I just knew that it wasn’t “our time” yet. So, we pulled it from the festival circuit and waited until the time was right, which happened to be the next year at South By. We were very fortunate to be invited back, and we’re really excited to have our premiere here.
How Witch Hunt Speaks to the Strife of “The Other” in America Today
When I was watching the film, I was quite taken with the really strong social commentary. That’s something I love in genre work – I really like when you can find metaphors for issues in our real world in horror and sci-fi.
Is there any specific political event that inspired you to write this story or was it just the state of the world in general?
EC: It was definitely the state of the world in general. I actually didn’t set out to write such a “political” film. I just wanted to make a film about witchcraft and set it in modern-day, and I just thought that this is how things would really happen today. There’s so many different representations of witchcraft and wizardry, and you have stuff like Harry Potter, where it’s this secret world and it’s very light and whimsical, but I think that, if witches really existed, this is how they’d be treated, because they’re an “other.” They’re “different” and “misunderstood,” and in this country, this is how we unfortunately treat those kinds of groups of people, and it’s terrible. So, hopefully, through watching this film, people will be entertained but also come away learning a little bit about those kinds of issues that we’re still facing today.
Speaking of “the other,” I think there are obviously parallels between the witches’ experiences and those of illegal immigrants (with the border crossing and all of that), but I also sensed a really strong possible queer connection between the two female leads – was that intentional, or was it something that just arose as you were filming?
EC: That was definitely my intention. I’m a kind of person who doesn’t really look at gender necessarily in terms of “who to love,” and so, when I had these two female characters that obviously had a connection, we just decided to explore it. Luckily, we live in an era where we can do that, and I think we just need to keep doing that in film.
Genre Auteurs Who Influence Elle Callahan as an Artist
Going into genre work, was there any specific auteur or director who inspired you from horror and/or sci-fi?
EC: I’m definitely a big fan of Guillermo del Toro. His films are so magical and have amazing creatures, but they’re also so colorful, and I like to kind of saturate the color tone of my films like that. I draw a lot from him. His film Pan’s Labyrinth was where I pulled a lot of inspiration for my “witch hunter” villain, specifically.
I can really see that, actually! And I like how you drew that parallel, because now that you’ve said that, I can totally see similarities in the mannerisms of [your film’s villain and the villain in Pan’s] and in the “menace” they bring when they come onscreen. I also think The Shape of Water is a similar story to yours, in terms of “demonizing the other” and overcoming biases.
EC: Yeah, and while his films deal with that very dark and scary subject matter, they’re also always very colorful and saturated, and that’s how I like to make my films look too.
As a multihyphenate female filmmaker – because you both wrote and directed this movie – who inspires in that space in Hollywood today?
EC: Definitely Patty Jenkins. I was a [production assistant] in the studio system for a long time, and I worked with the editorial crew on the directorial cut of Wonder Woman. I didn’t have a big role by any means, as I was mostly just turning on the Avid machines, but I got to see how she worked, and it was the first time I’d worked under a female director. I just wanted to do what she did, and it was really great to have that kind of role model. So, afterwards, I left and started my own directing career.
Plans for the Future: Potential Follow-Ups for Witch Hunt and Callahan’s Personal Pursuits
Do you have any plans for expanding on the world of Witch Hunt? You set up a really interesting scenario here, and when I was talking with my editor and a few others who have seen screeners, we were all like, “I would want to see more, I want to see what happens next!” in a sequel or a spin-off or something like that.
EC: I would love to. It is such a rich world, and I do try to set up all my films by first world-building. I’m also really big into streaming series – especially in quarantine, since they’re “long movies” – so I would love to explore how other parts of the country are dealing with this kind of “witchcraft oppression” [in that format]. An early draft of the script actually took place in New England, so it would be cool to maybe explore something there.
I could definitely see this as a streaming series with “long-form” storytelling and other perspectives across the country. I think that’d be really interesting.
Yeah, totally. And maybe in different countries too? I have a whole backstory for everything, in terms of which countries have certain laws for witchcraft and stuff and when it started, and it could be a cool thing to dig into the history of that.
Post-pandemic, what other projects are you hoping to pursue when we get back to some sense of “normalcy”?
I’m just looking to get back on set. I wrote so much in quarantine, and now I’m just kind of shifting through and seeing what stories I really want to tell. It was an interesting time to be writing, because the world was so tumultuous and also isolating, and I found myself writing darker stories – even when watching happier things on my own television – so my next script will probably be pretty dark (laughs). I have a lot of frustrations and things that I want to throw into my next project. Also, Witch Hunt was kind of a lighter story – it wasn’t “horror,” it was more of an “entertaining thriller.” So, I think I’m going to go back to some good old-fashioned horror next.
Witch Hunt’s Elle Callahan Offers Advice for Aspiring Filmmakers
What advice do you have for aspiring young filmmakers, and especially aspiring young female filmmakers?
Just write and keep writing. The best advice I ever got was to just do it. Just make things. Don’t be intimidated by people that are farther ahead in their career than you or at different places in their life, because everyone is on their own journey and their own timeline. If you’re an artist, your life isn’t going to match up with how a lot of your friends are living their lives, so just stay true to the stories you want to tell and make sure you always have a personal connection to them.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Witch Hunt had its World Premiere at SXSW Online on March 17, 2021 and is now available to watch on digital and on demand.