Yesterday, writer/director Elle Callahan celebrated the world premiere of her latest film, Witch Hunt, which screened as part of the 2021 SXSW Film Festival. Starring Gideon Adlon, Abigail Cowen, Elizabeth Mitchell, and Echo Campbell, Witch Hunt introduces us to a world where witchcraft has been outlawed by the U.S. government, and anyone who is suspected of being a witch is rounded up and exterminated with prejudice, and the only place that witches can find asylum from these barbaric laws is in Mexico.
In advance of Witch Hunt’s world premiere at this year’s SXSW, Daily Dead had the opportunity to speak with Callahan as well as Adlon, Cowen, and Mitchell, and they discussed the intersection between fantasy and reality in Witch Hunt, their experiences collaborating together on the film, and more.
I would love to start with you, Elle, if that's cool, and have you dive into the story we see in the film, because you take these supernatural elements, but ground them in reality, which I thought was very smart to bring these ideas together. And in doing that, Witch Hunt becomes this really powerful story about a lot of the current events that are happening right now in our country—or I shouldn't even say in our country because these things are really happening around the world, unfortunately.
Elle Callahan: Well, I really wanted to do something with witchcraft and I really wanted to modernize it. I think that's been done before, but I wanted to do it in a more realistic way. So, if witches all of a sudden came out of the woodwork tomorrow, what would it realistically look like? And this is what I thought would happen. I was inspired by how True Blood handled vampires. I was like, "Well, what would happen if witches actually came out?" As much as I love Harry Potter, I don't think that they'd be able to hide as well as they do in those movies. So, when I started writing, the world around me just got sucked into the script, and I'm hoping that through the use of realistic magic, people can see and be a little enlightened about our world today.
Everybody in this movie is fantastic, but Gideon and Abigail, their characters are the heart of Witch Hunt. Elle, what in your mind made them the perfect emotional anchors for this story about these two women coming into their power and finding each other as well?
Elle Callahan: Well, when I first met both of them, it was immediate and I'm very much a vibe kind of person. I think at the heart of it, you have to base your story around love and acceptance. I think the character of Claire started out very influenced by her friends at school and she was living an equally sheltered life to Fiona's character in certain ways. Just like myself, I grew up in a very sheltered town and when I moved out to California, my world opened up a lot. It can really just change who you are. I think Fiona meeting Claire, and Claire meeting Fiona, it really changed the way that they looked at the world and provided their characters with an opportunity to grow.
Both of these actresses are so fantastic and had such a grip on their characters from just the first meeting. They also had so many amazing ideas to make them even better than what I had written, too. I love just giving characters to actors that have a better grasp on it than myself, because then I can be like, "All right, that's your job. Now I can focus on other things. You are making this better than I could've ever imagined." That's what happened.
So this is for Elizabeth, Gideon, and Abigail. I'd love to hear a little bit from your perspectives in terms of coming into this project. What was it that you saw in your characters, and in this story, that really hooked you and made you want to really be a part of Witch Hunt?
Elizabeth Mitchell: I was really interested in working with Elle. I had heard great things about her, and I had, a few years ago said to myself, "How come I never work with any women directors?" It felt like I didn't have any experiences with female directors ever. That was a huge draw to me, and then there was the script. Those were two things that absolutely drew me in. I loved the story. I loved these two women coming together. I thought it was absolutely beautiful. I loved how spare the dialogue was. I loved how many images I could see in my head when I read it. And when I got there, it was even better than I imagined. It's like working on a canvas. It was really wonderful.
Also, I loved the strength of the characters. I loved how strong they are and how they all have something that they're fighting for. I found it to be different from anything that I had read in a really long time. I instantly decided I wanted to do it the minute I read it.
Gideon Adlon: First of all, I have to like the character when I’m looking at a project and I really liked Claire. I felt connected to her in terms of growing up with a single mother and two younger siblings and not having a father figure in the house and feeling angry about that, and confused. I felt connected to Claire in that sense. I've always loved witchcraft as well. As my grandma says, "I come from a long line of witches"—that's what she says. But honestly, just what has been going on in the world, you really have to be blind to not see anything or feel anything.
I know that this film isn’t specifically about what's been going on, and we made it more about protecting each other and giving others a safe space and showing that there can be good. I think that's what I liked because at times, in the last four years, I've felt very hopeless and scared. I can't even imagine how other people might feel who aren't as lucky as I am, because I'm a white woman in America and I felt that way, so I can only imagine how others have been coping.
Abigail Cowen: Yeah, I’ll second what Gideon said. Also, I definitely read the script and was immediately drawn because I saw two redhead characters. I never read scripts and see a character that's specifically written for redheads. So I was immediately like, "This is interesting." I started reading and of course the whole female element, I loved it. This idea of supporting one another, and the theme of groupthink, of being afraid of whatever is different, going along with whatever society tells you to go along with. Then, having another character in the script who does the opposite, and is actually a secret warrior, and is doing it for the right reasons. Not for any kind of gain, any kind of anything, but just because she knows it's right and because she feels a connection to it. That for me is a really beautiful thing.
I feel like it's something that we need to do in our everyday lives, where we keep checking in with ourselves and being like, "Okay, am I going along with this because people are telling me to or am I doing it because it's right? Or do I need to do the hard thing?" That's usually the whole thing. I also sat down with Elle and we had a whole long conversation about redheads and the history of red hair, too. In medieval Germany, 45,000 people were burned at the stake for just having red hair. Also in medieval Europe, too, it was like thousands and thousands of people were burned.
Gideon Adlon: That's so weird to me, because I feel like I see so many queens in all those Renaissance paintings, and a lot of people have red hair. So why were they burned?
Abigail Cowen: We had this whole long conversation, too, about why Elle decided to also have it be about redheads and how, Elle, your sister is a redhead, too.
Elle Callahan: Yeah, I wanted to empower my sister, whose name is Fiona. Well, my sister's name is Fiona Claire, so I named the two main characters after her.
Abigail Cowen: Yeah, I really liked that. Also, we were talking, and I really wanted to do this movie without any makeup on. I wanted to do it as raw as possible. I asked her if that could be a possibility, and Elle was immediately all for it, which I was really excited for as well.
Gideon Adlon: I don't think any of us wore any more makeup actually.
Abigail Cowen: I loved how raw and real and natural it felt. We didn't worry about those things because why would you in this kind of story? That was really special to me, as simple as that may sound.
Elizabeth Mitchell: I loved that part of it, too. I don't think that's something I’ve ever been able to do on any other project before this one.
Check back right HERE on Daily Dead for all of our coverage of the 2021 SXSW Film Festival!