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A Conversation with Elizabeth Sankey (WITCHES)

In Witches, her latest documentary, director Elizabeth Sankey (Romantic Comedy) brings us into a close examination of her recent traumatic experience as a new mother, during which time she suffered from postpartum depression and anxiety. It’s a very personal movie, bravely told and exquisitely made, filled with her trademark use of extensive film clips. And despite (or because of) the seriousness of the subject matter, it manages to feel equally as informative as it is emotionally wrenching. I spoke with Sankey at the 2024 Tribeca Film Festival, where her movie premiered (and where I reviewed it), and here is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Hammer to Nail: In both this film and your previous documentary feature, Romantic Comedy, you use a lot of film clips to tell your story. And while that clearly makes sense in the light of Romantic Comedy because you were there making a history of romantic comedies, what made you want to continue that practice in this film, which wouldn’t necessarily need that cinematic archive?

Elizabeth Sankey: What I experienced was so unlike anything else I’d ever experienced, in terms of how I saw the world and how I was experiencing the world, and the only things I could use to depict it, I thought, were horror films, because that’s how it felt. And I thought it was a really good opportunity for someone who’s gone through this as a filmmaker to be able to depict what that feels like, what the madness feels like, how it looks. And I’d always had this love of witches, and I started watching these witch films and was finding so many connections to the movies that featured witches. So it just made sense. It was a way of depicting that madness that was far more illustrative than me just describing what it was.

HtN: And in your use of all these clips, are you doing it through fair use or did you negotiate the rights to use them?

ES: It’s all covered by fair use.

HtN: Since you obviously have such a deep love and knowledge of movies, based at least on these two films of yours I’ve seen, where does that come from?

ES: I think I’ve always loved films. They are a way of escaping reality, because it’s a safe place to go where things make sense, where story makes sense. I really love the three-act structure; I find a lot of comfort in that. And I think I always wanted my world to be bigger. I grew up in a small town outside of London, and I was just always desperate to get out of it. I couldn’t wait to get out of it. It’s a very common thing. A lot of bands have written a lot of albums about that. And films felt like a way to do that. And I just always connected really emotionally to cinema, as well. I found it very easy to feel what the characters were feeling. And as a teenager, I just watched everything. I think it’s also because it made sense; it was a world that was controlled. There wasn’t going to be anything too bad happening because the film was going to come to an end.

HtN: Were there any films in your research process for this movie where you were convinced you were going to use a clip from them and then it just didn’t end up in the final edit, where you had to junk that particular movie?

ES: I looked at about 250 films and took clips of bits that I liked and thought were useful. And then I had them in these folders in Premiere. So I would have all these folders with different names, like women crying, psychiatric wards, and there were loads of films that didn’t make the cut. But what I did find was the films that worked really well were funnily enough films from the ‘60s and the ‘70s because they had this look of being really rich and saturated and they were shot on film; they just looked great. But there’s also something quite incongruous about them, there’s a disconnect.

Filmmaker Elizabeth Sankey and our Chris Reed

Like in Witchfinder General, which I think is from 1968, all of the women in it have fake eyelashes. So they’re like witches with fake eyelashes, and then the makeup’s great and they’ve got big ‘60s hair. And the blood is really, really red. And that to me felt much more how I felt because it was this thing of reality not being quite right when you are ill, when you’re having a psychiatric crisis like that. So those were the films I went to rather than what I possibly thought it would’ve been, which would’ve been more modern horror films like The Conjuring—that series of films—because they just felt too dark weirdly and too on the nose. Whereas these older films had much more complexity, actually.

HtN: And you use a lot of clips from the 1980s film The Witches of Eastwick, as well.

ES: I really, really loved that film. And I think that was one of the films that I loved before my illness. And I loved it because it was women being badly behaved. So it was an example of a film that carried me through that illness. It wasn’t like other fun things like the TV series Bewitched, which when I rewatched it after my illness, I was like, “This is just a woman really trapped by domesticity who’s just trying to escape.” Whereas Witches of Eastwick was very much these women pulling apart the patriarchal society around them and doing what they wanted and being really liberated by a man, but then saying, “Actually, we reject you and we want to have our own control.” So yeah, I love that film. And it just looks amazing. And the cherry scene. Oh, it’s so good!

HtN: I’ll have to rewatch it! So, you edited this film yourself, along with Romantic Comedy. You have a background as a musician with Summer Camp, which you formed with your husband, Jeremy Warmsley. What is your background as an editor? Are you self-taught—did you pick up Premiere on your own—or did you study editing?

ES: No, I never studied editing. I was originally editing on something really basic, but when we were doing Summer Camp, I used to do our live videos. We would have these live videos and I would cut together films, the ‘80s John Hughes films, scenes from them, things of people dancing, clips like that, that I loved. But it was really basic editing. And then with Romantic Comedy, I got Premiere and just started doing it. And I think I had done editing a bit, but just as a teenager, I’d film things of my friends and then just make a weird birthday video for somebody. So no, I have no training, I have no background. But it’s a process that I really, really love. Everyone keeps saying, “Oh, next film, you won’t edit it, though.” And I’m like, “Ah, but that’s actually the bit for me that is super creative and where it really comes together.”

HtN: I noticed that you didn’t edit your TV film Boobs, which I haven’t watched.

ES: (laughs) No, I didn’t edit that, and that was really difficult for me.

HtN: So at what point in the process of your recovery from post-partum depression and anxiety did you decide to make this film?

ES: I was in the ward from September to November, and I think around December I started thinking that I wanted to do something about what happened to me. And I knew people who’d written books about their experiences. Catherine Cho, who’s in the film, has written an amazing book that I read at that time. And it was really brilliant and really helpful. But I am not a writer. Well, I am a writer, but I can’t write books. And I kept coming back to this thing of witches. And I felt so comfortable in that world. And I was having a really difficult time accepting that what happened to me had happened to me, and that I was the person that actually had all those thoughts and had that illness. I really wanted it to be like, “No, it’s the hormones; no, it was the circumstance.” But actually I had to come to terms with the fact that, “No, that was you, and that could have happened at any point in your life, and it was you that had those thoughts and you do need to face this and process it and embrace it.”

A still from WITCHES

And I found that Witches helped me do that because I had always loved witches in popular culture. And finally this was a way that I could “become one” by embracing the darkness in myself that I saw in the women that I loved on screen. So yeah, it was a very, very quick thing. And I think it was also that I needed to do something to focus myself or just to have a project because I was still very much in recovery, was still very much like a mad, mad woman.

HtN: So making this film worked as therapy, then?

ES: Absolutely. I mean, I did also have therapy and I am on medication, but yeah, it was incredibly therapeutic. And it’s very cheesy, but I do think that cinema is very potent and powerful, and it can heal things because stories are so important and we see so much of ourselves reflected in stories. And that was definitely the case for me. And just having these different—I hate the term “role model”—but having these role models that I actually wanted to be. Because motherhood—I say this in the film—but motherhood and the role of the mother and the archetype of the mother, the good mother, just didn’t connect with me at all. And when I was ill, people kept saying, “You’ve got to work out what kind of mum you want to be, what kind of mother you are.” And I was just like, “I don’t know, because I don’t see anything about that that appeals to me.”

And then I looked at these witch films and I was like, “Oh, that’s something that appeals to me.” And it’s a different way of looking at the world, and it’s a different way of experiencing the world. And it is a way of saying, “Yes, you can be mad and have terrible thoughts and not be a ‘good mother,’ but also you can be a good mother at the same time by accepting that part of you.” So it was incredibly therapeutic and just, yeah, I loved spending time with witches during that period. It was really, really helpful.

HtN: So you said you love three-act structure earlier, but for this film, while there’s an underlying three-act structure, you adopt a more Shakespearean five-act structure with your five different sections. What made you land on that?

ES: I hadn’t thought of that. It’s funny, I literally had not realized—I studied Shakespeare at drama school—and I hadn’t thought about that at all. I think what I was going for was trying to emulate the classic “becoming-a-witch” or “the hero’s journey” film trope. For example, a woman likes the idea of witches, and then suddenly realizes that she has this power, and at first it’s great, and then the power gets out of control, and then she has to find her coven. And then the coven helps her. So I was trying to do that structure and have it be that she learns about herself. In my head, it was a three-act structure, but I see what you mean about the chapters. I think that was just a way of focusing the film.

And I really wanted the film to feel like, and look like, a spell book, because that’s obviously a big thing with witches. And historically, witches— as in healers and midwives—would make their spell books of all of their information. And they would be burnt on their death because it was dangerous to pass them on. And also because the whole point of being a witch is that you have to make your own spell book, that you’re not supposed to take stuff from someone else because it’s about anecdotal knowledge and things like that. So I really wanted this to feel like that and that was a way of doing it, hoping that someone would potentially watch this in a similar place to where I was and feel like, “OK, this is the journey that I’ve got to go on, or this is how she did it, maybe I can do something similar.”

HtN: I really like how the talking heads are shot and I’m curious how you worked with your DP [Director of Photography], Chloë Thomson, to set those up. Because you have different angles that you cut to and they’re just really nicely done, as is your production design.

ES:  So yeah, my DP was Chloë Thomson, and she was very maternal and nurturing with me. I’d shot something else before this, but this was my first time filming something on this level. And she just really looked after me and helped me. And she’s so good at her job and she had so many great ideas and was very collaborative. And I really felt like she had my back and was my champion. We would look at the things together, look at the shots together and decide. I would just say to her, “I would like this room, this particular set to look like a winter’s morning.” And she would light it like that. And then I’d say, “Can we angle the shot a bit more so we’re seeing a bit more of their face?” Things like that. But it was really simple because she had done so much prep.

And we used very soft lenses as well. Because I wanted it to look like those ‘60s/’70s films, so it’s got a little bit of grain on it. But yeah, I think I was just so lucky to have Chloë. And she’s a mother herself. She was breastfeeding on set, things like that. So her baby was with her the whole time. And that just really added to the whole coven feel.

And then my production designer, May Davies, is unbelievable. She had so little money and she created those sets … She would do one set, we would shoot on it for a day and a half, and then we would get loads of stuff. And then overnight she and her team would redress it all. So it was like she was working so hard and she just brought my ideas to life so well. I think she started out as an artist and she used to do a lot of installations, so I think she’s very attuned to that. She was just incredible.

HtN: Finally, I’d love to know how you worked with Jeremy, your husband, with whom you were in Summer Camp. I mean, obviously you’re a musician as well, but Jeremy’s the one who has the credit for the score on this, so what kind of instructions did you give him?

ES: So yes, Jeremy’s my husband and he co-produced the film with Chiara Ventura and Manon Ardisson, my other producers. And he also did the score. I think at one point I was thinking of a sort of Suspiria feel—the ‘70s version of that—since I really liked that synth feel. And I always like scores that don’t do what you expect them to do, where it’s juxtaposing it and making it feel a little bit disconnected or a little bit strange. But we ended up realizing that the female voice was going to be really important. And Jeremy worked with four singers and we recorded them doing those strange whoop noises. And then he did a lot of drums and just very folk instruments.

But before we started, I did say to him, “You’ve got to research this, you’ve got to find out about folk music and what it would’ve sounded like and what witches would’ve done at ceremonies.” And he was very kind and actually did all of that research. And then I never actually asked him to do anything with it. (laughs) But I was like, “You’re not just going to get this job just because you’re my husband.” But he was great. He’s a really great composer to work with, thank goodness, because it would be so awkward if he wasn’t.

HtN: Indeed. Thanks for talking to me!

ES: Thank you!

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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