Interview with “Witch Hunt” and “Phobias”‘ Holly Trotta

What would happen if the Salem Witch Trial events happened in modern time? This is the premise of Momentum Films’ latest horror/thriller Witch Hunt. Written and directed by Elle Callahan, the official synopsis reads: In a modern America where magic is real and witches are persecuted by US authorities, teenager Claire and her family are part of an intricate network that helps these women escape across the border to seek asylum in Mexico. However, when their mode of transport is disrupted by federal witch hunters, trouble befalls the family as they struggle to hide two young witches within the walls of their home. As witch hunters close in and strange magic begins haunting the family, Claire discovers that she may have more in common with these witches than she could have ever imagined.

There are many aspects of the film that stand out, one of those being the production design by Holly Trotta (Phobias). The significance of certain objects and color make the film very stimulating to watch, all while pushing the story along. To learn more about the look of the film, we spoke to Holly exclusively below.

Witch Hunt originally premiered at this year’s SXSW and is now available in theaters, VOD and digital.

How did you first become involved with Witch Hunt?

Holly Trotta: Witch Hunt was the third feature I had production designed with Defiant Studios. I had worked with the line producer, Chris Abernathy, on two previous films. So when he sent me this script, I was excited to see what was involved.  After giving it a read through and chatting with Elle Callahan about her vision and the story she was trying to tell, I immediately wanted to be involved.

I’m drawn to anything dark, moody and slightly off, as if you feel like something isn’t quite right.  Many people think that way about witchcraft in general.  With this script, I felt I could design something a bit more stylized, that was based in altered reality, which resonated with me.

What did pre-production look like for you on Witch Hunt?

HT: Preproduction began with an initial read through with all the department heads. Art has so many overlaps with the other departments. I always like to work out those details ahead of time so I’m able to see the big picture in my mind before my team starts to source to bring the Director’s vision to life. Elle and I had a number of discussions before preproduction. As a result, when we sat down for the read through of the script, I was able to begin to piece the visuals together.  

This film had a short turn-around time.  We only had two weeks for prep before we started shooting. My Art Director, Eric Quintana, who was also set decorating, was out-sourcing during the first week we were filming for many of the sets, when we arrived at Big Sky Movie Ranch.

You shot a lot of Claire’s house at the famous Big Sky Movie Ranch, where titles such as Men in Black, Transformers, Tales From the Crypt and Twin Peaks have been filmed. What was the best part of filming there?

HT: There were many positive aspects to shooting at Big Sky Movie Ranch. As a whole, production was very self-contained. It’s really nice to have a large chunk of time blocked out in the schedule to be shooting multiple sets at one location. Art Department doesn’t always have the luxury to do so, but in this case, the workflow was much smoother. It gave my team and I the flexibility to properly schedule, prep and oversee all the details.

I was able to see the progress of multiple sets before the crew began to set up and shoot. As one set was being dressed, I could run down to another that it was being built. This made it easier to problem solve and change things quickly. So much prep goes into preproduction.  Although there are always things that arise as we install, to be able to physically see and work through the problems in an organized manner results in a better outcome.

Do you prefer to start with a blank canvas when working on a film such as Witch Hunt?

HT: I do.  It’s the best way to start.  However, you can stare at a blank canvas for hours as your mind bounces from thought to thought without having references. I spend a great deal of time during preproduction researching and watching inspiring movies.  Everything comes from something.  The idea is to take some inspiration from one place and some from another to then make it your own. I’m a very tactical visual person, nature of the beast I guess. If I have the time, sometimes I even browse the aisles of different prop houses for inspiration. You never know what you’ll find until you stumble onto it.

You took inspiration from the film, Annabelle: Creation for Witch Hunt. What about the look of that film were you drawn to?

HT: The look and feel of Annabelle: Creation was a huge inspiration for Elle. We wanted to integrate a similar color palette into Witch Hunt. The physical house from that movie had a mood and energy about it. I was inspired by this when designing Claire’s home, where yellow, green and wood tones were dominating.  My favorite looks to design are actually period piece films.  Each decade has it’s own unique style. When designing within a certain time period you really get to fully immerse yourself in those years, from the big picture down to little details.

Is there a scene in the film that you would like audiences to pay special attention to? Where they might not notice something significant, even though it’s there?

HT: I don’t think there was a particular scene but more so the placement of blue used throughout the film. At first glance the audience might not have picked up on it, but there were definitely specific reasons and scenes associated with implementing the color blue. Those moments were to signify the idea of witchcraft within certain people and places. We wanted the color to stand out, whether it was small details in a necklace, or larger elements such as roses.

Can you talk about the blue flower scene because it definitely stands out. Whose idea was this?

HT: That scene was Elle’s idea. Blue roses are rare and the placement of them in the desert is even a further altered state, as they would never survive in an arid climate. Elle wanted the audience to feel the shift in reality. Claire hadn’t fully embraced her heritage in witchcraft and was trying to suppress what was happening around her. So this was a perfect place to use blue.  In a dream she would later come to realize that her witchcraft heritage was actually a large part of her reality.

You also worked on the horror film, Phobias, that was released earlier this year by Vertical Entertainment. What was the biggest difference working on Witch Hunt, then that film?

HT: Phobias was more challenging from an Art Department standpoint because of the limited budget. When shooting an anthology, you have so many more storylines simultaneously going on, with multiple locations in each segment. My team and I were flipping sets every day. We would build it, shoot it and strike the same day. I would say three fourths of that movie were overnights. When everyone in the world was waking up, we were just going to bed. Witch Hunt on the other hand was much more self-contained and didn’t need the extensive planning as Phobias required.

You have worked in many different genres. Do you think there is a specific rulebook when it comes to the look of horror projects?

HT: I don’t think there’s a specific rulebook, however, there is definitely a common thread to the look and feel when it comes to designing Horror.  For example, even though each movie is unique, the projects can be more stylized, hyper-realistic and creepy.  I love evoking an emotion through my work that directly translates to what you see on camera. Horror can leave the audience guessing and wanting more. I think you have to be the type of person who truly loves living in this world or else it won’t be an enjoyable experience designing horror.  It’s a great genre for Art Departments.  You have the ability to create a mood and feeling through the sets that’s a bit more edgy than let’s say a Rom Com.  Of course, sound design and score add a whole other level to the film, enhancing the look and feel. It is all the departments working together towards one vision that produces an effective sensory film-viewing experience.

Written by
Ash Hamilton is not only the owner of, but also one of its major contributors. A long time horror movie enthusiast, Ash has lent his personality to radio and television and continues to support his favorite genre through his writing and art. He also loves beef jerky and puppies... and low-grade street-quality hallucinogens.

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