Whether you love it or hate it, there’s no denying that The Blair Witch Project changed everything.
From the way it was directed to the way it was marketed and absorbed into the culture, there hadn’t been a film that big and that groundbreaking in a very, very long time. And there hasn’t been since, really. Besides perhaps Saw, there hasn’t been a game-changer in the horror world on the same level as Blair Witch.
I clearly remember the night I went to see it in my little hometown theater, in Newton, NJ. Going in, I still didn’t know if it was real or not. The media had been covering the film like crazy (it was even on the cover of Time magazine), but I didn’t really pay attention to that kinda stuff back then. I left the theater jarred. Up in rural north Jersey, the forest extends to your backyard. The woods were my playground. But after Blair Witch, it was rare for me to go in them without coming down with a wicked bad case of the willies.
15 years later, I had a chance to confront the two guys who scared the hell out of 17-year-old me. At the mighty Mile High Horror Film Festival, I interviewed directors Dan Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez in a service hallway of the Alamo Drafthouse Littleton.
Going back 15 years, you made the film and submitted it to Sundance. What were your expectations like?
Eduardo Sanchez (E): We were broke, so we just wanted it to sell it on video, maybe. We couldn’t even imagine a theatrical release.
Daniel Myrick (D): Maybe in Romania.
E: We were thinking maybe video or one of the cable networks would pick it up, give us a little money so that way we could go and make another movie. That was basically our expectations. Before we got accepted into Sundance we had a whole plan for in case we didn’t get in, you know? But luckily we got in.
When the film finally got released the hype was incredible, like nothing that had been seen in years, particularly for a horror film. But what was the hype like at Sundance that night?
D: Pretty crazy. There was a high level of awareness going into Sundance and we had an agent lined up and a lawyer already setting things up. There was an industry vibe too, a lot of the industry had dialed into it. But the first screening at the Egyptian was great. There was a lot of people lined up outside the theater and there was a lot of excitement. And I think Sundance had a lot to do with it, with the resurrection of their midnight screenings and they had a lot of promotion going on for it which built up a lot of anticipation.
Going back to the filming, I remember hearing that you guys wanted to show the witch or were planning on showing the witch, but then you never did?
E: Well, we wanted to show something more spectacular than what we ended up with. But we couldn’t come up with an idea and we had a limited budget, so it was going to have to be something really clever. We actually didn’t have the ending of the movie when we were filming. We started shooting the movie without the ending and I remember Gregg (Hale), our producer, would come in and be like, “Man, you got five days,” and we would go back and think about it. But we were so busy trying to keep the movie going. It was like this constant movement because we had to monitor the actors and direct them three or four times a day, figure out where they were going. What the hell was the question again?
Were you ever planning on showing the witch?
E: Okay yeah, so we were thinking maybe we could show somebody levitating or have arms coming out of the walls. I mean, we had no idea, but we didn’t want to betray the rest of the movie. There are no real gags in the movie, we weren’t showing anything, you know, except a bundle of sticks and some teeth. And then maybe two or three days before we had to shoot the ending we came up with the idea for the ending. Also, Gregg came up to us and said “You can’t do any art department, you can’t come up with an idea that requires any building or anything.” So we were lucky we came up with the idea and it worked well. Artisan wanted to change it when they bought the movie. That was the first thing they wanted to do was change the ending.
D: Yeah they did a test screening in New Jersey and they were a little freaked out by everyone asking questions about the ending. It was scaring people, but they wanted some kind of closure. So they had us shoot like five new endings. We were broke, so we took the money.
E: Yeah, we got paid. It was something like $80,000 so we were like “Hell yeah, we’ll shoot an alien invasion for that,” you know? Then we decided to keep the original ending and I remember them telling us “Your ending is going to cost us millions at the box office.”
I also remember hearing about what you put Heather, Michael, and Josh through while filming. That you fed them in the beginning, then gradually cut off their food and sleep. Could you talk about the process a little bit more?
D: When we cast the movie we sort of let the actors know that this wasn’t going to be a normal shoot. For example, we informed the actors just what their characters would know about the background of the Blair Witch mythology. So Heather knew more about it than the guys did, because we wanted them to ask her questions as to what they’re doing out there. So that was in keeping with our whole methodology in how we prepared the actors. When they first went into the woods, we wanted them all charged up, ready to go, and as time moved on, they had less and less sleep, they we hungrier and hungrier, and it allowed them to stay more in character. I mean, they were really tired. They look exhausted in the film. So we let that work for them in their performance.
E: And they didn’t know what was going to happen. We never gave them the whole treatment.
D: Heather thought she was may have signed up for a snuff film.
E: She was really the only girl. She didn’t know Mike or Josh or us either, you know? It was a big gamble for her. She had some balls. They knew a little bit what was going to happen because of the rehearsals and the audition process, but other than that they had no idea what was going to happen. Especially with how it was going to end.
D: We made adjustments as we went along too. First we were going to pull Mike out, then we were going to pull Josh out.
E: Yeah, it was always going to be the sound guy that disappeared, but we were watching the footage and Josh and Heather were just at each other’s fucking throats. So we pulled Josh out to maybe get a different tone and it was a good decision. Also, Josh wanted to get the fuck outta there. He was done.
After the release and the film blew up, was there any kind of pressure from Artisan to make a sequel?
D: Oh yeah. That came pretty early on. I think it’s a natural inclination. It was hot, so they wanted to capitalize on it right away. And I get it. Our logic was that Blair got so big, that it naturally started getting backlash…it just got too big, it got too much hype and it became fashionable for everyone to dislike the movie, so we figured we’ll just let it die down for a couple of years and then decide to revisit it or not. But Artisan wanted to get something going right away.
E: Yeah right away they wanted us to do a sequel and we were just not ready or willing. So they did the second one. We gave them our blessings and they wanted us creatively involved but we didn’t like what we saw. I mean, we like Joe (Berlinger) and we love his documentaries, but this story was going to be really tough to pull off. But the train had already left the station so we just kinda sat back and watched it happen.
Weren’t you guys taking about a prequel at some point?
D: Yeah we thought about a prequel, an origin story of Elly Kedward we thought would be cool. We also maintained that the Blair mythology has so much stuff to mine from, you know? There’s a lot of cool things that we came up with for this 50 year cycle of shit that happens in those woods that we could explore creatively. So we wanted to do a non-traditional follow-up to Blair Witch. The problem that I see is that the studios see the found footage movie and they want something just like it because it made them money. But we’re more in the mind of we built this world and the found footage episode was one episode, so that needed to be what it was for the filmmakers that disappeared in the woods. But we could do a period piece, a black and white film, whatever, and it could all be part of the Blair Witch brand. I still think it’s valid, it’s just hard for studios to embrace that.
E: Yeah, Book of Shadows was pretty far off of what we wanted to do. I didn’t think it was a bad movie, it just wasn’t in the same world, you know?
D: We just felt betrayed, you know? It became this self-referential thing, where it was like the studio was purposely betraying the original mythology or they didn’t understand it. If they called it anything else, it would’ve been a decent little genre film. But it’s kind of the sign of death now for the franchise. It’s like they didn’t understand anything about what made our movie work.
Now that it’s been 15 years, what do you think of the entire state of found footage. You obviously didn’t invent it, but Blair Witch certainly popularized it.
D: It’s definitely become a sub-genre, but I think that found footage would’ve happened regardless. Today, everyone is videotaping everything, man. It’s part of our pop-culture and our social language now. So it can’t not be a part of our narrative storytelling in this day and age. And I think that a lot of the films that call themselves found footage films, they’re bad because of flawed storytelling and the fundamentals that make any movie not a good movie to watch. I’ve seen found footage movies that they’ve chosen to make a certain way, and they haven’t developed the characters and it doesn’t make any sense, all the same reasons any movie doesn’t work well. And then every once in a while a found footage movie will come along that’s a really cool movie, a really cool way of doing it. So it’s gotten kind of a bad wrap I think, because it’s so easy to shoot things that way, cost wise.
E: But it’s not easy.
D: Cost wise, you think it’s going to be easy. But it’s a whole different set of rules you have to follow.
E: When we were working on V/H/S/2, Jason Eisener and Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett thought it was going to be easier, but they said it was one of the hardest things they’ve done. You have to think about filmmaking in a different way. So I agree with Dan, you still have to have a good story, you still have to have a good reason to be making the movie. So it’s not just the genre that’s fucking up the movie, it’s just that it doesn’t work with the filmmaker.
D: But there are some great ones.
E: Yeah there are. And we’re kind of like the godfathers of found footage. So when we agreed to do a segment of V/H/S/2, we were like, “Man, ours better be not be the fucking worst one.” But I think all the movies were solid and it was cool to be inspired by all these filmmakers that are at least 10 years younger than us. But like Dan said, I think found footage is always going to be a part of something new, a part of something else. It’s part of the way we live now. As a technique now, it’s going to be around forever.
D: It’s all part of the visual landscape now. You watch a crime drama now or any TV show for that matter and it’s all cellphones and CCTV. It wasn’t so much that 10, 15 years ago, when we first did Blair. But now it’s everywhere, man. We’re so interconnected now and I think that’s cool. It’s all just about a clever way of making it work for a story.