Eduardo Sanchez, Daniel Myrick and Gregg Hale‘s 1999 The Blair Witch Project is the gold standard for the found footage subgenre. And since its box office success, the horror genre has seen a handful of found footage classics released. While the subgenre will never die, its popularity is surely at the bottom of the barrel. In fact, it’s been out its way “out” for a few years now, thus making the September 16th release of Blair Witch daunting. Can you imagine not only having to revive a franchise, but also make a worthy sequel and it’s found footage?!
Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett put on their war paint and accepted the challenge, delivering one helluva scary movie. But that doesn’t mean it was easy. In speaking with Barrett we learned that making Blair Witch may have been as scary as the movie itself (read my review). Here, Barrett reveals their internal fears and explains why it’s difficult to make found footage frightening.
“Honestly, I think Adam and I were both very nervous about this,” Barrett openly admits. “Part of what made the ‘V/H/S’ anthologies work was that the segments were short enough that the filmmakers could do unique things that maybe wouldn’t hold up in a feature format. Like, watching an entire film from the perspective of spy glasses, like in David Bruckner’s “Amateur Night” segment, or built-in laptop cameras, like in the short I wrote for Joe Swanberg, could get tedious and exhausting in a feature, and then also you start wondering, like, why haven’t they run out of batteries or put down the camera yet, etc. If the film is only 15 minutes long, you can get away with selecting an innovative perspective. That’s why so many found footage features fall back on being essentially mockumentaries, because it’s the only logical way to keep cameras in the characters’ hands.
“Besides all that, we’d learned that found footage scares are simply very hard to do, which we’d mostly learned through trial and error. In a traditional horror movie, you can use all the cinematic tools at your disposal to create a frightening image or sequence. Music and sound design, obviously, and then selecting the shots that will make a moment work best. In found footage, you can cheat a bit, but really if you’re going for full audience suspension of disbelief, which we were, you can’t rely on that. Your camera angles are limited to what the characters would be filming, and you can only cut so many times between such perspectives before it gets incoherent. The lighting has to feel naturally motivated, too, which can be unforgiving to some types of special effects.
He continues: “With the ‘V/H/S’ movies, we were all having fun and trying experimental things like shooting on old cameras that barely functioned and so on, but those movies were never meant to feel entirely real, there was a sense of humor and low budget aesthetic to them that we were embracing. So, in other words, even if our scares didn’t work in ‘V/H/S’, hopefully people would still be entertained, and if they weren’t, well, another short would start in a few minutes. With ‘Blair Witch’, it was our biggest budget film so far, working with a classic horror property, and we knew we wanted it to be genuinely unsettling. If it wasn’t scary, we’d have nothing to fall back on, we’d just have failed completely, and publicly.
“So yeah, Adam and I were both very aware of all that, and we discussed each scare or suspense sequence extensively beforehand, trying to find a way to capture whatever horror moment was scripted and still have it feel authentic, and often we’d try several different versions of a scare on set to give us options in the editing room, like, if something we were attempting didn’t work. I’m not big on filmmakers complaining about filmmaking, but it was technically a very difficult movie to make. There were definitely some things I wrote into the script that I later hated myself for writing, just because they were so challenging to achieve. And Adam hated me for sure.”
Barrett spoke a bit about writing a found footage Blair Witch sequel, while also getting into how difficult it was to shoot:
“Writing a found footage movie, as I’m sure Adam would be happy to point out, is a lot easier in many ways than directing one. I wrote all the cameras into the script, and would always try to indicate the perspective that we’d be seeing an event from, but of course, things don’t always go as planned. For one thing, it’s difficult to fully grasp just how limited your camera perspectives are within a scene like the ones we’d designed until you’re actually shooting it.
“We’d film a scene from one angle, with either one of our actors wearing a camera rig or a camera operator standing in for the actor, which is hard enough to get right, and then we’d have to cover all the other angles and perspectives in the scene the same way, one at a time, ideally with an eye towards continuity to make sure the various angles would cut together. It took a lot of takes, and really felt like solving an elaborate logic puzzle more than creative filmmaking a lot of the time. Again, we sort of knew from the ‘V/H/S’ movies what we were getting into, but this was far more technically ambitious than anything we’d attempted before.”
I think the sound design is half of why this movie is scary as fuck. Barrett talks a bit about watching the raw footage and when they knew that Blair Witch was crazy good:
“Thank you for saying so. We reshot a few sequences during production because we tried things that simply didn’t work, scenes that went on too long and had no easy editing points or were just too awkward in terms of the staging. But usually you can tell good rough footage that just isn’t edited and sound designed yet from disastrous footage that has serious flaws and isn’t going to cut it.
“Adam and I have made several films together, and two other features with Jess and Keith [Calder], so if our dailies worried us, well, then we’d just come up with a new plan for how to rewrite and reconceive that sequence. All of the stuff that’s in the movie, for the most part, we knew was working when we were actually filming it. Adam did a lot of takes, though, because it almost always would require a few tries just for the camera operator to figure out the movement and blocking alongside the actors within a scene. Some of the early takes of the more complicated sequences are kind of funny to watch.”
You’ll be able to experience Blair Witch for yourself when it opens in theaters on September 16th.