Into the Woods
By Marc Savlov
JULY 19, 1999: Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez's film The Blair Witch Project was one of a handful of films this year that elicited any kind of solid response at both the Cannes Film Festival and perennial indie hotbed Sundance. At the latter, no less than Roger Ebert came out touting the pair's work as one of the scariest films he'd ever seen, while almost overnight the World Wide Web seemingly rechristened itself the World Witch Web, as rabid fans, many of whom had yet to see the film, took the movie to heart and began an unprecedented wave of pre-release hype unlike anything to date.
The story of the creation of Sanchez and Myrick's indescribably creepy film is at least as interesting as the movie's actual storyline, in which three student filmmakers get lost in the Maryland woods while shooting a documentary on a local witch who may or may not be out to get them -- one year later, their supposedly "lost" footage is recovered and shown. It begins with a call from indie-film maven John Pierson and ends with this week's national release of the film by Haxan Films and Artisan Entertainment.
Shot in a variety of styles (16mm, Hi-8, and digital video) on a tiny budget, The Blair Witch Project is an amazing achievement. Not only is it the first film in which the actors themselves shot the film (directors Sanchez and Myrick would scurry ahead through the woods and leave stage directions where the actors would find them), it's also a harrowing, genuinely disturbing freakout of a horror show that eschews the rampant gore and clever irony of most modern fright-fests in favor of internalized terror. Reports of audience members at test screenings becoming agitated and nauseous due in part to the film's crazed first-person POV have already become the stuff of arthouse legend. For once, the finished product really does live up to the advance hype.
I spoke with the directors via conference call as they geared up for the film's upcoming release.
Eduardo Sanchez: We both went to the University of Central Florida in Orlando, and that's where we both met, and that's also where we met the Haxan Films guys. That was back in 1990, and it was the inaugural year of the film program there. Dan and I made a film called Fortune during our second semester, which was actually about a witch -- we're hoping to finish that up and maybe put it on DVD.
ES: Not really. We did a few things between now and then, including a feature I shot called Gabriel's Dream, which was done back in the summer of '91. It never got distributed, but we did get it into a few film festivals. After that we did a thing together called Black Chapters Trilogy, in which I directed a segment, Dan directed a segment, and our producer Greg Hale did another one. It was like three Twilight Zone-y half-hour films. We never finished that because we just ran out of money, basically. Back in '96 we decided to get the ball rolling again, and we did Blair Witch.
That came out of basically just hanging around and talking about the idea. Every time we'd tell somebody about the story, they'd really get into it, and so we knew we had a pretty good idea, it was just a matter of getting it on film and getting it on film the right way.
Daniel Myrick: Mike Menello, our co-producer at Haxan, was working at the Florida Film Festival back in 1995 and was approached by Pierson, who at the time, wanted to do a segment on the festival for Split Screen. He needed a shooter, and so Mike turned him on to me and John called me up and said he was coming into town and would I like to run camera for him? Of course I said yes.
At the same time, Haxan and I had produced this little eight-minute investor trailer which basically was just the backstory to Blair Witch. We had formatted it like a real documentary, and we were using that to try and raise money for the project. At the end of my stint with John, after shooting with him for three or four days, I told him about this little movie we had and asked if he would be interested in seeing this short trailer. He said sure, so I sent it to him. He liked it, called me back, and thought it was real. I told him it was all fiction, and he got a big kick out of that. Later on, Ed and I met with him and discussed our concept and how we wanted to shoot it and then from there he said that he'd like to use the eight-minute short as the cliffhanger segment on his final episode of the 1996 season. Then, for the next season premiere, he decided to air a few seconds of the "found footage." So he paid us money for those two segments and that was almost half of our budget to shoot the full-length version the following October in 1997. So that's how John came on board. He was hugely responsible for not only financing the film but also for giving us a lot of awareness and publicity early on. And he's been a big fan of the movie ever since.
DM: The shoot was basically an eight-day play. We hooked the actors up with a little mini-film school before they went out into the woods, and we gave them the cameras, the batteries, the lights, the DAT machine, and then they started shooting from day one while staying completely in the scenario of the characters 24 hours a day. We directed them as best we could by remote control.
AC: Remote control?
ES: Well, during the shots in the town, we basically left these notes in their car which would give them character information about what they were supposed to do and how they were supposed to do it, how they were feeling about the situation and how they were feeling about each other, and like that. And then it would also contain logistical information about, say, what they would do once they got there.
Once they got into the woods, they had a handset, a GPS [Global Positioning System] handset that they used. Dan and I had actually spent the three weeks prior to the shoot scouting out all the locations and programming all of these different locations in the woods. Basically, the directing notes -- once they got into the woods -- would say something like: "Go to Point One, be there by three o'clock." And then the character information would give them information as to what scene to play out on the way there or once they got there. We tried to give them as little information as possible, but we also wanted to make the instructions clear enough so that they could actually get to where we wanted them to be. Once they got there, though, it was vague enough so that we could spring some surprises on them. Most of the time, when the characters are experiencing something for the first time, it's true for the actors as well. We did retakes on only two scenes due to technical problems. The rest of the film is basically one take for each of those scenes.
DM: In the beginning we had to create a lot of fake stuff for that original eight-minute trailer that we did for John Pierson. We formatted it just like a real documentary -- we had to create the sheriff, some of the backstory, the mythology of the Blair Witch, and then this found footage of the three filmmakers, and how we were Haxan Films and we're going to get access to this footage in October of '97. We just created all this fake stuff to make it appear real.
Once [the bulletin board of] John Pierson's Web page really started exploding after they showed that second episode, everyone began asking us if these Haxan guys had a Web site, where can we get more information, and on and on. Ed had some Web site experience prior to coming to Haxan, and so he made up this site and threw all this mythology into it. We kept creating, and it kept growing, and growing, and growing. As we needed it, we would create more stuff. And it's still growing to this day. We just had the special on the Sci-Fi Channel, for which we created more stuff. We have a book from Penguin which is coming out and is in effect a whole investigative approach to the missing three filmmakers from a private investigator named Buck Buchanan. We have a comic book coming out that dabbles in the mythology of other stories that took place prior to the disappearance of the three filmmakers. So there's a lot of stuff that's been created not only by us but also by other writers who have taken our base story and have embellished upon it. It's been cool -- the thing's just been growing from day one.
AC: Let's touch on the astounding pre-release hype that your fans have generated. I'm talking about the many, many Web sites that have cropped up since the film's screening at Sundance. I've never seen anything like it. How do you two account for that? Or can you?
DM: Well... no. I mean, it's been really amazing, from the Split Screen episode, to the Web site, to the fan response, it's just been overwhelming. We've got so many fan-sponsored sites just based on our Web site, you know, that have been so loyal from the very beginning. And that has just translated to this huge anticipation on this movie that's just crazy. I've never been in this position before by any stretch of the imagination, and I don't know if anybody else has either. It's just been overwhelming to know that there's this much anticipation on such a small little film. When we made this movie our hopes were just to sell it, maybe go to cable, maybe get HBO or Showtime to pick it up. It's kind of an experimental, niche-type horror movie, and we just wanted to scare people with it, essentially. To get this kind of buzz and this kind of fan loyalty has not only kind of freaked us out, but it's also inspired us down the whole dark process.
ES: I don't know. I guess Artisan will continue to take it with the marketing and hopefully not cheese it out. They've been pretty cool about collaborating with us, so I think we'll be all right. I don't know how far we're going to take it, though. One thing that's cool now is that so many other people are getting involved with the writing and creation of the mythology. At this point Dan and I are, you know, hopefully done with it. We want to get onto our next film.
DM: Yeah. We've got a development deal with Artisan right now for a comedy called Heart of Love that Ed and I, with our roommate Dave Brown, have been writing since film school. We've been writing material for this since before Blair, and it's much more involved film than Blair was, and so we're hoping to get it shot sometime before the end of the year and maybe have it come out sometime next summer. It's a complete moronic collection of Monty Python meets Airplane! meets The Kentucky Fried Movie. Stylistically, it's going to be all over the place, but it's something that artistically, we need to be there. It's really what we want to do now.
DM: Some of our favorite "horror" films (and we're fans of all movies, not just horror) are The Exorcist, The Shining, Amityville Horror. I always really liked It's Alive, which is a really bad B-movie, but it scared the pee out of me when I was a kid, that whole bassinet scene with that finger? Ohmigod that scared me. Movies where you really didn't see the monster. And that's what we were really going after here. We just figured that this might be a way of creating the horror inside the viewer's head and let their imagination run away with them. And, you know, that's what we really liked about those old movies.
World Witch WebHow many filmmakers can claim a flotilla of fan Web sites lovingly devoted to their movie months before the actual film even opens? Okay, The Phantom Menace, sure, but I'm talking about an indie film that virtually nobody has even seen yet. I'm talking about The Blair Witch Project, Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick's ultra-low-budget spook show that opens this week, after months of Internet speculation.
The sites below, and many more like them, are the result of the unprecedented buzz surrounding the film, and you can bet that after tomorrow's opening, the number will almost certainly spiral upward. That the World Wide Web is beginning to have such a profound effect on film marketing is a whole other story we'll tackle sometime else. For now, go check out these four sites to discover the true meaning of the word "fan."
Film & TV: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23
Cover . News . Film . Music . Arts . Books . Comics . Search
© 1995-99 DesertNet, LLC . Austin Chronicle . Info Booth . Powered by Dispatch