Starting with their 2011 breakout feature You’re Next, director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett have been building their reputations as two of the most innovative horror creators around. So, in many ways, their new movie Blair Witch—which The A.V. Club’s A.A. Dowd describes as “a fun house designed around the Blair Witch brand”—is a departure for the duo, a very mainstream horror movie concerned less with subverting genre and more with making viewers jump in their seats and spill their popcorn. And that’s exactly what Wingard wanted.
Much has already been said, including here at The A.V. Club, about the lead-up to the film, which was originally announced as The Woods, a (very) deep-cut reference to The Blair Witch Project’s working title of The Woods Movie, as Barrett revealed on The Canon podcast. As Wingard explains to Variety, he and Barrett signed on to do Blair Witch back in 2013, but were under contract to keep the whole thing secret until the film’s true identity was revealed at this year’s Comic-Con International in San Diego. “The secret to keeping the secret was just not ever acknowledging that there was even a secret,” he says.
Since that aspect of the film has been discussed so thoroughly, we decided to concentrate on the nitty-gritty of the production—how it was shot, why it was shot that way, why it was so loud—when talking to Wingard over the phone the day before Blair Witch debuted in theaters.
The A.V. Club: You guys are in Austin today?
Adam Wingard: Yep, we’ve been doing some interviews post our screening last night, and it’s been pretty fun.
AVC: How’d the screening go?
AW: Oh, it was great. It’s a movie that’s meant to be seen with a crowd. So you pack any theater with this thing, and you’re going to get some fun reactions.
AVC: I was at a screening last night with about 800 people, and there was a lot of screaming.
AW: It’s so fun. There are only a few genres, horror and comedy, where you can get that immediate feedback from the audience. It’s very gratifying when that’s what you’re going for, and you can hear the reactions in all the places that you intended.
AVC: The Blair Witch Project is famous for its unconventional shoot, where they just sent the actors out into the woods alone. How did your set work? Were you with the cast the whole time?
AW: We had a much more conventional shoot than that. There was always a part of me that wishes we could just turn the kids loose and kind of do the same type of thing. But ultimately, we were making a different type of movie than the original. We’re adhering to a lot of the things that are great about it, but I think our take on it is that this is The Blair Witch Project universe, but this is the roller coaster that takes place within that. There’s a lot of exposition that you need to get the audience up to speed, and the first half has a lot more of a conventional storytelling feeling to it. But ultimately, we knew that we wanted this thing to end up in a very technical horror environment, which meant we needed total control.
So there was still a lot of actors doing their own camera work in addition to camera operators, but unfortunately for us, the cameras that you’re watching the footage off of aren’t the same ones that are filming on screen, for a variety of reasons. But that meant that even though all the characters are wearing earpiece cameras, and [you cut to] three or four in each scene, we could only film one perspective at a time—which was kind of a nightmare, as you can imagine. That meant that your actor’s blocking is exactly the same as your camera blocking, so when you’re doing the first perspective, and the actor’s talking one way, and he looks over here, and he walks over here, the camera operator has to imitate that exactly, and you have to remember all that stuff that’s going on so it can cut together.
We’d usually have to run a ton of takes. You just have to kind of accept [with this style of shooting] that your first seven takes are just going to be elevated rehearsals, and from there, it’s going to start coming together. But you’re going to have to be patient, knowing that you’re never going to show up on set and nail it on the first go. It just doesn’t work that way in this kind of thing. For the first couple of weeks, that was really arduous and pretty depressing, because everything [took] 10 times as long as it normally does on a shoot, and you’re constantly second-guessing yourself because of it.
Normally, you have all this knowledge from all the films that you’ve done that you’ve accumulated over the years, and you can constantly look back when you’re in some sort of fix and say, “Well, on so-and-so film, we did this, and it worked out fine.” You can point to these things, and you can have that assurance. But with this one, all [my] experience was thrown out the door, and it was almost like making [my] first movie all over again.
AVC: Did you end up having to do reshoots, because the actions had to mimic each other so exactly?
AW: Not for that reason. But we did do reshoots while we were shooting. And we’re really good about doing that on any of our movies. On this film, it was a bit more extensive, just because [during] the first few weeks, there was so much trial and error in terms of what was working and what wasn’t. The first few days, we were still exploring the correct eye line we should be using. Is it in the middle of the lens? Is it just to the right of it? And of course we tried everything in between.
So at the end of the second week, we all sat down—me, Simon, and the producers—and had this talk. I was starting to get a lot of anxiety, and I felt like there was about three or four days’ worth of [footage] that had a lot of things that didn’t totally work or weren’t needed in the film, so we started cooking [reshoots] into our schedule right away. Because fortunately, most of it’s in similar locations, so you can pick up stuff and change things around fairly easily as you go, as opposed to adding a bunch of days at the end. Ultimately, I think we only ended up adding an extra day, even though we were constantly reshaping the film. So there were reshoots, but we stayed ahead of ourselves.
I think, as a filmmaker, it’s important to be honest with yourself at all times in terms of what’s working and what’s not. If we had just [plowed] through this movie and said, “We’ll fix it in post” and “We’re geniuses and everything we do is gold,” and this and that, we’d be in a real fix. But because we’re kind of anxious, or real, about the situation, we’re always assessing what’s working and what’s not and striving to improve upon ourselves as much as possible within the time frame that we have.
AVC: You’re known for putting twists on genres in You’re Next and The Guest. Why did you decide to do this one more straightforward?
AW: The reason I think we wanted to do this film was because it was an opportunity to do something more straightforward. All of our films [have been] deconstructions, breakdowns of the genre. And despite that, we’ve been known as horror filmmakers. But we’ve never done a movie where we set out from the get-go to make it full-on scary. We’ve never actually made, in my mind, a real horror film.
We’ve done movies that have horror elements, or in the case of The Guest, horror stylization and inspiration. But we’ve actually been talking about doing more of a straightforward horror film, really since we were filming You’re Next. If we had done another deconstruction of a genre, and “look how clever we are” and “[look] how many movies we’ve seen” and another film that shows that off, that, creatively, would have been kind of stagnant. It was getting too natural for us to do that. So it was really a challenge we set for ourselves, where we said, “This is going to be a scary movie, and that’s our main dedication point.” If we’re going to be considered horror filmmakers, we have to prove it not only to ourselves, but to the audience that we can actually make something scary.
AVC: A lot of found-footage movies have a similar set of narrative beats. Is it possible to reinvent the found-footage wheel, or are they always going to have to follow the same pattern?
AW: Most found-footage movies, the general framework is that it’s within a documentary format, whether it’s characters documenting themselves, in the case of Paranormal Activity, or a more formalized documentary. You’re used to that kind of format. To me, I think the future of it is thinking about virtual reality and those more immersive experiences like video games, where you can actually control what’s going on. It’s all these POV type of things that I think found footage is moving towards.
It used to be that whenever a found-footage movie would come [out], especially when The Blair Witch Project came out, the first thing that everybody asked was, “Who’s editing the footage?”That’s a question that doesn’t come up anymore, because people are getting so much more comfortable with the format. We even tried to address that in our film. The opening credits say, “The following footage was assembled.” We try to get as many elephants out of the room right off the bat.
But what we wanted to do was to create an immersive POV thrill ride, so the movie actually starts in that familiar structure of the documentary that you know and love from The Blair Witch Project. But then at the midpoint of the movie, when the danger sets in and the characters are being terrified, we switch over to a POV experience, hopefully in somewhat of a subliminal way. For people who haven’t seen it, what I mean by that is the fact that the characters are wearing the Bluetooth earpiece cameras, which are always rolling. Instead of using handheld cameras—which are mostly in the first half of the film—the second half is actually attached to the actors’ heads, so you’re really with them. You become them as it goes. And hopefully what that achieves is that you are even more immersed into the horror you’ve stepped into.
AVC: You were talking about the second half and how the switch flips, and suddenly you’re in this really intense first-person experience. How did you use sound to create that experience? It’s a very loud movie!
AW: It is, yes. This was one of the first times that we had a really robust sound-mixing schedule, so we had a lot of time to really delve in and get it just right. My main inspiration in terms of the sound—and even the relentless tone that the movie has, especially in the second half—was less the original Blair Witch Project, even though that’s the world we’re living in, and more of something like Texas Chain Saw Massacre, where you’re just really thrown in, and it’s this relentless, traumatizing, never-ending kind of ride that you’re on. And that’s the kind of experience that I wanted this movie to give you. I wanted you to be exhausted when you leave the theater. And sound is key to that. Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a movie with an abusive soundscape to it, and it’s very unique in that sense. That’s the kind of vibe I wanted, something that felt evil and industrial and just really in your face. And like you said, loud as hell.
AVC: You said this is a movie that you want people to experience in the theater. How do you feel, in general, about people going to the theater versus watching something at home? Does the idea of somebody watching your movie on their phone bother you?
AW: Not necessarily. I think you just have to be realistic to what the reality is, the way people experience movies. I just recently did a movie for Netflix, Death Note, which is also like 10 times more expensive than anything else I’ve made yet. It’s going to be available on streaming. It’s not going to theaters. That was the whole point of it. So at a certain point, you just have to say, “You know what? If I can make the movies I want, people are going to watch it how they’re going to watch it.” They’ll probably enjoy it just as much.
That said, a movie like this is definitely designed to be not just seen on the big screen with the loud soundtrack, but it’s also meant to be seen with a crowd, and to have that fun communal experience of yelling and then being scared and then laughing and then decompressing and being scared again. That experience was one that this movie was specifically designed for. So I think it’s a case-by-case kind of thing.