Even before its high-profile sale to Artisan Entertainment at Sundance this year, the buzz about The Blair Witch Project had been growing steadily. But unlike so many movies that have attracted wide pre-release hype—and especially unlike so many modern, irony-driven horror movies—it actually delivers what it promises. The less said (and read) about the film the better, as The Blair Witch Project—marketed as the found footage of three fledgling (and missing) filmmakers who travel into the Maryland woods in search of the (possibly) fictional Blair Witch—plays more powerfully the greater the mystery surrounding it. With that in mind, you may want to wait to read this interview until after you've seen the film, though it gives away less than most reviews have. That said, co-writers, co-directors, and co-editors Dan Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez talked to The Onion about the novel nature of their film, the problem with today's horror movies, and the recipe for pure terror.
The Onion: Do you think the best way to see this movie is to know as little about it as possible?
Eduardo Sanchez: Pretty much. Basically, we've been saying for a while now that as long as you go into this film with an open mind and don't expect a basic film, or any kind of conventional filmmaking techniques, you can get into it no matter how much you know. But, yeah, I think the less you know, the better.
Dan Myrick: Yeah. We've gotten kind of mixed reports from people who know before they go in and the concept still freaked them out, and also from people who wished they had not known before going in. You get a different experience when you go in [with no knowledge]. It is enticing for us to entertain the thought of people going in there with no idea of what's going on, seeing [the film] for what it is and believing what's going on until they see the credits roll at the end. That's usually when we get the strongest reactions: people really believing it. At Sundance, there wasn't a lot of huge press on it. People hadn't read about it beforehand, but they had heard about it, and they were really relieved when they saw the actors walk on stage after the movie.
O: At what point in that screening did you realize you had the audience?
ES: We'd had some screenings before, and usually when people laugh during the first sections of the film, we pretty much have them. People were laughing, so we pretty much knew we had them. Around the middle of the film, once things started getting tense, the audience was really still. Not too many people walked out, which is kind of rare for a Sundance screening, especially a midnight screening. We'd look over and see people leaning forward in their chairs, staring at the screen, and we knew we had them. We had screened the film a million times, so we knew how things usually went, but it was pretty cool.
O: Did marketing the film, because of its unique nature, pose any particular challenges? The web site features a lot of information, but was there ever a point where you just weren't going to say whether the footage was real or fake?
ES: We didn't want to tell people that it was real, but we didn't want to tell people it was fake, either. We wanted to walk that line, you know? Also, the only thing we thought when we started talking to people, and when we and later Artisan started doing the web site, was that we didn't want to give anything about the real film away. We wanted people to go in and get a fresh look at it. Artisan has been doing a really good job walking the line between reality and fiction, and when people ask us straight out, we never lie to them. We say it's a film, a fictional film.
DM: We're not trying to pull some hoax or anything like that. I think it's cool that people may make assumptions about whether or not it's real, but there's still a question in their mind whether it is. But we want people to enjoy the film for what it is, and not marginalize it because…
ES: …we were trying to pull a hoax. We designed the film to be, from beginning to end, a completely real experience. We didn't want anything in it to give away the fact that it wasn't real. We wanted real town names, in case someone was from that area. We didn't want any three-point lighting; we didn't want any dolly moves. We didn't use any known actors. So that was the deal, and how you market a film like that, I don't know. I don't know how you tell people to go to a film that's supposed to basically trick you for an hour and a half into believing it's real because of the way it's shot, or the way the actors perform.
O: Had you ever screened it without the end credits?
DM: Not publicly, no.
O: Do you think that would have made a difference in how the film is perceived?
ES: The eight-minute trailer that [the Independent Film Channel's] John Pierson did, he played that as legit. He played it up that Haxan Films was going to acquire this footage, but it was just this eight-minute trailer we had produced. We hadn't shot the film yet. We just did an overview of the backstory and said that Haxan Films was going to acquire this footage.
DM: We did a follow-up trailer, and showed a couple of the clips we had shot the previous October. Split Screen showed it as pretty much legit, and there were a whole lot of people who believed in it and thought it was real. There are a whole lot of people who felt it wasn't real and that it was a hoax. So the discussion went from the story to the film to whether it was real or not real, a hoax or not a hoax. It became a huge moral argument, and that's not what we wanted to do. We kept getting sidetracked by whether we were morally right or not. We're not trying to hide anything from anybody. If you just go in there and convince yourself that it is real when you're watching this 82-minute movie, then we've done our job. We felt from the very beginning that it would heighten the fear factor. And that's all we wanted to do: create a scary movie.
O: You mentioned how the humor is often what draws people in. Do you think humor is one of the problems with a lot of the horror movies released in the last five years or so? That the horror is almost an afterthought?
DM: Those kinds of movies, in a sense, aren't really horror movies. They're fun, and if they're done well, they can be really campy and fun. I have no problem with that, but those movies don't scare me. Coming in under the pretense of being a horror film, you know… Anyone can do shock value. Develop enough tension and cue the music right, then have something jump out: It's almost impossible not to jump in your seat. But that doesn't leave any effect on you when you leave the movie theater. To me, the best horror is psychological horror. The Exorcist, The Shining, The Omen, things that kind of stick with you long after you've seen them. That's all Blair is for us. It's what you don't see. It's letting the audience think a little bit, not spelling it out for them. Giving them credit for using their own imaginations rather than sticking in gags and tricks. We took that approach not only because of what made us scared when we were kids, but also because we don't have the budget to have, you know, Freddy Krueger coming out and chopping people up. We had to be more resourceful.
O: Even some higher-budgeted movies like Jaws or Alien showed as little of the creature or monster as possible. It's cheaper and more effective to do that, but people still like to put everything on screen.
ES: That's what it is. Part of the reason Alien and Jaws work is that when you see Jaws at the end, you think, "Holy shit, that's a big fucking shark!" At the very last scene in Alien, when you actually see the alien full-bodied, it comes out and uncoils itself when Ripley is in her underwear, and it's like, "Holy shit!" I think filmmakers have come to the point where you can't just show the shark or the alien because people have seen them already. Back when those films came out, it was the first time people had seen something like that. But now they've seen so much that it's getting out of control. It's to the point where they don't even save the shit for after the trailer. Like that movie Lake Placid. Is that the movie with…
O: Killer alligators?
DM: Or bears, or whatever. [Actually, it's a crocodile. —ed.]
ES: Yeah, they've got the damn alligator on the poster!
DM: And then, in The Haunting, they just show all the effects in the trailer. The effects are becoming the star of the movie. It's like having a new toy. I think the technology is getting cheaper and cheaper and cheaper, and more and more people have access to CGI work. What was considered state-of-the-art a year ago is now on desktop systems, and you can buy it off the shelf. It's so attractive. It's like, "I've got these tools now, so I've got to throw them on the screen, man. Now I can make this guy morph." Remember when morphing was huge? It's just out of control. They're not thinking of the story so much anymore, the tension and the dread. Even outside of the horror genre. Sci-fi has just become an effects-fest, and the story has taken a back seat to all that eye candy. To me, that's not really storytelling; that's just showcasing the latest gadgetry. The scariest movies that affected me, like The Shining and stuff like that, had very little effects. There was just this unseen horror affecting the characters. That to me is more of a challenge, not to mention more effective on the audience. People are becoming desensitized from seeing all that stuff on the screen. I don't know about The Haunting, but from what I've seen in the trailer and read in the trades, and what I know of Jan De Bont's stuff—Twister and Speed—I expect it to be in the same vein as all the other effects things. Is it really going to be scary? We'll see. Probably not. The thing is, they've gone so overboard with the effects that they're not even marketing them as scary anymore. The Haunting is more like, "Here are our effects. Check out our cool effects…"
ES: "Look at this house we built." Not to dog The Haunting. We haven't even seen it. Not to dog anybody, really. We just made this film. Dan and I came up with the idea in 1993. This was before Scream, before any of this stuff. Before CGI got out of control. We just thought of what made us scared when we were little kids, and wanted to see if we can scare people now in the '90s. That's the only thing we had going when we started coming up with the idea for the film. When we shot it, that was the only thing: Just keep it real so we can scare people. We're not against effects films or things like that. But for horror, I think our approach is just something new, or something old revisited.
O: In the early '80s, there was a time when the special effects really worked. All the werewolf movies, The Howling...
ES: An American Werewolf In London. Alien.
O: You could touch them. CGI never really looks right. Your film, and a lot of the "running through the woods" films—Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Evil Dead—just look real.
ES: It's just natural. Texas Chainsaw Massacre, just where they are… It's weird and low-budget, but that's why it works. The glossier you get, the more well-lit, the more dolly moves and incredible shots you have, the more you kind of remove yourself from that. But then again, look at The Shining. The Shining did that. But that's Kubrick. Kubrick always seems to be the exception.
O: The commentary on the new Texas Chainsaw Massacre DVD explains how, for all the running-through-the-woods shots, Tobe Hooper just used the same 10 feet of tracks over and over again. That's a pretty neat way to get around budget constraints.
ES: Wow, I haven't seen that movie since I was a kid.
DM: That's just the kind of thing I hope we don't lose. I hope we don't get lost in the process. I think that's what's happened with a lot of people in films these days: They're so enamored with the process, whether it's CGI or using a huge crane that they lose sight of being resourceful. Sometimes you go into a room and all you need is one lamp to light the room. Sometimes all you need is just one simple location to do the job. I think that's more out of habit: You work with what you have to work with. That's a perfect example, Tobe Hooper using the same hunk of woods because he's got limited tracks, but he found a way to make it work. We had to do the same kind of thing on Blair, and everything worked out. I hope we don't lose that scrappiness. That doesn't mean it has to look scrappy, but squeezing every amount of creativity out of every dollar you have to work with.
ES: But we've never done a Hollywood film. Just wait…
DM: …until they spray us with the money hose.
ES: I think everyone must have this attitude when they're in a position like ours. You never know what's going to happen. The most important thing is to try not to cheat your audience, you know? If you think you are cheating yourself, like doing a script just for the money, then just kind of make it evident. Somehow make it evident, you know?
O: In terms of your process, how much of The Blair Witch Project is actually improvised? You do share a writing credit.
ES: Dan and I wrote a script that was about 35 pages long, and it was basically a script without any dialogue for the whole film. We had always wanted the dialogue to be improvised. We didn't want to put those kinds of limitations on the actors. The prime directive was to not give anything away that was fiction. I felt that by giving the actors the freedom to make up their own lines, it would seem a lot more natural than anything we could script. Also, we didn't want them thinking about lines. We didn't want them to memorize dialogue. So all the dialogue was improvised. But all the scenes and all the moments are pretty much scripted. There are a couple of surprises, but pretty much everything is laid out in the script. But it's like that famous shot in Close Encounters: Spielberg has that shot of the kid smiling, but he had all these characters in front of him to provoke that genuine reaction. I think there's an element of improv to all films. We not only had our actors improv dialogue, but we were doing improv as filmmakers. We were kind of in a state of flux as the film was evolving and these actors were interacting in this world we created. We were adjusting as we were going along, too. This method approach demanded that. We needed to be guided along by this outline that Dan and I created, but at the same time, we left it open so there would be a freedom of improvisation, both for us as filmmakers and for the actors. I think that's why it looks so real and genuine, and that's what we were going after. Those moments you can't script, to set up an environment where that would happen and then put it together in the editing process.
O: How difficult was the editing process?
DM: It was a lot more involved than we had anticipated. We had come from a kind of traditional background, with multiple takes, where you take the best one and blah blah blah. But this is much more like a documentary. We had 20 hours of raw footage, and all of it was original stuff. From that, we had to kind of sculpt this storyline and downplay certain characterizations, bringing more levity to the beginning. So we had to find those moments in all that material and carve out this story from all these character arcs. That took more than eight months. But in that process, you lose your objectivity, so we had a couple of screenings as we went along to get objective opinions of whether what we were doing was working or not. Was it really scaring people, or had we lost touch with it? So we had general audiences give us comment cards so we could evaluate and draw a consensus on what really seemed to favor the film being really scary. So from that, you just kind of keep working and tweaking, letting everyone in the audience take a look at it. Over time, Ed and I just hammered it out until we had a final version. Then it got to Sundance, and even from there, once Artisan picked it up, we did the sound mix on it and shot an extra scene to help produce the end effect we were looking for. We were tweaking it all the way up to at least a couple of months ago. Now it's down to 82 minutes, and so far it seems to be going pretty well.
O: Did you expect the film to get a wide release?
ES: No, we didn't think it would make it into theaters. We thought we'd get lucky if we got a cable or video deal.
O: What did the MPAA rate it?
ES: It's rated R. It's the language. I think they put "adult situations" or something like that.
DM: I mean, there's no real blood or guts, or things like that. Or sex. So all it has against it as far as the ratings board is concerned is the language.
O: You've been pretty efficient, using a lot of your leftover footage on the web site.
ES: There's a Sci-Fi Channel special coming out [in July]. Dan and I had 20 hours of completely unique footage. There were only retakes on two scenes, so Dan and I estimate that we have about five hours of really good, usable stuff that could actually end up somewhere, whether on a miniseries or a DVD. A lot of stuff ended up on the cutting-room floor.
DM: Very economical, from that standpoint. If Artisan wanted to—it depends on what's appropriate—they have a lot of unique material to work with. They could market the DVD a completely different way from how typical DVDs are marketed. With all the mythology we created, there are so many different areas of exploitation. Like the book that's coming out, the comic book, the Sci-Fi Channel. They're all taking different approaches to this mythology. It's not redundant material from the film. No novelizations. It's a completely different angle. You know, investigative approaches to what happened to the three students, backstory, events that took place over the last 200 years in the Black Hills. There's a lot of potential there, and I think they see that. Obviously, that's why they're exploiting it. But again, it's all supply and demand: It comes down to what people want.
O: It's really unusual to see an independent film spawn this sort of cottage industry. Do you have any control over the spin-offs?
DM: No. They bought it from us, and they can do whatever the hell they want with it. But I think Artisan trusts our judgement. They feel we are the best people to market the film because we've been with it the last couple of years. So they've been keeping us in the loop.
ES: And so far, we haven't had any horror stories. I don't mind T-shirts; it's a film. There's nothing you can do about it. When you see something, you can comment—you know, "This is getting ridiculous." Basically keeping it real. You know, not promoting on our web site that we're selling Blair Witch hair products, or something completely fucking ridiculous. T-shirts are one thing, but if you get to the point where it's, like, Blair Witch herbal tea or something, it's like, "What the fuck is going on here?" [Laughs.] Sooner or later, we'll see something that makes us say, "What the fuck is this?"
DM: It's part of the price you pay at the stage we're at. We were just happy to sell our movie. You've got to be realistic about what creative control you have at the stage we're at. We can't be assholes and say, "No, you've got to market this a certain way, and this is what you've got to do before you write the check." They'd say, "Have a nice day. There are 10 other filmmakers waiting to sell their movie to us." It's part of positioning yourself so you get more leverage as you get a little bit bigger. As long as you're sincere and you try to keep it real, people will be forgiving if every now and then you stray off that path. We've already gotten people calling us sell-outs for the soundtrack that was released, but what? We're not in this to wait tables.
ES: The more we can take off of Blair, the more we can use on the next film. And sooner or later, we're going to have enough say, hopefully, to say, "No, we're not going to market this that way. We're not going to sell the tea. Fuck it." But you have to work your way up to that. Hopefully, we can do that soon.
O: How long after the film's release do you think it will be before some dumb kids get lost in the woods with a video camera?
ES: I hope it's soon, man. I hope this spawns a whole bunch of shit like that. Not in reality, of course. I don't want people getting lost and never returning. But I hope this kind of format inspires other potential filmmakers to go out and make their own movies on their own tiny cameras. It's like a test to shoot something with this kind of equipment and no money. Hopefully, someone will come up with something we didn't think of when they utilize this format or something completely different.
DM: We were inspired by other filmmakers, and it would be an honor if a film came out in the next couple years and the filmmaker says, "Oh, yeah, Blair Witch inspired me to make this movie." It would be great.