At this point in time, the original BLAIR WITCH film has been entered into cinema hall-of-fame both for its trailblazing use of found footage and its inventive ‘this is real’ marketing campaign. I remember the Blair Witch website being the first ever movie website I went to for more information. Part of what made the film so good was how little was explained between the credits – it left it up to the audience to do the work and decide what had really happened. A few years later they tried to release a sequel, doing away with the found footage device and building up a ‘book’ of mythology. The film was a colossal failure. I will say, in its defese, the original music from POE has held up quite well (God, she is amazing, when will she ever make an album again).
But I digress. A few months ago we learned that a film in Post-Production call the The Woods, was actually a new Blair Witch film, and at the head of that film were two men who have made a name for them of delivering the unexpected, writer Simon Barret and director Adam Wingard. The film, released nationwide last night, delivers the sequel we all wanted to the original film, in the same style and with just a bit more explanation (but not too much!). Following the brother of the original ‘documentary’ filmmaker lost in the woods, BLAIR WITCH finds a group of filmmakers (four this time) who head into the Black Hills Forest in Maryland searching for traces of Heather after a video surfaces on YouTube that shows she may still be alive. Needing a guide to find the house from Heather’s original videos, her brother James and the rest of the team enlist the two locals who uploaded the new video. In addition to more ‘fodder’ for the Blair Witch, the new film also updates the technology, with GPS, night vision, and drone cameras. They are sure to survive, right?
I had a chance to sit down with Simon Barret and Adam Wingard the day after the premiere and discuss their fandom of the original film, and following in the franchise footsteps with their original.
BEARS: What do you remember about the first time you saw the first Blair Witch movie?
Simon Barret: You know, I saw the first Blair Witch movie as soon as I could in theaters. I was in film school at the time and living in Boston. Because my girlfriend lived in Boston. You’re at that age where that’s the reason for every decision you make. She couldn’t go to see it Friday night so I ended up seeing it at noon on a Saturday. Even though I came out of the film into a brightly lit city, it still had an effect on me. I was still thinking about it weeks, months, years later even, just as a fan. And fortunately all that turned out to be productive when we got hired to make this film.
Adam Wingard: I was in high school. I saw it on VHS. I’m from Alabama and I lived in this town called Marion. The nearest theater at the time was Tuskaloosa, which was about forty-five minutes to an hour away. I ended up missing it in its theater run, but I immediately bought it on VHS because I was very excited. I had been following all the press on it, all the way back to Sundance. Whenever I finally saw it, I was super inspired, and went online and read all of the website materials I could, and the message boards to compare people’s theories about what was going on, especially the end of the movie. I immediately went out and filmed my own little Blair Witch movie, which I think a lot of people did at that time. I still have it. My parents actually conjured it up. I never fully edited it together, so it’s all unedited –
BEARS: That could be a special edition!
Wingard: I don’t know— it was pretty embarrassing!
Barret: It could be an amazing blue-ray extra.
Wingard: It doesn’t retain the best elements of the Blair Witch Project. Let’s just put it that way.
Barret: I find that impossible to believe.
Wingard: But I do act in it.
Barret: We might need to make a quick call to Lion’s Gate. See if we can get the rights.
BEARS: So how did this project come to you… luckily both huge fans of the original? Did they come to you?
Barret: They did. We never made a studio film before and certainly we never made a sequel to a pre-existing film before. All our other films have been independent and based on original concepts. And Lion’s Gate – who were releasing our film YOU’RE NEXT – invited us for some super-secret meeting that they wouldn’t even tell us anything about what it was. They had seen the way we work together on YOU’RE NEXT and they were fans of the VHS films that we’ve worked on. They asked if we were interested and obviously, we were very excited because that, creatively, is where we were at then. Our previous films have been more tonally shifting and also shifting genres in many ways, which is fun and I think we’ll make films like that in the future. But we wanted to do something that was more straight-up scary. And they handed us basically the perfect opportunity to do so.
BEARS: What excited you about Blair Witch, specifically? Other than just the history of it, having seen it? But what about the project was like, ‘oh, I can add something to this?’
Wingard: I remember whenever the original sequel, BOOK OF SHADOWS, came out. Having been a fan of the original film so much that I was sorely disappointed in the direction they took, specifically because they didn’t make it a found-footage movie. In my head, I always wanted to see that found footage follow-up to BLAIR WITCH. It’s kind of funny after all these years, and after all the found -footage franchises, and movies that have come after it, it was always baffling to me that nobody had made another one of these as it was. But I think that sequel sank it so hard, that everyone was afraid to touch it. It now seems like an obvious, cool choice to do, but whenever we signed on this thing, no one was talking about BLAIR WITCH anymore. It was one of those things where like it was a fond memory that was just starting to creep back to a lot of website literature, where people were revisiting it, and saying, ‘hey, this film actually holds up and it’s a classic.’ But beyond that, it wasn’t a no-brainer. To me, in a lot of ways, doing this film was a chance to set this thing back on the right track. We’re basically making the film we wanted to see back in 2001. That’s the truth of it.
BEARS: What sort of leeway did they give you for adding to the mythology?
Barret: We were given totally free reign basically. You’re talking about the original film makers or Lion’s Gate here?
BEARS: I saw Eduardo [Sanchez] is on as a producer, so I assume he had some sort of involvement.
Barret: Either one, we were given freedom— both by the studio and the original filmmakers. The original filmmakers— we were friends with Eduardo and Greg [Hale] from doing VHS 2 with them. And Dan Myrick is just a great guy and very generous. They gave us their total blessing. They knew that in creating a modern version of the sequel, you had to remind people what the BLAIR WITCH was, but we were also going to need to change a bunch of things. We couldn’t just do what the original film did, because it already exists. So I was given total creative freedom to expand and extrapolate on the mythology in any way that I really chose. But I think, within that, coming at it from a very respectful place – like Adam said, we wanted to make the sequel, the direct sequel, to the original film within its mythology, something that had never happened. That’s what they wanted too. They did give me notes on the script. Greg Hale in particular gave me a couple of notes on one of my drafts that I did, where he was like, you know, we were thinking more of this with the mythology. And I was like, you know, I will add some lines of dialogue to explain that. And things like that, but really, once they saw the direction we were going in . . .
Wingard: We already were so respectful of the mythology in general, there really wasn’t any need to intercede. Everything is based on the preexisting material they created from the first film. Like Simon said, all the website’s stuff, all the Dossier— those are all resources we treated almost like a bible. The Dossier in general is one of those things that was created for the first film and I remember buying it when it came out and really loving it. It’s one of those things that’s a perfect guide for you to write the script.
Barret: Exactly. Actually, I had to rebuy it when I got hired to do this project and I obviously I couldn’t be seen in public carrying it.
BEARS: Because they’d be like, ‘why are you reading that?’
Barret: Not that they’d see me walking in the street, and think, ‘oh my god, that’s Simon Barrett, writer of A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE.’ But still . . . I was reading it at the gym one day on the elliptical machine because I would just read it all the time, and I was like, ‘oh jeez, what if someone sees me reading this thing?’ I did one of those— you know, in high school, when they told you to create covers for your books to protect them— I created a cover out of a paper bag. So I’d carry around this paper back all the time covered in a paper bag, so people probably thought I was reading—
Barret: Or Hentai. Or the Gentlemen’s Guide to Hentai. They thought I was reading this bizarre covered-up book all the time. And actually, I still have that cover on it, because it held up really well.
Barret: Anarchy symbols . . . No, no, it’s just a plain, brown, paper bag cover. It actually makes it look kinda creepier. So it really was this weird cliff notes to ‘here’s the mythology of the original film’ if for whatever reason, thirteen years later, you’re writing a sequel.
BEARS: Adam, tell me about working in the found-footage format. You hadn’t really done much of that before, right?
Wingard: Only in a short film capacity. Because the VHS films, working on one and two. Basically I had made essentially just two fifteen-minute short films. Which is a very different beast than making a whole feature film out of it. But what the VHS experience did give me is sort of an induction, a kind of process of all the different facets and ways you can approach found-footage. The way it can be edited, shot, and acted, those things. It was a good introduction to it, but ultimately nothing can really prepare for doing a big, feature film version, especially the way we ended up approaching this film. Where there’s lots of different camera formats, everything is a different style. It’s mixing Blue-Tooth cameras with High 8, with DSL Large, with drone cameras— and everything in between. It was pretty insane trying to keep up with all that. You’re constantly second guessing yourself. Things you take for granted in other films, you’re constantly asking yourself questions. Like, ‘are our eye-lines correct?,’ ‘will this make sense when you’re watching the final version?’
BEARS: Right. It’s more complicated with ten different cameras.
Wingard: It really is. You’re constantly tweaking those things. The first two weeks was one of the most horrifying periods of making a film I’ve ever had. It really felt like we were making our first movie all over again. I just didn’t have anything I could draw from, aside from those little experiences I had in VHS. What we ended up having to do is having to constantly assess where you’re at, assess what’s working, and throw away what’s not. And then try to pick up scenes as much as possible. You can’t just shoot a movie and then just hope that it’ll edit together. You have to constantly be honest with yourself if something is or isn’t working. Is the style of acting working within the found-footage format that we’re doing? Like I said, the eye lines – the cinematography – are all these things adding to it and does it feel legitimate? You just have to constantly update that as you go, and hope you’re addressing as many of the questions you have as possible, while you’re still shooting it. Which can be very difficult.
BLAIR WITCH is playing theatrically across the nation right now.