In the summer of 1999, Artisan Entertainment's The Blair Witch Project became one of the biggest sensations in pop culture, as the horror movie was promoted under the guise of being actual footage recovered from the Maryland woods. The guerilla filmmaking efforts from directors Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick helped make it one of the most successful independent films in history, as well as inspire a passionate following. It would make sense, then, that a studio would tap the acclaimed documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger to helm a follow-up film, though his attempts to circumvent expectations and offer a critique on the entire concept of the release of the debut film failed to connect with critics or audiences at the time.
Enlisting a documentarian to deliver a horror film was an ambitious move, one which even Berlinger himself didn't entirely agree with. Previous films like Brother's Keeper and Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills tackled real-life murders, resulting legal proceedings, and lasting cultural impact of such events, giving him unique insight into grim subject matter, which the studio was likely hoping he would embrace for a found-footage continuation of the previous film.
Instead, the filmmaker made the bold choice to offer a meditation on the nature of violence in the media and fanaticism. Additionally, one of his goals with Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 was to shine a light on the dangerous decision by a movie studio to intentionally mislead viewers into thinking The Blair Witch Project was actually depicting three missing filmmakers. Despite the cast and crew doing interviews and appearing on talk shows, the studio promoted the film as genuine "found footage," which was aided by websites crafted to help sell that authenticity, a gimmick that excited some yet frustrated Berlinger. Billing a work of fiction as a piece of nonfiction went against many of his beliefs, setting a dangerous precedent of willingly erasing the line between reality and a farce.
The original story followed a group of Blair Witch Project fanatics as they travel to the Burkittsville, Maryland woods, experience bizarre occurrences, and realize they played a part in a horrible crime. The question, then, was whether these fans were influenced by an actual supernatural presence or if it was merely their devotion to the film that ignited a mania in them, driving them to violence.
In post-production, the studio decided they wanted a more traditional horror film, demanding arbitrary scenes of violence be inserted and that the final scene, which was meant to be a shocking narrative revelation, by interspersed throughout the film, thus robbing the film of much of its suspense.
Understandably, while audiences and critics were disappointed with the film, so was Berlinger, who hoped to have his name removed from the film, though he ultimately left his name on the picture, knowing the countless personal and professional ramifications of such a decision.
Much like the original Blair Witch Project conflated fiction as fact, Book of Shadows' fiction unintentionally became fact. In 2014, for example, two young girls stabbed their friend in hopes of warding off the figure "Slender Man," who was born on the internet in a photo editing contest as storytellers began passing off terrifying tales as reality. More recently, it only takes a brief glance at social media to see how many people buy into conspiracies surrounding politics, viruses, or even that the Earth is flat.
In honor of the film's recent 20th anniversary, ComicBook.com caught up with Berlinger to talk about the legacy of the film, its growing fandom, and witnessing the "death of truth" become a reality.
Header photo courtesy of Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival/Artisan Entertainment
ComicBook.com: Before we get too deep into conversation, the first thing I want to make sure you know is how many people love this movie wholeheartedly. In that regard, even though the initial reaction wasn't what you expected, have you experienced people growing fonder of it over the years, now that there's been more distance from the original Blair Witch Project?
Joe Berlinger: It's funny, it's a movie that I have tried to push out of my consciousness as being the totality of my work. It was just a painful experience and part of me is just ... it boggled my mind that it was 20 years ago. I started getting the calls in September and October from a couple of places, including you.
Just the fact that it was 20 years ago blows me away. Because I was so young in my career, so much amazing stuff has happened since. I don't think Book of Shadows was a very defining moment in my career, because I learned a lot of hard lessons. It was a painful experience. But I've done so much since then that I have forgotten about that movie. I pushed that out of my thinking about who I am and what I do. In part because the reception of the movie and the whole experience of the movie, having it be put in a meat grinder by the studio at the 12th hour was painful, to say the least.
I've done so much amazing stuff. When I say amazing, I don't mean the films themselves are amazing, although I think some of them are good. I've had so many amazing experiences since then. When I did Blair Witch 2, I basically had Brother's Keeper. I had pushed the movie out of my thinking about who I am as a filmmaker, just because it was a painful experience. Then I started getting the phone calls. Oh, "20th anniversary, 20th anniversary." I hadn't really thought about the movie in a really long time.
When I started thinking about the movie, I pulled out my old director's statement. When I pulled that out and started thinking about it, I thought to myself, "You know what? I can't believe how prescient Blair Witch 2 actually is and how appropriate it is to these times." And I started thinking about it.
Obviously, I could not have predicted the media landscape that we would be in. I could not have predicted QAnon and the death of truth and the times that we live in, where there seems to be no objective reality for a lot of people, to a degree I never could have imagined. But those were the concerns of mine back then and that's what I was making a movie about. I got reignited.
The movie is definitely flawed. There's internal inconsistencies to the film because the studio interfered and took what was supposed to be a satire with social commentary, and tried to, at the 12th hour, turn it into a traditional horror movie. But I do believe some elements of my original ideas remain. If you took out all those recreation shots of the gore that were forced in at the 12th hour, recreating the killings was not in my original intent. If you took that final ... well, it was supposed to have been a final scene, if you take all the interrogation scenes of Erica, Tristen, and Jeff, if you take all of those, which are now sliced and diced throughout the movie, if you took them and rejoined them as one eight-minute final reveal where they realize, "No, no, they were delusional and they actually did these crimes," and if we stripped out some of the bombastic music that they shoved in every scene against my will and toned it down a bit, I think 75% of my movie, 80% of my movie is still there. It just has tonal issues.prevnext
It is interesting since I actually wasn't aware that anyone cared about the movie.
Every time a new film comes out and I get a 70% on Rotten Tomatoes, 90%. Sometimes I'm lucky enough to get high scores, but that 14%, man, it's just painful. It's just, it didn't deserve that. I just assumed everyone hates the movie and it will never get its day in court. In part because it is now a flawed movie. I mean, there's things that the studio did to the movie that are unforgivable.
It's been reinvigorating to hear that there's actually fans of the film and that they see some of the ideas that I meant. Even if it's been bombarded with trappings that weren't approved by me, but the thing that's most interesting to me is the fact that, really, it's a very prescient film that, again, I could never have imagined the times would be what they would be today. It kind of, in its own way, predicted this death of truth. Really, it was the whole reason I wanted to make the film. It was very ironic that I was chosen to make the film because in 1999, when the original Blair Witch Project came out, the success of the movie really irked me. Not from a creative standpoint. Myrick and Sánchez and those guys deserve all the credit in the world for that little indie surprise that became a worldwide phenomenon. They deserve all the credit.
What irked me was the fact that it was marketed ... it's like QAnon 101, or 1.2 and 1.0, the very thing that has divided the country, potentially interfered with our elections in 2016. I don't know what your politics are, I don't want to step on anyone's toes, but you've got 70 million people out there who think Biden stole the election because of false information. Again, I never could have predicted it would get that bad. But, false marketing to people, it's "fake news" 1.0. At the time, the movie really irked me because all the media was celebrating the fact that people were tricked into thinking it was a real documentary. And people left the theater, even though Heather [Donahue], Josh [Leonard], and Mike [C. Williams] were on the cover of Time and Newsweek and on the David Letterman show, they still believed it was a real movie.
That just really bothered me. Because, up until that point, there had been this 10- or 20-year progression of blurring the line between entertainment and news. News divisions, in the old days of Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow, news was supposed to be objective and sacrosanct. It was never ratings-driven or entertainment-driven.
Over the years, with the proliferation of cable stations and all that's happened in the media landscape, I was observing a concerning blurring of the line between fiction and reality. And, as a purveyor of reality, as a documentarian, it concerned me that Artisan tricked people into seeing the movie and no one in the media thought that was a bad thing, that everyone celebrated the marketing hoax that propelled this movie into the stratosphere in terms of box office gross, and nobody sat back and said, "Faking people out and making them think it's real when it's not could have dangerous consequences."
That's why I did the movie the way I did it, because I wanted to make a commentary on that. Instead of doing a sequel to the actual movie, I wanted to do a sequel to that phenomenon of the success of the movie and people refusing to believe it wasn't true, despite tangible proof in front of their eyes that Heather, Josh, and Mike were on television as real people talking about the making of the movie. That was why I landed on that particular theme.prevnext
What I underestimated, back at the time, was anything called "Blair Witch 2" was going to be ripped to shreds because there was just such antipathy towards anything. This little $30,000 Sundance movie that people laughed when Artisan paid a million dollars for it, their competitors, all the other studios were giggling. Then this thing did $140 million or something like that. The idea that it would then be turned into a franchise, people were really resentful of that idea. And I figured, "Okay, I'm going to do something different and cool that has some meaning to it and riff on the whole idea of making a sequel, and make fun of the idea of making a sequel. Hopefully people will respect that."
I underestimated how much venom there would be towards anything called "Blair Witch 2." I also underestimated just how much the fans of that movie really just wanted the found-footage technique continued and they really just wanted the folklore and the characters, they just wanted that to continue. My mistake, and this is not a disrespect to the fans of Blair Witch 1, my mistake was trying to ... I'm a documentarian of intellectual documentaries. What were people expecting? My mistake was to inject into a horror franchise some intelligence and social commentary.
I pushed the movie out of my consciousness, but the 20th anniversary made me rethink it. I knew I was being interviewed, so I pulled out my director's statement. I was blown away about how this is what started off as news divisions now caring about ratings, turned into the Fox News, MSNBC, cable universe of people speaking in an echo chamber where there's no objectivity anymore. Which now has become QAnon, adherents of QAnon are being elected to Congress, and 70 million people don't accept the legitimacy of Biden's win.
We're living in perilous times where we've never had more connectivity and yet we've never been more divided. And we've never had more information available at our fingertips and yet the truth remains more elusive than ever. I'm old enough that, obviously, I remember before even computers and before ... I mean, Google, having Google on your iPhone is the most amazing thing you could imagine if you grew up before that. And yet, nobody knows what the f-cking truth is anymore, which is exactly what the movie was a satire about.
Here are these obsessed fans, go down to the real woods of Burkittsville because they refuse to accept that this was just a movie, that it must be true. They become so obsessed that they become delusional themselves and they actually do these real-life killings. That was the point of the movie, but, somehow, it got missed by some. But I guess you say some didn't miss it.prevnext
Oh, no, there are definitely people who, even with the issues mandated by the studio, can see the message you were trying to explore. You use the word "prescient," and that's how it feels. I was reminded of Paul Verhoeven films like RoboCop and Starship Troopers how, at the time, they were considered these big sci-fi ideas about authoritarianism or the military-industrial complex, and how those themes were missed by many audiences when they were initially released, only for those sci-fi themes to become a reality. When you were exploring these themes, were you doing so because you noticed the trend and thought it made for an interesting story or did you think you were crafting a cautionary tale?
I couldn't have predicted just how bad it would become, but I felt there was an ever-increasing level of blurring the line between fiction and reality that would inevitably lead to people not being able to distinguish what the truth is. That's why the characters in the movie lost all ability to reason and recognize the truth, which was actually that they were the killers. That was the idea, because I, as a documentarian, was very concerned that a movie could be marketed as a real documentary and people would be tricked into going to the theater.
I was concerned that, why isn't anybody critiquing it and saying, "Hey, this is a bad trend where people are being tricked into going to a movie." Because people can be tricked into voting for the wrong person for the wrong reasons. Again, I didn't know that example because, who knew social media would exist and Facebook? Obviously, I didn't know that. But I just knew that if people think it's okay to lie to people and the result is that people still, with their objective eyes, won't accept the truth, which is what's going on now on so many levels. These people left the movie theater and still, after watching Heather, Josh, and Mike on David Letterman or seeing them on the cover of Time and Newsweek, people still believed that it must be real.
I was concerned that, I mean, not everyone who walked out of the theater, many people knew it was a movie in general, I was concerned about lying to people to trick them to go see a movie. I think that can't be a good trend. I was even more concerned about that smaller percentage of people who walked out of the theater and still believed it was true despite again, as I say, reading about the marketing hoax.
Then the third thing that really bothered me is people's gullibility in accepting something as true because you shake the camera around. Why has the shorthand of reality, why did it become shaky-cam, purposely bad video? Why does that equal real? A documentary like Brother's Keeper or Paradise, those are beautifully crafted, beautifully shot films. Shaky-cam does not equal reality. The fact that people buy into that was also concerning for me, not in the same way as those other issues about the death of truth, but just aesthetically it bothered me as a maker of beautifully crafted, well-edited documentaries, which all documentarians aspire to do. Why is the shorthand for reality now shaky-cam?
That's why I said, "Look, I'm going to shoot. I'm going to play with this idea." And Jeff, the character Jeff Donovan, says it in the movie. "Video is real. Film isn't." That's why I was playing with that idea of aesthetics and why I chose to shoot the movie in 35 millimeter.prevnext
I knew there was such antipathy towards the Blair Witch sequel, I thought the worst thing and the laziest thing to do would be to just continue the found-footage conceit and do a shaky-cam doc. I wasn't interested in doing that because of my aesthetic principles. And I told Artisan I wasn't going to do that.
You may know the story if you've read these materials, I don't want to bore you. The fact that I even did the movie is a bit of a fluke. In the summer of '99, I remember deeply resenting Blair Witch 1. Again, not the filmmakers or the aesthetic or the creative intent of the movie, but I resented how the movie was marketed for all the reasons we talked about. I was bothered that, as a maker of beautifully crafted documentaries, why does shaking the camera equal reality? To me, that was a movie that came and went. It bothered me and I wasn't even thinking about it, but then I started pitching that fall, I did want to do my own narrative film.
I was at Artisan, there was a young executive there who loved Paradise Lost and so I pitched her on this idea of a movie I wanted to do. It's a true story about this attic lover that this woman had. It's a true-crime story where this woman in the '30s kept a lover in the attic of her home, unbeknownst to her husband, literally for a decade and a half and in two different homes. The attic lover moved with them to a new home, unbeknownst to the husband. Then, after a very long period, like a decade and a half, the husband who the wife was gaslighting a little bit because he would notice that he had one less cigar, he had less brandy than he thought he had in his little brandy container, and the wife could make him feel like he was nuts. Because, when he went off to work, the attic lover would come down and help himself. I still want to make this movie, by the way. Eventually, the husband finds out, kills the guy, and there's this sensational trial about it.
So I'm pitching this movie to this young exec at Artisan who loves Paradise Lost. She says, "Oh, come back." I had three or four pitches going up the ranks and I'm thinking, "Hey, I'm doing really well here." The first movie I was pitching, the first narrative film I was pitching, and I had several meetings and I'm moving up the ladder. Finally, I'm sitting with the three co-presidents of Artisan. Bill Block, Amir Malin, and John Hegeman.
I start my pitch thinking, "Oh, great. This is the final stage. They want to do my attic lover movie." Amir Malin holds up his hands, I'm three sentences into my pitch, and he holds up his hand. "No. We're not here about that. We're here because we think you'd be the perfect candidate to do Blair Witch 2." I was like, the subterfuge in getting to that moment and how much time I spent and invested in pitching my attic lover story to this company should have been a red flag that something is amiss. But I also was wanting to make a movie.
I was like, "What?" It threw me for a loop and then I heard them out. I think I even said at the time, "I may not be the right guy." I literally told them my concerns about the first movie and they said, "Well, look. Here are three different scripts we commissioned." This was right before Thanksgiving of 1999. "Here are three scripts. Go read them and tell me what you think."prevnext
So I flew home, I read the scripts, I hated each one of them. I called thinking I was just not going to get the job. I called them up after Thanksgiving, I said, "Look, I don't like any of these scripts. Not because the scripts themselves are bad, but I think continuing the found-footage conceit when the jig is already up, just doesn't make sense to me." This is where maybe I underestimated, as I said, what the fans wanted. But, to me, in my analysis of things, the marketing hoax and the found-footage hoax was one of the most talked-about things in the news just a few months ago. How can you continue that?
Obviously, I was wrong, because Paranormal Activity and lots of other projects have continued in that and people just seem to just accept that. I clearly was wrong. But, for me, doing found footage just didn't make sense, so I said, "I guess I'm passing because I don't like these scripts and I don't think you should do the found-footage technique." And they said, "Well, what would you do?"
I can't remember if this grew out of subsequent conversations or the initial conversation, but at some point in those conversations within that week, that's when I said, "Well, I would make fun of the phenomenon. I would do a sequel about real movie fans going back to the woods, insisting that the Blair Witch was real and they encounter real-life horror that they themselves are responsible for, but are deluded enough that, in their blindness to the truth, because the message has been drilled into them by the media that this was real, that they can't shake it loose."
Some skeletal version of the idea was pitched on the phone and they said, "Great. Fantastic." Of course, I'm thinking, because they wanted to start shooting in January and it's now the end of Thanksgiving, I'm assuming, of course, they're going to push the shoot date. "No. We love your idea but you've got to start." Shame on me for jumping into something like that.
The truth is, Brother's Keeper and Paradise Lost were huge leaps of faith. Brother's Keeper, we had no money, we maxed out a dozen credit cards. We shot it on 16 millimeter, which was expensive because we had a dream of wanting to show our movie in movie theaters, which was not common. In those days, before digital, if you wanted to show a movie in a movie theater, you had to shoot some film because you had to have some negatives printed to project in a movie theater. Digital didn't exist. Tape-to-film transfers, which happened a few years later ... Hoop Dreams, that was shot on tape, but they were able to be transferred to film. But when we shot Brother's Keeper, if you wanted a movie in a movie theater, you had to shoot it on film.
I'm used to taking these crazy gambits. We gambled everything on Brother's Keeper and had no reason to think it would turn out successfully. Paradise Lost was also an insane journey. I just thought, "Okay. They want it. It's December 1st, basically. We don't need to have a script and they want to start shooting in January." Plus I was a little naive, young in my career, and they were handing me an opportunity. I just figured it would work out because everything else I had done just, despite the odds, worked out. And, in fact, the irony is that it was hell.prevnext
I shouldn't even say it's hell. The making of the movie was an incredible experience. It was the post-production and release where it turned into a nightmare. Despite the difficulty of pitching a very loose concept December 1st and starting to shoot sometime in January, I can't remember exactly what the dates are, but I know it was a January shoot. And writing the script as we go, it was insane to even agree to do that.
But, strangely enough, as important as this movie was to Artisan, nobody was on set from the studio. What I didn't realize and later learned is, I don't know if you remember back then, there was a dot-com explosion in stocks and an IPO craze before the market crashed. In late 1999, early 2000, it was all the rage to take your company public and make a ton of money on what's called an "IPO," initial public offering.
Artisan was a private company that had one huge success, Blair Witch 1. And all the executives who hired me to make the movie, those three presidents of the company, all they were focused on while I was shooting my movie, they were counting the money they were going to make by taking their company public after Blair Witch 2 came out.
No one was [on set]. They were all working on the IPO. I was stunned that there was no real executive presence. There was one production guy, but no real executive presence on the set. I imagined that they're handing the keys ... I was pretty young back then. How old was I then? Youngish. Not like I was a kid, I was 38, I guess. Not a kid, but a first-time feature filmmaker they're giving the keys to their franchise to. I would have expected a phalanx of executives surrounding me at the monitor telling me what to do, and nobody was there. We all thought we were making a cool movie. I'm still really tight with some of the people involved with the movie. We thought we were having a great adventure and doing something really cool and different and taking a dopey horror idea and turning a franchise on its head.prevnext
I left that set thinking I had something really special in the can. All throughout the edit, I thought the film was cool. And, literally, it's like August and there was a lot of pressure because they announced [the October release date]. When they first told me we're not changing the release date they had announced already, they hadn't even hired the director. They didn't know what the show was, but they had announced October 27th is the release of Blair Witch 2. We were still shooting the movie, I think, when they announced the release date.
And, at the time, I think I was told it was the biggest international release to date that was released on 3,000 screens in six countries simultaneously on October 27th. I had this pressure like, "Okay, no matter what, it's October 27th. 3,000 screens." I left the set feeling we nailed it. We're editing. It's now August, we're under enough pressure with its October 27th release. We're in the final stages of post in August.
I'm literally doing the music score with Carter Burwell, sitting in his studio while he's composing and we're talking about stuff, when I get this call from this new marketing executive. Actually, I got the call from Amir Malin, who was the president of Artisan. Then that's when my nightmare began, because now, all of a sudden, they're paying attention to the movie. A new marketing executive named Amorette Jones came in, who somehow got the ear of everyone and said, "Gee, this is too intellectual. There's not enough scares. We need to see the blood. The gore. This is going to be disappointing to horror fans."
I'm like, "Yeah, you commissioned a satirical, very self-referential satirical film that is making a comment about the dangers of blurring the lines between fiction and reality that has a horrifying twist at the end. Yeah, it's not a traditional horror film. Did you read the script? That's what was greenlit."prevnext
That's when the nightmare began. Reshoots and shoving stuff in the movie that I can't believe is in there. I wince every time I see the shots of the knives going into the guts, that part of the movie is so bad. I have mixed feelings. The one thing they added that I found was like, "Eh, but it's fun," is that opening in the straight jacket. That's the one thing they added, that backstory. I was like, "Are we being too obvious here?" But it's cool.
That's the one thing that they added and I liked. But the recutting of that end sequence, where it was supposed to have been all one scene, the interrogation sequence, which destroys [the reveal]. It tells you who did it. It destroys the suspense in the movie. The bloody flashbacks of that night in the woods, to me, is just tonally inconsistent with the rest of the movie.
I wrote this pleading email to Amir Malin and I don't remember exactly what I said, so I'm paraphrasing, but I said, "The whole tradition of the original Blair Witch Project is that all the horror happens off-screen. In fact, it's very Hitchcockian to have all the horror happen off-screen. It's like, we are making this so obvious and dumbing it down." He wrote me back. "The fans of Blair Witch don't even know who Hitchcock is." I was shocked at the disregard he had for Blair Witch fans. They want traditional scares and they had no idea who Hitchcock is. I'm like, "Okay."
I debated taking my name off the movie. I spoke to my representatives about, should I just take my name off? I spoke to the DGA, should I take my name off? Everybody advised me, "Don't take your name off. Don't take your name off. If you take your name off of a studio movie, you'll never work again because you'll have that reputation."
The irony is the whole experience scared me off of doing scripted movies for so long. I didn't do another movie for 20 years. The experience of losing control of my film and watching it be turned into something that I was not proud of made me want to run back to documentaries. Where, on documentaries, I have final cut. I don't have to listen to anybody.
I'm happy to collaborate with people, it's not like I can't take a good idea. After that, those horrible reviews, nobody was breaking my door down to hire me, either. But, over time, after a couple of years, that was forgotten. I just rolled from one doc to the next and I didn't want to replicate that experience of losing control. Then, finally, the Bundy movie [Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile] came together and I had creative control of that film and I felt it was time to take another step out into the arena.prevnext
Director's Cut Possibility
With it being so obvious that the studio demanded those inserts of violence and that the interrogation scene was broken up and interspersed instead of all unfolding at the end, I'm surprised I haven't seen a fan take it upon themselves to just rework the movie into an unofficial director's cut. Has there been any desire or talk of trying to make any director's cut happen or is the project so far in your rearview that you just haven't even given it a second thought?
Well, I can't do it. I don't own the footage or the negative. I have asked Lionsgate. I have asked them several times would they consider doing ... in fact, I forget, the last time there was an anniversary was the 10-year anniversary. The issue came up again. I asked them would they consider doing a director's cut, because it took about 10 years for people ... for the most part, I've put the thing out of my mind. But around the 10-year anniversary, that's when I first became aware that there are some fans of the movie. Every now and then, I get an email like, "Gee, we'd love to do a director's cut or whatever." Or something. I run into somebody or whatever.
I've tried several times to ask Lionsgate would they ever put out a director's cut. They're just not interested. It's certainly not something I can do. It's complicated because part of it is that the movie is overloaded with music tracks. It's like one track after the other and a lot of it is pretty aggressive music, which I'm a fan of. After all, I made the Metallica movie.
But the sole purpose of shoving so much music in that film was that they wanted to monetize a CD. The studio, which exploded, all they thought about was how to monetize. I think that's part of what people were reacting to. Remember, this was the heyday of the DVD and the CD. Blair Witch 2, I think was the first movie, if I remember correctly, was the first movie to have this dual disk, where you had the movie on one side and the soundtrack on the other as a CD.
The shoving music in the film without any concern for what is artistically the best, it just was an exercise to create a CD. Like, one aggressive track after the other. To do a director's cut is more than just rearranging the scenes. There was a whole other intent musically, for example, that wouldn't necessarily have been cleared legally, but we never even took the time to see if we could do that.
But my director's cut of the movie before the nightmare began, there's an opening aerial shot that was reminiscent of the opening aerial of Paradise Lost. My opening was set to the track of Frank Sinatra's classic song "Witchcraft" and had no gory cutaways interspersed, because all those reshoots were ordered in later.
Now, the opening title is I believe ... I actually haven't watched the movie since it came out, that's how painful it was. But I believe the opening track is Marilyn Manson's "Disposable Teens," which is not a bad track. I like Marilyn Manson and whatever, that's not even a bad choice. That song also works. I'm not even saying that's a bad choice.
But it's just illustrative of how different my director's cut would have been musically, as well. That's hard to replicate. So, sure, somebody could take the existing movie, remove the insane asylum pre-open, remove all those gory shots of recreation, take all of the interrogation scenes that are interspersed throughout the film and rejoin them together as one, eight- or nine-minute tableau and end the movie with that eight-minute reveal and approximate what the director's cut would be.
Of course, I wouldn't remember, I'm sure in getting to the final version and having all the gory scenes, I'm sure other scenes were lost that I would have wanted, but if you wanted to get a sense of what the movie is ... but the larger thing is audio. I had a very different sense of music for that film. I think I've justified my musical tastes over the years.prevnext
It's not something I could do or I'm even interested in. Again, to me, this is just an outlier in my career that I pushed off because of the pain. But I learned a lot of great lessons. I don't regret making this. I don't regret any experience in my life. I can't believe I spent, how many years now? Almost 30 years making films for a living and raising a family by making films. How lucky am I?
I don't regret any of my experiences. To complain about the life I've had would be ridiculous. I'm so lucky to have had this experience. The darkness that followed Blair Witch produced some good things. The biggest lesson I learned is you can't allow critics ... film criticism today, man, has just gone down such a rabbit hole. To think that a film is reduced to a number on Rotten Tomatoes, that is just ... Pauline Kael and Vincent Canby and all the great reviewers would be turning over in their graves to have such a reductive way to evaluate a movie.
People make real-life decisions based on that number, which is absurd. Because I generally find the numbers ... the films that are in the middle, if the reviews are all middling reviews and they all are mediocre in giving the film like a 50, sure, maybe that's not a great film to watch. But there are films with 50s and 60s that have fantastic reviews and horrible reviews, because some people get it and some people don't.
Those are the films that I actually gravitate towards, is the films with the mixed opinion. Yet, we reduce everything to one f-cking number. It's an insult to the maker of films, I think, and how hard it is to make a film. I think every film is a little miracle and people should be a little kinder. The people who are sitting in their rooms and watch the film for an hour and then with the flick of a pen destroy somebody's ego or life or movie, there's something wrong with that system. But that culture extends to everything now. We're in the cancel culture, hating culture, divisive culture, but film criticism has fallen into that as well.prevnext
My first two outings, Brother's Keeper and Paradise Lost were revered and got amazing reviews. Of course, you're young and you believe in your reviews. When you get horrible reviews, of course, if you believed your reviews on the way up, you got to believe your reviews on the way down. What I mean by believe is, do you validate your artistic identity by what other people are saying?
Of course, everyone cares about reviews, I still care about reviews, but purely from a business standpoint. Because if I get sh-tty reviews, the film may not do well. Or if you continually get sh-tty reviews, you may have trouble making another movie. But I don't allow reviewers or reviews to validate who I am artistically. That was a hard lesson and it came directly out of Blair Witch 2. Because Brother's Keeper and Paradise Lost were truly revered, they were film festival darlings. They won every prize you could win. Just about every prize, not every prize. They were lauded films. Great reviews, year-end awards, film festival invitations at the time when documentaries weren't as popular as they are now.
Then Blair Witch 2 comes out and the reviews were not only bad, they were personally harsh, attacking me. I just was not expecting the venom and the vitriol. As flawed as the movie is, I think it deserves a 60 on Rotten Tomatoes, not a 14, as much as I hate that system. I can't even say that my director's cut, if it had come out at the time, would have fared any differently, because I really do believe, in hindsight, there was a venom about anything called "Blair Witch 2."
I can't say that my director's cut would have fared any better, but at least it would have been my movie that represented my artistic vision. And it just felt really rough to have a movie out there that you know things were done to it that you didn't like and to get these horrible reviews. Again, the reviews weren't just bad reviews, they were just really mean towards me, towards the movie, towards these actors who I thought did a great job, who are still my friends. The response to the movie was just really f-cking mean, beyond what's normal. That was very painful.prevnext
It caused me to curl up in a ball. I was depressed and de-motivated for months, at a time when I had young children at home and a production company. My wife is like, "Get back to work." Rightfully so. Then one day she handed me a copy of Paradise Lost and she said, "Here. Play this movie and remind yourself why you're a good filmmaker and snap out of it."
I popped on Paradise Lost and the opening title sequences to the Metallica track "Sanitarium," I'm like, "Yes. You're right. I am a good filmmaker. Yes, I've got to pick myself up and get back to work." I actually called Lars Ulrich, the drummer of Metallica who, before Blair Witch and because they had contributed music to Paradise Lost and that was a great experience for them, he had said to me, "Hey, at some point, why don't you make a film about us?"
I picked myself up and I said, "Hey, Lars. I flamed out on Blair Witch 2. You got any work for me?" And he said, "Well, we're going back into the studio. We could use some B-roll of us shooting." I flew out to San Francisco for Metallica, Some Kind of Monster. Obviously, it wasn't called that then, thinking it's just some assignment to get me back on my feet where I was going to shoot a little B-roll of the band going into the recording studio so that they'd have some promotional material.
Because, part of my career back then, when you're a documentarian, you also do that kind of promotional work and commercial work, that's how you made a living, because documentaries weren't what they are today. I went out to San Francisco, I landed, I called Lars. He says, "Oh man, I forgot you were coming. We're in deep sh-t. Jason [Newsted] quit the band. The bass has quit the band. We hired this therapist." I pushed my way, I convinced them. I don't know why I didn't think this was going to be this amazing film that it turned out to be.
I said, "Well, I'm here," I didn't even have a crew, I was just going to shoot. I had a sound man and me with the camera on that first shoot. I pushed my way into that first therapy room and I remember sitting there thinking and listening to Lars and James [Hetfield] starting to reveal their issues. I thought to myself, "I don't know why the universe has put me here. I don't know where this is going to go or whether or not this is even a film, but here are these guys having this creative and existential crisises and it's exactly what I'm going through and I need to hear this sh-t"
I was just grateful to be sitting there with the excuse that I had a camera in my hand. Then that film turned out to be one of my great adventures. I loved the making of that film and it came at exactly the right time. It's one of the reasons I ended up staying in documentaries because that rolled into something else, into something else, into something else and I was just enjoying myself.
But out of the ashes of belly-flopping on Blair Witch 2, I got a very important lesson about not letting critics validate your sense of self as an artist. I ended up making this incredible film that has paid so many dividends in so many ways that we could talk an hour about that, but I won't bore you about Metallica.prevnext
To bring things full circle and close where I started, where I'm just trying to make sure you knew how many people really got the film, even though you have issues with it. When you look back on it, what do you feel you're most proud to have accomplished? Whether it be you're really happy with the filmmaking tools you used or the message that you were telling, what's the thing that sticks out?
If you would have asked me two or three or four years ago, I think what I'm most proud of is what was most reviled, which was, instead of selling out and doing some dopey obvious sequel, where I continued the found-footage conceit because that's where they handed me. Remembering that November meeting, they handed me three different scripts they commissioned, each a different take on continuing the story of where it left off and I thought that was a mistake and having the courage to tell them, "No, I don't want to do that. So don't hire me, but if you want to do something, do this." And coming up with an idea that, I hate to say it, it sounds obnoxious, but I think it was a little ahead of its time.
Saying, "To hell with the found footage, let's shoot it on 35. To hell with continuing the story, let's make fun of the whole idea of doing a sequel and build that into the story. I'm doing a sequel to the phenomenon, the real-world phenomenon," instead of pandering to the obvious choices. I think I'm most proud that I had a vision for doing something unexpected. Unfortunately, the fans at the time and the press at the time didn't appreciate it.
Then the other thing I'm most proud of, which is where I was going before, which I wouldn't have said until fairly recently and it was prompted by half a dozen outlets reaching out, wanting to talk about the 20th anniversary, which literally caught me by surprise. I was like, "What?"
I'm highly aware what the 20th and 25th anniversaries will be, or were and will be for Paradise Lost, for Metallica. Films that I think about, "Gee, should we do something 10 years after Brother's Keeper. 20 years after Brother Keeper." For this film, it just crept up and it caught me by surprise when people started to reach out.
I decided I had to refresh my memory. I pulled out those director notes and read some of the reviews. Not reviews, some of the articles and my interviews from the time. I did a little search. I spent an hour or two just refreshing my memory. What is it that I thought about the film at the time? To me, it's mind-boggling just, again, not to overuse the word or keep repeating it, but just how prescient the dangers of blurring the line between fiction and reality have become.
I, as a documentarian who is dedicated to the truth and social justice as a primary concern, feel, instead of having done some dopey horror franchise for the sake of a dopey horror franchise, I tried to inject some real-world social commentary that has borne out to be true. And not that Blair Witch 2, if people understood it would have changed anything or whatever, it's just a f-cking movie after all. I think I had some good ideas baked in there that have sadly come to pass.0comments