In 1999, The Blair Witch Project captured the attention of horror fans by storm, what with the conceit that it wasn't a movie but rather "found footage," aided by a complex marketing campaign that avoided addressing rumors that it was all a scam. The film was received well by critics and by audiences, quickly becoming one of the most profitable movies of all time. A series of websites and forums popped up to allege that the events were real, pulling off a hoax unlike anything the world of film had seen since Ruggero Deodato was charged with murder for the actors in his found footage film Cannibal Holocaust.
Following the success of the film, a sequel quickly went into production to explore the mythology hinted at in the first film, but without the original filmmakers being involved and the found footage filmmaking style being dropped, fans weren't pleased and effectively killed the franchise.
Well, killed the franchise until a film called "The Woods" from director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett screened at San Diego Comic-Con and audiences learned it was actually a sequel to the original Blair Witch Project. Despite early positive buzz around the film at advanced screenings and film festival audiences, something didn't resonate with the masses and the film opened to disappointing box office numbers and their newly retitled Blair Witch sits at 36% on Rotten Tomatoes.
With Blair Witch now available on Blu-ray and DVD, I spoke to Wingard and Barrett at length about their connection to the original film, their decision to pursue a studio film after their festival successes You're Next and The Guest, and the challenges they knew they were accepting when deciding to make the sequel in the first place.
PopCultureNow: What is your history with The Blair Witch Project? What was your reaction to the film when it came out?
Simon Barrett: Essentially, we were both huge fans from the first moment we saw it. I was actually living in Massachusetts at the time and I saw it at Waltham Art House. I was immediately obsessed with it. I was actually obsessed with it, like a lot of people, before I even saw it, just because the hype and the “is it real or not” marketing. I knew it wasn't real, because not only was I already making films at that point and so I just figured it wasn't real, but people told me that this was a Sundance thing and so they were marketing it as if it were a real documentary.
The mythology for the film that existed online at that time was designed to draw in, I would say, somewhat conspiracy-minded people, like myself, who like the thrill of uncovering the story. I don't know if that's just because my mind is drawn towards fictional narratives because the reality of my existence is so excruciating.
Adam Wingard: If you go online, even now, you can still find some of the articles. Not even articles, more like message boards, where people analyze when [Blair Witch Project star] Heather Donahue was on the Late Show and stuff. They think that Heather Donahue and [BWP star] Josh Leonard and all those guys that you see now are crisis actors. Basically, pretending to be the real filmmakers to cover up the fact that they actually did die. It's like a double cover-up.
The first time it was presented as “this really happened,” then the second phase of it was, "Oh, but actually that was just a marketing ploy, they're all alive" and the third phase, the cover-up, is the fact that the marketing ploy is saying that they're all alive, but it's actually a lie and that it really did happen.
Simon: I love the idea that Heather Donahue is the original celebrity crisis actor. Like Adam said, people are still, to this day, hotly debating the original film's meaning and mythology and whether it's real or not. That was what excited us about the film, back when we first saw it, and what excited us about doing a follow up to it.
Adam: I was in high school when it came out, so it was in that period where I was already making all these backyard kung fu movies and things like that. It was a very inspirational film from that perspective because it felt achievable, even with the limited means that I had at that time. It just showed that a good story and compelling plot and characters in situations, atmosphere, can push a movie beyond its budgetary limits.
The whole marketing thing really worked because it didn't feel like a standard marketing thing. It felt like something you could interact with but not in this put upon way. It didn't felt like the whole thing was conceived in a board room, it felt like a full, organic extension of the movie itself. All those things were fascinating and, like I said, the other aspect of it is that it was an inspirational movie from a filmmaking standpoint.
PCN: On the one hand it inspired, like you, a generation of filmmakers that realized, "Hey, we can make a movie without much or any budget." Then, on the other hand, it also inspired tons of hacks, who thought they didn't need a budget to make a movie.
Simon: Well, I would actually say that's not precisely true, because if you really look at the glut of generic and bad found footage movies, it didn't happen right after Blair Witch Project. Right after Blair Witch, we got things like The Bare Wench Project and weird Blair Witch parodies.
PCN: Bare Wench had a very high production value, so I don't think it's fair to say that.
Simon: If you want to talk production value, see how far you can get into the trailer of Da Hip Hop Witch staring Eminem.
PCN: Oh dear God.
Simon: It inspired a bunch of knockoffs because it was such a cultural phenomenon and it inspired a lot of direct parodies, but nobody really tried to imitate the found footage model, until after several years went by and then movies like [REC] and Paranormal Activity and Cloverfield and films like that were the ones that really kicked it off. I think studios weren't necessarily sure if it would work again.
Even beyond that, I don't know that it instantly felt imitable, because it was such an improvisational experiment, the results that they got with that cast and that style of filmmaking. Ultimately, it inspired a bunch of terrible movies, but I would actually say that there's a weird gap that I also find fascinating between the meteoric success of Blair Witch Project, which is still to this day, the most profitable film of all time, I believe. I think it's in the Guinness Book of Records for that. The fact that no one really tried to do that again for seven years, because they were all just like, "Well I don't know what to do with that." Kind of like a James Cameron movie, in that respect.
PCN: I guess the only found footage movie to come out around that same time was The Last Broadcast.
Simon: It came out in '98, but Blair Witch Project, shot in '97, so the chronology of that is super close. I really have no idea if this is true or not, but I think I read that the last broadcast filmmaker was like, "Hey, godd*mmit it," when Blair Witch came out.
Adam: He f**ked himself over, because he didn't stay true to the found footage rule through his whole movie. That whole ending, it steps out of it and it ruins the whole experience when it turns it to a normally edited movie at the end.
Simon: No, it's true, the movie becomes a traditional fiction film at it's end, with it's big twist reveal. You don't have the suspension and disbelief.
Adam: He, like us, blew it. In different ways.
PCN: The shortcomings of imitators just show the strength of The Blair Witch Project.
Simon: They didn't really expect anything to happen with The Blair Witch Project either. The footage that we know is The Blair Witch Project was going to be maybe 15-20 minutes of a larger, more traditional fake documentary, a more mockumentary style project. It was only when they cut together a basic feature length version and started showing it to people that they realized they actually had a feature film, right there.
They talked a lot and it was something that Adam and I discussed a lot, especially from having done the V/H/S movies. If you mention [to BWP filmmakers] the fact that their movie made hundreds and hundreds of people motion sick, they're very quick to point out that they didn't shoot it anticipating it would be on thousands of huge screens.
If they'd known it was going to be on thousands of huge screens all over the world, they would have shot it slightly differently. I always find that really enjoyable.
Adam: If they'd known that too, it would've ruined the movie.
It's like a weird catch 22 where if they'd known they were going to play movies in theaters, they would have done it differently, but it wouldn't have played in theaters if they'd done it differently.
Adam: That's a challenge we ended up wrestling with because we knew the exact trajectory of the film from the get-go, in terms of when it's release was hopefully gonna be through Lion's Gate. Having the ability to look, in retrospect, at all the found footage movies and the way that people perceive them now. In a lot of ways, I think we tried to be a little bit, in some place, maybe a little bit too logical in terms of the approach to it, because we were like, "Well, people hate motion sickness and, for me as a director, I was trying to find a good middle ground where the movie retained enough of a realistic found footage edge while marrying that with a more cinematic feel, but in an original way.
I think ultimately it does work, but I think some people are gonna be disappointed, whenever you go in there and you think that, "Oh, a Blair Witch sequel, it's gonna do the exact same thing that the first one did" and you know ...
Simon: We didn't want to make people motion sick and ultimately we came up with a solution. It was really an epiphany. I remember the meeting and I said, "You know what? No one gets motion sick in an empty theater." That was when we came up with our new strategy. We'd just infuriate everyone with our film, then they'd have other things to complain about.
Adam: Me and Simon, in all seriousness, we had a lot of experience doing found footage stuff through the first two V/H/S films that we worked on. Through those films, you see so many different ways that found footage can be utilized, from extremely sloppy to much more controlled, completely different perspectives and stuff. We were able to see how audiences reacted to that and essentially what we came up with, when we were approaching Blair Witch was let's use the elements that we felt worked the best and were the most effective and most modern and try to use that to tell a really efficient, fun, exciting, haunted house kind of thing.
Simon: The V/H/S movies were perfect for that because, in some ways, we had the same experience with the V/H/S. When Adam and I first started shooting the wrap around, well, I should say Adam was shooting and I was wandering behind him angrily shaking script pages. When we were doing that in Columbia, MO, it was the first thing to film on V/H/S and we just assumed it was probably going to be released online.
Then, sure enough, it plays in theaters and people get sick and pass out. Even V/H/S/2, we tried to return to more stable shots that the audience could rest their eyes a bit. It was great training in that respect.
PCN: When I went to see Blair Witch, my girlfriend and I snuck into like the fake IMAX theater. The massive RPX Regal theater, in which there were maybe 10 people on opening night, and she got motion sick.
Simon: Hell yeah. Congratulations.
Adam: Did you say you snuck in?
PCN: They sold us the wrong tickets for the wrong time on a smaller screen so we corrected their mistake.
Adam: That's your problem right there, if you don't pay full ticket price, the movie makes you nauseous.
PCN: Aw, man, very creative loophole.
Simon: If you pay full price for Blair Witch tickets then you'll actually have a much smoother viewing experience.
PCN: So you guys loved Blair Witch Project, it connected with both of you, and you're developing your voice as filmmakers with the V/H/S films and You're Next and The Guest. You guys are really building a unique, original voice in genre film. After The Guest, why did you make a sequel to such a seminal horror film?
Simon: The funny thing is, we were supposed to do Blair Witch before we did The Guest.
Adam: Technically, we accepted Blair Witch before we shot The Guest. We were in a situation where we were just coming off of You're Next, so the idea of doing a Blair Witch sequel seemed like a really exciting challenge.
Plus, coming off the V/H/S films, for me, having only done some found footage shorts, I felt like I really needed to try my hand at doing a full feature found footage. What better way to do it with this as the starting point for it?
Ultimately, if you look at You're Next and The Guest, a lot of our stuff has been these meta deconstructions of genre films, and that plays really well to a certain audience, but it's not a super broad audience. You have to be in the know to really totally enjoy those films and, while anybody can really enjoy something like The Guest, not everybody is going to find a movie like The Guest. You have to be looking for it to know what it is and if you even want to see it.
Sometimes people stumble across it, like anything else, but it's not like we came out with The Guest and it was this massive hit for us. It was a huge creative hit for us and made people take us seriously as filmmakers, but it wasn't one of those things where you know, "This is going to get your next movie made."
Going into something like Blair Witch, it was also a perfect storm for us creatively where we said, "Let's try and do something that's more straightforward. Let's just see if we can make a scary movie and not try to show people that we've seen every horror movie ever made." Unfortunately, people didn't want to see that either.
Simon: That's really it. That's the funny thing about it. After You're Next and The Guest, Adam and I were talking about it and we wanted to do something genuinely frightening. That was the next creative challenge.
I discovered I'm not the most talented guy with coming up with traditional scary film ideas. It's very hard for me to play that straight. I was in the midst of struggling with that, trying to come up with a new way to tell a haunted house story or something that would really frighten people the same way that The Conjuring did.
We thought that was the next step to us not being creatively lazy, was not following the same pattern. It was right then that we got offered Blair Witch and it was like, "Oh this is perfect, this is such a cool mythology and it gives us a chance to be really creative and original and do our own thing, because no one really knows what a Blair Witch sequel is," but at the same time, I don't have to start from scratch and come up with a totally new horror concept. Frankly, I wasn't having the easiest time with that.
PCN: Especially after the creative success and the response in the horror community to You're Next, which is super witty, super fun, and meta, that the amount of pressure that you'd feel like, "We've got to come up something that connects with horror fans as much as this."
Adam: Part of our problem was just being a little bit too logical about that, but you know you can only second guess yourself in hindsight. It's one of those things where we could've never predicted that there would be a backlash the way there was against making a film like Blair Witch.
It's one of those things where it felt like the first film was regarded as this classic thing. Nobody's really talking about Blair Witch all the time or anything like that. It wasn't one of those things where it felt like it was untouchable, if anything, it felt like somebody just needed to make a sequel to make up for how bad Book of Shadows was.
I think to a certain degree, maybe we didn't set our goals high enough because our goals were just making an entertaining movie. Instead, so many people feel so swindled by Hollywood and it's lack of originality that we just ended up getting lumped into this remake machine. For one, we've never even considered our film a remake or reboot really.
It's one of these weird things where, I think if the movie had maybe even come out a year or two before, it would've been a different scenario, but it came out right at this time where everybody was just completely fed up with where everything was.
Simon: I think one of the creative impulses that unites Adam and myself is that we just never want to repeat ourselves. For example, coming off of You're Next, it didn't feel like You're Next was this seminal hit. If there's one thing we can thank Blair Witch, for it's that every review goes to great pains to point out how much they loved The Guest and are so disappointed that two original filmmakers would not continue that trajectory. We didn't feel like we were getting great reviews at the time our movies were coming out.
Adam: At the same stretch, it would've been so easy for Simon and I to go out and make another super meta horror film. It would've played well at festivals and done a small theatrical run. That would've been the easiest thing in the world to do. The hardest thing that we could do was making a f**king found footage movie that was very straight forward. That's not how we felt. It's not like doing this film was an easy cash in or something for us.
This was the most challenging film we've ever made, for a lot of reasons. It's just disappointing that you get this kind of backlash against you where you're accused of being creatively bankrupt and blah, blah, blah. We made this movie to be an exciting theatrical experience, and I think it really is. I think that eventually, time will tell how people really assess this situation, because I think it's hard to really completely assess the film because of the environment that it exists in right now.
Simon: It's weird to read reviews where people make it sound like we did a Blair Witch movie to just completely sell out. First of all, after You're Next, Adam and I got offered literally dozens of remakes and sequels and we turned them all down because they just weren't creatively exciting to us and that's just the way having a festival of success like You're Next goes. Which of course, premiered in 2011, so we had a few years of this.
It's so weird to read responses where people are like, "You guys sold out." It's like by taking on the Blair Witch brand, which currently isn't doing well in theaters, it's like I can demonstratively prove that we didn't sell out because our movie isn't a success. It's also weird and hard to process that attitude because ultimately we found out that the critical response to what we were doing was that suddenly the original film was this sacred classic and any changes we made from it weren't going to be viewed in a positive way.
Similarly, people felt like we'd also stayed too close to the original and not done something completely bonkers, which I don't know what hypothetically either of those scenarios are. I think we made the film we wanted to make as fans of the original and I'm extremely proud of it. I really hope it does age well and more people discover it on video.
Stay tuned for the second part of my chat with Adam and Simon where we discuss the reactions to the film, how it affected them, and what's next for the duo!
Blair Witch is currently available on Blu-ray and DVD.