In 1999, The Blair Witch Project took the world by storm. At a time when horror films were mostly gory slashers, this subtle film about a group of filmmakers getting lost in the woods brought the concept of "found footage" movies to massive amounts of movie fans. Co-director of that ambitious and groundbreaking film Eduardo Sanchez served as executive producer on the latest sequel, Blair Witch.
To celebrate the release of the latest film on Blu-ray and DVD, Sanchez took some time to chat with PopCultureNow to talk about the early motivations behind the initial film, how the landscape of horror has changed, and places pieces of the Blair Witch myth he'd like to see explored.
Although Sanchez is often closely associated with The Blair Witch Project, he's worked on a multitude of non-found footage horror movies since then, including the supernatural head trip Lovely Molly. The 2011 film might have been off many audiences' radars, but I couldn't resist pointing out it was one of the more bizarre and effective horror films this decade.
"Thanks, man I appreciate it," Sanchez said. "That movie almost killed me but yeah, I'm glad I did it."
Turning the attention back towards Blair Witch Project, I asked about the initial concept of the film came about. Was the story the initial thought and the filmmaking process followed, vice versa, or were there other factors at play?
"Mostly, it was boredom," Sanchez admitted. "We were in film school and we had no money and were just lounging around and Dan Myrick, who was my partner throughout the Blair Witch odyssey journey, and I were just talking about how some of the horror movies that were coming out, this was like '90-'91 and the horror world was in a little bit of a rut, as far as scary movies. There were still horror movies, but they were mostly gory and it was a crazy time for horror at that time. We were just thinking, 'I wonder if we could make a scary horror movie.' So we went back and said, 'What was the last movie that really scared us?' We had to go back to the '80s and when we were really young, like The Exorcist and The Shining and Amityville Horror. All those movies scare us, but also we love the fake docu-dramas or whatever you want to call them, movies like Chariot of the Gods and Legend of Boggy Creek, and that show In Search Of... For us, those kinds of shows and movies, just the reality of them, at least claiming them to be reality, really scared the crap out of us. Our brains went to a different mode. And we thought, 'I wonder if you can do that again for a modern audience.'
"We started thinking about what it would be and eventually we came up with the idea of some filmmakers going into some woods and then their footage gets found," Sanchez continued. "Originally, it was going to be in 1970, so it was going to be (shot on) 16mm, but we realized that we'd have to pay for the 16mm so we nixed that idea real quick. We couldn't afford to do a period film.
"We updated the idea and used more video," Sanchez discussed, realizing a period film might be too ambitious. "We realized at that point that there'd be video cameras, they'd be videotaping themselves. Then, that became the movie, but that wasn't until years later. It was really the gestation process of about six or seven years there where we didn't work on it, and then work on it a little bit, on the cast, and just do little bits. Not until '96 did we actually start getting going."
Although the '90s were flooded with gory slasher movies, there were also psychological thrillers like Jacob's Ladder and Silence of the Lambs, whose paranoia also seemed to have an impact on The Blair Witch Project.
When trying to pinpoint one of the most defining moments of his frustration at horror films in the '90s, Sanchez recalled, "I think the thing that had prompted it was we went to a free screening of the Nightmare on Elm Street movie where they had Rosanne Barn and Tom Arnold. I think that was the week we saw that movie and we were saying, 'Wow. What happened to the supposedly scary movies?' But I think it was that experience that pushed us over the edge."
Shortly after the success of the original film, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 was released, which was a departure from the found footage filmmaking style that also didn't have much input from Sanchez. Now that a second sequel has come out, the director discussed where he initially saw the film's mythology going.
"We had definitely discussed the idea of doing multiple Blair Witch films, but we just wanted to take a break from it after the first one because the first one was a huge explosion," Sanchez confessed. "Unless you were really analyzing it, the idea of Blair Witch went from this little critical darling to this festival thing to this deal and then the website and everybody was getting on board and thinking, 'Oh my God is it real?' and everybody was enjoying the ride and then it broke out into 1,500-2,000 screens or whatever and once it expanded past that little stage, there was a lot of backlash about it. I think a lot of people went in without knowing anything and they were expecting another Friday the 13th, or the kind of horror movie that they were used to, and they saw basically a home movie. A lot of people just couldn't get into, couldn't figure it out, you know what I mean?
"There was a backlash, so we just thought, 'You've got to take a few years off and let this die down a little bit and then come back with something cool, something original,'" he added. "We always thought that we could go backwards. Unless we came up with a story that took advantage of [found footage], we weren't gonna do [a found footage movie] again. We just felt like, we didn't want to be the found footage guy. It wasn't who we wanted to be."
He continued, "United Artists then wanted to move forward with a sequel and we were like, 'We just don't want to do it right now and if we did anything, we would want to do a prequel.' We had an idea for this movie in the 1700s of the capture of the Blair Witch and how the Blair Witch came to be, how the legend came to be. They just dragged their feet and this and that.
"They went on to do Book of Shadows and that kind of grounded the franchise to a halt."
Book of Shadows was a departure from the original film in a variety of ways and, at 13% on Rotten Tomatoes compared to the original's 86%, the biggest departure is mostly seen in the film's quality.
"To talk about Book of Shadows, it's not a movie that I hate.," Sanchez admitted. "I actually like the film. I just think it has very little to do with the movie that I made. It's almost a cousin of mine, it's not really a sequel."
Sanchez understood the challenges of making a sequel to his movie and couldn't help but sympathize with the near-impossible task of making it at all.It tried some new things. It had some moments, and maybe the film was tough and just under the circumstances that [director] Joe [Berlinger] was under...it just seems like it was a miracle that he even finished the movie, honestly. There was just a time constraint and he had multiple people looking over his shoulder all the time. In the end, I think they ended re-cutting his film and shooting some stuff that he didn't oversee. So, they kind of took his movie away from. It's not a great situation and I feel bad but every time you make a film, you take a risk.
"It tried some new things. It had some moments, and maybe the film was tough and just under the circumstances that [director] Joe [Berlinger] was under...it just seems like it was a miracle that he even finished the movie, honestly," Sanchez empathized. "There was just a time constraint and he had multiple people looking over his shoulder all the time. In the end, I think they ended re-cutting his film and shooting some stuff that he didn't oversee. So, they kind of took his movie away from. It's not a great situation and I feel bad but every time you make a film, you take a risk."
The Blair Witch Project, and Paranormal Activity years later, inspired a slew of imposters who thought all you needed to make a scary movie was a camera and some friends willing to roam around spooky location. Unfortunately, this led to a saturation of found footage style horror movies, most of which are terrible. Sanchez and his film are both to thank, and blame, for so many imposters.
"To be associated with any kind of filmmaking or horror filmmaking technique is more than I thought I was ever going to accomplish when I was growing up and trying to become a filmmaker," Sanchez discussed. "I'm definitely honored by the fact that this style blew up but, again, at the same time, Dan and I and [producer] Gregg [Hale], we're all responsible for this. We brought it into the world. The thing is, there have been a lot of really bad found footage movies, but there have been some pretty damn good found footage movies.
"What I loved about Blair Witch was that, one of the things about that whole aspect of it, is that there were people sending us VHS tapes," noted Sanchez. "Back then, it was still VHS tapes that people sent, of movies that they had done. Like, 'I did a parody in my mall like the Blair Mall Project.'
"It's probably the most parodied movie because it was so easy to parody. It's like the most parodied movie ever," Sanchez pointed out. "Star Wars is another big one, obviously because of the fan films and stuff, but I can't remember any kind of movie being parodied right when the movie was still out. It was a weird thing. I loved that, man, because for me, it was like wow, if I inspired some people to just go out and just shoot something and maybe make a movie that who have never made movies, maybe make a little movie. You never know, parodies must've inspired somebody in that whole group to be a filmmaker or to look into it, whatever.
"It's definitely sparked something and that's what I loved about it, is the fact that it was this spark that lit up a lot of people's curiosity and motivated people to do their own thing, declared Sanchez. He clearly takes the good with the bad in his association with found footage, trying to find the silver lining. "And I think that at the same time, there's a lot of filmmakers who saw that technique and said, 'This is easy. I can make something.' But, in the end, it definitely is a different technique to normal narrative filmmaking but you still have to have a certain amount of creativity, a certain amount of talent, a certain amount of luck and it's still a regular movie. They worry about the story and all that stuff. For me, like I said, I'm very honored that I'm associated with that, but at the same time, I realized that I did bring a monster into the world that we might never get rid of. But we hope we will never be rid of it because I think people will still find ways to make found footage movies for the rest of history, hopefully."
With all of the experiences that Sanchez has had since filming the original film, we discussed what advice he tried to give to director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett when making a sequel.
"We waited for Simon and Adam to come to us with questions. We did not influence the movie in any way," revealed. "We wanted to leave it alone and we felt like if we were doing a sequel to a movie, we'd definitely want the original people around, but we definitely would want freedom to do our own thing. We left them alone and there was really nothing. We read the script and gave them a couple of notes here and there but we left them on their own."
I also asked Sanchez what advice he'd give to a mid-'90s Eduardo about the film he was about to make.
"Maybe be careful what you wish for, I guess," said Sanchez. "I desired to be this filmmaker, to do this thing, and when you get here, it's a great place to be, but it's not all it's cracked up to me. Just the tidal wave that Blair Witch was in my life, I would warn myself against that."0comments
Make sure to grab your copy of Blair Witch, out now on Blu-ray and DVD, to see the future adventures in the terrifying legend!