Director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett have established themselves as smart, funny, and talented filmmakers, thanks to their hits You're Next and The Guest. They're two filmmakers I always keep an eye out for and was thrilled to see them making a sequel in an underdeveloped franchise with Blair Witch.
Despite initial reviews for their secret sequel being positive, the film just didn't click with audiences or critics, resulting in underwhelming box office numbers and ending up at a 36% on Rotten Tomatoes.
When the film was coming out on Blu-ray, I reached out to the two of them to see if they were interested in having a candid conversation about the difficulties of balancing a filmmaker's vision with audience expectations, how to market a film that's a sequel to one of the most successful all-time marketing campaigns, and how the experience has shaped them as filmmakers.
Oh yeah, and we also talk about how awesome Dave and Buster's is.
PopCultureNow: With any sequel, there's an expectation that a filmmaker heightens what was seen in the previous film. Whether that be a heightening of characters' mythology, set pieces, or sense of peril. The first film's success was due to how subtle it was, so it's a hard thing to heighten. However, people had an adverse reaction to you giving them bigger scares with Blair Witch, so it's like you couldn't win.
Adam Wingard: That's the interesting thing about it. Everybody wants it both ways when you read arguments against the film. Everybody's like, "Oh, it doesn't have the soft, subtle touch that the first film did." If we did that, you're talking about being a full-on remake. It'd be the same film. The first film isn't even totally a supernatural experience, it's really more of a drama about people getting lost in the woods and how their dynamic with each other breaks down and then it goes into more and more of a horror thing.
We wanted to do something that was totally different, but at the same time, the first film works very effectively, but it did all the ground work. It set up the world and it felt like setting things up for the future because it ends at that supernatural peak. It feels like it's teeing off a great supernatural film and if you watch Book of Shadows, it's disappointing because they did this really half-assed version of the first film. It's people being mad at each other and it just doesn't work and it's boring. It's not exciting.
We thought, "Let's take this world and let's look at the more supernatural end of it," because I know, for me as a viewer of the first film, that's what I wanted more of in a sequel. I loved the first movie, but in my head, whenever I imagined what a sequel would be, it was going to be concentrating more on those elements that were hinted at, while at the same time I didn't want anything to spell it out for me.
I felt like that's what we did, we were able to hit that nice middle ground of doing this crazy thrill ride experience that's different from the first film, but still hit on certain elements of the original movie that you want from that.
Simon Barrett: This is a brand, and I say brand in sardonic air quotes, but Blair Witch had been dormant for 15 years. There was Blair Witch Project, there was Book of Shadows and a lot of side projects like video games and graphic novels and stuff, but really nothing from 2000 on. It was really very unknown and we didn't know if it was a brand that still excited people, but that was also what excited us about it. It was this unknown thing and it was up to Adam and me to find what we thought the right approach was and put our own stamp on that.
What you were saying earlier, about how do you amplify subtle scares, there's a reason we didn't want to go that route, because I think, personally, if you look at the Paranormal Activity series, that's the issue that that series had.
The original Paranormal Activity is a much less subtle film than The Blair Witch Project in terms of its supernatural elements. It's explicitly supernatural, you see demon footsteps and so on. I really love that film and I love some of the sequels, but they really found themselves in a situation of how do you make what was so good in the first one, which was just a curtain moving and a static shot.
How do you expand upon that? The audience knows that's going to happen, how do you do the more amplified, surprising version of that? I don't envy the people who are tasked with figuring that out, because I personally wouldn't have known what to do, but with Blair Witch, we thought, "This is a chance to do something really new that brings back the mythology."
We were obviously very precious with the original mythology and took great care to expand upon everything we could without contradicting anything that existed in the original film and staying true to Eduardo (Sánchez) and Dan (Myrick) and Gregg (Hale)'s vision for that.
It was a change to bring back the mythology and remind people what it was, but also do something, hopefully, very new in terms of the filmmaking. Again, I think people didn't fully appreciate that and that's not their fault. That's just like, "Okay, people weren't interested in our Blair Witch sequel, we won't make another one."
PCN: How dare you not make another one.
Simon: If we made another, then everyone would like the one we just made. That's the only reason to. Then they'd need something to negatively compare the new one to.
PCN: With your admiration for the original film, and the reception of Book of Shadows, obviously you guys were aware of how the cards were stacked against you. Did you have conversations early on about how you were potentially creating a no-win situation for yourselves?
Adam: I don't think we ever really had that discussion. It didn't feel like that people would hate it. This was us coming off of V/H/S and those movies were relatively successful for what they were and the market that they were put in. It felt like, if that was successful, that's just us f**king around. We thought, "What if we really put our mind to this thing?"
The challenges we were looking at weren't about audience expectation at all, necessarily. It was more about how do we make this a good movie and how do we get through those challenges you have just making a found footage movie in general and keeping it fresh, because it felt like The Blair Witch Project is the granddaddy of all found footage movies, so to do a sequel to it, we have to make this feel like a true found footage epic in a lot of ways. Just to feel like it's paying proper respect to the original.
Things that came out of the discussion were the idea of having helicopter shots. What's a found footage helicopter shot? It's a drone, I haven't seen that before, let's figure out how to get that in the movie. Things developed organically from those types of conversations, but honestly, there wasn't even any hint of a backlash when we announced the film at San Diego Comic-Con. It was one of these things where it wasn't until the week or so before the movie came out that suddenly everything shifted. Our earlier views were great and then right before the week it came out, suddenly everybody just turned on the movie and decided that they didn't want to support it or see it.
I was kind of shocked with that. Even the day before it came out, Simon and I were on our press tour, going all over the f**king place, and we would talk to people like theater owners and people who look at numbers and are good at predicting what movies do. For instance, we talked to this guy. I won't say which theater chain it was, but he was telling us about how he predicted the number that Don't Breathe came out at, even though everybody was thinking it was way lower. He assessed that it was going to be higher and he was right. He was telling us with a complete confidence that Blair Witch was going to come out to $30 million, even though at the highest, everybody on the inter-webs and the word on the street was basically that we were looking at a solid $20 to $25 million opening.
Simon and I are looking at each other like, "Maybe we're going to make a big $30 million opening." At the very least, we thought we were going to have a number one movie, which it came in number two, which is fine. It was one of those things where you just had no idea until the day it was coming out that it was a completely different thing than we were lead to believe, and it was interesting, because on You're Next, it was kind of similar. It was a much smaller scale version because there was a lot less hype around it.
Even the week before You're Next came out, it was exactly the same. All of the tracking material said that the movie was going to play much bigger. Blair Witch was ridiculous. The tracking was totally positive from the get-go and what we came out of this film learning is that movie tracking is complete nonsense. It really means nothing. We've had the same experience twice in a row where your movies tracked at a certain level and it doesn't come anywhere near that.
Simon: I'd love to have the opposite version of that experience. When we premiered at Toronto after our Comic-Con screening, we went into the weekend with 100% Rotten Tomatoes score that then was just like watching the fluid drain from something and wondering how low it could possibly go, because it was just a steady descent.
You're Next was predicted to come in at number one, it came in at number seven. Both films were profitable, but it's a bizarre ride and I guess the main thing I've learned from it, personally, is that you can not return a gold plated Humvee with "Simon" written on the dash.
Adam: Through it all, though, it was such a funny, surreal experience and I felt like Simon and I definitely kept our sense of humor. We never said, "Oh, f**k this. I can't believe it." To a certain degree, it felt too good to be true anyways. Simon and I are used to all kinds of failures in our personal lives, so why should this be any different? That had it's own weird kind of backlash. Whenever we were joking on Twitter about Sully and that got picked up on Perez?
Simon: Perez Hilton, I remember.
Adam: Perez Hilton picked up this thing. I was saying that I was trashing a national hero, which, who gives a sh*t about Sully, really, anyways? I'm going to do it again. It was hilarious because it was like I couldn't even joke about it. When something like this happened it, was in the harsh world of Twitter. Everybody just wants you to fail at a certain point. It's pretty hilarious.
Simon: Everyone just wanted Adam and I to just express extreme confusion, chop off our pinkie fingers and retreat, and we were like, "No, we made a good movie and we're gonna acknowledge the response to it." Even if that means calling Sully Sullenberger at home at 3:00 AM drunk to cry into the phone, and wake his family up. And I regret that.
PCN: Does Sully have a family?
Adam: He's a robot.
Simon: Another thing that unites Adam and I is that we both are very audience-oriented filmmakers and we think a lot about what the viewing experience is going to be, but we tend to think in terms of an idealized audience that's smarter than us and wants to be surprised. We did think a lot about what people would want from a Blair Witch movie, but we tended to think-
Simon: There was never a moment where we thought people would just hate this, because I think if you start second-guessing yourself creatively like that and you start thinking, "Oh gosh, what if people don't like the creative approach we're taking?" that's a really easy way to start doing things that aren't sincere and faking it and making a compromised work and that, to me, is selling out.
Adam was cutting this movie pretty much until Lionsgate said, "Okay, it's perfect." We couldn't really test it, because it was secret, but we did as much as we could to find out what the response would be to the scares and so on. We never thought, "What if people just don't want this?" That's how you end up, frankly, with Book of Shadows.
PCN: As we've talked about, the marketing strategy behind the first movie helped make its release so enjoyable. Was there any talk ahead of time about how it would be marketed or did you just put that on the back burner?
Adam: From the get-go, the secrecy factor was always key. Everybody knew going in that we needed to find some sort of fun, interesting, marketing hook. Nobody knew exactly what it was, but the secrecy factor ended up being that hook. It was like, let's do a movie in secret, and we kept it secret for years because we'd been attached to it for so long and we had other projects we had to finish before we could get to it, but we managed to keep it a secret all that time, since 2013. That worked organically.
After the movie came out, I think everybody, probably the team at Lionsgate, was thinking about it and questioning if we made the right choice unveiling the movie the way we did. Was calling it Blair Witch the right choice? In retrospect, I think calling it "Blair Witch" made people think that it was a remake and not a sequel, but there's no way we could have known that and, to us, it just felt like a confident title.
[If we called it] Blair Witch 3, half the people in the world don't even remember that there was a part two, so coming out with a third one seems like a straight to video name. You're blocked in either way. Maybe we should have kept it as The Woods, but The Woods is such an obvious, boring title for a film. It says nothing, it doesn't even look good written down. There's like 200 movies called The Woods. There's probably a couple more in the works right now.
Who's to say that was the right choice because it's not like we really had any traction or hype on the film at all when we had that first trailer. It was like, "Oh, it's cool. It's the guys that did You're Next f**king around in the found footage world for some reason. That's kind of cool, maybe it'll be interesting." There's no way to know, ultimately, which is the right way to go. I felt like we made the right choice at the right time and we were involved. Tim Palen [at Lionsgate] is a great marketing genius and he brought us in early and we all sat down and we were kept in the loop and everybody agreed. It wasn't like it was thrust upon us. Everybody at Lionsgate and ourselves thought, "This feels like the right way to go." That's what we did.
Simon: Part of the enticement to us of even doing this project, in some ways, was that we did have a good relationship with Tim Palen and everyone at Lionsgate's marketing department from You're Next. We really liked the marketing materials for You're Next, even though they weren't explicitly successful. They won awards and stuff and we thought they were really cool and we were excited.
One of the nightmares of studio filmmaking is that you can make a movie and then it gets handed over to the marketing department who might just say, "We don't know how to sell this," and they cut a trailer that's terrible and come up with a poster that's terrible and your movie not only fails, but looks foolish.
We knew that Lionsgate was committed to doing something really different and, from our perspective, the reveal at Comic-Con that The Woods was Blair Witch felt like a tremendous success. It really felt like people were really excited about that and that was really our goal, to surprise people and excite them. It's only now, months later, that we ask, "Did that confuse people? Did that disappoint people?" You start second-guessing that, but I think we were really excited that if we made this film and we made a good film, Lionsgate was committed to promoting it in a really unique and original way and they've kept all their promises to us. I think having that relationship gave us the confidence to do that.
PCN: Do you think having this surprise, indie horror hit like Don't Breathe come out a couple weeks before your film took your momentum and people weren't excited to see what they thought was a "remake" or sequel in a franchise?
Simon: I was actually hanging out with [Don't Breathe director] Fede Alvarez the other night and he said, "I haven't seen Blair Witch yet." I was like, "Yeah man, you and a lot of people."
The success of Don't Breathe completely overlapped the release of Blair Witch and was a factor, probably, in our movie making maybe slightly less money than it otherwise would've if there was no competition, but I certainly can't be mad that an original, really weird, evil Zatoichi home invasion horror film was a massive hit this year. That's awesome. I love that he made this original movie, kind of outside the studio system, and it's the biggest horror hit of the year. I feel like that's actually good for cinema because now everyone's like, "What's the next Don't Breathe?" and the next Don't Breathe is another filmmaker's original vision.
When people look at the box office, it's like, "Oh, studio remake, Blair Witch beaten by original movie." I get why that narrative is appealing. I personally think we also made a really great horror film. I can't be mad, I definitely can't be mad at Don't Breathe. You didn't see us on Twitter like, "Who cares about Fede Alvarez?!" We went after Sully.
PCN: Now that Blumhouse is working on developing a sequel to Halloween, and with your name getting tossed around a lot as the guys to do that, do you have interest in doing another sequel to a big property? Would you have felt differently before Blair Witch wasn't received well?
Simon: I think Adam and I are not at all averse to attaching ourselves to properties. We are doing a remake of I Saw the Devil, which is going to be very different from the original. Adam's finishing up Death Note right now. Properties continue to excite us if the creative stimulation is there. Speaking personally, we love everyone over at Blumhouse. They're wonderful people and I like their model.
I think we already made our Halloween movie, which was The Guest, which was very different from Halloween, but took Halloween as a point of creative inspiration. I don't know if creatively going back to being more directly inspired by Halloween would be that. I don't know if I'd be the right person for that, because I don't know if that's as creatively exciting for me. If you want to see our homage to Halloween and Halloween III: Season of the Witch, it's The Guest, which isn't even a horror movie. I think I'm pretty proud of that.
PCN: And Adam? Would you consider directing a Halloween sequel?
Simon: We'd make a Star Wars movie though.
Adam: I'll talk about the Halloween movie after they make it. Interesting.
Simon: We're fans.
PCN: What other things do you guys have coming up that you're excited about?
Adam: We got the I Saw the Devil thing coming up and beyond that, for me, I've been actually turning down a lot of stuff, especially horror stuff for the most part, because I feel like if we're going to do another one, it needs to be something probably totally insane. I don't consider I Saw the Devil a horror film, really. It's a revenge film that has a bleak horror vibe to it.
Coming up is Death Note, which I'm just now finishing the editing on. For me, I need a little breather time because the last few films I've done have been all stacked up on top of each other. I went from The Guest to that TV pilot for Outcast and then went right into the Blair Witch with complete overlap. I did a writers room on this other project and then went straight into Death Note. I'm running on fumes right now. Even doing I Saw the Devil is, at the earliest, going to be next fall.
It's a good time to assess the situation and let things come and let the inspiration come, as opposed to stacking things up. For instance, like I said, when we did Blair Witch, that was a project that was set up long before we ended up doing it. It's hard to know what you're going to be in the mood for two years from now, so better just take your next project when you're ready to make it.
Simon: Adam flew in from the last day of shooting Death Note to the official Toronto premiere of Blair Witch. Adam's been working non-stop.
Adam: It's totally brutal.
Simon: Yeah, he's exhausted and meanwhile I've just been texting him pictures of myself at Margaritaville having a quesadilla tower.
We've got a few things in the works. Just off the top of my head, I think Adam and I have four feature films in various stages of development, and by development, I mean mostly my own brain, that we're figuring out creatively right now. Then we also have projects that we're doing on our own, obviously. I think we're going to keep busy, but I think the only thing that we're really talking about right now is I Saw the Devil and of course, Adam's got Death Note coming out next year, which I can't wait to see.
PCN: I can't wait for it either. Thank you guys for carving out the time to talk to me about your experiences. And thanks for being so candid about your thoughts after the dust has settled.
Simon: I guess the positive thing about this, at the end of the day, is it's inspired me, at least, to try to come up with more original, unique ideas, and that's awesome. Maybe, ultimately, the fact that this film wasn't a huge hit will shape our careers in a better direction.
Adam: It is one of those things where it's like, okay, you don't want the straightforward thing, then things are about to get really weird. Ultimately, people just haven't been showing up for our horror movies, so why continue to make these things? I think we're going to branch out and do other things and I'm sure a lot of everything we're going to do is going to have a horror tinge to it.
I think what our strengths are, are doing weirder movies, and it'll still have a crossover mainstream appeal, and I think that's what we're going to jump into from this point forward. It has been a good experience. I do wonder if Blair Witch had come out and it was really big, would our instincts have steered more towards straightforward things? I can only imagine the movies we're going to do from this point on are just going to be completely insane.
PCN: I hope you continue the trend of making movies that are completely insane that festival people love and then they open up and don't make any money, that's what I'm hoping for.
Adam: Maybe not that type of insane.
Simon: There's a constant conversation about what's the right outlet for some of our films. There's a couple projects that Adam and I are talking about that are really going to surprise people. Maybe the way we make those will be a little bit different. That's neither here nor there.
PCN: Great, again, thank you guys for taking the time. I'll let you get back to Margaritaville.
Simon: I'm literally going to Dave and Buster's today. Literally.
Adam: I wish I was going to Dave and Buster's.
Simon: I'm legitimately going, all joking aside. I can text you guys a picture of me at Dave and Buster's in a couple of hours. Literally, when someone says they want to go to Dave and Buster's, there is only one reply.
PCN: I heard that you celebrated a recent birthday at Dave and Buster's and thought you would have hated that experience.
Simon: No one f**kin' hates Dave and Buster's. Look, when someone says they want to go to Dave and Buster's, first of all, you don't say no because they're obviously in a dark place. Beyond that, you don't say no because they have f**king Mario Kart with the actual gas and brake pedals and it's awesome.
PCN: Now we're actually going to get into the Dave and Buster's portion of the interview, so this should last another 45 minutes or so.
Simon: Dave and Buster's should just f**king finance our next movie, which will have nothing to do with a Dave and Buster's and we'll never reference that term, but at one point there will be a dentist in the background and we'll know his name is David Buster.
PCN: That's an Easter egg for everyone to look forward to.
Simon: I'm selling that concept right now. It is not exclusive to Dave and Buster's, we will also sell it to other corporations.
Adam: I will say this, I think our commentary track is a real special treat. It's just the two of us. Never have we felt more alone.
PCN: When did you guys record it?
Adam: It was like a week after the film came out.
In fact, we even had a brief conversation where we were just like, "Is that too downbeat? Do we want to?" It's like, no, it's a snapshot of where we were at, at that point in our feelings about the film's rollercoaster ride and I think that's, personally, as a fan of commentary tracks, that's the kind of thing I like. We gave that to the listener in heaping spades.
And yes, Simon really did send us a picture of himself at Dave and Buster's.
Blair Witch and its incredible filmmaker commentary are out now on Blu-ray and DVD.
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