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The Blair Witch Project 10 years on 0

by Joe Utichi for Rotten Tomatoes

Shot on a budget of just $22,000 by film school graduates Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick, The Blair Witch Project premiered at the Sundance Film Festival ten years ago this month and started a journey that dominated public consciousness for most of the year. It was an unprecedented success, holding the world record as the most profitable movie of all time after making more than $10,000 for every $1 spent, and became one of the most important horror films of all time. It spawned a wave of imitators both amateur and professional and is the cultural yardstick against which hoaxes, horrors and movies shot with a camcorder are measured.

Now, ten years on, we reunite directors Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick to share their memories of making and releasing the film, as well as their plans for more from the Blair Witch franchise…

 Eduardo Sánchez:  “Dan and I went to film school in Orlando together and we started hanging out and we really dug each other’s films. This was in the early nineties. The Friday the 13th series had really run its course and Nightmare on Elm Street was starring Roseanne and Tom Arnold. There was a really a lull in horror movies at the time and Dan and I just started talking about the films we really liked and we had a lot in common. We started kicking around the idea of doing a very realistic film about something happening to these explorers and them filming their own journey. The best idea we came up with was for Blair Witch and at the time it was called The Woods Movie.”

 Daniel Myrick:  “When Ed and I first got together with the idea we spent quite a bit of time outlining the film from a structural standpoint. We wanted all the story beats to be in there and for it to follow a narrative path, so we had a pretty detailed — almost hour-to-hour — shooting outline for what the characters would be going through throughout their journey. We had a pretty good idea of what the characters needed to do, but a looser idea of exactly who they were. Their personalities where what the actors brought to the characters. During shooting it was a very collaborative experience of us guiding them through the woods and allowing them to explore their characters on their own. If they strayed too far off the narrative path, Ed and I used this directors’ notes system we worked out to steer them back in the right direction.”

 Eduardo Sánchez:  “Between the actors there were a lot of real arguments and emotions in there. Heather Donahue, in particular, I don’t know if it was because of the kind of character she decided to be out there, or if the guys were playing it up a bit, but she did get on Joshua Leonard‘s and Mike Williams‘s nerves a lot. We spent some time trying to calm Josh and Mike down and steer Heather into being more accommodating of the guys. But once we got the footage, and there was about 20 hours of footage, a lot of it was them arguing with each other. I’d say about 50%, in fact! We had to whittle it down and create the whole idea that there was tension between Mike and Heather when there was actually a lot more tension between Heather and Josh. That’s really where the film was born — as Dan and I went through all that footage. It could have gone a million ways.”

 Daniel Myrick:  “Taking the film to Sundance was, for us, the moment where we got some validation as filmmakers. After all the work, when you get into Sundance you can at least start to feel like you’ve been accepted. It was a big part of the experience for us and being there for the premiere was really kind-of surreal. We were really thrown into the blender right off the bat. We were the first film that sold there, and the next thing we know we’re doing interviews for Premiere magazine and photoshoots and all the rest. It all happened so quickly and it snowballed from there. We were elated, excited, exhausted and complete virgins to this film sales phenomenon that happens at Sundance. That was really when the film took on a national awareness that lead us into Cannes later on, which is when things really went crazy. But Sundance was special because you’ll only ever sell your first film once, and there we were, deep in the snow, taking this journey together. Blair just took on a life of its own from there.”

 Eduardo Sánchez:  “Fortunately, we made out very well with Blair Witch; probably better than anyone else had ever made out on their first film. Artisan built their deal around a film that was going to made $5-8m dollars — $10m max — so basically anything above $10m, they gave us a great deal. They didn’t think they’d ever have to pay on those promises. At the time, nothing had ever happened like Blair Witch. The big indie success stories were She’s Gotta Have It, Clerks and El Mariachi, and none of those movies broke $10m. Their thinking was, ‘Man, if we can make El Mariachi money, we’re set!’”

 Daniel Myrick:  “In our wildest predictions we couldn’t have guessed the financial success of the movie. We were joking with Artisan — and they had high hopes, expecting it to do $5-8m at the box office — and we said, ‘If it breaks $10m, you have to buy us a competition-grade Foosball table.’ They said, ‘Yeah, no problem!’ I think in its first weekend it made $30m or so, and they lived up to their promise; they sent us a Foosball table shortly after that!”

 Eduardo Sánchez:  “When the film was on the covers of Time Magazine and Newsweek in the same week in the States, I think that’s when we realised Blair was a really big deal. But for the filmmaking world, I think the first weekend it opened wide, where it came in number 2 — but on much fewer screens — to Runaway Bride. When that happened, and we were competing for space in theatres with the world’s biggest movie star at the time, for us that was a huge moment.”

 Daniel Myrick:  “Ed and I have a prequel idea and a couple of sequel ideas and we’re in the process now of revisiting a prequel idea that we would like to do in the hopes we can get Lionsgate on board with the ten year anniversary raising awareness again. You know how the economy is, but it seems like films that already have a brand and an established lineage like Blair Witch are the kind of films getting made, so we’re hoping we can get it resurrected somehow. Some of the ideas we have are more traditional narrative ideas that play with the mythology we’ve created around Blair Witch and what we really don’t want to do is betray that mythology. We don’t want to come up with some gimmicky way to shoot a sequel that’s reminiscent of the first film — because shooting like that is a gimmick — and for it to come across as contrived. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t other innovative ways to play with style and process, but I think Ed and I are most concerned with honouring the mythology.”

 Eduardo Sánchez:  “The first time we cut the movie, we knew it was too long — it was about two and a half hours. There’s a lot of good stuff that didn’t make the film. I’m really happy with the film and I think we cut it as well as we could. There’s plenty of fan interest, though not so much from Lionsgate, but I really would love to put out a two-and-a-half hour version of the movie on DVD; like a Criterion edition with a bunch of extra footage.”

 Daniel Myrick:  “There’s a great confessional with Mike that didn’t make the movie. He also had this great scene in the woods where he lost his mind, started punching trees, it was really hardcore. There’s a really cool poetry reading scene in the hotel they spend the night in where Josh and Mike are duelling with their own poetry. At that point in the film we just had to get them into the woods, so as cool as it was it had to go. They shot so much cool stuff and they rolled on everything. I think we could put together at least another hour of really, really solid footage.”

 Eduardo Sánchez:  “At the end of the day, no matter what Dan and I do, and no matter what success or non-success we have in our careers, we have our Star Wars. Not that Blair Witch is as good as Star Wars, but we have this film that’s going to be remembered for a long time, particularly in the horror genre, and I think both of us consider ourselves extremely lucky to have had a film like that.”

 Daniel Myrick:  “I get surprised when I read a book that has nothing to do with film at all and the author’s talking about getting “Blair Witched” or something like that. It’s almost become a verb. That’s when I step back and go, “Wow.” It has transcended what it originally was and it’s become such a part of the lexicon, and synonymous with being scared or hoaxed, and that’s really kind of amazing. For that I’m so flattered and so thankful. We could not have hoped or imagined anything more fantastic and grander than Blair Witch. I really feel, if I don’t make another movie ever again, we got our opportunity to leave our mark, and as a filmmaker that’s one of your dreams. It’s why you do what you do.”

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