Directing on a Dime: The Story Behind The Blair Witch Project

Welcome to Directing on a Dime, where indie moviemaker Andy Young provides tips and insight for moviemakers whose budget is more The Blair Witch Project than Avatar.

“In October of 1994, three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland while shooting a documentary. A year later their footage was found.” Thus starts one of the greatest success stories in the history of independent film. If you’re reading this, you’ve probably already seen The Blair Witch Project. But a lesser-known aspect of the now-classic horror movie is the story of its creation. First-time directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez made the now-legendary horror film for peanuts; it then premiered at Sundance and went on to become not only the smash hit of the year but one of the highest-grossing independent films of all time. Over a decade later, The Blair Witch Project is still a prime example of the success that can result from harnessing the power of grassroots marketing, word-of-mouth and the Internet. I had the chance to speak with Myrick about his film education, the movies that inspire him and his opinion on the current state of independent film.

Andy Young (MM): When did you figure out you wanted to be a moviemaker?

Daniel Myrick (DM): I was really into drawing as a kid, and when I was 11 my mom bought me a still camera. I would go out and take a lot of pictures, and I loved the technical side as much as the artistic side. When I was 13, I got a video camera and started making short films, but I didn’t know there was a real industry until my aunt bought me this book called Movie Magic, which was a behind-the-scenes look at big movies like King Kong. That’s when it dawned on me that there was a real business and that I wanted to be a moviemaker.

MM: Were there any films in particular that influenced you??

DM: When Close Encounters of the Third Kind came out, it totally blew me away. It was the first film I had seen where the aliens were benevolent and friendly. I wanted to make people feel what that movie made me feel after I saw it.

MM: Did you go to film school?

DM: I went to the University of Central Florida, where I took some film classes. That’s where I met most of the people [whom] I continue to work with today.

MM: What did you do after school?

DM: My goal was to have a reel to show the marketplace what I had done as a writer/director; I wanted something that was tangible. So I made that, and then I got some editing jobs on local features and a gig at Planet Hollywood cutting their in-house celebrity videos. That paid pretty well, and it actually helped fund Blair. The thing about Orlando is that they have a lot of theme parks that need production help on their videos, so there was a fair amount of work.

MM: Where did the idea for The Blair Witch Project originate?

DM: Me and Ed [Sánchez, co-director/writer/editor of The Blair Witch Project] were big fans of docu-drama shows like “In Search Of…,” and we really liked how those fact-or-fiction films played on your psyche. So riffing off that, we thought about how cool it’d be to shoot a fake documentary in the woods. We had a scene in our heads where someone was approaching this old house–and there are no cuts, you’re just forced to go in with them. So that was the inception from before we formed the premise of found footage.

MM: Talk about how you guys went about shooting. Was there ever a script, or was it all improvised?

DM: We didn’t want to repeat the mistakes of other fake documentaries, like where they have the camera conveniently placed so as to catch the action. We wanted The Blair Witch Project to look 100 percent real and authentic, so we had to devise a way to control the narrative but at the same time keep that spontaneity. So we decided to shoot it improv, [but before that] we mapped out a script outline and went beat-for-beat on what we wanted to happen. Then we went through a long casting process, looking for the right actors who could embrace that idea. Once we got them, we had to figure out how we’d shoot it. We mapped out our locations with a GPS system, and we let the actors roam around, but they had to arrive at a certain place and at a certain time. We ended up with all this footage and a core narrative, and we cut it like a documentary.

MM: What was the next step for you once the movie was done?

DM: We got it to the point where we felt that it was finished enough that we could screen it. The first cut was over two hours long. We played it at an independent theater in Orlando to some friends, who we had fill out comment cards, and from that feedback we found that there were a lot of great, scary moments, but that the movie was too long. Also, people were getting “seasick” because of the shakycam, so we had to find way to reduce that.

We trimmed it into a much tighter version and played it in New York to a test audience. That screening went really well, and that was when we put a camera in the theater to tape the audience, which ended up being a big component of the movie’s marketing campaign. The buzz started getting out; we got a publicist and were invited to Sundance. It exploded once we played there, but up until then we did all our own screenings.

MM: What part did the Internet play in your success?

DM: [Our success] was gradual. To raise money, we shot an eight-minute investor reel, in itself a mockumentary, and portrayed it as real. We were going to show it to investors and use it to raise money. I was working with John Pierson, an indie guru at the time, on his show “Split Screen,” and I sent the reel to him. A couple of days later he got back to me, asking “Is this real?!” He wanted to show it on “Split Screen,” and after it aired his Website got bombarded with people asking about the Blair Witch. We were like, “We better get a Website up!” So we made one. More people were steered toward us, and the campaign grew organically with the audience. Fans even started their own sites. It was a great example of grassroots marketing.

MM: How much do you think the independent scene has changed since the success of Blair Witch?

DM: It’s always evolving and changing. I think that now, a film like Blair Witch would be harder to pull off, since audiences are a little more sophisticated and fact/fiction has become a genre itself. But, at the same time, most indie filmmakers today have grown up with social media and can do their own marketing using the Internet, so they can also distribute more easily. I think that’s exciting. Prior to Blair Witch, there weren’t a lot of distribution options outside of film festivals, and Blair Witch showed that it could be done. But now the biggest difference is that you have to have a marketing plan that involves the Internet. Filmmakers have to wear a lot of different hats. On the production side, HD has made the level of entry lower, and it gives you the ability to make a high-quality movie for a lower price.

MM: Do you think that film school is worth it?

DM: I think so. At film school, you’re not creatively constrained. Anything goes. Everyone is in the same boat together, and you form a bond and a sense of camaraderie with your fellow students. There’s a lot to be said for forging those relationships. Your time at film school is the freest time in your career, since your only real constraint is your budget. It was a great opportunity for me.

MM: Any advice for aspiring moviemakers?

DM: It’s kind of a cliché, but what’s really important to being successful is to be persistent and not give up. I feel bad for actors, because they go to so many auditions and constantly get shut down. But then they get their break, and their lives change. It was that way for us. I did a lot of stuff before Blair Witch. You just never know. The guy who keeps his oar in the river and keeps paddling is eventually gonna find land. MM

Andy Young is a director, editor, writer and composer living in Austin, Texas. At the age of 20, he has produced over 100 short films and one feature film, The Legend of Action Man, which he shot on a budget of only $200. Andy continues to make low-budget shorts with his sketch comedy group Dingoman Productions.

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