Between Eduardo Sánchez co-directing The Blair Witch Project in 1999 and Simon Barrett writing Blair Witch in 2016, we’ve seen generational shifts: the explosion of the found footage subgenre, the introduction of viral marketing, and a cultural phenomenon that’s spawned sequels, video games, comics, novelizations and a shorthand for the modern American urban legend.
The Blair Witch Project’s arrival on the horror scene as both the winner of the inaugural John Cassavetes Independent Spirit Award and the highest-grossing independent film of all time to date—shot for $60,000 with a box-office gross of $248.6 million—signified an anomaly of artistic and commercial vision. Its ads and website, depicting a faux-reality in which three student filmmakers went “missing” in the woods of Burkittsville, Maryland, proved that the selling of a movie could immerse and unnerve audiences as much as the movie being sold.
This year’s unveiling of Sánchez’s colleague-turned-friend Barrett’s sequel has brought things full circle. Just as The Blair Witch Project ushered its makers into the mainstream, Blair Witch expands the title’s tradition as an industrial stepping stone, as Barrett’s first major studio screenplay—a culmination of his cult ascendancy alongside director Adam Wingard with indie horror like A Horrible Way to Die, two V/H/S films, You’re Next and The Guest.
We asked Sánchez and Barrett to share a conversation on making each of their Blair installments—and the genre’s continually renewed promise as an entry point for independents.
Simon Barrett (SB): I didn’t start out wanting to make horror movies. But the first script I wrote was horror and I ended up selling it, and that film got made back in 2003 for $1.5 million. I realized horror was an opportunity to do interesting things because there is a built-in audience. Had you always planned to work in horror?
Eduardo Sánchez (ES): Nah, man. I was like you. I loved horror movies, but I’m kind of a scaredy cat—I freak myself out really easily. Going to see horror movies was not my idea of fun, and it still isn’t. I kinda have to still do it to keep up with what’s going on in the genre. [Co-writer/director] Dan Myrick and I had this low-budget idea we called “The Woods Movie.” We actually wanted to make a comedy but didn’t have any low-budget comedy ideas. Everybody told us, “Oh, you gotta do this ‘woods movie;’ it’s great idea and we’ll invest money in it!” Then once we asked for money they were like, “Oh, nah, we don’t have any money.” I never saw myself as a horror filmmaker.
SB: Adam [Wingard] has said that Blair Witch is the first horror movie we made, because it was the first genre movie where we were totally trying to be scary.
ES: But you discover that built-in audience. It’s great for indie filmmakers to have a cushion where they can think, “If we can keep the budget low we can make some money.” Horror is the only genre that has that kind of guarantee, as something you can pull off low-budget. It’s such a great tool to bring new indie filmmakers into the mainstream.
SB: It gives you an opportunity to make strange movies, as long as the characters aren’t totally hateful and something happens in the plot. In horror, you at least know something’s gonna happen. That’s another reason why people are willing to take more of a chance on it.
ES: Yeah, there is that—all genres, but especially horror, have certain things that you can almost guarantee. There’s probably gonna be a death. There’s gonna be some tension if it’s done well.
SB: With Blair Witch, we wanted to imitate the fun mystery of how your film was marketed. It’s intriguing to try to be guessing what people want from our movie—especially since we were trying to keep it a secret.
ES: It was the same thing with us. The whole idea of our movie was that you’d have to research whether it was real or not. There were no recognizable actors. The lighting is on top of the camera. There’s no 12K sweeping the woods. The audio’s rough. We wanted this movie to make people go, “What the hell is this?,” go to our website and find the back-story. We did think, “If we make something that tries to fool people, are people gonna be angry?” Once Artisan, the distributor, bought the film, they were like, “We’re gonna market it as something ‘real,’ we’re gonna keep the actors off of the press tour.” We were like, “There might be a backlash!” But it was out of our hands at that point.
SB: I remember when The Blair Witch Project came out. But until [Sánchez’s 2006 film] Altered I didn’t know what you were capable of as a filmmaker. Did you find that the marketing campaign of your first film was almost too successful—people felt like it was a real documentary and didn’t realize the creative work you’d done?
ES: Yeah. Our film didn’t have a real script; it was improvised; it was shot by the actors. A lot of people just didn’t know what planet Dan and I were from. If you’ve had a hit film at a festival, your agent puts you on a tour of a lot of the big players; they call it the “victory lap.” It was like we were on display at a zoo. The actors didn’t get the credit they deserved in the mainstream media because people didn’t know that they were acting! You and I know because we’ve [both] done improv—not everybody can do it! It takes a different kind of skill than conventional acting. This was why it took so long for me to get back and do another film. I didn’t want to make another horror movie right away. I had a sense like, “People expect something from you now, you’re the shaky camera guy!” I was like, “Rob Reiner did Spinal Tap as his first film, but he didn’t continue to do fake documentaries for the rest of his career!” It was intimidating, trying to just wrap my head around the fact that, “OK, I’m gonna have to make another film and it’s probably not gonna be as successful as Blair Witch, and it’s not gonna be found footage.”
SB: On one hand you guys had made literally the most profitable independent film of all time, but on the other hand, people didn’t have the language of “found footage” yet to comprehend it.
ES: Found footage wasn’t a subgenre yet. It was a gimmick we’d used.
SB: It wasn’t bankable in and of itself. It didn’t feel like an imitable business model. But after Cloverfield and Rec. and Paranormal Activity especially, it suddenly became this cheap, fashionable way to tell horror stories, to dust off a few old tropes. But The Blair Witch Project is so distant from that movement, and still, its commitment to authenticity is greater.
ES: You guys found a way, with Blair Witch, to bring a new wrinkle into the found footage subgenre. With horror franchises, it’s about how long you can keep a bad guy interesting.