SB: The first mistake a lot of horror writers make is the notion that if the characters are likable or sympathetic, putting them in peril will be more suspenseful—and 99 percent of the time they have the characters bickering about nothing and saying too much about how they all know each other. The audience immediately detaches. The challenge to creating a good horror mythology is having it clear in your head—then only using the parts of that that you need to tell the best story. So it holds up to scrutiny and doesn’t fall apart if you try to augment it or clarify it.
ES: Yeah, or over-explain it. That’s the problem with a horror franchise—you have to provide answers to the original questions, but you want to pose new questions. And sometimes you’re just milking it, trying to get a little bit more juice out of an idea. You gotta develop something that has legs, a mythology that has different levels. Don’t jump the shark immediately. Wait till like the fourth or fifth film to introduce like space aliens, or whatever. You sign a contract with the audience: “I’m gonna take you in a different direction, but try to give you the same thing I’ve given you in the other films as far as originality and scares.” You have to come up with new tricks. Once the audience knows that a certain camera move means something is gonna pop out, you’ve got to come back with something new. Back in the day it was the cat popping out of the closet. Even Alien had that scene!
SB: My original Blair Witch script was a lot less subtle, because we wanted Adam to direct alternate versions to find which worked best. There were a couple of moments where he was like, “Can we pan around the corner and reveal something?” “We tried that in V/H/S/2 and no one jumps when it happens, so let’s not try it again.”
ES: You did a great job getting that improvisational energy. The Blair Witch Project has taught me that if you cast a film right, it’s not all up to you. A lot of the stuff that we cut out of Blair Witch didn’t work, but we cut a really good hour and a half of these improvisation exercises that they were doing the entire week that we were shooting. When you’re shooting out of sequence, being able to have actors bring something new and tweak the line on set, saying, “What about if we move this beat to here?,” and also switching scenes and lines in the editing room—that’s gonna make the scene work.
SB: Our actors did quite a bit of improv. Adam and I came from the so-called “Mumblegore” movement with A Horrible Way to Die and the first V/H/S and we were working with Mumblecore actors who are good at improv. Even though all those things were scripted, I was comfortable working with the actors and letting them be loose so we could create more spontaneity. On some of those films Joe Swanberg and Amy Seimetz did a lot of improv, but AJ Bowen has to do his lines pretty much verbatim, as scripted. His experience is more in traditional filmmaking. We would have this exciting tension where we could get core improv, but then an actor would always bring it back to the story and keep it structured so you don’t have 18-minute scenes, which is what my issue with a lot of Mumblecore movies was, and why we wanted to apply that filmmaking aesthetic to a genre story with A Horrible Way to Die. We haven’t really done that too much since then, but that was something that started our careers.
There is a fair amount of that fusion in Blair Witch, which has always worked well for us. Some actors love improv, some will wait for the scene to get back on track and then find that place. That’s how you can do improv efficiently.
Another thing, and one of the reasons I hope the script never gets out, is at one point the shooting script for Blair Witch, which is a 90-minute movie, was 128 pages.
SB: Yeah. I knew we would only use the middle section of a scene. We were gonna cut this together like it was a real documentary, like The Blair Witch Project, which feels like scenes don’t have traditional beginnings and ends, like you have hours of footage and someone is assembling the pieces they need. If I scripted those pieces, they wouldn’t have had the right transitions. I learned that if you want an actor to trail off, they have to know what they would have said even if it’s not in the script. I’d write a full scene a page and a half long, knowing that we were probably only gonna use three lines in the middle. Our goal was to give the authenticity of those performances from the original, while making a more traditional horror movie than the original. And we did weird things, like Adam was constantly startling the actors with an air horn [laughs]. Even though we weren’t recreating the experiment of the original film, we did want our actors to have authentic reactions.
ES: Yeah, while not starving your actors, like we did! SAG would not allow that to happen these days. We were cognizant of the safety of the actors, but we definitely wanted to make them feel uncomfortable. That’s your biggest advantage as an indie filmmaker: You can do whatever the hell you want as long as you pull it off. You can kill kids, kill animals!
SB: The real challenge for us was, “How do we, with a group of trained actors and a studio-proofed screenplay, go out in the woods and make something that feels real, like working with a union crew?” [laughs] One of the biggest differences between The Blair Witch Project and Blair Witch is that you went off and made a very experimental independent film, and Adam and I made our first film for a studio. Now I’m thinking, “What’s the market for this? If this is a direct-to-VOD thing how can I keep this low-budget enough that everyone involved will make a profit?” Which sounds mercenary and pragmatist. Yet the number of submissions Sundance gets every year has multiplied by 20 just in the past decade. It feels like a microcosm of what’s happening to our country economically—the big movies can get out there, but if you don’t have money and resources, it’s hard to breach the general public’s awareness. There’s just so much content out there.
ES: I tell horror moviemakers, “You can be inspired by stuff, but don’t try to repeat it.” That’s your only chance at getting attention in this super-crowded marketplace.
SB: When I first started, I had to shoot with a Bolex and edit with a razorblade and a flashlight—that old cliché. The Blair Witch Project was one of the—if not the—first wide-release films ever shot on consumer video cameras. But it’s not harder to make movies now than it was in the late ’90s. The opportunities are out there. It’s about looking at the landscape and thinking about the stories you want to tell and where they fit in. MM
Blair Witch opens in theaters September 16, 2016, courtesy of Lionsgate.