A few months ago I had a feeling that Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett’s latest film might play at TIFF. I assumed that it would be an opportunity to chat up their latest original project known as The Woods, which would undoubtedly play with genres and expectations like You’re Next or The Guest. Little did I know the first game those clever boys played on me and every other viewer was concealing the actual identity of their latest movie. They secretly made a new Blair Witch movie 17 years after the original ushered the found footage horror subgenre into the mainstream. It was a clever trick and a hell of a marketing tactic. Even better, the pair actually delivered a movie that lived up to all the hype.
Though certainly still true to the air of mystery and ambiguity that made the original film so memorable, the new Blair Witch is a gut punch horror flick. After taking time to tease out suspense, set the scene, and develop interesting characters, Wingard/Barrett deliver a non stop rush of scares that should have audiences sweating and cheering in packed theaters full of giddy fans. It should have been little more than a pandering business decision to revive this specific franchise so many years after it broke ground at the box office. Yet thanks to hiring a filmmaking team this talented and passionate about the material, Blair Witch is a goddamn delight.
Dork Shelf got a chance to chat it up with the director/writer team while they were in Toronto to screen Blair Witch for the rabid Midnight Madness crowd. Clearly enamoured with the original film in this franchise, we discussed their history with this ol’ witch, their unique (yet respectful) approach to the material, production secrecy, and why viewers shouldn’t expect that old Todd McFarlane Blair Witch action figure to pop up on screen anytime soon (thank fuck).
Where were you when you first saw The Blair Witch Project and what was the impact that it had on you?
Adam Wingard: I was in high school. I actually didn’t see it in theaters because I lived in a town that was about 45 minutes away from the nearest theater. I was always lucky to catch anything at all. So I caught it on VHS. I obviously knew that it wasn’t real. I’m actually surprised anybody thought it was real. In high school I remember having to explain to people that it wasn’t real. Rumours could exist so much more easily back.
Yeah the fact that there even was a website felt validating.
AW: Exactly. Even if you heard that it wasn’t real, it seemed so convincing that it played with your perception. It seemed so realistic that you just kind of went with it. My experience with watching the first one was that I got it on VHS and watched it over and over in the first few days. I had followed its success through Sundance and stuff for a while. I was excited about it being on Entertainment Tonight and was fascinated by it. When I finally saw it, I got obsessed with all of the websites and message boards. That was another thing that was so exciting about it. It wasn’t just about the mythology, it had a life of its own. There was a huge fan base and everyone had different theories. It’s very mysterious. The final moments of the film where it leaves you off is almost confusing. Your final moments are a complete mystery that leaves you baffled. So it was fun to go on line and read people’s theories.
Obviously you couldn’t quite match that mystery of whether or not the movie was real this time, but you still recaptured some of the sense of surprise and unexpected through the marketing.
Simon Barrett: Yeah the original film was also ground-breaking in its marketing campaign by posting ancillary materials on the internet, which was still in its early stages back in 1999. There was also that companion TV documentary Curse Of The Blair Witch, which totally made you feel like it was a real thing. Back then people would read the internet with a certain degree of credulity. It was a research tool. Now in 2016 we’ve gone the other way and don’t believe anything that we read on the internet anymore. We knew we couldn’t do anything similar to that. All of our actors are on social media so we couldn’t pretend they were dead anyways, even though we didn’t want to try. So we didn’t want to try and convince people that the movie was real because that would be impossible, but still somehow give the viewer the ability to suspend their disbelief and enjoy the movie though a sense of authenticity. That’s what I enjoy as a viewer, I knew The Blair Witch Project wasn’t real when I watched it, but it felt real and still feels real today when I watch it. So that was the goal. Nothing was going to leap out at you and take you out of the movie.
It was impressive that you somehow managed to keep it all a secret.
SB: Yeah that was a way to keep it special in an era of oversharing, to keep it all a secret. We did that in a number of ways. I created a safe version of the script that we internally at Lionsgate that had completely different names and no mention of the Blair Witch. But the main way we kept it secret was just by not talking about it. In this era of social media so many filmmakers like to almost brag about what they are doing. Even we will when we are excited about projects. But we just made an effort to avoid all of that this time. We didn’t even talk about it with most people in our lives and Lionsgate did that as well, which is really impressive. It’s one thing for the two of us to keep a secret. It’s quite another thing for an entire studio to keep a secret when you’ve got interns and people listening in on phone calls. It was elaborate, but it wasn’t like The Force Awakens or anything. It was pretty lo-fi.
AW: Well the other thing is that no one expected us or any one to be making it. That made things a lot easier. It was very under the radar in that sense. Only just recently is it something on people’s minds. It wasn’t like a Force Awakens thing where everyone had eyes on it and expectations. Really it was just about us staying under the radar.
One of the other infamous things about the movie in 1999 was that audiences complained about nausea from all the shakey-cam.
SB: We’ve had a lot of time to hang out with Eduardo Sanchez, Daniel Myrick, and their producer Gregg Hale over the course of this project. One of the interesting things about the original film is that they never planned for that to be shown in theaters, they thought it would maybe screen on television. In fact they never planned on that version being released at all. It was kind of a pitch for a larger project that they were going to edit together. We talked to them about the ‘shaky cam’ thing and they said, “Well, if we had known it was going to be shown in theaters all over the world we would have shot it a little differently.” Plus we also had the experience on the first two V/H/S movies to really figure out what makes people vomit and not. We knew with this film that we were ideally going to get a wide theatrical release all over the world and we ideally did not want to make people vomit. So we developed an instinct for how to achieve that. It was about choosing modern cameras, some of which we made up for this film that would give us a POV style that would work.
AW: Yeah and in approaching making the film itself, one of the things that you have to do with found footage is establish that reality. So a little bit of shakiness is always needed just because that’s the reality of holding a camera. You can’t deny that, otherwise it becomes fake and then you have another set of problems. But we were very conscious of the fact that’s one of the issues that people have with found footage movies and the original Blair Witch Project in particular. So Simon invented the idea of these Bluetooth cameras that fit on your ear to just kind of naturally stabilize the image. And it also solves the problem of why the characters are still filming the situation while they are in danger. This ensures that they are just filming anyways and not thinking about it. What I wanted to do is a director was make the first half of the film feel like a return to the original source material and feel like a documentary that the characters are making. So you have that kind of Bluetooth camera mixed in there with people actually making movies. But then once the horror really sets in at the midpoint of the movie and keeps building relentlessly from that point on, it kind of slowly switches from that documentary style that you’re used to and into a completely POV experience. Hopefully to the point that you even forget you’re watching a found footage movie. Because ultimately the point is that you’re immersed as an audience in the predicament that the characters are in. You don’t want the audience in the middle of set pieces to be thinking about the camera and things like that. That’s one of the luxuries we had as filmmakers, being able to look at 15 years worth of explorations of the found footage subgenre to decide what works, what doesn’t, and how to combine the best of these things into our own version of it.
It was a nice shift into more straight horror after the more playful mash-up takes on the genre that you’ve done recently in things like You’re Next and The Guest.
SB: Yeah we’ve never really done that because all of our films have been weird. I think one of the things that unites Adam and I is that we never want to repeat ourselves. You’re Next and The Guest often tonally shifted, switched between genres, and were considered experimental works within the genre frame. So I think the next challenge for us was to finally play it straight for once. We’d always wanted to make a really scary movie, but it’s a hard nut to crack in it’s own way.
AW: It felt like the lazy thing to do was to make another genre deconstruction. Simon and I had been talking for quite a some time about really trying something that is totally committed to being really scary. So it was really fortunate that we were able to mix that with one of the scariest movies ever, which is The Blair Witch Project. It was a great platform for us to try something straightforward on. It is committed to being something that thrills you as an audience and feels like a ride.
It almost felt like you were running through a checklist off all the different types of cinematic horror and scares.
AW: Oh yeah, we wanted to run the gamut of all the different ways to scare an audience from claustrophobia to jump scars to being chased and everything in between. All of the different dangers you can go through physically and mentally. But it all had to be organic to the format. So even trying to design jump scares was very difficult because it all had to be formalized from something believable. Trying to find new ways of doing that was really hard. But we really wanted it to feel like a rollercoaster ride. We wanted it to be Blair Witch: The Ride to a certain degree. One of the biggest influences that I had going into it was really The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, which is a relentless movie. It’s very different from the original movie, which is important too. If we just did the same thing as the original Blair Witch Project you would face a very different type of complaint, which would be that “Oh it’s another movie where nothing happens.” Then it would really feel like you were just re-doing the first film. But we wanted to take the world of The Blair Witch and do something new with it and reset the palate for modern horror audiences. People are kind of impatient sometimes. You want to just jump into a movie for 80 minutes and have a crazy fun times.
AW: Yeah, I think there it’s also just a primal human fear to be lost in the woods. But you can’t just do that in a horror film because then you’re ripping off The Blair Witch Project. But we could do that because we were making a Blair Witch sequel. When you’re out in the middle of the woods with just a flashlight, which we were frequently making the movie, it’s a very frightening experience. And it was important for us to try and recreate that for the audience because there is something inherently frightening about that.
I thought you did a really good job of showing more and exploring the mythology a little more deeply than any previous movie while still retaining the sense of mystery and ambiguity that is so important to the series. So was it tough to do that and what sort of conversations did you have around how to approach it?
AW: Yeah we knew we needed to show you something more because the first movie shows you absolutely nothing and it’s all about your imagination. But if we did that again it would feel like a cop out. But at the same time, we didn’t want to show you too much because ultimately everybody’s interpretation of what’s going on out there in the woods is different, ours included. So we wanted everything that you see on screen to be vague enough that even if you went through frame by frame, you couldn’t really quite have a firm grasp of what it is. We didn’t want to take that famous Todd McFarlane action figure and put that on screen because that would be ridiculous. Some people would think it was cool and half the people would think it was too on the nose.
SB: I’d probably be in the latter half.
AW: Yeah I didn’t like that design. But at the end of the day I think one of the cool things about this series is that it’s all about the mystery. Who is the Blair Witch? Is the Blair Witch real? What is really going on out there? Ultimately, the characters have theories and they talk about it and so as an audience member some times you think that we are giving you the answers, but ultimately you’re just hearing character theorize about it. A lot of people assume the things you’re seeing are the witch, but it think that’s what’s fun to explore going forward because what is that thing, what did you see out there? Is that even the thing that they were dealing with in the first one. Even at the end of the movie, those mysterious lights that appear in the attic was something that we specifically put in to give people something to talk about. We know what’s going on in there and sonically and visually we wanted to give you some clues. But ultimately we wanted it to be a communal experience of discussion and theorizing. And that’s kind of what’s fun about Blair Witch going back to my first experience of the film. Going on message boards and never quite knowing exactly what’s going on. You have to come up with your own theories. It’s all about the mystery. Even the marketing was all about the mystery.
SB: Yeah and nothing that you can put on screen can be as scary as what they imagine. If you can provoke someone’s imagination, those are the films that are going to scare them later at night when they are trying to get to sleep or a week later or a month later. But at the same time, you can’t just show them nothing because that doesn’t help either. It’s about giving people just enough to scare them in the theater, but also enough to keep thinking about it later so that hopefully they’ll want to come back and see it a second time.