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‘The Blair Witch Project’ 10 years later

The film’s spectacular journey from Sundance indie to mainstream phenomenon has become Hollywood legend.
/ Source: Entertainment Weekly

July 16 will be the 10-year anniversary of a little movie called “The Blair Witch Project.” Perhaps you’ve heard of it? The film’s spectacular journey from Sundance indie to mainstream phenomenon has become Hollywood legend, so much so that Roger Ebert named “Blair Witch” one of the 10 most influential films of the 20th century.

The movie gave hope to young, broke filmmakers everywhere — all you needed was the cost of tuition for one year at college, some cheap cameras, and a very, very, very clever idea.

Since Blair Witch made $249 million worldwide on its initial $20,000-$25,000 budget, others have tried to duplicate its unprecedented success, including none other than the film’s own two directors, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez.

Still close friends, Dan and Ed went their separate ways after “Blair Witch,” each taking some time off before making a series of horror or supernatural flicks. Myrick directed “Believers,” “Solstice” and “The Objective”; Sánchez helmed “Altered” and “Seventh Moon.” Haven’t heard of those movies? Don’t worry — most of them went straight to DVD.

But it can’t be easy when your debut picture shatters records and is so convincing that some people, to this day, believe it’s an actual documentary. How do you possibly follow that kind of once-in-a-lifetime anomaly?

EW talked to both of the “Blair Witch” directors individually, as well as the movie’s three stars. To find out what has happened to those three young actors post-“Blair,” check out the new issue of EW, on newsstands July 10. But for now, enjoy this exclusive Q&A with directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, who discuss how they shot the groundbreaking movie, what they make of the subsequent backlash against it, and whether they’d ever want to return to “Blair Witch.”

Entertainment Weekly: I’ve heard so many different stories about how you guys went about filming “Blair Witch.” Could you clarify exactly what it was like shooting the movie?

Eduardo Sánchez: When Dan and I wrote the script, it wasn’t really a script. It was more like a glorified outline of all the scenes. We didn’t have any dialogue because we knew we wanted to make it completely improv. And then we decided we were going to leave the actors out there and try to remote-control direct them.

We developed this system where we would leave notes for them in these little 35mm film canisters, and the notes contained logistical information as far as where to hike, and what time to get to a certain spot that we had already entered into the actors’ GPS units.

We also provided character notes, like “Heather’s driving me crazy” or “You’ve got to get away from Mike” or “Josh is slowly losing his mind.” And then we let them do their own thing.

We’d supply them with fresh tapes and batteries, and we would give them food. As they neared the end of the shoot, we started depriving them of food. By the last day, they were basically living off a banana and some juice.

Were the actors upset by the end of production?

Sánchez: No, they weren’t. We took good care of them. Our producer, Gregg Hale, was in the Army and had Special Forces training, so he led the whole “keeping them safe” part and had escape routes from all of the locations. They had a walkie-talkie with them. If they needed anything, they could just call.

As for the film’s budget, I’ve seen various figures.

Sánchez: Well, the original budget to get the film in the can was probably between $20,000 and $25,000. Then, once we got to Sundance to make a print and do a sound mix, we were probably more in the neighborhood of $100,000. And then once Artisan Entertainment bought the film, they put another half-million dollars into it. They did a new sound mix, and they had us re-shoot some stuff.

They didn’t like the original ending with Mike standing in the corner. They asked us to shoot some new endings — Mike hanging by his neck; Mike crucified on a big stick figure; Mike with his shirt ripped open and all bloodied. We shot them but ended up staying with our original ending. So the budget of what you saw in the theaters was probably $500,000 to $750,000.

How early did you know that might have something special?

Daniel Myrick: We were intending to hopefully amass maybe 20 or 30 minutes of usable footage out there in the woods. Originally, the film was intended to be a fake documentary where we’d have all this analysis and talking heads that would support this “found footage.” It wasn’t until later when we started compiling all this footage that Ed and I started realizing we may have a whole film in just what we shot out in the woods with the kids. But because it was pretty unorthodox, we really weren’t sure how an audience would respond to it. And then when we got to Sundance, the response was pretty overwhelming.

Was it apparent after that very first screening at Sundance?

Myrick: Yeah. The first screening was at midnight at the Egyptian, and the line was around the building and down the alley. And that night the movie was bought — we were the first sale at Sundance. That’s when we started thinking, well, maybe we have a potential for a theatrical release here. We talked to the Artisan guys, and I think their most optimistic projection was around $10 million at the box office. And after Sundance had run its course, Cannes was next, and it wasn’t until Cannes that I realized the film was starting to take on a life of its own.

What’s your take on the backlash that inevitably followed?

Sánchez: Well, “Blair Witch” started competing with Hollywood movies. Once you start competing with Hollywood movies, you have to deliver the formula that audiences are expecting, especially in a horror movie. You’ve got to have a certain kind of scare, a certain kind of reveal at the end. People like things to be tied up at the end of the movie.

There are a lot of people who probably shouldn’t have seen “Blair Witch.” It just wasn’t their movie. It’s like “El Mariachi” or “Clerks” making $140 million. It was an indie movie that blew up. We went from the underdogs to the guys that were beating the studios, so all of a sudden we entered another league that our film probably wasn’t ready for.

Myrick: The film, kind of by design, was meant to be seen on a smaller screen. It’s a home movie, and when you see something like that on a 30-foot screen, it almost takes away from the experience. Some people were expecting this big Hollywood thing, and they had to reprogram their minds to see something that was completely different.

If you could have controlled how much success “Blair Witch” had, would you have changed anything?

Myrick: If I had to do it all over again, it would have been nice if it had just been a successful indie movie that was graded more on its merits rather than the hype. I don’t think the actors got enough credit for the performances they pulled off. They were so real and authentic that people thought they were real and authentic. (Laughs) Yeah, they were almost too good, and the same with the direction and screenwriting. Our whole job was to make it look like it wasn’t directed. And so that all got lost in the hype. It all got lost in the big marketing push and the rags-to-riches story.

What projects were you being offered right after “Blair Witch”?

Sánchez: They kept sending us scripts of just pretty much every horror film that was in development or about to go into production. We got offered “The Exorcist” prequel, but they were like, “Look, here’s the script. We start shooting in two months!” Dan and I could not have made another horror movie right away. We were in this really dark place with “Blair Witch” for two or three years, and we just felt we needed to get the hell out. And we finally found ourselves with money, and it was time to buy a house, buy a nice car, get married, and start having kids. So life all of a sudden got in the way of filmmaking, which had never happened before to me! (Laughs)

These days, is being affiliated with “Blair Witch” more of an advantage or disadvantage?

Sánchez: It’s definitely an advantage. It’s one of these films that everybody knows about, so we can get a meeting with anyone we want. I feel honored and privileged that I was a part of this movie, and it’s given me a career. And it still has a lot of juice — we’re in the very opening stages of possibly doing another “Blair Witch” movie.

A prequel or sequel?

Sánchez: Well, if someone came up and said, “Here’s $20 million,” the prequel would probably be our No. 1 movie. But there are some cool sequel ideas that we have right now. At the same time, for Dan and me, there’s this challenge of living up to the creative excitement that we had working on the first film. We really have to be 100 percent sure that it’s going to elicit a similar response to what the first one did for the fans. And that doesn’t mean we shoot it again in first-person video. You can’t start the next “Blair Witch” movie with a shaky video camera. You just can’t. It would turn people off immediately. Okay, so now what do you do? It is a challenge, but we’re up for it.