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INTO THE WOODS
With films like Scream, Urban Legend and Bride of Chucky re-kindling the horror genre with a certain smug post-modernism, Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick’s debut The Blair Witch Project takes horror in a completely different stylistic direction. Stephen Gallagher speaks with the directors about Method filmmaking, Bigfoot movies, and fear.

Arlando-based Haxan Films is a "creative think-tank" formed by Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez, Robin Cowie, Gregg Hale and Michael Monello, who met while students at the University of Central Florida in the mid-’90s. Although the company sustains itself producing television commecials and corporate videos, its partners have become increasingly active in developing their own independent films in-house. A conceptual pseudo-documentary cum horror film, The Blair Witch Project, is the company’s first feature.

Co-written and directed by Sanchez and Myrick, The Blair Witch Project begins with the following title card: "On October 21, 1994, Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael Williams hiked into the Black Hills Forest to shoot a documentary film on a local legend called ‘The Blair Witch,’ and were never seen again. One year later, their footage was found." The resulting feature, ostensibly cut from this "found" 16mm and video footage, recreates the final days of the three hapless student filmmakers. While based on a ruse, The Blair Witch Project feels terrifyingly real; the directors employed unorthodox, high-risk filmmaking techniques to achieve an authentic first-hand experience of terror.

The filmmakers cast three actors, whose real names are used in the film, based on their skill with improvisation. The actors, posing as student filmmakers, then set about the task of shooting a documentary on "The Blair Witch" that took them deep into the forest where, as the Haxan team had planned, they became hopelessly lost. For eight days the actors, armed with both film and video cameras, wandered alone through the woods, receiving only occasional messages and incrementally less food from the directors and crew, who tracked them from a distance using a Global Positioning System. With little idea of what the filmmakers had in store for them, the actors’/students’ fear becomes palpable as they encounter mysterious rock piles, voodo dolls, and piercing cries in the freezing night.

The directors had originally intended to contextualize this "found" footage in a reality-based television spoof entitled "Mystic Occurances," but they jettisoned the material shot for that program – it can be seen on their website: www.haxan.com – in favor of the unmediated experience of terror captured by the actors on tape.

 

Filmmaker: How did you come up with such a novel concept for a horror film?

Eduardo Sanchez: In 1993, when we were still in school, Dan and I were hanging out one weekend, and we started talking about horror films – what made them scary and why there hadn’t been a really good scary horror film for a long time. We started comparing films that had scared us when we were little kids, and they were all kind of the same films: The Legend of Boggy Creek, the television show "In Search Of"...

Dan Myrick: Chariots of the Gods.

Sanchez: UFO movies, Bigfoot movies...

Filmmaker: Reality-based stuff?

Sanchez: Yeah. I was really into UFOs and stuff like that when I was younger. The fact that that stuff could be real always freaked me out. And I find films like The Shining and The Exorcist, which play on psychological fears, really terrifying. So we asked ourselves, how can we really scare people psychologically, and yet work within our budget, which was miniscule?

Myrick: For me, the reason those cheesy Bigfoot documentaries were so scary is that they were based on reality – or at least what I thought was reality. Something made those Bigfoot tracks! And the documentary style of those films added a sense of reality that normal films just don’t have. Editing in regular motion pictures often pulls the audience away from the fear. We wanted to do something with long takes where the audience is stuck with the protagonist of the film – where the editing and the way the film is shot don’t let you escape from the reality of what’s going on with the characters. So we came up with the idea of having some kind of documentary-style feel to the film.

Sanchez: That worked out great for us because we could also get away with a lot of the traditional shortcomings of low-budget films and use them as our strength, like shooting first person with a Hi-8 video camera. It was tough to maintain that realism while resisting the temptation to sensationalize a little bit.

Filmmaker: One of the things that intrigued me about the film, beyond the fact that it is simply terrifying, is that you actually didn’t have a shooting script.

Myrick: No, we had an outline. Ed and I got together and we penciled out the world, the character profiles, and what was, within certain parameters, going to happen to the actors on their journey into the woods.

Sanchez: We had the plot outlined, but we left the details up to the actors.

Myrick: We had to make sure they said certain things or did certain things at times, but for the most part we created the environment for them and let them act within those constraints.

Filmmaker: What did you expect would happen going into the project?

Sanchez: I never thought realistically of leaving the characters in the woods for seven or eight days straight. Originally, we expected them to shoot just ten scenes on 16mm.

Myrick: We weren’t even thinking video.

Filmmaker: So the project was originally going to be structured around ten scenes – the "lost" 16mm film footage some student filmmakers had shot?

Myrick: Yeah, and we were going to build this whole documentary around that footage.

Sanchez: Our initial theory was that the graininess of black-and-white 16mm film made things a lot more terrifying than video. So we tried to come up with a scenario where they would only shoot film.

Filmmaker: When did you decide to introduce the video element?

Myrick: Well Greg Hale, our producer, made that suggestion – strictly as a financial consideration. And Ed and I kind of waffled a little bit on it, because we really like the look of film. But the more we started thinking about it, we realized it’s not unreasonable for Heather, the main character, to have her own little Hi-8 with her to shoot the behind-the-scenes of her film. So after a while we embraced that idea, and of course video is cheap. We told the actors to shoot everything. Just shoot, shoot, shoot. And some of our best moments came out on video. [The medium provided] an interesting contrast between what she was trying to shoot on film and what was actually happening, which was on video.

Sanchez: What we initially thought is that we were going to have maybe ten short little [film] scenes, and then there was going to be a documentary phase of the film, which we called Phase 2. The documentary was going to examine the footage, and we were going to find figures in the background and all kinds of creepy stuff like that. But when Dan and I went through all the footage from Phase 1 – we had 18 hours of footage – we started realizing that there was actually a really good narrative structure to all the footage. And that’s when we started toying with the idea of leaving it the way it was – as if it were all found footage. But we shot the Phase 2 stuff anyway.

Myrick: But when we started to plug it in, it just took away from the heart of the "found" footage. We were fixing something that wasn’t broken.

Filmmaker: What kind of material did you shoot in Phase 2?

Myrick: We shot a 1940s newsreel of this killer named Rustin Parr. We shot this ’70s-style "In Search Of" rip-off show called "Mystic Occurrences," where this guy explains the history of the Blair Witch, and video footage of the police when they find all the film reels and DAT tapes and Hi-8s.

Sanchez: Interviews of family, friends, police detectives and stuff like that.

Myrick: We shot some news spots. But we ended up using none of the Phase 2 footage. Absolutely nothing.

Filmmaker: Did you train the actors to shoot before they went into the woods?

Sanchez: Yeah, we trained them, and we had a sound guy train Mike with the DAT on how to take levels.

Myrick: I took Joshua out for a day and kind of got him familiar with the camera.

Sanchez: And we gave the actors a one-day crash course on working the GTS [Global Tracking System] and all the stuff they needed to get around and negotiate in the woods.

Filmmaker: When they were in the woods, were the actors actually on their own? Did they have any direct contact with the crew?

Myrick: Periodically, they did. But we shadowed them the whole time – we were in fatigues so they wouldn’t take notice of us. We wanted to keep them immersed in their characters. But they were guided along by a GTS, and we had one as well, so we could give them way points and set up a [situation to react to] before they arrived.

Filmmaker: When they encounter voodoo symbols hanging from the trees, they seem genuinely surprised.

Sanchez: That was a way point on their GTS. They headed that direction, and we just waited for them to discover the voodoo dolls.

Myrick: Mike was in charge of the GTS that day. We wrote him a note that said, "Look for something in the woods." So he knew that they had to look for something.

Filmmaker: Were they handing off footage to you as they went along?

Sanchez: Yeah, and we were giving them batteries. And after the third day, we started giving them food, supplementing what they had. And we would have directing notes at a lot of the dropoff points to explain to them what was happening and what they were supposed to do for the next couple of scenes.

Myrick: Ed and I would review the tapes and assess their dynamic as they were going along and make adjustments.

Filmmaker: How much did the film change as you went along? How much was really a reaction to the dynamic you were witnessing, and what aspects were pre-planned?

Sanchez: Amazingly, [the actors] pretty much hit every single point in the plot outline. We planned it so we would tell them just enough for them to pull a gag off, and still be surprised by it. But after the first night when they hear the noises, there was a problem. Heather had already reached this point where she was just very angry at Josh and Mike. She was yelling at them, and they were all cussing at each other. We edited all of that stuff out because it was happening too soon. We said to them the next day, "You guys are going to have nothing to build to. You’re blowing your wad here."

Myrick: They didn’t know how many nights they were going to have to react to things happening to them. So they had no idea where their curve should be, where it should start, what the next step should be. We had to kind of guide them that way. But I think after that first night it was pretty much controlled. It was just a matter of getting them to the right spot at the right time and having the crew run around and put the rock piles outside their tent, and all that other junk.

Sanchez: It was a logistical nightmare, because some of those locations were two miles back in the woods, and we had to trek through with nothing more than a GTS in total darkness.

Filmmaker: How did you cast the actors?

Sanchez: Over a year’s time, we went to New York, had an audition in L.A. and here in Orlando, but most of the talent pool that was right for this came out of New York. Plus it was just more convenient for us because New York’s not too far away from Maryland, where we shot the film. The audition process itself was kind of novel too, because we were really interested in the actors’ improv skills. We set up scenarios in which the auditioners would have to be on their toes for this whole barrage of improv. And whoever could think on their feet kind of made it to the next level, and those who just didn’t get it went about their business.

Filmmaker: How did you work with the actors prior to shooting? Did you do workshops?

Myrick: We didn’t really want them to know each other too well before they got out into the woods. So we brought them in only three or four days before we started shooting. We decided we were only going to give them some background details – the fact that they went to Montgomery College, were film majors or TV majors, and that they did this or that. We wanted them to bring their own personalities to the roles.

Sanchez: And to mix their past with the past of their characters, so they’re pulling on these kind of pseudo truths. And we used their real names – so when they’re under duress and stuff like that, yelling at each other, it made it more real for them.

Myrick: Heather told me at the wrap party that there were times out there when she actually had to get away from the guys and be by herself for a little bit and kind of think about her life in New York, her boyfriend, her apartment and things like that. She said that she was getting so far into the role and the surroundings that she was about to lose it. So I think that the technique worked. Basically, it was just method filmmaking.

Filmmaker: One of the most amazing scenes in the film is when she tapes herself having a breakdown. Was that a scene you had planned?

Sanchez: That was definitely a scene that we wanted, that we preconceived. Heather basically comes to terms with what’s really going on and is kind of accepting her fate.

Sanchez: And responsibility. She’s been this ruthless bitch the whole time, and this is kind of an acknowledgment to herself that she really screwed up. It kind of helps you sympathize with her.

Myrick: Actually, Mike had a confessional too, same type of scene, where he says goodbye to his family, but it just didn’t work in this version.

Filmmaker: This was such a risky project. How did you finance it?

Myrick: One big factor for us was John Pierson. He came in for the ’97 Florida Film Festival, and I worked with him on one of his Split Screen episodes. After I did some shooting for him, I told him about this project we were doing. We had already put together a little investor reel that was more in the line of our vision of Phase Two – kind of a mock documentary of the back story of the Blair Witch. So I sent him this tape and a couple of days later he called me back and said he really liked it. As a matter of fact he believed the whole thing and thought it was all genuine.

Sanchez: Yeah, he was asking where we had found the footage.

Myrick: It was pretty funny. I told him that it was all fiction, that this was a film that we were working on that we wanted to get financed. And so he offered to air that first tape for us as part of Split Screen. He paid us for that, and that money went directly into helping to shoot Phase 1.

Sanchez: And then he wanted us to do another segment for the second season of Split Screen, and he paid us for that too, and that money really made it possible. Along with our own money.

Myrick: Those two sequences also generated a debate on his website which was cool for us because we knew we were getting really good and strong reactions from the premise we had laid out. So it fueled our enthusiasm as well.

Filmmaker: So how does the finished film measure up to your initial conception of it?

Myrick: It definitely took on a life of its own.

Sanchez: Much in the sense of a true documentary where you just go out, get a bunch of footage and then put it all together in post. This is as true to that as if we had really found the footage and really had to piece it all together. We definitely got as close as we had hoped to get to real horror.

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