The horror genre lives and dies on its surprises. Jump scares, third-act twists, blood seeping from unexpected orifices – terror is often found in the places you least expect. Which is why, when it was revealed this past July that Lionsgate’s new horror film The Woods was actually a covert Blair Witch sequel, it was tempting to award the studio a lifetime pass. In an easy-access age where every tiny detail of a film’s life is dissected online, it was a genuine shock to discover that a sequel to one of the most controversial films of all time was being produced right under everyone’s noses.
But why did it take 17 long years since the original film shocked audiences for a new iteration to get off the ground – especially when both the horror genre and the industry at large seem constantly on the hunt for easy franchise opportunities? Was it because of the original film’s polarizing reaction? The first sequel’s disastrous reception? Or an exhaustion with the found-footage genre that Blair Witch sparked? To avoid taking wild stabs in the dark – never a good idea when discussing a horror flick – The Globe and Mail talked with the creative teams behind the series, and discovered that some brands are just too bewitching to let go.
The Blair Witch Project, 1999
Rookie filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez brought their faux-documentary about three hikers getting lost in the woods to Sundance in 1999 – and suddenly, the horror genre was never the same. After months of Internet-fueled marketing (a rare PR route at the time), which torqued the film as a “real” document, the film went on to earn $248-million (U.S.) worldwide off a budget of just $60,000.
Daniel Myrick (co-director, The Blair Witch Project): We intentionally drew upon a lot of common folklore, especially in that area that we shot [southwest Maryland]. Native-American folklore, Civil War folklore, the Salem witch trials – there’s just a lot of superstition that Eduardo and I were able to tap into. Plus, everyone has that common neuroses about being in the woods, hearing that creepy story around the campfire, things that go bump in the night. The Blair Witch Project tapped into all that, and I think is a big reason why it still holds up, even if you don’t know the details of the movie or its mythology.
Robin Cowie (producer, The Blair Witch Project): We were just trying to make something that would scare us. It was being in the right place, at the right time, with the right attitude. Plus, doing it the way we did it, by placing a lot of mythology online, people seemed hungry for that at the time, and we had stuff to feed them.
Myrick: Using the found-footage technique, it was such counter-programming from what the rest of Hollywood was doing, or comfortable with. One of the things I had to come to terms with when we shot it was to reinvent ways to direct actors – you have to give up some control in some areas, and it’s an unconventional approach to filmmaking. It wasn’t something that corporate behemoths are very comfortable with – they’re traditionally risk-averse.
Colin Geddes (TIFF programmer, Midnight Madness): It’s interesting that [the first] Blair Witch never really triggered that wave of found-footage films – that came mostly after Paranormal Activity in 2007. It’s fascinating to see that there was a real cultural zeitgeist blip, but then no one really took it up, there were few copycat films. Looking back, for a certain generation, it’s great because they genuinely remember being scared by a big-screen experience. There were people who had the misconception that it was an actual documentary, that these people were really missing!
Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, 2000
After the astounding success of the first film, studio Artisan had little choice but to make a new film, and quickly, if it wanted to retain the interest of a fickle marketplace. After commissioning three separate scripts that all more or less continued in the same fashion as the original film, the studio decided to take an entirely different route, and hired acclaimed documentarian Joe Berlinger ( Paradise Lost ) for a more meta approach.
Joe Berlinger (director, Book of Shadows): The whole thing was a bizarre experience. I was pitching Artisan on a whole other movie at the time. Finally, I sit down with the co-presidents of Artisan, and I start launching into my pitch, and they hold up their hands and say, no, no, no. You’re not there for that – we’re here to talk Blair Witch 2. Their idea was to continue the story as if Josh, Heather and Mike were still real people who are missing. I felt that was a mistake because these guys have gone on the Letterman show, they’re on the cover of Time – I don’t think that’s the way to make a movie. I was also troubled by the found-footage technique as a documentarian, which somehow became cultural shorthand of poorly shot footage – shaking cameras, dropped cameras – being equated with reality. I wanted to make a film commenting on the first film’s success, to explore the blurring of the line between fiction and reality. What my film wanted to be about was those five characters going into the woods obsessed with the real-life movie, but are so obsessed and can’t distinguish between fiction and reality that they don’t realize the events happening are their own delusions, and that they’re the killers – there is no Blair Witch. That was my pitch, and to my surprise, they took it.
Artisan wanted the film turned around quickly: Berlinger was hired in November, 1999, started shooting in February, 2000, and the film was released that October.
Berlinger: I think the only thing Artisan cared about at the time was its IPO, so we were left alone. The shoot itself was fantastic. But at the 12th hour, the marketing executives came in and tested the movie … All these gory shots were inserted against my desire. My film had a very different, somewhat satirical tone, and Artisan lost all its will and said we need to see blood, we need to see gore. I had to recut the film.
Book of Shadows, which Berlinger has more or less disowned, was released Oct. 27, 2000, to scathing reviews, though it did go on to earn $50-million worldwide.
Berlinger: I still have pain from the experience, and I haven’t talked about the movie in a long time, but I guess I should brace myself. Things were done to it that I didn’t approve of, but that’s not to say people would’ve liked my version, either. But it’s one thing to know your film is deeply flawed by the hands of another and be eviscerated by critics, and another to know you took your best shot and if people didn’t like it, you know? I definitely learned some lessons out of it. The big mistake is that I purposefully deviated from the mythology, the genre. People wanted to continue the story, the characters, and that was a big underestimation on my part.
Blair Witch, 2016
After the critical drubbing of Book of Shadows , it seemed the Blair Witch franchise was as dead as Josh, Heather and Mike. Artisan was purchased by Lionsgate in 2003, and the property remained dormant for almost a decade, until the company took notice of two new talents on the horror scene: Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett, director and screenwriter, respectively, of the retro-horror sensations You’re Next and The Guest.
Adam Wingard (director, Blair Witch): Simon and I have always been known as horror filmmakers, but we never committed ourselves to making a full-on, shit-your-pants horror movie. Everything of ours to that point had a much more meta, deconstructed take on the genre. But to earn the right to make those straight-on horror films, we had to make our type of movies to show that we knew what horror was – we did the research, we did the homework, we know what we’re talking about.
Simon Barrett (screenwriter, Blair Witch): We found out Lionsgate had the rights to Blair Witch and we were instantly like, this is perfect. It’s already a pre-existing name for people, and it hasn’t been exploited to death. It was basically a defunct franchise for over 10 years. As fans, we were excited about the prospect of doing our take on something that we enjoyed originally, but were disappointed with the direction of the original sequel. Most importantly, this was an opportunity for us to try our hand at doing something truly frightening.
A plan was hatched to return the franchise back to its roots: a found-footage thriller that picks up the same continuity thread of the first film, with a group of friends hiking into the Maryland woods for an ill-advised witch hunt. But Lionsgate, perhaps wary of another Blair Witch sequel backlash, took a page from the playbook of the original film’s marketing campaign, adding a dash of subterfuge to the new film. Instead of announcing that Wingard and Barrett would be helming a new Blair Witch, the studio simply said the pair were working on something called The Woods.
Barrett: It’s not unreasonable for horror fans to be cynical about reboots and sequels – so many are made for the wrong reasons, mercenary ones versus creative ones. So rather than announce the project and let the Internet have that conversation for three years, it was more, let’s make this new Blair Witch movie and just show it to people, that’s the most confident way to present this.
Wingard: At the end of the day, we made this movie as fans of the source material, and the fact that we could bring a lot to it as filmmakers. This is not a cash-in thing – if it was, we’d be picking a different format. There are way easier ways to sell out or cash in than trying to revive this defunct franchise.
At this past July’s Comic-Con convention in San Diego, Lionsgate finally revealed the truth, and shocked audience members by screening a new Blair Witch film.
Geddes: I had to wait and see how the whole bait-and-switch would pan out at Comic-Con, and it went incredibly well. As opposed to them announcing it earlier and have entitled basement fans-slash-trolls ripping into them, they developed a really smart marketing strategy.
Myrick: There is something to be said for not building up anyone’s expectations too far in advance. But how do you keep that secret for as long as they did? They were able to pull it off, so I’m really impressed with that. There were no major leaks that got out there.
Barrett: We should give Lionsgate’s marketing department all the credit in the world for not just pulling this off, but for having the confidence to present the film in a way they didn’t have any control over. Those 500 people at Comic-Con, they could’ve just gone online and destroyed it, but they said, “Hey, I saw Blair Witch and you should, too.”
After winning Comic-Con and earning an enthusiastic response at the Toronto International Film Festival this past week, Blair Witch opens on Friday – and may herald the rebirth of a franchise that was, at various points, game-changing, doomed and forgotten.
Wingard: We’re well-known in the indie festival world, and to diehard genre fans, but we made this movie to have a mainstream appeal – we want to hit a wide audience, and nobody in that world knows us because we don’t have much theatrical experience. If anything, there’s this element of, you don’t want the fans of your original style to be disappointed for taking a more straightforward approach to making something balls-out scary. But we know our fans understand where we’re coming from.
Berlinger: I look at [Book of Shadows] on my résumé and I can’t believe it was me who did this movie, on a certain level. Obviously, I’m just protecting myself psychologically. But I don’t regret it. Interestingly, the extreme failure directly led to the making of my Metallica movie, Some Kind of Monster, which was the most incredible, life-affirming, growing experience for me. You take the good with the bad.
Cowie: The first one was a magical time, like, holy crap, how did we do it?
Myrick: We had no idea how big it would become. We did it just hoping to get a TV deal, make it a calling-card project. But there’s a point where something like this becomes bigger than yourself. You know, it’s something you dream about as an artist – not many people can say they were part of something so culturally significant. I’m as astounded as anyone else.