The Blair Witch Project: An oral history, Part 4
In October 1997, two unknown, first-time filmmakers shot a micro-budget horror movie in the woods in Maryland. Their success was extraordinary: The Blair Witch Project became a $248 million global phenomenon. Along the way, the filmmakers revolutionized the idea of a "blockbuster," proved the value of viral marketing, and launched an entire subgenre of cinematic horror.
Nearly two decades later, how do the people responsible for The Blair Witch Project feel about the film? In the following four-part oral history, six people involved in the creation of The Blair Witch Project — writers/directors Dan Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, producer Gregg Hale, and stars Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael C. Williams — describe in their own words the instrumental roles they played in bringing one of the most successful and influential horror films of all time to life.
Part IV: The Curse of the Blair Witch
With The Blair Witch Project established as a certified, worldwide phenomenon, Artisan (the independent film studio that owned the movie) raced to assemble a sequel to capitalize on the success of the original. After early discussions, the team behind the original movie eventually bowed out of creative discussions for the sequel.
Eduardo Sanchez (writer/director): Looking back, it's very easy to say, "Let's do another Blair Witch movie." But it was a very complicated time for us. We had all changed a little bit. It wasn't the easiest thing: "Let's make another horror movie."
Dan Myrick (writer/director): We weren't surprised that Artisan wanted to do a quick follow-up to the movie, because it was so popular. But our reasoning was, for that very same reason, we should wait. The hype machine was in full force, and we were starting to get into the waning cycle of how popular the film was, and suffer some backlash, because it was so over-hyped.
Eduardo Sanchez: We told them that the only thing we were interested in was a prequel: a totally different kind of film than Blair Witch. They approved that idea too late. They had their trepidations, and they were hesitant about doing a period piece. As they should have been, you know? It was a cool idea, but it was unconventional. And we felt that was the only way to follow up Blair Witch: a completely different ride than anything you'd seen. They went and did a test market on a sequel idea, or a prequel idea, and they found that the prequel tested as highly as anything else. They said, "We want you to do the prequel idea," but this was like, December , and they were going to release the movie the next October . We didn't have a script. We didn't have a story — just the base beat sheet of basic characters, basic events. Nothing worked out. It would have taken us three months to get a script going.
Dan Myrick: We sort of lobbied for a while with Artisan to chill out on it for a couple of years and let it die down, and then we could revisit it, and not be in too much of a rush to capitalize on the movie right away. They just didn't agree.
Eduardo Sanchez: We were going to do [the sequel], but we realized that this was not going to be Blair Witch. This was going to be "Pick a release date, start working on the movie." There was a fuse tied, and whether you were ready or not, that bomb was going to go off.
Dan Myrick: They wanted to get into production right away on the new one. So we graciously stepped aside, said, "Okay, you have our blessing, but we're gonna sit tight while you guys do your thing."
Eduardo Sanchez: It's one of those things where you look back and say, "Maybe we should have just done it." But it's a very different kind of perspective now, obviously, than back then. It was a very complicated and confusing time.
The sequel, Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows, arrived in October 2000 to dismal reviews and a mediocre box-office, putting an end to the budding Blair Witch franchise on the big screen.
Dan Myrick: They hired Joe Berlinger to direct, which we thought was a great idea. We loved that he was a documentarian, and we thought they were going to explore the mythology again, and stay true to the conceit. And then we saw first drafts of the script and realized that that's not what they were going to do, which we didn't understand. To this day, I don't understand. [Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows] is not a bad film. And I know it's gotten beaten up a lot in reviews and by Blair purists. Had it been called anything other than Blair Witch, it probably would have fared better. Our biggest complaint was that it betrayed the mythology. We had no intention of making a film that was self-referential, and for some reason, that was the direction they wanted to go. It is what it is, and it's one of those things you wish had been done differently.
Eduardo Sanchez: We lost our innocence, you know what I mean? That's what I tell a lot of student filmmakers. "Enjoy your time right now. Once you start making a living from it, it changes." I'm not saying it's not fun. I've got no reason to complain; I make movies for a living. But it does change. Friendships change. You evolve, and sometimes things don't work out the way that you expected them to be. Figuring all that out was tough.
Dan Myrick: We gave a few notes on earlier drafts of the script, and they didn't listen to any of them. [laughs] So we said, "Okay. Well, invite us to the premiere when you're ready."
As Artisan attempted to build the Blair Witch brand into a cross-platform horror franchise, the original creative team found themselves on the outside of the story they had created.
Joshua Leonard (actor, "Josh"): I think some people might be a little bitter about the experience. I will say that we had what I have discovered was an incredibly classless experience with Artisan. The only nice thing I ever remember happening in my interactions with them was when the film crossed the $100 million mark. They sent me a fruit basket. Literally every other interaction was yelling at me about something that I was doing that I shouldn't be doing, or wasn't doing that I should be doing.
Dan Myrick: Keep in mind: We no longer owned the movie. Artisan is making all the decisions, and conferring with us out of courtesy. That's another reality we were having to face. We really didn't have any decision-making authority. The books, and the magazine, and comic books, and the Joshua mix tape, and all the stuff that was coming out was sort of overwhelming. Some of it, I thought was cool. Some of it, the fans really embraced. And other things felt totally exploitative, in my opinion. Everything from the Blair Witch pocket knife to the Kubrick action figure dolls. It just got ridiculous.
Joshua Leonard: That's the flip side of being the scrappy kids: "You should be so f--king lucky." On one hand, that's absolutely true! We inadvertently caught lightning in a bottle. On the other hand, we all worked very hard to make the film, and without the film, there certainly wouldn't have been the "event" of the release of the film, and all the things that have gone into it.
(AP Photo/Reed Saxon)
More than 15 years after the phenomenon of the original film — and with plenty of other movies under their belts — Dan and Ed are still interested in revisiting The Blair Witch Project.
Dan Myrick: For me, there's still so much to mine from the Blair mythology. The problem is that it's a unorthodox approach to making sequels. I really love the idea of doing a Rustin Parr story. [Ed.: In Blair Witch mythology, Rustin Parr, who claimed to be under the influence of otherworldly forces, murdered seven children in the house that appears at the end of the film.] We even talked about shooting it in all black and white, like a vintage '40s era horror movie that's all about the Rustin Parr abductions. One could say, "Oh, this is a Blair Witch movie," but it wouldn't be Blair Witch: Rustin Parr. It would be a story about Rustin Parr that falls within the Blair Witch universe. We also had an idea for an origin story: the Elly Kedward story. It would be a well-financed period piece. All with their distinct styles, and distinct looks, and all having a distinct place within the overall mythology. Just as the found-footage version, the movie itself, which would be considered a part of the overall experience. There's plenty to explore. It just requires stepping out of the normal construct of sequel mentality and having some real creative fun with it. We intentionally threw in really creepy stories. Every 40 or 50 years, something really dramatic happened in and around those woods, and each one of those could be a movie.
Eduardo Sanchez: I would still love to do a prequel. That's still my favorite thing. Even a sequel would be fun, but we've had this prequel idea in our heads for so long. It just seems like it would be the right thing to do for that particular franchise.
Dan Myrick: We had written a sequel for Lionsgate, which they subsequently decided against. We had a sequel idea already kind of written. […] I'm not allowed [to say very much], because technically, it's Lionsgate's material, and it's very hush hush, and yada yada yada. But it was a contemporized version of another event that took place at Burkittsville, and again — a film that we felt sort of stood on its own merits as an independent episode of the three filmmakers' disappearance. Our world, our mythology, our conceit, takes the disappearance of those filmmakers as if it actually happened. If we're doing a sequel, that's just part of the history of that area: three kids went into the woods, and they were never found again. That's just something that nobody talks about. That's about as much as I can say. We thought it would make a cool movie, but I think it didn't fall into the budget parameters that Lionsgate is looking to do for another movie. That's part of the duality with Blair Witch: "All we want you to do is shoot another $35,000 movie that makes another $140 million at the box office! What's the problem?" [laughs]
Joshua Leonard: At this point, I would say, "Well, let me see the script [for a third Blair Witch]." I certainly wouldn't do it cynically, to try to capitalize on a brand name. But I love the fact that I was involved in Blair Witch. And I love this cool thing that we created. And if there was a way to expand on that, and get to collaborate with those guys again, I'd do it in a heartbeat.
Michael C. Williams (actor, "Mike"): I mean, I wouldn't quit my day job [to appear in another Blair Witch movie], but if there was a way to make it work, I would do it. [...] If they were to say, "Hey, we're doing this thing this summer, you should come. We've got a few days, and you can make a little guest-starring appearance," I would.
Heather Donahue (actress, "Heather"): [After The Blair Witch Project], I had a firm lack of interest in appearing in anything else.
Eduardo Sanchez: [The sequel is] completely out of our hands. Lionsgate owns the rights. We've talked. Every couple of months, we talk to them about Blair Witch, and the possibility of doing something else, or bringing other filmmakers in to develop something. But it's never really gone anywhere besides talks.
Dan Myrick: Sadly, we're probably the least informed over what's going on at Lionsgate. We heard that another group was working on the Blair thing, to our surprise — but again, one of the realities of the business.
Gregg Hale still works as a producer and director. Two of his most recent projects — the horror movie Exists and a segment of the found-footage anthology movie V/H/S 2 — have been in collaboration with Eduardo Sanchez.
Gregg Hale (producer): It's not to say there wasn't pain in the ass stuff that came along with the movie's success. Anytime there's money involved, there's lawsuits involved. We had to deal with a lot of that shit. But other than that, it was basically just a really fantastic experience that I never expect to have happen again in my life.
Eduardo Sanchez still works as a director. His recent projects include several episodes of the BBC America series Intruders and Exists, a horror movie about Bigfoot.
Eduardo Sanchez: It was just one of those things. Such a crazy ride, that I needed some time off from it. It took me at least five years before I actively kind of pursued another film. [...] It was just a weird time, man. It was very confusing. But a lot of fun. And obviously, things happen for a reason. I wouldn't take anything back, and I wouldn't change anything.
Joshua Leonard still acts in both film and television. His recent roles include recurring appearances in TV shows like A&E's Bates Motel and HBO's Togetherness, as well as films like the YA adaptation If I Stay.
Joshua Leonard: I'm going to be 40 next year. I made that film when I was 21, and I've had a lot of therapy in the intervening years. I think I can [now] do a much better version of parsing the movie we made, and my love for my collaborators, and the movie that came out — which was totally out of our hands, and belongs to the audience, for better or for worse.
Though he's made occasional appearances on film and television since The Blair Witch Project, Michael C. Williams considers himself retired from acting. He works as a school counselor, and teaches acting to teenagers.
Michael C. Williams: I feel proud to have been a part of it. I feel like I'd like to tell my story in full one day, I've been thinking about that lately. Like, writing about it. Possibly writing something about it, and just kind of diving in.
After several more film and TV performances — including a starring role in the sci-fi miniseries Taken — Heather Donahue retired from acting and began growing medical marijuana, eventually writing GrowGirl, a memoir about her post-Blair life. She's currently writing, directing, and co-producing Grass Valley, a TV pilot based on her experiences.
Heather Donahue: If I had a time machine I would do it again. But I wouldn't do it again now. As that young girl who really, really wants to have a big experience, I would definitely still do it. But now, as a 40-year-old woman, there's no way anything about that life holds interest for me. [...] It's a little bit like you were a cancer survivor, in a way. Maybe, like, a light, smaller skin-type cancer. And now you have the scar, and wow: Wasn't that great that you've survived it, and you've come through the other side? But you definitely don't want to do it again. […] It has informed my entire adult life. I don't know my life without it, you know what I mean? I don't know my own name without it. If I have a regret about the entire thing, I definitely would not have used my real name.
Dan Myrick recently wrote and directed Under The Bed, a thriller based on true events. It is scheduled for release in 2015.
Dan Myrick: It was one of the greatest experiences of my life. As an artist, and a filmmaker, one of your desires is to leave a mark. One of your desires is to have an impact with your work. We have the luxury of being able to look back and say, "Wow. We made a difference. We left a mark." That's very satisfying. I made some great friends, met some amazing people. It's opened up a lot of doors in my career. And to this day, I'm going to a festival in Denver to have a reunion screening. It's just really pleasant to see people that are still so enthusiastic about the movie, and a lot of other filmmakers who tell you they were inspired to be filmmakers because of your movie. That's really very rewarding and satisfying. Anytime I find myself bitching or complaining about "Blair this" or "Blair that," I quickly get myself in order. [laughs] I'm in a very enviable position, and I couldn't have asked for a better experience.