Twenty-years-ago, two film students from the University of Central Florida made a meta movie about three teenagers going into the woods of Seneca Creek State Park, getting lost and enduring terrible, terrible things.
The story was that they were making a documentary about a local Maryland legend – the Blair Witch – and as such the movie was shot in a reportage style, with the three actors playing the leads improvising much of the dialogue, filming the majority of the action themselves and responding mostly to off screen prompts for direction. Cinema had seen nothing like it before.
Filmed on a budget estimated to be around $20,000, The Blair Witch Project recouped around $250,000,000. The movie was a phenomenon, intersecting with the birth of the internet and blurring the lines between reality and drama; the movies three leads were listed as ‘Missing, presumed deceased’ on their IMDB pages for the first year of the film’s release. Nobody was quite sure what it was that they were watching.
With the film celebrating it’s twentieth anniversary, we thought it would be the perfect opportunity to connect with one of the film’s directors Daniel Myrick. What he tells us about the future of the franchise, is theoretically extremely exciting…
Hey Daniel, how are you doing?
“Well, right now I’m enjoying the resurgence of Blair interest. Obviously it’s been 20-years since the film came out and it’s been great to learn people are still so enthusiastic about it. I’m surprised by how many young kids are into it. That’s been really cool to see.”
And how do you personally feel about the film so many years on?
“That’s hard to say. It’s been a long time since I sat down to watch it. There are fans that are more knowledgeable about the film and the Blair cannon than I am. On one hand I’m very encouraged by how into the film so many people are. On the other, because Blair Witch was so big, it’s hard coming out from under the shadow of it.”
Blair Witch really was a phenomenon. Have you ever resented its success?
“Resentment is probably too strong a word. It’s just frustrating sometimes, because when you have another project or come up with another idea for a film, it’s hard for that project or idea to be judged on its own merits. It’s always going to be compared to a movie that is one of the most successful to have ever been made. How do you live up to that? It’s like going up to the plate and hitting a homerun where the ball goes all the way to China.”
There’s been a lot of activity around the 20th anniversary of the movie. Do you ever cross paths with anyone else involved with the film?
“Oh sure, I speak to Ed [co-director Eduardo Sánchez]. He’s making a TV series right now. I speak to Josh [Leonard, one of the films then-unknown stars]. I’m hoping to do a project with him in Florida soon. I cast Mike Williams [another of the films then-unknown leads] in a movie called The Objective I did the other year. So yeah, there’s a lot of us who still cross paths. I love those guys. We were like a family back in those days.”
Though there had been found-footage horror movies made before, there was nothing like Blair Witch when it was released. The internet was relatively new. Some people thought what they were watching was real! It must have felt like heading off into uncharted territory making it…
“It definitely felt like uncharted territory. I came from a more traditional narrative background. I’d been a Director of Photography on commercials and stuff, so what we were doing was totally new to me. Our idea was to take a traditional documentary conceit and make it scary. We were inspired by shows like [legendary US mysterious phenomena show] In Search Of… and [1972 Bigfoot docudrama] The Legend Of Boggy Creek. We found that stuff really creepy. But creepy is subjective so we were worried that maybe nobody else would find it so. We really didn’t know whether anyone would be scared by it until right at the end…”
Was there ever a moment where you legitimately thought, ‘this just isn’t going to work out…’?
“Almost every moment making the movie! During the edit, we’d seen the footage so many times that it was just no longer scary to us. Sometimes you just don’t know what’s working when you’ve seen the footage so much. We held an early screening of the movie – a long, very rough cut – at the University of Central Florida. To the Film Studies class, which looking back was the absolute worst idea we could have had. We got absolutely brutalised. We walked away feeling pretty bummed out, thinking we had one big mess on our hands. Later on we trimmed the movie and had another screening at this theatre in Florida called The Enzian and the feedback was really good, but it was only really then that we started to believe we might have something workable…”
Neither you or Ed were involved with the 2000 sequel Book Of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, or the 2016 reboot. What do you make of those films?
“Well, it’s pretty common knowledge that we weren’t too enthusiastic about Book Of Shadows, which came hot on the heels of Blair Witch. We thought it was made for all the wrong reasons and was just trying to capitalise on the hype of the first film. I’m a big fan of Joe Berlinger, the director of that movie, but I thought he was kind of shoehorned into this situation that was pretty much impossible. That said, in defence of the film, if it hadn’t had the Blair Witch name attached to it, I think it might have been better received. It was so different, stylistically, to the first film, I think it was always going to get beat up…”
And the most recent movie?
“We definitely appreciated that they showed a degree of reverence to the first movie. They adhered to the mythology, which was important to us. Simon Barrett, the writer, was a true fan of the first movie. He and Adam Wingard, the director, came to us early on and told us how much they loved our movie. They said they wanted to bring that reverence to their reboot. Where I think the movie fell down, it was that it was almost too close to the original movie. It’s a tough thing to recapture. But I liked the design and the feel of it.”
Obviously the studio passed on you and Ed being given the opportunity to make a Blair Witch sequel, but did you ever have an idea of what you would have done if you’d been given the green light to do so?
“Oh, we had tonnes of ideas. We pitched them to Lionsgate. We even wrote a sequel script. Just for whatever reason, it didn’t spark with the studio and they went in another direction with it. But you know, we’re still holding out hope that they’ll come back to the original guys and maybe entertain one of our ideas. I always thought that the mythology we created was almost episodic. We’ve always wanted to explore the story of Elly Kedward [the 18th Century witch in the mythology], sort of in the tone of The VVitch from a few years ago. I’ve always thought there was a great, stand alone [Burkittsville serial killer] Rustin Parr film. I don’t think they’ll all have to be found footage films either. Go with the Marvel approach. You can tell all these stories within one universe. The audience base is there…”
As a fan, that’s incredibly exciting to hear and wish for. Obviously the world is so different to what it was like 20 years ago. Do you think a new horror movie could have the impact that Blair Witch did in 1999?
“Oh absolutely. It might not have the same approach that we took, but definitely. Blair Witch came on the heels of a lot of staid, stoic, status-quo-adhering individuals in Hollywood thinking that non-commercial films couldn’t break out commercially. I’m always reticent to say that it can’t happen again. Just when you think you know what can and can’t be done, some creative individual comes along and turns it all upside down. That’s what I love about the artform. I’m always into people rewriting the rule book. It’s what keeps me going to the movies and what keeps me making them.”
Amen to that. Before we let you go, tell us what you’re working on at the moment?
“I’ve just finished making a movie called Skyman. It’s kinda in the same style as Blair Witch but it’s not really a horror movie. It’s about a guy who claimed he saw a UFO in the desert when he was a kid, and now, 30 years later he’s obsessed with having a reunion. It’s sort of presented like a documentary. We’re in post now and it should be finished by August.”
For more information on Skyman, head to https://www.skymanthemovie.com/