Reviews

Off the Beaten Track: the Blair Witch Project

We’re kind of a garage band of filmmaking," says Dan Myrick of his collaborators, an Orlando, Florida-based film collective called Haxan Films. Low-fi and revved up with basement tape ingenuity, Haxan cranked it to eleven in their debut film as a group, a thoroughly spooky mock-documentary-cum-horror film called The Blair Witch Project. The film premiered in a midnight screening at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and its visceral effect may have come as a surprise to the parka-clad crowd. Unlike the winking, self-referential spate of teen horror films that have glutted multiplexes since Scream, this film is actually scary. More surprising still, the most terrifying thing in the picture is a bundle of sticks.

The premise of The Blair Witch Project essentially follows the time-worn scheme of a campfire story. But as anyone who’s lain trembling in a sleeping bag with a flashlight for half the night knows, a good ghost story has a certain terrifying efficiency. Monkey’s paw, china doll, whatever: from bare details uncoils a dark yarn of suggestion. In the classics of the genre, it’s what you’re not told that gives you the creeps ("What ever happened to the old man? No one knows.").

The Blair Witch Project begins with the same type of narrative ellipsis. In the fall of 1994 (the film states in its opening title cards) three film students hiked into Maryland’s Black Hills Forest to shoot a documentary on a local legend, "The Blair Witch." They were never heard from again. A year later, their footage was found. This is that footage. Creepy, right?

Using only this "found footage" of the disappeared filmmakers, The Blair Witch Project alternates black & white 16mm (material intended for the students’ documentary) with Hi8 video shot by the trio’s leader, a prepossessing young woman named Heather Donahue. The result is a first-person, entirely subjective experience. Watching The Blair Witch Project, there is no relief from the spiraling confusion, suspicion, and fear of its subjects as they get hopelessly lost in the woods and then find themselves being followed, even hunted, by unseen nocturnal beings.

What ultimately makes the film so effective is the painstaking efforts the filmmakers have made to situate their tale within the framework of the real. But there are two realities that contribute here. The primary one is the visible, familiar world, one that’s suggested by the verite, first-person camerawork and the bare-wire, unselfconscious reactions of the actors, improvised under the duress of sleep-deprivation, physical exhaustion, and the uncertainty of a scriptless eight-day journey into the woods, made in almost complete isolation.

The other reality is a thoroughly constructed, fictitious one, a carefully wrought legend of nearly fetishistic detail that incorporates some 300 years of local lore with contrived "texts," related "events," and the tangible, terrible stuff of Reality TV: crime scene photos, and interviews with police and the lost filmmakers’ families. Perhaps most interesting about all of this is that it takes place outside the frame–the mock doc’s backstory, as it were. There are strands of this mystery, the film implies, that lead to darker tales, ones that reflect grimly on the unknown (and thus all the more unnerving) fate of the vanished three.

Both in process and in conception, The Blair Witch Project is the result of something the Haxan filmmakers called "Method Filmmaking," an approach employed to bring to this tale of supernatural horror the disquieting patina of realism.

The five initiates of Haxan Films–Blair Witch co-writers, directors, and editors Dan Myrick and Ed Sanchez, along with producers Gregg Hale and Robin Cowie, and co-producer Michael MonelloÑmet in the film program at the University of Central Florida, where they variously worked on student projects (including a Twilight Zone-like trilogy called Black Chapters and a story of a witch punished for employing her gift to cheap commercial ends). After school, they picked up production savvy on feature films, shorts, commercials, and television work. In 1993, Myrick and Sanchez came up with an idea they referred to as The Woods Movie.

Myrick and Sanchez are fans of a certain type of horror film: "The Exorcist, The Omen," says Sanchez. "The Changeling–a really creepy movie." Creepy–all three–because they tell of occult happenings that occur next door, in that house right over there. But it’s another kind of film that really captivated the Haxan gang, and ultimately served as their model for The Blair Witch Project: UFO documentaries, Big Foot investigations, Chariots of the Gods. "We just went out to the video store and rented as many of those cheeseball pseudo-documentary films as we could," says Sanchez, "and just watched them and creeped ourselves out the whole night." There’s something about the seventies era’s take on far-out theories and mysterious happenings that really appealed. So much so that Sanchez and Myrick had originally planned to set the lost filmmakers of The Blair Witch Project in the late seventies, something low-budget realities–period cars and wardrobe–made impractical.

"The collective coalesced around Blair," says Sanchez. Producer Gregg Hale in particular was enthused by the project and offered to front his own money to get it made. In the end, he didn’t have to. Co-producer Mike Monello was working at the Florida Film Festival, when John Pierson–who was in the first season of his cable television program Split Screen–came to the festival to shoot a segment for the show. Pierson likes to hire local filmmakers to shoot, and Monello recommended Myrick, who worked for four days on the show. At the end of the shoot he handed Pierson an eight-minute investor reel for The Blair Witch Project. The reel included only backstory about the local legend and talked about the missing filmmakers and their footageÑnone of which had been shot yet.

"He bought it hook, line, and sinker," says Myrick. "He thought it one hundred percent genuine. He called me up and said, ‘Dan, when are you guys going to have access to this footage from these filmmakers?’ I just started laughing. I said, ‘John, this is all fiction. This is just a trailer for our movie.’ " Pierson ended up buying the eight-minute segment as a cliff hanger for his first season’s close, and the Haxan collective used that money to shoot much of the footage that comprises The Blair Witch Project. "He was instrumental–not only giving us money for the film, but also generating the buzz that ultimately parlayed into Sundance."

Pierson’s reaction isn’t that uncommon–something that speaks to the film’s effectiveness. There were a few people at Sundance who were embarrassed to learn that the film was fiction.

Apart from a detailed story outline, The Blair Witch Project is improvised by its actors. Casting, then, was a process of looking at the essential issues of character: were the actors themselves the kind of people the filmmakers envisioned? "In the casting process, we wanted the actors to be one step removed from the characters, so that they would draw on their own past experiences and just kind of intertwine them with our character profiles," says Myrick. Delineation between actual and invented is blurred; the character "Heather" is played in the film by an actress named Heather. "We used their real names, so when they’re in the states of despair and real emotion, they could be as natural as humanly possible."

Sanchez describes the audition process as a study in anti-acting: "We said, ‘As soon as you go in the door, the audition begins, so be ready. No characters, no accents. Just be yourself.’ As soon as they would come in, we would say something like,’After serving nine years of an eighteen year sentence, you come in front of this parole board to plead your case for early release. Before we make our decision, we’d like to give you the chance to say a few words on your own behalf.’ Some people would be like ‘Is this the audition?’ But a lot of people really blew us away."

Once they had decided on their three actors, the Haxan filmmakers gave them a quick course in camera and sound basics and set them loose. The actors themselves–playing the trio of student filmmakers–shot the footage that makes up the film. The eight-day shoot was guided by the Haxan filmmakers from the outline of essential story points–not that the actors knew anything about it. "We gave the information to the actors on a ‘need to know’ basis," says Sanchez.

Method Filmmaking takes hold. The actors were led from various locations within the town to the remote climes of Maryland’s Seneca Creek State Park. There they wandered in almost complete isolation for the remaining six days of the shoot. The filmmakers kept track of the actors with a Global Positioning System and shadowed them at a distance, leaving notes on character and story, along with supplies, in marked drop points. "There was an immense amount of trust on both sides," says Myrick. "Us to allow them to shoot our film, and of course them to not think that we were setting them up for some snuff film."

Uncertainty, confusion, and fear. After eight days–hiking long distances, left increasingly fewer supplies, harassed in the night by shrieks, waking up to ominous totems–the brittle, beleaguered, and finally terrified reactions of the actors seem entirely genuine. "They had no idea of what was going to happen," says Sanchez unapologetically.

"The way I see it, we built this tunnel of reality around them, wherever they walked. It’s almost like having a sound stage that just doesn’t end. We controlled it. We tried not to get them near houses. We tried to keep them away from roads. In the town, they’d get to a coffee shop and there would be a couple of actors in there planted by us. But they didn’t know who was who." Told to act as themselves and led through a world controlled by unseen forces, never knowing where reality left off and fiction began, the actors had a kind of total experience with the Blair Witch shoot. "That’s what Method Filmmaking is," Sanchez says. "In this case it was an eight-day play. They were completely inhabiting the world of the characters, twenty-four hours a day. You get things that way that you really can’t get any other way."

Myrick concurs: "We were always trying to walk that line, push that limit of realism." Indeed, the approach took a certain psychological toll. "Heather told Ed–and Mike told me the same thing–that they had to go off and remind themselves that they had a life outside of this movie," he says. "It was getting so close, they were pushing the limit so much, that they had to separate themselves psychologically from the movie, from what they really were."

In the filmmakers’ initial conception, "the film was going to be more of a documentary," Sanchez says. "Almost like an [episode of] Nova. Originally we were only going to use twenty or thirty minutes of the footage." Surrounding this "found" material, they intended to craft a pseudo-documentary–not unlike the Big Foot movies that inspired them, if more determinedly "pseudo"–that would explore both the disappearance of the filmmakers and the elaborately constructed legend Haxan had created around "the Blair Witch" phenomenon.

The Haxan filmmakers referred to the students’ footage as Phase I. Phase II was to include 1940s newsreel footage of serial killer Rustin Parr, who claimed to have been compelled by "an old woman ghost" to ritually murder seven local children at the modern site of the Blair Witch. In homage to their models, there was to be a show called Mystic Occurrences, a kind of In Search of . . . rip-off, shot seventies style. Local newscasts and interviews with police and the filmmakers’ families were shot, intended to frame the tale.

But after paring the "found" footage down to an hour and a half, Myrick and Sanchez tried incorporating the Phase II material. "It just didn’t work," admits Sanchez. "It took away from the power of the film. Once we showed the film, we saw that it stood up on its own.

"Of course, the material that comprises the finished film isn’t actually "on its own" at all. The elaborate construct invented by the filmmakers–a Blair Witch legend that goes back to 1785, a rare 19th century text called "The Blair Witch Cult," the ritual slayings from the 1940s, the "evidence" of the three students’ disappearance (made material in crime scene photos, film cans, and videotapes), and the story of its discovery by an anthropology class from the University of Maryland–all of this contrived history constitutes a fully realized world. It exists off screen, but it brings a dimensional reality to what’s visible.

As for the Phase II material: "We’re talking about the possibility of that being incorporated into a more tradition documentary format for another project," says Myrick. "We may integrate some of those segments on the web site www.blairwitch.com, so people can download some of those things. It’ll be used." Haxan Films is discussing a one-hour show that would incorporate the unused footage. "Actually," says Sanchez, "I had a dream last night about Leonard Nimoy doing it–and it was creeping me out. If we could get him to narrate it, that would be very, very cool."

The web–a natural place for the seamless blending of fact and fiction (it happens all the time)–has been an environment where the extended legend of the Blair Witch has flourished–outtakes, evidence, and an entire section called "The Aftermath." Pierson’s web site, www.grainypix.com, received hundreds of curious hits after the initial Blair Witch material was aired on Split Screen.

As for Haxan Films and their collaborative filmmaking endeavors, Sanchez says, "the collective is going to stay. Dan and I are writing a comedy with our roommate, Dave Brown, called Heart of Love which it looks like we’re going to be able to do. And we’re also thinking about the Blair sequel." The collective has a first-look deal with Artisan, whose experience bringing the cerebral willies to audiences with last year’s Pi encouraged them to acquire The Blair Witch Project at Sundance. (The film opens July 16.)

"We’re always brainstorming ideas," says Myrick, "and trust each other enough to say, ÔWhat do you think about this shot or this idea?’ It’s a constant refinement process. We know in our hearts we’re not the next Stephen Spielberg or Oliver Stone. We’re all in our thirties now. We’re not 19-year-old prodigies coming out with the next greatest thing. We combine our strengths. And Blair is the result of that.

Share this Article:
Print this pageEmail this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on TumblrPin on PinterestShare on Google+Share on Reddit