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The production process on “The Blair Witch Project” kicked off in 1997 and was about as low-tech, low-budget, and high-intensity as moviemaking came. And for the two amateur filmmakers who co-wrote and co-directed the film, “Blair Witch” paid off; it was an instant phenomenon when it was released in 1999, and by some accounts, it’s the most profitable movie of all time.
But is “Blair Witch” a product of its time? Does it hold up in an era where found footage and misinformation on the Internet are perfectly ordinary? And how would the filmmakers have changed their process if they’d had modern resources — or if they’d known how big a splash they were going to make?
In a pre-taped interview, co-director and co-writer of “Blair Witch” Eduardo Sánchez sat down with Kojo to discuss the movie’s 20th anniversary.
Produced by Maura Currie
- Eduardo Sánchez Co-Writer and Co-Director, "The Blair Witch Project;" @Sanchezonthemic
SASHA-ANN SIMONSWelcome back to The Kojo Nnamdi Show. I'm Sasha-Ann Simons. "The Blair Witch Project" took the world by storm when it was released in 1999. It looked and sounded radically different than the common horror fare of the late '90s, so much so that many viewers were convinced that the footage, the missing film students and the witch prowling a Maryland forest were all real. But we now know that was by the design of two amateur filmmakers who dreamed up the movie as college students.
SASHA-ANN SIMONSDaniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez led "The Blair Witch Project" to its iconic status, and 20 years later lots, of things have changed, but the movie remains a modern classic. Eduardo Sanchez joined Kojo in the studio last week to discuss Blair Witch and the state of the horror genre.
KOJO NNAMDIEd, thank you so much for joining us.
EDUARDO SANCHEZThanks for having me.
NNAMDILet's start with a bit of time travel. Twenty years ago, it's October, 1999, "The Blair Witch Project" has been out for a few months. What was the public response and how were you feeling?
SANCHEZI mean, 1999, in general, was just, like, a crazy year. It was, like, just one crazy event after another. Like, we went to Sundance in early '99, and we sold the film after the first showing. And, like you said, we were kind of just amateur filmmakers, just out of film school, pretty broke. And, all of a sudden, there was all this attention on us.
NNAMDIHours after the first showing.
SANCHEZYeah, hours after. That night, they went and they got the rights right away. So, you know, after that, it was basically one crazy event after another. You know, just, you know, the public -- just people going crazy for the movie and for, you know, just all the marketing stuff. And the movie comes out, you know, and, you know, we were expecting it to make, you know, a few million dollars, at the most. And it comes out and makes, you know, a crazy amount. It starts competing with Hollywood movies. I mean, it was just a crazy thing.
SANCHEZAnd then we end up on the cover of Time Magazine and Newsweek on the same week. And, you know, just one crazy thing after another. So, by October, you know, it was Halloween, and we were still doing press and stuff, but it was more like the storm was kind of over. And we were just kind of waiting for a little bit of just, you know, downtime, honestly, at that time.
NNAMDIMany were convinced at the time that the film was real, and that the three filmmakers were actually missing or dead. Was that jarring to you?
SANCHEZYou know, it was something -- I mean, the original movie was more of a documentary, and we wanted it to feel completely real, so that was by design. That's why we hired, you know, unknown filmmakers. And the way we shot the movie, you know, looked very much like an amateur video. But we never intended to, like, release the movie, you know, as a hoax. Like, we felt that that was going to, you know, kind of limit the audience.
SANCHEZBut once the film company Artisan bought us, they went right down that road. They were, like, look, we're going to market it as real. We're going to keep the actors out of the limelight for a few weeks, and then we're going to, you know, slowly reveal that it's not, you know, real. And, you know, we were young. Like I said, we were young. We had no idea what we were doing, and we were like, yeah, let's do it.
SANCHEZSo, they kind of led that, and, you know, it led to a lot of people thinking that the movie was real, and especially the legend and all that stuff. You know, it was our intention to make it feel real, but, you know, we never thought it would be a hoax, you know.
NNAMDINow you know how Orson Welles felt... (laugh)
NNAMDI...when he made a radio program, that everybody thought we were being invaded.
SANCHEZYeah, and it's amazing, because I'm a big fan of that, you know, the “War of the Worlds” broadcast. And it was crazy to be kind of a part of another thing that, kind of, was similar, you know.
NNAMDILet's go back to the production process. The movie's set in Burkittsville, Maryland, a very small and very real town with no history of witchcraft. Why did you pick Burkittsville?
SANCHEZYou know, I live in Maryland, and I lived in Maryland at the time, so Dan and I -- the co-writer, co-director -- went around, just driving around looking for a town to kind of base the movie in. And Burkittsville is just a beautiful little town on top of a hill. It has, like, little mountains behind it, like a little hillside behind it. And it's basically just an intersection. I mean, there's, like, maybe 100 people there. And it was just a perfect little, you know, town.
SANCHEZAnd I think it was founded in 1825. So, we were like, okay, it's called Burkittsville now, but let's make it where, like, in the 1700s, there was this town called Blair, and everybody died one winter in this township. And the township was abandoned, and then in 1825, Burkittsville was founded on the same place that Blair was found. So, it matched kind of our history that we wanted.
SANCHEZBut, honestly, you know, when we made this movie, we were expecting, you know, hopefully, you know, maybe a video distribution deal, you know, maybe HBO was, like, oh, my God, if we get on HBO, that would be great. So, you know, if we had known what the movie was going to do, we would've changed the name of Burkittsville to something else. And, you know, unfortunately, they had some trouble there after the movie.
NNAMDII was about to say, and if Burkittsville had known, because there were some inadvertent consequences for Burkittsville once "Blair Witch" became a hit. Tell us about that.
SANCHEZYeah, I mean, you know, horror audiences are, you know, fanatical. Some of them are very fanatical and, you know, they were a little bit disrespectful. They stole the signs, the Burkittsville signs a couple times. We actually bought them a new set of signs, and I think those were stolen, as well. And, you know, there were a lot of people -- I had lunch with the mayor of Burkittsville years ago, and she was telling me that people were actually, like, going into people's houses, because they thought it was a movie set..
SANCHEZAnd so I was, you know, really -- we were all kind of just really sad about that. But, you know, it was something that, you know, we couldn't have helped. And like I said, if we had known that people were going to be doing this, we would have not called the town Burkittsville.
NNAMDIMost of the film was actually shot over the course of eight days in Montgomery County's Seneca Creek State Park. How do you think that setting contributes to the final feel of the movie?
SANCHEZWhen we were doing the scouting, we were looking for, you know, a good chunk of woods that wasn't, like, super-isolated, because we knew we had to shoot there. So, we had to bring, you know, personnel in and equipment, stuff like that. But we also wanted to have, you know, varied terrain. And when we were walking through Seneca State Park, it was just perfect. There were creeks and, you know, logs covering -- you know, crossing creeks and different kinds of trees. There was, like, you know, fields and so it kind of lent itself to, like, a larger area than it actually is. You know, it's only about two square miles, but we thought we could make it look, you know, like endless woods.
SANCHEZAnd, you know, it has that Maryland woods feel, which I thought was perfect. And, luckily, you know, it worked out where they actually let us shoot and let us stay overnight. Right when we were about to shoot there, they told us that we couldn't shoot overnight. We couldn't stay overnight, so that was a big problem for us. So, luckily, somebody knew somebody high up in the government and let us shoot there. But, you know, it was kind of at a point where, whether we had permission or not, I think we were going to shoot it, anyway. (laugh) So, luckily, we got permission and, you know, nobody got arrested.
NNAMDIAnd I'm thinking Hollywood, a team of researchers goes out, and after searching for months, discovers Burkittsville. And after searching for many more months discovers Seneca State -- it was just the two of you.
SANCHEZYeah, it was me and Dan and then, you know, some other people, a few people. But, yeah, it was a very small crew, like less than 10 people.
NNAMDIThe filming process in the woods was famously grueling for the three actors, Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael C. Williams. And most of it was their improvisation. How much traditional direction were you and Daniel Myrick giving them?
SANCHEZWe were directing kind of like by remote control. You know, we wanted the footage to look completely real, so we wrote a script that had no dialogue. We knew that the actors were going to make up all the dialogue themselves. And the way we auditioned them in New York City was very improv. Like, we wanted to see what they would just come up off the top of their heads, you know, what kind of personalities they had just without a written script.
SANCHEZSo, once they got into the woods, we kind of left them alone as much as possible. We wanted them to be isolated. We wanted them to feel like they were really actually lost in the woods. So, we had these little directing notes that we would give them three or four times a day. And we would give them each -- each actor had different directing notes, and they weren't allowed to talk about directing notes. And we kind of gave them, like, little motivational kind of guidance as far as, like, you're mad at this person, or this person doesn't know what they're doing, or you got to get out of the woods. All this kind of backstory and all this kind of inner dialogue with these directing notes.
SANCHEZAnd then as the time progressed, we started feeding them less, because in the movie, they run out of food. And I think that by the end of the shoot, by the end of the eight days, it really, you know, had taken a psychological toll on them. And you can see it in the footage. You know, the actors really went through a very difficult time, you know, just sleeping together in this small tent and not showering. And, you know, even two days in the woods, you get tired of it. After about seven or eight days, I mean, they were ready to be done. So, I think all that kind of lent to the believability of their performances.
NNAMDIAnd while the movie was low budget, you were using GPS technology in a sort of high-tech way. How did you come up with that idea, and why was it necessary?
SANCHEZWell, the producer, Gregg Hale, had Special Forces training in the Army, and they had used GPS to, you know, lead themselves through the woods. And so he knew the technology, and he knew that we could have, like, these little handheld units. And we needed them, because it was just woods. You know, there were a few roads, or whatever, but they were basically in the woods.
SANCHEZSo, the only way we could direct them to, like, go to a certain place, to go to a log crossing, or go to a certain rock was to actually have a GPS unit with those coordinates. And then so, basically, they had a GPS coordinate in the directing notes that would say, go to waypoint three. You have to be at waypoint three by, you know, 3:00 or by 4:00 p.m. So, Heather, mostly -- because Heather was the leader of the group -- would basically time out the walk. And they would walk and they would get there around 4:00, and then they would do the scene that had to be done at that place. And then they would go to the next location.
SANCHEZSo, the only way we could direct them without actually having contact with them was the GPS system. And, luckily, Gregg knew about it and kind of, you know, facilitated that. But it was kind of cool, because, you know, we could actually not see them for hours at a time, and they were out there actually just shooting our film for us. It was kind of exciting, you know.
SANCHEZAnd then when we were watching the footage for the first time, it was weird for us, because we had not -- we weren't there. You know, usually, when you're directing a movie, you're there, you see all the takes, you add all the little notes and stuff. For us, it was like almost -- we were like an audience member. So, it was really exciting to actually, you know, just see what they were doing.
NNAMDIIf you had the opportunity to go back and do it all over, would you change anything about how you made "Blair Witch?"
SANCHEZI mean, I guess we would pay ourselves, (laugh) you know, because we were broke, and we were broke for quite a while, you know, until we sold the movie. But, no, I don't think I would change anything. I mean, it really was, you know, the only time in my career where everything kind of worked out, you know. The actors were chosen, you know, the right way. They ended up doing these incredible performances for us. The crew was just enough. It was just small enough, but not too big to handle the task at hand. And, you know, and everything kind of happened for a reason. And I think "Blair Witch," to me, is like -- it was like all the planets aligned, and I wouldn't change a single thing.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Eduardo Sanchez, co-writer and co-director of "The Blair Witch Project" with Daniel Myrick. A similar question, if you'd been able to have any resource or modern technology you wanted to make "The Blair Witch Project," what would you have used?
SANCHEZI think the only thing we would have changed was the ending. The ending was kind of tough to come up with, because you don't see anything in the movie. So, how do you end, you know, a horror movie without seeing anything? So, we felt like we wanted to see something at the end. So, I think if we had had money, I think we would've built, like, some crazy Blair Witch, you know, monster suit. And it would've probably ruined the movie, honestly.
NNAMDII was about to say, well, how would that have, in your view, affected the movie?
SANCHEZIt would've ruined it, (laugh) I mean, for sure. I mean, you know, the reason that we came up with this just simple idea of Mike, the character, just standing in the corner while Heather yells at him, that was just kind of -- that was the only thing we had. And we had no money, so we couldn't build anything. But I think if we would've had money, we would've definitely ruined the end of the film, for sure.
NNAMDIOne of the few times that being broke turned out to be the best option that you had.
NNAMDIWe now live in a world where everyone, not just film students, can record what's going on around them. Do you think the conceit of a found footage horror film like "Blair Witch" holds up?
SANCHEZI mean, I think so. I mean, I think, you know, it's a difficult thing, because, you know, in '99, the internet was so small, that we were able to kind of promote this lie, really, this kind of -- you know, I don't like to say hoax, but it was sort of a hoax, you know, without people being able, you know, to do much research on it. Nowadays, you couldn't really do that at all.
SANCHEZBut I think the idea of a found footage movie of, you know, watching footage that somebody else has taped, I think it's probably more applicable now than ever. I mean, you know, my kids -- I have three kids, and they're constantly watching YouTube and they're constantly videotaping stuff. So, this new generation has completely grown up with video just in their hand, you know, and in their phone. So, I think that it's probably -- you know, I've done a lot of interviews about, you know, what's the next thing in found footage or what's the next "Blair Witch Project," and I think that, you know, it's going to be probably somebody with, just on their iPhone, making a movie about something, you know.
SANCHEZBut, yeah, I think it could still be done. It's just a matter of, you know, being clever enough to, you know, hide enough to make it seem real. But, obviously, you can't fool people now, because, you know, the internet is just too huge. You know, any actor has a Facebook page or has a Twitter feed, and you'd be able to find out immediately that they're not dead or they're not who they say they are, or they're an actor or whatever. So, you'd have to be really clever about it, that's for sure.
NNAMDINevertheless, and in spite of, what do your kids think about the movie?
SANCHEZYou know, we had a 20th anniversary screening in Fredrick last week. And my son Lucas, who's 16, he had seen the movie before, but he saw it again, and it was a big celebration. You know, the theater was packed, and we had, like, a little VIP reception. And, you know, it was really kind of a big deal. I was kind of amazed by how many people showed up, you know, 20 years after this movie was made.
SANCHEZAnd, you know, simply, at the end of the night, when he was about to go to sleep, he told me, he's like, hey dad, cool film. (laugh) So, you know, and I think he was kind of just, you know, impressed by just the reaction that everybody was having to this film. And I'm as surprised as he was, you know. Like, I think that it's something that we all collaborated on 20 years ago, and I never thought I'd be talking to you about it 20 years later, that's for sure. So, it's just been a big surprise. And I think my kids -- at least my two older kids, you know, appreciate the fact that, you know, what we did. And, you know, even though they can't experience what we went through, I think, you know, they can kind of see that, yeah, it was kind of a big deal.
NNAMDII'd be, like, son, I've been waiting 19 years to hear that. (laugh)
NNAMDIWe also live in a world, unfortunately, and a time where death and trauma can be very publically disseminated on the internet. We see social media posts made during mass shootings. We hear recordings from the cockpits of planes as they go down. With that in mind, here's a clip of a pivotal monologue from the end of "Blair Witch," in which Heather is taking responsibility for the terrible things happening.
HEATHERI just want to apologize to Mike's mom and Josh's mom. I was very naïve, and it's all because of me that we're here now, hungry and cold and hunted. (crying) I love you, mom and dad.
NNAMDIHave you seen a shift in how audiences think about, how audiences react to portrayals of such intense moments? Have we become desensitized to them, or are we more empathetic?
SANCHEZI don't know. It's a good question. I think depends on, you know, who it is and what exactly, you know, is happening. You know, like, when Heather did that scene, you know, we just told her, point the camera at yourself and, you know, you're not going to make it out of these woods, and just kind of give us your final, you know, testament, like, you know, basically, like what you want to say to your parents, what you want to say to your family, what you want to say to everybody.
SANCHEZAnd, you know, it came out really genuine, because, you know, she had been under these circumstances in the woods for eight days. And she was just exhausted, and she's a tremendous actress. She's really talented. So, it was a really incredible scene. But, yeah, it's crazy that, like, now, you know, you see such, you know, savage acts of violence on video. And, you know, it's almost like, you know, you see it even without wanting to see it. Sometimes somebody sends you something or you see something, you know, and all of a sudden, it plays. You know, like, oh, my God, I didn't want to see that.
SANCHEZYou know, I don't know if we've been desensitized to it, but it's definitely, you know, out there. And it's just something -- especially with, you know, having kids, you know, how do you shelter your kids from that, you know, from an internet search? You know, it's a scary time out there right now, and we just have to, you know, hopefully, you know, trust that we've taught them the right things, the right judgment to make those calls when they come to those situations.
NNAMDIAnd I'm a part of the Baby Boom generation. I've been sitting in movie theaters in recent years watching movies along with young people sitting beside me. And I see horrible acts of violence that I can't bear to look at. And when I look at the young people sitting near to me, they're looking at this calmly, as if it's something they're really pretty used to seeing.
SANCHEZYeah, yeah. I mean, and also just the video games, the violence you see in video games and also just even on just regular TV. You know, it's just something that, for some reason, it's just the way it is right now. And we just have to be -- like I said before, we have to trust that we've taught our kids to deal with it in the right way.
SANCHEZAnd that's kind of, you know, a larger discussion. It's, like, when do you show your kids -- you know, when do you start showing your kids this? Because, eventually, they're going to see it. And I think, a lot of times, parents, you know, shelter their kids too long, and then, all of a sudden, they see something that they're not prepared to see. So, you know, it's a dark world out there, and unfortunately, we have to let our kids know that as soon as, you know, we think they should.
NNAMDIThat brushing sound you hear is Alfred Hitchcock turning over in his grave. (laugh) You've gone on to direct many other projects over the past two decades, most of them in the horror genre. What did you learn making "Blair Witch" that you've carried with you through your career?
SANCHEZThe biggest thing I learned about "Blair Witch" was that, you know, I was in my late 20s when I directed "Blair With." And, you know, as, you know, just being young and kind of being, you know, full of yourself, I guess is a way to describe it, you think that you have to control everything. Like, you think that, you know, your ideas are the best, and you think that, you know, you have to kind of micromanage everything in front of you. At least that's how it was when I was in film school.
SANCHEZAnd "Blair Witch," because Dan and I were forced to leave the actors alone and kind of let them do -- you know, we had to trust them enough to let them basically shoot our film and come up with all the dialogue for our film. I learned that, as a director, you have to back away sometimes and let the people that you hired do their jobs. And I do it to this day. I direct a lot of television now and, you know, television is different than film. You know, the director's not the king that they are on film sets. It's more of a writer's medium.
SANCHEZSo, you have to back up, anyway, but for me, it's, like, I love the idea of, like, giving people enough information to do their job, but then let them have enough freedom to, you know, come up with their own ideas and collaborate. And "Blair Witch" taught me that film is such a collaborative art form that you have to -- you know, first you have to hire the right people. You have to hire the right actors. You have to hire the right crew. But if you hire the right people, you know, they're going to do something that -- you know, they're going to bring things to the film, to the project that you never imagined.
SANCHEZAnd, for me, that's the exciting part. It's the idea of, like, taking all these different ideas and taking all these collaborative energies and putting them together and, kind of, almost like a conductor. You know, like, for me, directing is more like conducting, like taking the best of what everybody has to offer and kind of mixing it up and, you know, making it as good as you can. But, for me, it was just basically backing away. Like, the best thing is sometimes get out of there and let your people do their jobs.
NNAMDIIt's a fascinating analogy, directing and conducting. How do you think horror movies have changed in the past 20 years or so?
SANCHEZYou know, Dan and I came up with the "Blair Witch" idea because we had just seen a movie called "Freddy's Dead," which was a "Nightmare on Elm Street" movie with Roseanne Barr and Tom Arnold. And it wasn't exactly the scariest movie in the world. And this is, like, early '90s, late '80s. And we were just like, man, why, you know -- we hadn't been scared by a horror movie in a really long time. And we were trying to figure out what made horror films scary when we were kids. And that's how we came up with the idea for "Blair Witch."
SANCHEZBut I think, since then, I think the horror genre has gone through a great revolution, you know, it's evolved into -- you know, there's a lot of really great horror films being made right now. And I think that, you know, Elijah Wood was talking last year about the idea that, you know, his goal is for a horror movie to win best picture at the Oscars. And I really think that there's this new crop of filmmakers out there that are making these really great films that I think are kind of finally getting the critical success that I think a lot of horror films deserve.
SANCHEZYou know, horror films have always been kind of the bastard son (laugh) of the film business. You know, it's very hard to get a nomination at all if you're doing horror movies. Even though I think the performances in horror movies are just as good as anybody else. Like Heather, I think, Donahue's performance in "Blair Witch,' I would put that performance up against anybody. You know, it's just an amazing performance, but she didn't get, you know, nearly enough attention and accolades for that. So I think that now people are taking horror films more seriously. And, you know, there's just really a good crop of filmmakers out there that are making some great films.
NNAMDIWhat do you hope is the lasting legacy of "The Blair Witch Project"?
SANCHEZI hope that it continues to inspire people to, you know, think outside the box and to realize that, you know, with the right, you know, amount of luck and the right idea, that spark can come from anybody, you know, can come from anywhere. Like, we were literally completely unknown people with no money. And we shot this movie, you know, on Hi-8, which was, you know, a consumer grade video that nobody was shooting movies on Hi-8 in those days. And somehow this movie became this kind of worldwide, you know, phenomenon that we had no idea how to even think about how to put it in perspective, you know.
SANCHEZAnd I think that's the best thing. I mean, a lot of people approach me and say, man, yeah "Blair Witch," you know, got me off my butt and, you know, got me to do this and inspired me to do this. And, for me, that's the best. You know, the best kind of legacy is the idea that, like, if I could do it, you could do it. You know what I'm saying? So, I think that's the big thing that I hope that "Blair Witch" continues to show people, is that with the right idea, a little luck and, you know, and just some perseverance, you can kind of blow up, you know, the world, you know, creatively.
NNAMDIThat's the advice you give to young filmmakers?
SANCHEZThat's the advice. I mean, you know, it's follow your instincts and do something that you haven't seen before. I mean, that's kind of, you know, the trick, you know, try to do something original, try to stick to something that's coming from your heart, but also is from an original place.
NNAMDIEduardo Sanchez. He is co-writer and co-director with Daniel Myrick of "The Blair Witch Project." Thank you so much for joining us.
SANCHEZThank you for having me.
SIMONSI still can't believe it's been 20 years since "The Blair Witch Project" took over the world. We're not done with Halloween just yet. Have you heard of the Tacoma Park Halloween Costume Census? Well, it's as delightful as it sounds. And Laura Spitalniak will tell you all about it on our website at kojoshow.org.
SIMONSToday's show was produced by Maura Currie. Coming up tomorrow, on The Politics Hour, D.C. Councilmember Charles Allen and Maryland State Senator Clarence Lam will join us to dig into all of the week's political news. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Sasha-Ann Simons.
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