By Leslie C. Halpern
Marking the 20-year anniversary of its release, the scary pseudo-documentary, The Blair Witch Project returns to the Florida Film Festival where it was featured as the opening night film in 1999. This time it appears in a 35mm version in the coveted special event spot as “An Evening with the Blair Witch: A 20th Anniversary Celebration” on Sunday, April 14 at 8:00 p.m. at Enzian Theater in Maitland, Florida. As the filmmakers are local and will be participating in a Q&A following the screening, this event likely will sell out fast. Tickets are available now for this program and all screenings at the Festival, which runs from April 12-21, 2019.
Twenty years ago when the story broke that five local University of Central Florida film school graduates had sold their micro-budget horror film to Artisan Entertainment at Sundance Film Festival, I was lucky enough to interview the filmmakers in their studio and write articles for Orlando Sentinel, Sun-Sentinel, The Hollywood Reporter, and Markee Magazine. As proof that you should never throw anything away because someday you might need it, I dusted the creepy black widow spider webs off one of my articles from 1999, and am reprinting it below.
The stir created by the premiere of the low-budget thriller, The Blair Witch Project, purchased by Artisan Entertainment at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, was no less exciting than the stir created during the actual filming of the pseudo-documentary. During the month of October 1997, Haxan Films transformed the tranquil beauty of Maryland’s Seneca Creek State Park into the haunted Black Hills Forest, the site where three student filmmakers (played by Heather Donahue, Michael Williams and Joshua Leonard) mysteriously disappear during filming of a documentary about the mythical Blair Witch. Although the three students never emerge from the forest, terrifying footage of their experiences is discovered a year later.
directed and edited by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez and produced by Gregg
Hale and Robin Cowie, the four men—along with co-producer Michael Monello—comprise
Orlando-based Haxan Films. Sanchez grew up in Maryland, and with the assistance
of The Maryland Film Commission used the benign park for the eight-day shoot.
Postproduction in their home office was more daunting than haunting, however. Eight days of shooting produced 18 hours of raw footage, which took more than a year to edit into an-87-minute film. Shot on video and 16mm film, in color and black and white, the feature is a hybrid of looks created by method filmmaking, where Haxan Films achieves amazing realism through the imperfections of the footage. Blurry shots, seemingly unedited footage, improvised lines and unplanned expletives allow the actors to film themselves experiencing terror in the haunted forest.
“The actors’ prime directive was to react to stimuli and roll camera on everything that occurred,” Myrick says. To prepare for their ordeal, the actors were given a two-day crash course in filmmaking.
The unsuspecting actors didn’t know what awaited them as they wandered through the woods, deprived of sleep, proper nourishment, and knowledge of the production team’s plans, which included nightly harassments, haunted images, and a bloody discovery wrapped in flannel. “Actually it was just some extracted teeth with the roots attached that we got from a dentist,” Cowie says. “You can’t really tell what it is—just that it’s nasty, real nasty.”
Sanchez says although the production team spent countless hours walking through the woods before the shoot, the tedious scouting was well worth it. Their in-depth knowledge of the woods was crucial for the nightly hauntings staged by the production team. “My favorite part was waking up the actors at 3:00 a.m. and scaring them,” Sanchez says. To facilitate these supposed encounters between the filmmakers and the Blair Witch, the production team moved quietly through the woods—sometimes a mile or more—in the dark using red-lens headlamps. Filming around Halloween added to the ambience.
filming, the actors moved to and from pre-determined locations, encountering
actors and non-actors with whom they improvised scenes. Direction was limited
to written notes passed to the actors as they interviewed people in town before
entering the haunted forest. In the woods, the actors relied on Global
Positioning System (GPS) handsets for navigation. The production team also used
GPS to track them. Notes, gear, and food were exchanged via baskets marked with
DayGlo orange bike flags.
Cowie, who also serves as president of the development and production company FILMstart, Inc, says although a few local actors were used for small roles, many of the people interviewed in the film were local non-actors who agreed to answer questions. “Heather went up to people and asked if they had heard of the Blair Witch,” Cowie says. “For whatever reason, some of them said ‘yes’ and related stories they had heard or television shows they had seen on the subject.”
What possessed locals to share witch stories based on a myth conjured up by the filmmakers? Myrick says it was one of many lucky signs that appeared along the way. “On the second day of filming, we were hiding in camouflage in the woods while the actors tried to negotiate crossing a log across a river. Because they were effectively shooting on film, they had sound gear, cameras and rolls of film on their backs. I knew that if they fell into the water and soaked the camera and film, then our movie was over. We couldn’t afford to buy any more stuff. I thought to myself, ‘If they can just make it across the log, then we’re home free.’”
They made it across the log.
While Artisan Entertainment test markets the film to determine play dates and range of distribution, Haxan Films is developing more projects, including screenplays, a book detailing the production of The Blair Witch Project, a film sequel, a television series and an interactive CD-ROM, all based on Blair Witch mythology.
For more information about “An Evening with the Blair Witch” and Florida Film Festival, visit the official website.
Leslie C. Halpern is the author of Scantily Clad Truths: Essays on Life with Clothes (and without) and 200 Love Lessons from the Movies.