Blair Witch Returns to Florida Film Fest as Special Event

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.

The Blair Witch Project. Photo courtesy of Florida Film Festival.

Written, 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.

During 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.

To Dust – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

It’s not every day that you can see a movie entirely about death without one drop of blood spilled. In fact, To Dust offers something else you’d never expect in a drama that examines a Hasidic Jew’s slow acceptance of his young wife’s death after intensely studying physical decomposition of dying bodies – humor, of the laugh-out-loud variety.

To Dust. Photo copyright 2018 Good Deed Entertainment.

We have screenwriters Shawn Snyder (who also directed the film) and Jason Begue to thank for that, as well as actor Matthew Broderick, who fully delivers the comedic goods as Albert, a burned-out community college biology professor. Albert and Shmuel (Geza Rohrig) are from two entirely different cultures and of two vastly dissimilar mindsets. The only thing they have in common is currently a lack of purpose.

Wife’s Death from Cancer

Shmuel is too distraught over his wife’s death from cancer to focus on his cantorial work at the local synagogue or to properly father his two young sons. After enduring horrible nightmares in which he sees parts of her body decaying, Shmuel becomes obsessed with learning how bodies actually decompose, as he’s convinced that her soul is suffering until her body returns to dust. That’s when he seeks help from a contentious coffin salesman and then Albert, whom Shmuel inaccurately presumes to be an expert on the subject.

Lonely and unhappy with his job, Albert at first dismisses Shmuel as a husband driven mad by grief, which, of course, he is. But there’s something about his quest for scientific knowledge that intrigues Albert as opposed to the bored, disinterested students he teaches five days a week. So they form a reluctant bond that begins with book research and progresses to absurd “clinical trials” and “field experiments” that become more gruesome (and illegal) each time.    

Humor Keeps Things Light

Although the dream sequences and experiments can be quite disturbing, the humor throughout the film keeps things from getting too heavy or depressing. Shmuel repeatedly calls Albert a scientist, and Albert frequently refers to Shmuel as a rabbi. Neither is correct, and it shows how little they understand the world of the other. In addition, Shmuel’s two sons are convinced their mother’s ghost has entered their father’s body and is directing his increasingly odd behavior. Their obsession about exorcizing the “dybbuk” (ghost) from their father parallels Shmuel’s single-mindedness about the decomposition of his wife’s body.    

The macabre theme of this film (and its focus on Hasidic Judaism) likely will prevent it from appealing to a mass audience, and something this dark almost needs to be accompanied by a Trigger Alert. Nonetheless this is a well-made film with a clever script and delightful acting that promises to be unlike anything you’ve seen before at the cinema.

To Dust

A Hasidic cantor mourns his young wife’s death by obsessing over the details of her body’s decay.

  • Stars: Geza Rohrig, Matthew Broderick, Sammy Voit, Leo Heller, Janet Sarno
  • Director: Shawn Snyder
  • Writers: Shawn Snyder and Jason Begue
  • Genre: Dramatic Comedy
  • Run Time: 92 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for language and some disturbing images)
  • Additional Information: The director, Shawn Snyder is from South Florida, and this film opens the 2019 Boca Raton Jewish Film Festival on March 10th with the filmmaker in attendance. To Dust screens in select theaters across Florida beginning March 15th.

Leslie C. Halpern is the author of Scantily Clad Truths: Essays on Life with Clothes (and without) and 200 Love Lessons from the Movies.

Life Screenings International Film Festival: Depicting a Better World

By Leslie C. Halpern

With so many annual film festivals around the world, it’s easy for them to blend together – apart from definitive fests such as Sundance, Cannes, Toronto, and our own Florida Film Festival. That’s why Life Screenings International Film Festival is so refreshing. Focusing primarily on shorts that are 15 minutes are less, this 90-minute experience presents between four and seven films each third Sunday of the month at the Winter Park Public Library in Winter Park, Florida.

This truly is a unique festival for three reasons:

  • Life Screenings International Film Festival is a monthly event, rather than an annual gathering. Featured local filmmakers are often in attendance to talk about their work and international filmmakers participate in question-and-answer sessions and discussions by Skype following the screening of their films.
  • Each month’s festival is free and open to the public, although advanced tickets must be reserved to ensure seating. Other festivals typically charge for screenings other than a few selected freebie films.
  • These film shorts range in style, subject, and length, but all depict “a world we want to live in,” according to host, curator, and founder, Banks Helfrich. This distinctive feature is the antithesis of the dark, dreary, disturbing fare that most edgy festival programming directors seek for their events.

A World We Want to Live In

Helfrich, a Central Florida-based actor and independent filmmaker currently working on his 10th feature film, started the festival in February 2016 after first experimenting with Living Room Screenings, which (as the name implies) presented short films in a home setting to a handful of people. Although it began locally, now only about ten percent of the submissions are from Florida filmmakers as the festival has gained international exposure.

As interest grew, so did the festival. Now based in the Winter Park Public Library, the event has changed rooms over the years to accommodate growth, and technical director Jesse James was brought on to keep things running smoothly. Attendees are not necessarily typical movie goers. “These are people who like to think, to question, to learn and to connect,” Helfrich says.

Banks Helfrich

He usually receives about 19 submissions each month and chooses about six of them to screen. No good submission gets ignored, however, although it might be saved for future use. Any submitted film that impresses him with its high quality filmmaking and positive message will get screened at some point. “This is not a competition,” he says. “I will take them all if I like them all. It’s dependent on how they move me.”

So what exactly is a world Helfrich wants to live in? “I want a world where I’m inspired all the time and where people are kind to each other. It’s the world of a child filled with beauty and wonder.”

To that end, he’s working on another new experimental show at the same library this fall. On October 10th, he’s planning “No Assumptions,” a live interactive event in the round where people with opposite views discuss their ideas in front of an audience. “Whenever they disagree and conflict arises, music will begin to play, and they must dance away the tension,” he says. “I’m hoping that art wins.”

Life Screenings Film Submission Process

Leslie C. Halpern is the author of Scantily Clad Truths: Essays on Life with Clothes (and without) and 200 Love Lessons from the Movies.

On the Basis of Sex – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Marking her 25th year as a Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been the subject of two inspiring films this year, the documentary RBG and the new feature film, On the Basis on Sex. She’s also been the subject of various videos and television programs.

Felicity Jones and Armie Hammer star in On the Basis of Sex. Photo copyright 2018 Focus Features.

This latest entry, On the Basis on Sex, is a moving biopic based on the true story of her life, written by Ginsburg’s nephew, Daniel Stiepleman, which gained her full endorsement and even features Justice Ginsburg in a brief cameo at the end. And frankly, why wouldn’t she like this movie? It pays tribute to her well-documented tenacity, sense of justice, fearlessness, outstanding intellect, and youthful beauty. She’s a living legend—a true superhero encased in a tiny 5’1” body.

Unfortunately, an inspiring subject and its related themes (including gender equality, equality rights for all, being true to yourself, changing with the cultural climate, etc.), don’t necessarily translate into inspired cinema.

Only Nine Women Law Students

Felicity Jones stars as Ruth Bader Ginsburg along with Armie Hammer portraying her loving, supportive, and equally gifted husband, Martin (Marty) Ginsburg. The story begins with a visually dramatic orientation scene: Ruth is one of only nine women among 500 new students entering Harvard Law School in 1956. Then our emotions are engaged when she faces ongoing discrimination from school officials for being a woman, a wife, a mother, and a Jew. Encouraged by Marty’s unflinching support and her own steadfast determination for personal success in her field and the desire to help others overcome inequality, she struggles through the ill treatment to the top of her class.

Another memorable moment arrives when the vibrant and charismatic Marty collapses in pain during a round of charades and is hospitalized. (When Hammer’s young, athletic 6’5” frame topples to the floor, it’s a visual oxymoron that increases the drama). Ruth agonizes for days as doctors refuse to inform her of his status. Eventually the diagnosis is revealed—testicular cancer with a 5% survival rate. Even knowing the happy outcome of this crisis, these painful scenes of suffering may kick audience tear ducts into high gear.

Discrimination Based on Gender

After they both graduate, Marty gets hired as a tax attorney at a prestigious law firm and Ruth compromises by teaching law in college because no law firm wants to hire a woman. Frustrated and angry, she latches onto an opportunity that Marty presents to her in which a man is denied a couple of hundred dollars in tax deductions as his mother’s caregiver, simply because he’s a man. The Ginsburgs, who form a team of two for this pro bono effort, recognize this case as a chance to open the door to revising hundreds of laws that discriminate by gender. Their efforts are assisted (grudgingly at times, by legal director of the ACLU Mel Wulf [Justin Theroux] and attorney Dorothy Kenyon [Kathy Bates]).

Here’s where the movie morphs from an artful feature into more of a documentary process film. The process is researching the original case, building a new case, preparing oral arguments, and then delivering these arguments to a panel of Justices of the Supreme Court. With the odds heavily stacked against them, only the Ginsburgs believe they can win.

A Revolutionary Cultural Shift

This process, which becomes the primary focus for the rest of the film, turns formulaic, weighed down by legalese and inattention to other matters of interest (apart from brief obligatory scenes), including the caregiver’s feelings about the ordeal, the Ginsburg children’s coping mechanisms during their parents’ preoccupation with the case, and Marty’s personal and professional preparation for their big day in court.  

The acting, directing, cinematography, and other production values are good, and this film makes a nice companion piece to the RBG documentary (by directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West) to get a fuller picture of the people beyond the paperwork involved in this revolutionary cultural shift.            

On the Basis of Sex

  • Stars: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Cailee Spaeny, Justin Theroux, Kathy Bates, Sam Waterston, Stephen Root
  • Director: Mimi Leder
  • Writer: Daniel Stiepleman
  • Genre: Biography/Drama
  • Run Time: 120 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some language and suggestive content)

Leslie C. Halpern is the author of Scantily Clad Truths: Essays on Life with Clothes (and without) and 200 Love Lessons from the Movies.

The Key in Character Names

By Guest Blogger: C.L. Roman

Trust me on this one. Authors put a lot of thought into naming their characters. Why?

If an author has done their job correctly, readers fall in love with them, or love to hate them. Those readers will follow a beloved (or behated) character through plot after plot, rather than lose them. And characters are identified by their names, the very mention of which conjures notions of bravery, honesty, talent or superlative evil. It is no surprise then that those names can become more recognizable than the titles of the books the characters inhabit.

Think of the names of some of your favorite literary characters.

Harper Lee’s Scout, J.K. Rowling’s Harry, Margaret Attwood’s Offred – none of these names came about by accident. The author chose or invented the name for a reason. Whether it was to symbolize the character as a whole, explain an essential detail of personality, convey a secret truth about a personality type, give the story an ironic twist, delineate the character’s role in the story, or foreshadow the individual’s eventual end, character names usually have a purpose.

But does any of this really matter? Do readers sit around pondering the meaning of character names? Some do. Some don’t. So why do authors put so much effort into naming characters?

There are a number of reasons.

Appellations have a certain “feel” or intrinsic meaning attached to them based on the traditional definition, or cultural connotation. Would Alice Armstrong steal money from the helpless little old lady? Alice means “noble.” Armstrong…well, it kind of speaks for itself, doesn’t it? So, unless the name is being used ironically, Alice is probably an upstanding citizen. On the other hand, any American who grew up during the cold war might have trouble with a protagonist named Boris.

Unlike real people, characters in books have names that compliment or directly oppose their natures, creating a sort of personality shorthand for author and reader alike. Just like other symbols in literature, a lot of the meaning in names is subliminal. Without realizing it, readers draw certain conclusions about a character based on what they are called. This means that some of the heavy lifting of characterization can be accomplished with relative ease.

In my Outcast Angels series, for instance, the angel’s names are derived from the words for giants and/or gods in various cultures around the world. Fomor is a shortened version of Fomoire, a race of gods out of Irish mythology. Danae is his wife. Her name is taken from the Tuatha dé Danann. Their union reflects the intermarriage between these two mythological races. Since all the major players in this series are angels, demons, or half-angels, I wanted names that indicated from the first page that these characters were not wholly human.

In my current work-in-progress, I chose the name Maeve for one of my main characters because it is the name of a warrior queen, and the character is a fighter who will not be dictated to, yet who is not afraid to love.

It is true that sometimes Bob is just Bob. No hidden meaning, no symbolism involved. Just…Bob. Especially when the character is minor, it may be that the name is nothing more than a convenient identifier. Alternately, maybe the author has a character who they originally named Tom but then realized there was already a Timothy in the story. So, the author changes Tom to Joe for no other reason but to avoid confusion.

Of course, with such a mundane name, the reader is clued in that this character may not have a very big place in the story. So even plain Jane names have a purpose.

That purpose might be just to make the character accessible. Let’s face it; most of us aren’t wizards like Harry. But Harry – the boy with the ordinary name – wasn’t so ordinary after all. That dichotomy is what makes him so relatable. We are all ordinary on the outside, but characters like Harry Potter assure us that it is what is inside that really counts.

And that’s the magic. Finding characters that in some way mirror our own experience is the reader’s door into the fictional world. Sometimes the name provides the key.

Author Bio

C.L. (aka Cheri) Roman, writes fantasy and sci-fi with a paranormal edge. You can find her at and on Facebook. Cheri and her ever-patient husband live in the not-so-wilds of Northeast Florida with Jack E. Boy, the super Chihuahua, and Pye, the invisible cat.


You can find Cheri’s books