Our new podcast, Playback, tells the stories behind groundbreaking movies that have impacted the industry, culture, and our lives. Told through extensive interviews with the key creative team, Playback provides the whole picture—in the words of the filmmakers themselves. First, just in time for Halloween, we dive into The Blair Witch Project. Tune in—and keep reading to see what’s in store in all four episodes.
“The thing that I think people don’t realize about Blair Witch was the innocence of it. We all just wanted to make a movie.” –Actor Heather Donahue
In Episode 1, co-writers and directors Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick take us back to their days in film school and the conversations they would have about the movies and shows that scared them the most. Then, after a few iterations, came the idea to make a movie about filmmakers shooting a documentary about witch mythology in the woods and getting lost. This single scene evolved into what was then called The Woods Movie. Greg Hale came on as a producer and pitched the film to every dentist and doctor they knew, “trying to convince them to invest in this wacky movie.” Their approach? To fool investors into thinking it was all real. Then, they hired actors—some through ads that read, “You are about to read for the most demanding and unpleasant project of your career.” Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael C. Williams were in. The intention was to make it look cheap. No big effects, no stunts. Just great performance, concept, and above all, execution.
“You hear those stories about punk rock bands starting where someone’s like, ‘Well, I dunno, my sister’s boyfriend has a bass, I guess I’ll play the bass’ … And that was really how we made this film.” –Actor Joshua Leonard
As Joshua explains in Episode 2, the actors never saw a script. They would be improvising. They were told they would get information as they needed it, and would never have the full story arc because the directors wanted them to react authentically. Every day of the eight days in the woods, Heather, Joshua, and Michael would find a milk crate with film canisters, batteries, and director’s notes for each of the characters. In exchange, the actors would leave their footage from the day. They couldn’t come into contact with the filmmakers unless they absolutely needed to, in which case they would call “bulldozer” into their walkie talkies—but that meant the film would be over. Michael recounts the one time they had to call “bulldozer” and how it almost ended production.
“When people first saw it and they thought it was real, you could see this almost shell-shocked look in their eye, like they had just watched somebody die and they were fucking freaked out about it.” –Producer Greg Hale
The actors admittedly didn’t expect Blair Witch to go very far. “There’s no way this is getting into Sundance,” Heather remembers thinking after the first New York screening of the film. The Internet was new, and Eduardo had built a website that treated the story like a real disappearance. The team sent VHS tapes to festivals and dubbed videos got shared around the world. Fast-forward to Sundance Film Festival 1999. The Blair Witch Project was invited to be part of the Midnight series. “That was probably the hardest we celebrated about anything,” Eduardo recalls. The screening was packed—and that very night, the crew sold the film to Artisan Entertainment.
“We literally made this movie for … I think the initial budget was somewhere around $20,000. So when the movie did 100s of millions of dollars worldwide, no one had seen anything like it before.” –Co-writer co-director Eduardo Sánchez
The Blair Witch was a woman who had been cast out during the colonial era. That’s the story the filmmakers spun, anyway. The team’s efforts to promote the film embodied the true meaning of “viral marketing.” Their simple web page, created via Earthlink, brought in fans and encouraged them to create their own sites. Since they didn’t have the money for billboards or full-page ads, they embraced the Internet as a practical and creative solution to marketing this movie. The idea—which Artisan agreed on—was to fool people into thinking it was all real. Artisan even kept the actors our of the media before the movie came out, thus enhancing its publicity. “They did such a good job that my mother received sympathy cards,” Heather said. Episode 4 dives into all of this and more—including how The Blair Witch Project kicked off an entire genre of “found footage” films.