By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
"In a perfect world," says filmmaker Daniel Myrick, "if I had the movie in my hand on a VHS tape and a friend was coming over to watch it, I wouldn't tell him anything about it. I'd slap the tape into the VCR and let the primal workings of the film take effect." but perfect conditions have given way to marketing considerations, and Myrick and cowriter-codirector Eduardo Sanchez can no longer conceal the secrets of their documentary-style debut. The Blair Witch Project which opens midnight tonight and chronicles the terrifying exploits of three Maryland film students who hike into the forest to document a local legend and are never heard from again is this year's breakout indie success story.
Ever since pieces of the film showed up on the Independent Film Channel's Split ScreenTV series last year, heated Internet discussions have broken out about whether the story was truth or fiction. At the Sundance Film Festival last January, the heat surrounding the movie's midnight premiere sent distributor Artisan Entertainment for their checkbooks, buying the movie at a price tag in the low millions not bad for a feature made for the "cost of a nice new car" (reportedly $40,000). Four months later at Cannes, the directors took home the Prix de la Jeunesse (given by a jury of 18-to-25-year-old film writers) and now their movie is jockeying for position in theaters across the country.
"We were just not expecting in any way, shape, or form this kind of response to the movie," says 35-year-old Myrick. "It's exciting on one level, but then on another level, it's also terrifying, because now it's got to live up to the hype." Along with the Cuban-born Sanchez, and fellow University of Central Florida film school alumni Gregg Hale, Mike Monello, and Robin Cowie, Florida native Myrick formed the "creative think tank" known as Haxan Films that made The Blair Witch Projecta reality. "We're not talented enough separately," jokes Sanchez. "We have one big globule mass brain." (The name of the collective comes from a 1922 Swedish film called Haxan, a.k.a. Witchcraft Through the Ages).
Though Artisan is marketing the movie as a true story of horror a compilation of the "found footage" from the still-missing Maryland film students Myrick and Sanchez don't try to obscure the issue. "What are we going to do? Say, 'Oh, yeah, it's totally real,' and then suffer the backlash? We're definitely telling everyone it's fiction if they ask us, because there's a lot to be said about the Method approach we took in making it."
Shooting over eight days in Maryland's Seneca Creek State Park, the Haxan team developed an improvisational technique where the actors (Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael Williams) were given 16mm film and Hi-8 video cameras, then thrust into the woods to capture the action themselves. Using handheld Global Positioning System tracking devices ("technology that was used in the Gulf War to steer the MX missiles you can get it in any Sears," says Sanchez), crew and cast maneuvered through the woods, with checkpoints along the way where directing notes, gear, and food were left in baskets marked with Day-Glo orange flags. Producer Hale, a former U.S. Special Army Forces linguist, used his SERE (Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape) skills to coordinate the shoot.
"By applying the same physical and mental stresses to the actors lack of food, lack of sleep, walking them around, fucking with them at night," says Hale, "we hoped by the time we really needed them to freak out, they would be able to tap into areas of their psyche they normally wouldn't be able to tap into." Actors were given two days' training on the film equipment and used their own names so they wouldn't break character "when they were yelling at each other, or when they were hungry," says Myrick. "We wanted to capture those moments of magic that you just can't script." But the actors who had escape routes and walkie-talkies were never in any real danger, maintains Sanchez. "If they were really worried, they wouldn't give us their performances."
The actors shot 18 hours of running, camping, and screaming in the woods "Phase 1" footage that Myrick and Sanchez had planned to edit together with "Phase 2" backstory, which consisted of their own 1940s newsreel footage and a reality-based TV show called Mystical Occurrences. After eight months of editing and two widely divergent cuts one from each codirector they realized the Phase 2 exposition wasn't working and decided to make the movie strictly out of what the actors had shot. "I was scared shitless to just let it go, as is," says Myrick. "Think about it. It's Hi-8 video, as raw as you can get. Are people going to look at over 80 minutes of shaky-cam? I'm thinking, 'It'll never play in a theater.' "
Artisan's marketing machine has been working in overdrive, with tie-ins like a 246-page Penguin book, which chronicles a private investigator's inquiry into the mystery, a soon-to-be-released comic book, the collective's popular Website, www.haxan.com (which already receives 80 to 90 e-mails daily from fans), and Myrick and Sanchez's one-hour special for the Sci-Fi Channel called "Curse of the Blair Witch" (which utilizes their Mystical Occurrences footage). Besides a high-profile press tour if the film does well, the filmmakers have a bet with Artisan that if the movie breaks $10 million at the box office, executives will buy the Haxan team a competition-grade foosball table.