City Paper is not for tourists
When Eduardo Sanchez was a kid, he was scared. Thanks to such pseudodocumentaries as The Legend of Boggy Creek and the In Search Of TV series hosted by Leonard Nimoy, the boy became convinced that at any minute Bigfoot would clamber from the primordial forest and arrive at his home. “I wouldn’t wash my face,” Sanchez remembers, “because I was afraid that if I closed my eyes, I’d open them and Bigfoot would be there at the bathroom window looking in at me.”
And the nearby primordial forest that Bigfoot would have clambered from to get Sanchez? Well, that would have been Rock Creek Park.
Although born in Cuba, Sanchez grew up in Montgomery County. He lived in Takoma Park when he was most fearful of Bigfoot, in Germantown when he helped direct The Blair Witch Project, which terrified a midnight-show audience at the Sundance Film Festival early this year—and then quickly scared up a reported $1 million from distributor Artisan Entertainment. The low-budget “documentary” account of three Montgomery College film students who get lost in the Maryland woods may be the year’s most-discussed Amerindie flick, thanks to both spontaneous buzz and a savvy marketing campaign.
Between Takoma Park and Germantown, Sanchez attended the University of Central Florida in Orlando, where he met Blair Witch co-director Daniel Myrick. The two found that they shared vivid boyhood memories of crackpot cinematic “exposes” like Chariots of the Gods and In Search of Noah’s Ark.
“I don’t know what’s scary about that,” admits Sanchez of the latter, “but for some reason, the way they shot it and the way the narrator would come in—it was just creepy.”
As a boy in his native Florida, Myrick was also a connoisseur of shaggy, shadowy humanoids. “I had a Bigfoot in my woods, too,” he says. “Bigfoot covered a lot of ground.”
The tall, black-haired, and goateed Sanchez is now 30, and the almost-blond Myrick is 35, but they still treasure these childhood chills enough to have made a spooky movie of their own. Although The Blair Witch Project eventually took an unexpected turn, Myrick says it was initially “based on those documentaries that used to freak us out as kids. We came up with the idea in ’93, in film school. It languished for a couple years, because we both got day jobs after graduation.” The two toiled at such tasks as truck driving, bartending, industrial-video making, and Web page designing to support themselves as they planned and made the film. As part of a nationwide publicity tour, they’re back in Sanchez’s hometown, wearing battered blue jeans (Myrick) and khaki cargo pants (Sanchez) in the lounge of the pinstripe-appropriate Jefferson Hotel.
The filmmakers decided to place their story in Burkittsville, a small town in Frederick County that—according to the legend they invented—used to be called Blair. “It’s the perfect little town,” says Myrick. “You come over that hill and see Burkittsville and that cemetery and those mountains behind it. The church steeple.”
“That was Blair,” agrees Sanchez. “The legend was perfect for Maryland. It wouldn’t have worked if it had been Florida.” He laughs. “Blair Witch of the Keys!”
The crew shot scenes in Burkittsville, Brunswick, Adamstown, and Patapsco State Park, but most of the filming was in Montgomery County’s Seneca Creek State Park, which had a significant logistical advantage. “I lived five minutes from the location,” Sanchez says.
There was another crucial inspiration for the film’s haunting scenario: the U.S. Army Special Forces. Their friend Gregg Hale, who became one of Blair Witch’s producers, had been in that military unit—”He still is, I think,” jokes Sanchez—and what he told the would-be directors about his experiences in POW-camp scenarios gave them an idea.
“For three days, the soldiers outside the fence are speaking Russian,” explains Myrick. “He says, after a couple of days, you start believing it’s real. You start going into this character. That’s what gave us the idea of using this ‘method filmmaking.’ To have the characters immersed in this world that we create for them. From that idea, we just built.”
Myrick and Sanchez decided to send three actors—Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael Williams, all called by their real names in the film—into the woods and have them shoot their own footage. They would follow directions given over radio, using Global Positioning System devices to find designated locations. The performers would know the film’s general idea, but would not have a script.
“That’s why it looks so real on film,” says Sanchez. “Because they really are reacting to things for the first time. They really are going through emotions that you couldn’t script. That was the whole prime directive: to keep it looking as much like a real home movie as possible.”
“When they were hungry, they were really hungry,” notes Myrick. “We cut off their rations. We didn’t do anything that they didn’t want us to do, but we tried collectively to immerse them so much in the reality of the characters in the hope that they would find that emotional place in their minds to give us those performances. They tortured themselves as much as we tortured them. But we wouldn’t have gotten the performances out of them if we hadn’t approached it that way.”
The three characters stayed in the woods for six days, although they did leave once because of rain. “We weren’t in radio contact with them, and they started getting scared,” Sanchez explains. “So they broke scenario, and we ended up having them in a hotel room that night.”
To heighten the sense of reality, the directors didn’t cheat their premise by taking events out of the order they occurred. “It’s all in sequence,” says Myrick. “Day One is Day One and Day Two is Day Two. That’s the way we watched it, from the very beginning to the very end.
“We had about 20 hours of raw footage,” he continues. “We didn’t have multiple takes, where you pick your best take and follow the script along. It was more like a documentary, where you have just a bunch of raw material. We had to decide what moments from each day to put in to sculpt this narrative.”
Shaping the 82-minute film took eight months, in part because the directors were reluctant to abandon their initial plan. “The original structure was going to be more like a documentary, almost like an In Search Of episode,” says Sanchez. “We were going to find this footage and make a film about it. So we were just looking for those three or four important parts, because we were only going to show a couple of scenes from what we shot. And then have Leonard Nimoy or somebody examine what happened to these kids.
“But then we realized that we had a narrative, that all we needed to do was tweak it. We kept shooting Phase 2 stuff—the Leonard Nimoy stuff—but Dan and I were cutting and cutting, and it just didn’t work. Then, finally, a couple of weeks before Sundance, we decided to just cut all the Phase 2 stuff and show the film for what it is.” (Some of the junked footage is available at www.blairwitch.com or was used on a Sci-Fi Channel special shown July 12.)
The result is a much more experimental—and powerfully suggestive—film than the two originally intended. “We started to realize that every weakness of independent film, we could use to our advantage,” Sanchez notes. “We couldn’t have any stars. We shot it all on video. We didn’t need lighting. We had just one location, for the most part.”
Although The Blair Witch Project has been hailed as the best horror flick in years, the directors don’t expect to turn it into a franchise. “It was the only horror idea we have, really,” says Sanchez. Next they’ll be heading to Orlando to make a madcap—and indoor—romantic comedy, which Sanchez says shows the influence of The Naked Gun, Monty Python, and It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World.
Of course, it will be some time before they lose the occult reputation that has already brought one complaint from an interested party. “I got an e-mail from this witch—or a Wiccan—that we were giving witches a bad name,” says Myrick. “They hadn’t seen the movie yet; they’d just heard the buzz. But there was another witch, who interviewed us a couple days ago, who loves the movie.
“Some people who aren’t witches hate the movie, because they think we’re exploiting death and it’s too intense,” he adds. “Some people like to keep things safe, have no risks, and walk out of the theater with everything neatly tied up for them. And we’re just not those kind of filmmakers.” He pauses. “Or at least this isn’t that kind of film.”—Mark Jenkins