Given that one of my formative horror experiences was watching the original Blair Witch Project at the cinema, I can’t tell you just how mixed I felt about seeing another sequel. Sure, it couldn’t be as bad as Book of Shadows (reviewed here). But then it’s a direct continuation, along with being found footage in an age where found footage has been done to death. Luckily it was put in the hands of Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard, who combined the slow build of the original with a relentless second half (see my review here). To celebrate its release on bluray, and other formats, Horror Cult Films got to speak to Barrett, the writer, about the movie. Here he talks about how the project started, the main writing challenges and some of the cool science fiction elements (discussed here). Please be warned, there are some mild spoilers in throughout.
So did this project come about via collaborating with Eduardo on VHS 2?
That would make sense! But no it came about in a much less logical way. So we worked with Sanchez and Gregg Hale on VHS 2 and we ended up getting fairly close with them when we were hanging out at Sundance. We asked them ‘you guys ever going to do another Blair Witch movie? What’s going on with that?’ Because we’re big fans. Then in a completely unrelated series of events, I don’t think even they knew, Lionsgate was testing out the idea and spinning the wheels on a new film. So independently they’d been having conversations about doing a new film. And because they’d just bought You’re Next, and were doing well out of that, we were the first filmmakers they brought in to talk about it with. And we were just like ‘huh, we were just talking about this with Eduardo and Greg’. So I guess Lionsgate were probably glad we had this friendship with Eduardo and Gregg, and we’d be able to communicate with them during the process. But it was just a coincidence really – they liked the VHS movies and You’re Next, and they’d seen the way me and Adam work together. And it was just so weird because this was a sequel, unlike all the other sequels we’d been offered and turned down, this is a sequel we really wanted to see as fans.
Did being fans of the original mean the idea intimidated or excited you?
That’s a terrific question! Because this wasn’t just the first studio film I wrote, but also the first I’d wrote based on someone else’s ideas. It had not just a pre-existing fan-base, but a lot of expectations on a cultural level. Lionsgate had their own expectations for what they wanted it to be, they told me and I said ‘yeah, that’s a cool idea’ but from that point I was able to do whatever I wanted. But it was challenging, but after you get drunk a few times then try typing a couple of pages, then sober up and delete them, then you get over that hurdle. Truthfully, I think I’ll write more studio films based on properties like Blair Witch, but I liked that first time I got to it was with creative filmmakers that I actually knew. Knowing that I had the approval from Eduardo and Gregg to do whatever I wanted was great – and they said to make it our own. From their perspective they knew that the filmmakers had their own vision, but wanted to hear from them creatively and wanted to know what they were thinking. We didn’t get to speak as much as we wanted at first because it was such a secretive process.
Speaking of secret, in the social media age how tough was it to keep up the film’s secret identity when it became known as The Woods?
It was a little difficult in that at a certain point bloodydisgusting.com did try to leak the story and I think I know how they got that information. The funny thing about that is it happened when we were actually shooting the film. For the couple years prior to that when I’d been working on the script and we’d made The Guest I just didn’t talk about it. When I’m writing a script or making a film I don’t tell people anyway because I like to surprise them with what I’m coming up with. That led to a fun experience for audiences – I try to keep that for viewers. If I know I want to see a movie I try to avoid the trailer. Weird bit about keeping a secret in the era of social media is everyone expects you to be bragging all the time, and if you don’t do that then they think well I guess these guys are up to nothing. It’s easier than you’d think but it’s weird keeping it a secret for 3 and a half years –was a strange experience.
Was it hard to balance something fans of the original would like as well as a modern audience?
Well that was the main challenge. How do you do a new Blair Witch film for a society that isn’t going to be fooled. The original film is seen in many ways as the originator of the horror found footage drama – and if anything the fad had come and gone by the time we were talking about doing another. So people were savvy to found footage tricks, and would have expectations of what the film was going to be going in – and that was the challenge – how do you do something faithful to the original film but still deliver the kind of scares we think modern audiences would want. And that we ourselves would want: I enjoy those kind of things for the most part. I like it if they can scare me in different ways. Blair Witch, by definition, is a bit of a slow burn. And I tend to write movies that are kind of fast paced, because those are the kinds of materials I enjoy. But I knew this one was going to be a build up to a climax because you can only sustain those kinds of things for so long.
I’ve seen a lot of reviews that have been like ‘why didn’t they make the first half of the movie like the second half?’ And it’s like ‘why isn’t everything a delicious dessert?’ You have to lay the groundwork before you can do that sort of thing, because otherwise it has no context and it’s aggravating. Having laid the groundwork with the first half of the screenplay from that point, the challenge was how many ways can I think of to scare people with the tools that I have? Which are limited when you’re doing found footage. When you think of how a scare is usually created in horror, what they’re using is score and camera placement and editing to create that – tools we don’t have when doing found footage in a way that allows for suspension of disbelief. So you’re losing your tool box. But if you’re successful, you have much more verisimilitude than most horror films and you’re more immediately putting audiences in the perspective of the characters.
I really dug the Sci Fi aspects of it – The Witch playing with time and so on.
And speaking of them, fellow HFC writer Ross wanted me to ask if the tape at the beginning is Heather’s tape or Jamie and Lisa’s?
Yes absolutely, it’s the same scene. In theatres we hoped people would leave the movies saying ‘wait a minute that was the same thing’, but you wouldn’t be able to prove it. But now you can cause it’s on bluray. Absolutely, the timeloop is such that the witch uses their own footage to draw them to the woods, which we set up in a lot of different ways up to and including the tree where they find the tape. Lisa sees that tree outside the house, which is actually when she sees the creature – the witches victim – that leads her into the house. We established the tape that Lane found was the same tape his camera uses. After she falls crawls through the tunnel she picks up his camera as a flashlight, and it keeps rolling because everything in found footage always keeps rolling. There’s a bunch of other things that we’re doing to make it clear how I thought the time loop worked. The larger question is who does Lisa see in the mirror briefly when she’s going up the stairs when she’s being chased by the creature before she locks herself in the attic. There’s a reflection that she sees that James believes might either be his sister or some indication of what happened to his sister. Both of those are good questions. So the video, I’ll totally be like yes, absolutely. The other I’ll be like ‘well what do you think?’ But that’s the legacy of the Blair Witch Project. I’m stunned at how many people are furious I’m not answering every question. But the thing I loved about the original is that after I saw it I felt the desire to research it and learn more then come up with my own theories about what happened that I could debate with my friends.
The original Blair Witch was great for it.
Yeah, and we wanted as much as possible to recreate that experience. Even if you read the material, there’s a lot of questions left unanswered and we wanted to do the same. We wanted to answer some questions and hopefully create new ones. The clues are all there. I like it when people are like ‘oh so it’s obvious that they’re vampires’. And I’m like ‘um, okay…’ I kind of love that. And Blair Witch is one of the few horror properties you can do that with. Largely, I feel ambiguity in horror is a result of creative laziness and storytelling inability – when a filmmaker just doesn’t know how to properly end something. We don’t do that. We explain quite a few things, but it’s also a matter of keeping some sense of mystery, because that’s what the first did so beautifully. And I think if the first film had just stylistically originated found footage, we’d remember it but we wouldn’t remember it as fondly as we do. That the original film has this deep mythology, that they only hint at slightly, is to me what it does so magnificently. I wanted to be able to expand upon that but not ruin it. It’s not for me to say if that was successful but that was the goal.
I heard a rumour that you guys are doing a remake of I Saw the Devil – is that true?
That is not just a rumour – that’s very likely to happen. I’ve already written the script for I Saw the Devil and we’re moving forward with that. It’s a much bigger film than we’ve done before so it’s going a little slower.
And I heard a rumour about Halloween?
No. I love the original so much. I just got a chance to meet John Carpenter after one of his concerts which was absolutely one of those experiences where I mumble I was a fan – then spent the rest of the evening dissecting if he thought I was an idiot or not. It was such a humbling experience, cause he’s made about 5 of my favourite films of all time. So I’m excited that Blumhouse are doing a new Halloween, and someone other than Rob Zombie, will have a shot at it. But The Guest was my personal take on it and I don’t know that I would have anything to add to that. I think The Guest was like Adam and I’s homage to Halloween and try to invert it. And you know we didn’t want to do an obvious homage, but there’s actual set designs from Halloween 3: Season of the Witch that we’re imitating. I love the original Halloween so much that I wouldn’t have anything to say about that one – but I can’t wait to see it. If you’re a horror film maker that isn’t making Star Wars or Jurassic Park sequels everyone thinks you’re doing Halloween. I read Mike Flanagan’s doing it but then he said I don’t know. It’s not me!
Thanks Simon. Can’t wait to see the film again.
Thanks, no problem.
Blair Witch is out on bluray, DVD and on demand services now.
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