Q&A: Eduardo Sanchez on 15 Years of “THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT”
As the 2014 Sundance Film Festival—a particularly genre-heavy one at that, gets underway—the year also marks the 15th anniversary of what’s arguably the renowned fest’s biggest horror surprise: THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, a tiny piece of fright filmmaking that rocketed out of nowhere to become a sensation with a technique that’s not only still in use, but more popular than ever. THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, while endlessly parodied, appropriated and overexposed, remains a household name for a reason. Its influence holds, sure, but so does its power. Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s first person account of missing documentarians is still all too eerie, and all too perfect for annual autumnal viewing. In celebration of the film, as well as the festival that helped launch it, FANGORIA and co-director Sánchez look back on BLAIR WITCH, their Sundance experience and its ultimate legacy.
FANGORIA: In going so far back as to submitting to Sundance, was there a confidence there already, or were you entirely unsure?
EDUARDO SANCHEZ: You can never be overconfident, because everybody thinks their movie deserves to be at Sundance. But we had never experienced anything like—we had never been to Sundance, we had only heard the big stories coming out of Sundance. This was ‘98/’99, so it was a big festival, but not as big as it is today. We definitely knew that if we got in, it would be a game-changer for us. We had confidence, you know, but we still all knew it was a complete crapshoot. I think we would’ve been really disappointed if we hadn’t gotten in, like everybody, but I honestly wouldn’t have been surprised. There’s a lot of competition. It’s just one of these places—and for any festival— you have no idea what the taste of the program is going to be that particular year. Luckily, they liked the film and they asked it to come by.
FANG: That’s interesting, because there are some years, like 2014, that seem genre heavy. Was 1999 similar, at all?
SANCHEZ: We were probably one of few movies. The thing about when we got accepted, they invited us to be part of the midnight section. We didn’t know that much about the midnight section, but one of our co-producers, Michael Monello, was pretty savvy as far as festivals were concerned. He was one of the programmers of the Florida Film Festival, so he went to Sundance and Toronto. He was the most festival-friendly of any of us. We were talking about the midnight section, “Is it worth going?” We really had this conversation! It lasted only about ten minutes, but we actually thought about saying, “no.” We had already been accepted by—not officially accepted, but there was a lot of interest in the film at other festivals. Sundance wasn’t the only place we entered. One festival in particular, they said, “If you guys premiere with us, we’ll give you opening night and we’ll make you kind of the darling of the festival.” So, we had that to kind of weigh against Sundance midnight. At that time, there hadn’t really been anything big that had come out of the Midnight screenings. It was kind of this sidebar, and we all wanted to be in the Dramatic Competition, in the big part of it.
So, we came to our senses. When we went, I can’t remember what else was playing in the midnights, but we were one of the few genre movies. It seems like it’s becoming more and more of a genre festival. I don’t know if it’s sensibility of the programmers, or what it is, but it’s becoming one of the launching pads of genre films.
FANG: I’m curious if in your perception, if the ultimate blowup of BLAIR WITCH helped legitimize horror for something like Sundance. Obviously, horror films had played before, but it seems to have drastically increased.
SANCHEZ: I don’t know. It’s a completely different group of people working at Sundance now than were back in the day. I don’t know if it affected it right away, but I do think what happened with BLAIR WITCH is that it was kind of one of these success stories. It was this kind of movie that came out of nowhere and blew up. and Sundance was part of that thing, the mythology of BLAIR. These guys came out of nowhere and it played Sundance and sold for this much and they went on to do this and this and this, and blew up all over the world, or whatever. So, I think what it did it do, is it gave Sundance a bigger platform, if that was possible, it was already one of the biggest platforms to release indie films. I think it became a bigger platform for the little films, you know; for the films that kind of came out of nowhere. And I think because BLAIR WITCH was a horror movie, I think it kind of makes people think, “maybe I could do a horror movie and it could premiere at Sundance.” I think it motivated people and inspired people.
FANG: In that way, do you ever think along the lines of, “Oh man, I’m like the Faith No More of Found Footage? We didn’t know what we were ushering in…”
SANCHEZ: [Laughs] Absolutely, I just did a blog, little recording yesterday with these guys who wanted to interview me for this local web series and that’s one of the things I talked about. There wasn’t anything called “Found Footage.” There had been films that used the technique before BLAIR WITCH, obviously, but I think for us, when it came time to make another movie—which, both Dan and I didn’t make another movie for five or six years—the idea was, if we’re gonna make another horror movie, it never crossed our mind to make another Found Footage movie. We didn’t even call it Found Footage, we called it First Person/Point-of-view. For us, the Found Footage thing was kind of a gimmick. It was kind of like a technique. It was like, the story of the movie pushed us down that road; these people are doing a documentary and they disappear in the woods, so what would the footage look like? What would this movie look like? We worked from there.
Afterwards, we never thought we were inventing something new or that people were going to copy it. We knew it was going to inspire people once it grew in popularity, like CLERKS or EL MARIACHI or SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT inspired us as young filmmakers. We never thought that it was going to turn into its own subgenre in the horror world. It’s just really interesting, because even after BLAIR WITCH, there were found footage movies, but nothing that really broke through until CLOVERFIELD. After CLOVERFIELD, came [REC]—or I don’t know if that was the same time, I know I saw [REC] after CLOVERFIELD—and then the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY movies started coming out. Now, it seems like there’s at least three or four Found Footage movies out in theaters every year. Countless others come out on VOD and DVD. It’s just weird. You could make a Found Footage movie out of anything, but as far as we were concerned, it was kind of a non-starter for us. It was almost like cheating, to us. I didn’t make another Found Footage movie until I did EXISTS last year. So, it definitely took me awhile to even do it myself, to go back to the genre and make another attempt. I feel like every time a Found Footage movie comes out, they mention BLAIR WITCH, so I feel fortunate that my film continues to be talked about and at least be mentioned, 15 years later.
For us, the Found Footage thing was kind of a gimmick. – Sanchez
FANG: Do you remember what the atmosphere was like at the first screening?
SANCHEZ: You could just imagine the excitement and the fear. We knew we had a good film. We had no idea what it was going to do, and we never expected it to do what it did, but definitely knew that we had a film, and we knew that all the shows had sold out pretty quickly and it was definitely one of the most popular movies of that year at the festival. We thought, If it’s gonna sell, it’s gonna sell and there’s nothing more we can do. This is the biggest platform that we could give this film. At the venue, you just try to keep your expectations low. You don’t want to burn yourself out by thinking that you’re going to do something, and then it doesn’t happen. So we were just like, Alright, let’s just hope we sell the damn movie. Let’s just hope somebody buys it and gives us a video deal, or whatever it is; make a little bit of money, so we can pay our investors back and maybe make another movie. And then, we show up to the Egyptian the first night that it was showing and it was sold out. There was this huge line—this wait line just for the three or four tickets that might open up—really early. So, it was this very weird thing where everybody wants to see this movie and you would catch people talking about it, and this and that. The first screening, I remember our agents telling us, “Everybody who’s anybody that’s gonna buy a movie is here.” So, we definitely had the right mix of audience at that first screening at the Egyptian. Afterwards, we just celebrated. There was this huge weight lifted off of our shoulders, and the reaction to the movie was great.
We didn’t expect it to be sold that quickly. We thought it was going to take awhile. Artisan came through, called us back that night and we had a deal by morning after the screening. I tell people this and, you know, it’s kind of a weird thing: The thing about BLAIR WITCH is, it was totally an experimental film. There wasn’t exactly a line of distributors waiting to snatch it up. Artisan definitely struck quickly, but I also wonder if Artisan hadn’t been there, what would have happened with BLAIR WTICH? It was just one of these movies where you definitely were taking a risk, because nobody had really seen anything like that, or at least not seen it for a very long time. Even after the screening, there were stories and reactions from people. One executive, who I won’t say but I’m pretty sure I know who, he said “The scariest thing about BLAIR WITCH is how much Artisan paid for it.” So, we knew the film was going to be challenging, but Artisan had done so well with PI before. I think PI is a really great film, but it’s definitely not a commercial film. So we thought if they did the two or three million dollars, or whatever they did, with PI it seemed like they were the right people to push BLAIR WITCH and try to make it a success.
And they were a perfect distributor. Now, I work with Mark Ordesky who, at the time was at New Line. He was a big fan of BLAIR WITCH, but talking to him, he’s like “I don’t know if I would’ve been able to convince my bosses to buy that movie.” I heard through the grapevine one of the Weinsteins screened it in New York the next day and he didn’t “get it.” So, it’s kind of interesting that it’s such the obvious hit now, but at the time, nobody wanted to take a chance. Luckily, Artisan was in a position where they could and luckily, they went for it.
FANG: That whole campaign and timeline of the mythology of the Blair Witch made such an impact on me at a young age. I knew every Blair Witch “incident” by the time the film came out.
SANCHEZ: That’s a nod to Artisan. Even though that stuff existed before, because we were working on the website prior to Sundance—there was all this interest in the internet—Artisan was smart enough to look at the stuff that we had done and said, “Hey, let’s do this and make it a little snazzier.” They definitely took our ideas and added their own. It was a really great collaboration. They would send us cuts of the trailers and we would give them little notes. Then later, once when we decided to do CURSE OF THE BLAIR WITCH, they were like, “Yeah, you guys do it, you guys write it, you guys edit it, you guys produce it, just give it to us.” So, it was very much like they were definitely trying to push the envelope and they let us be a big part of it. Again, I don’t know if another studio would’ve given us that opportunity. So, I always tell people Artisan—regardless of what happened afterwards, because after the movie came out, studios are studios; once a lot of money starts coming in, they just do things that you expect them to do—prior to release and the first couple of months of release, they played it perfectly. We were incredibly happy with them, so it was a good partnership.
We, honestly, were trying to figure out what the hell we had done, also. – Sanchez
FANG: Now that this year is the 15th anniversary, I’ve been floating a theory in my head: Because of VOD and the very nature of “On Demand,” plus the sheer amount of horror movies getting out there, we’re in a climate now where any subgenre of horror that you like is available. Eli Roth is off making a cannibal movie, there’s neo-giallo, for instance. So, I feel like BLAIR WITCH and SAW might be two of the last horror films to change the course of a genre, theatrically. Do you have any insight into that?
SANCHEZ: Yeah, I agree with you. I think we’re all kind of anxiously awaiting the next thing. Now, it seems like, at least in theaters, they’re releasing the same film over and over again. I don’t think it’s just in the horror genre, it’s generally speaking. Obviously, there are exceptions and there are great films that come out, or original films, but for the 99% of the movies that come out, they’re based on something: a pre-existing franchise, or a comic book, or a book. Even with horror right now in theaters, it’s demonic possession or some kind of ghost possession, home invasion movies. Basically, that’s the only kind of movies that get the extra releases, or remakes of older horror movies. As a horror filmmaker, it’s frustrating because you make films so people can see them in a theater. You design the sound, you make this experience.
I think the best horror movies right now are coming out on VOD. And it’s frustrating for horror fans, I think. Now, you can watch a movie and you have a good stereo system and a great experience. Blu-ray looks amazing, but it’s frustrating for us filmmakers. We make our movies and we want them to be played in the theater, at least for a little bit. It’s just becoming more and more evident to us that you kind of have to fit this mold. I think you’re right, BLAIR WITCH came along, and I think SIXTH SENSE, too with the twist ending. There were a bunch of movies after SIXTH SENSE, which came out the same summer as BLAIR WITCH. So I think short term, SIXTH SENSE had a lot more influence and then CLOVERFIELD came out and BLAIR WITCH all of a sudden started having influence. It took five or six years to kind of kick in. I think it was so experimental and people were trying to figure out what the hell we had done. We, honestly, were trying to figure out what the hell we had done, also.
And then SAW came in and brought in kind of the torture thing. Also, what SAW did which was really interesting, which was not around for us, SAW was the first franchise that really came out with a movie every year. Every Halloween, there was a new SAW movie. You always had to wait two-to-three years between any of those movies and SAW was the first one where it was like, “Man, they’re coming out with a movie every year,” and until the third or fourth one, they made a ton of money and then went down. Then PARANORMAL ACTIVITY came and did the same thing. It looks like they’re kind of waning now, but they had a good run. Who knows what’ll happen with the next?
For us, with BLAIR WITCH in 1999, that was not even an option. We thought, We shouldn’t do another BLAIR MOVIE for a couple of years, at least. Now, we’re in this post-PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, INSIDIOUS, CONJURING kind of world where the demonic movies still get play and all the stuff that I think is really unique and original ends up in very limited theatrical, or straight VOD, which is fine. People are watching movies that way more. We’ll see what happens.
FANG: How much did you guys wrestle with whether or not to return to BLAIR WITCH?
SANCHEZ: The problem that we had after BLAIR WITCH was that Dan and I didn’t consider ourselves horror filmmakers. We never thought we’d be making horror movies. If you go back and look at our student films, they were mostly just action movies—at least, my movies were action movies—and comedies; that was just where I lived. I liked horror movies. I liked THE SHINING and THE EXORCIST and movies that scared the crap out of me. EVIL DEAD 2 just fucking blew my mind when I saw it. I loved horror movies, but it wasn’t my favorite genre. I don’t even know if I have a favorite genre, honestly.
So, when BLAIR WITCH hit, it wasn’t like Dan and I had like ten horror movie ideas waiting. We were honestly kind of burned out on horror, because we had been in this really dark place with BLAIR WITCH for so long. So, Artisan immediately… and this is kind of where the change in the company happened. After BLAIR WITCH came out, they were like, “We’ve got to come up with another BLAIR movie immediately.” Our whole thing was like, “Well no, we shouldn’t because BLAIR WITCH, even though it was very popular, there was a lot of backlash and the end of its run and I think people got sick of this little movie that everybody hyped up.” A lot of people, later in the theatrical run, went to the see the movie and didn’t “get it.” Like I said, it was an experimental movie that wasn’t meant to make 140 million dollars. Imagine if PI had done 140 million dollars, most of the audience would’ve been like, “What the hell am I watching?” Or EL MARIACHI. Or CLERKS. Those movies were not for mass audiences, even though later on they became a cult classic and a lot of people had seen them. In the initial run, it’s very hard to grab an audience and keep it in the theater. You kind of have to give them something new and also give them something familiar. BLAIR WITCH had nothing that was familiar. No gore, you didn’t understand what the hell happened in the end, you didn’t see a monster. There was no chase. There was no guy with a knife. It was very weird. Once it got to the masses and once millions of people started seeing it, people were just not used to it.
So, our whole thing was, let’s not push our luck right now. I think another BLAIR movie would not do well. Let it die down and in a couple of years, we’ll kind of revisit it. Our whole idea was to go back and do a prequel; do a movie that took place in the late 1700s and was about the Blair village, what happened at Blair.
FANG: I thought that was the coolest idea, a folk horror…
SANCHEZ: Yeah, and we were so excited about it. We were going to cast out of Europe and put fucked up teeth on people and have these weird accents. Because you think about it, back then almost everybody was foreign. Just make it really authentic and have a really fucking scary movie that takes place in winter in the 1700s. But, you know, for whatever reason— I could talk for three hours about what happened after BLAIR WITCH—it didn’t work out. We were not interested in doing another movie right away. Artisan was like, “We need another movie for next Halloween. We need it, immediately.” We thought it was a big mistake. So, they hired other people to make BLAIR WITCH. So, we were very hesitant to get back in that world unless it was with our rules, the same rules we used to make the original one. Honestly, I would love to make another BLAIR WITCH movie. I would love to get back into that world. Even though I’m busy and doing other things, if the opportunity arose to make a movie, especially if we could get the original creative team back, I think it could be a lot of fun and pretty exciting.
FANG: It’s interesting in a climate banking on name recognition, that no one’s bringing that idea.
SANCHEZ: We don’t own it, you know. Artisan was bought by Lionsgate, so it’s ultimately their decision. I’m not sure what they’re doing at Lionsgate, I haven’t talked to them in quite a while. You never know what’s happening. It seems to me, I would expect that at least Dan or I, or one of the original team members would be involved in some way, as an executive producer or consulting or whatever. It’s their baby now, and it’s theirs to do what they want with it. Who knows, man? It may be something that surprises us all, but I’m not sure what the future of BLAIR is. It makes a lot of sense that at least something that uses the name, and that is in the spirit of the original, would be a pretty hot film these days.
For more on BLAIR WITCH, pick up FANGORIA #330 for an exclusive talk with director Joe Berlinger about the notorious and unfairly maligned BOOK OF SHADOWS: BLAIR WITCH 2.