Franchise Fred Interview: Simon Barrett – Blair Witch on DVD/Blu-ray
Not only is this a Franchise Fred interview about Blair Witch, the third film in the franchise, but it’s even a sequel to a previous interview! I interviewed screenwriter Simon Barrett for the theatrical release, but I had more questions if you can believe that. So I interviewed him again for the DVD, Blu-ray and digital release of Blair Witch.
Barrett and I were in the same screenwriting class at Ithaca College, but an even more important class we took together was Gender in Film Genres with Nina Martin. That’s where I first learned what a final girl was. It’s a class that has probably shaped the way I view depictions of men and women in cinema, and now Barrett has made direct contributions to horror, action and other genres.
Now that Blair Witch is readily available to see, Barrett and I were able to talk a little more specifically about scenes in the film. So there are mild spoilers. Blair Witch is now available on DVD, Blu-ray and digital formats.
I was a smartass when The Blair Witch Project came out in 1999 and I made fun of the stick figures and piles of rocks. Did you want to make those scary again and say, “Who’s laughing now?”
That’s an interesting point because when we first started talking about making a new Blair Witch movie, I actually had a very strong feeling that people would not be scared by sticks and rocks unless we very specifically did something with those things. Or at least implied some kind of larger meaning in terms of their role in the Blair Witch haunting or mythology. One of our first creative conversations with Jason Constantine and Eda Kowan at Lionsgate was they were like, “We’ve got to bring back the sticks and stones.” I obviously agreed but I was like, “But then we can’t have that be the big reveal like it is in The Blair Witch Project.” It’s kind of like here are these things, and that’s as far as that scare goes in the first film. So it was really about trying to find a way to bring back the sticks and stones, but do something with them that will hopefully surprise people. So it wasn’t so much like, “We’ll get you and make you scared of these things” as “We hope we can come up with something cool and new to do with this and find a way to turn everything from the first film that people remember into something in this movie that would have a tangible payoff.”
They’re definitely bigger and badder bundles and piles.
Yeah, certainly people agree that they’re badder. I think we might be using different meanings. I knew the cultural legacy of the first movie, now that we’ve made a new sequel to it, everyone loves the first film. But, the original film, although I’m obviously a huge fan of it, is one of the most divisive and polarizing horror films of all time, maybe the most in terms of the wide range of how people think about it. If people hate it, they hate it completely and think it’s a worthless movie. If they love it, they think it’s one of the most inventive and original horror masterpieces of all time. I happen to fall into the latter camp.
But I knew that one of the main critiques of the first film, which a lot of people saw expecting much more of a conventional horror movie because that’s what most people would expect from a blockbuster like The Blair Witch Project. Then they received what really is an experimental film in many ways. I knew one of the main critiques was that nothing scary ever happens and it’s just sticks and stones. I really wanted to have a scene in our movie where they first see the stick figures, and I wanted the audience to feel completely like, “Oh, it’s this again. That’s all this movie has.” Then of course we reveal that those stick figures were in fact man made and there’s other things going on. That allowed us to take it in a different direction when they really see the later stick figures that are created by, I guess, the witch herself in our mythology. It’s a much different thing and it feels much different. They had a much different look.
Here’s a question that’s only for about 20 people but it’s very important to me. What would Nana Martin think of your horror final girls?
That’s a really good question. I would hope that if Nina Martin were to watch a film that I’ve written, I think she would truthfully probably get more out of You’re Next and The Guest which are very explicitly genre constructions. In You’re Next it’s very explicitly riffing on the role of the final girl within home invasion horror very specifically, which is a subgenre that tends to be pretty unforgiving to its female protagonists. The VHS movies are also doing things explicitly politically and trying to subvert certain expectations.
Blair Witch truthfully we were trying to be less subversive. I know that people have mixed feelings about this, but I know for Adam and me, we really did feel like the next challenge was for us to try to make a film that was purely scary. Obviously the film has various subtexts but wears them less on its sleeve than the previous films we’ve made. I think Nina Martin ideally would think that I wrote and Callie ended up creating a hopefully fine, totally adequate final girl. It’s not like You’re Next where we’re really riffing on that. With Blair Witch it was more honestly about trying to find characters to feel more real and more natural and feel more like people you would know and hang out with.
That honestly is the legacy of the original film. The characters of Heather, Mike and Josh in the original Blair Witch Project feel so real. Their reactions feel so real and human that so much of the film’s horror isn’t even so much the supernatural things they’re encountering in the woods. It’s just watching three people go out of their minds and lose all their coping mechanisms and get ground down to their raw humanity. We wanted to do something fairly similar in Blair Witch but I think you can’t do that if you have extremely heightened characters who might distract the audience like we’ve done in some of the previous films I’ve written. The goal with the character of Lisa was honestly just to write a human being that you liked who we felt like an audience can identify with. She definitely holds her own. I’m very interested if even 20 people are interested in that answer.
There were about 20 in our class, weren’t there?
I think it was 20 people, maybe. I think it was 15.
Really that question was for me personally.
Got it. [Laughs] Well, that’s fine.
Do you write the camera angles as part of the script because the camera is such a character?
That’s an interesting question I actually get asked almost more than anything else about these films. People who want to write found footage movies just trying to figure out technically what language to use. Truthfully, I wrote two segments of VHS and two segments of VHS 2 and now I’ve written Blair Witch. That’s pretty much all the found footage I have experience with. I will say it’s different with every project. If you write the camera you’re seeing everything from, it’ll be really distracting and a very annoying read, especially in Blair Witch or the segment of VHS 2 I directed where there’s multiple cameras filming at once to give us editing options. Especially in Blair Witch, there’s a couple scenes where there’s five or six cameras running at once.
When necessary, I’d just point out the cameras that characters have with them. I maybe point out what perspective I saw it playing out. I’d be like, “From the perspective of the drone camera we see this…” I actually never write in the first person plural like that. I’ll just say, “From the point of view of the drone camera, Lisa walks into a clearing.” Normally, I just make sure to make it clear at the beginning of the scene who’s holding what. Then Adam and our cinematographer Robby Baumgartner could figure out what they wanted their almost master shot to be, the hero shot of a scene and what the secondary and tertiary coverage might be.
We did scenes where we would film it one way, switch out all the cameras and film it five different times, each time doing dozens of takes to make sure that from every angle, we would have continuity on what we thought the preferred takes might be. Especially because we were doing a fair amount of actor improvisation which we also did in the VHS movies. So if someone does something we like, we have to make sure to get that from this angle now. Even though you did that spontaneously that one time, now you have to do it exactly the same way nonspontaneously. Found footage is unforgiving to performances. I think actors that work in the genre don’t get quite enough credit for that.
Actually, one of Adam’s main notes on the script was that he wanted me to note more often that Lisa was holding her DSLR camera and that Lane had his DV camera because he just wanted more options in terms of how scenes would look visually. Cutting to certain angles to ground the viewer in a more stable shot, which we learned we needed to do after doing VHS.
Is I Saw the Devil your next film?
We have a draft that everyone seems happy with. It’s really just a matter of now finding out when and how we’re going to make it into a film. I actually turned in my last draft of the script a while ago but because that’s a bigger project, it’s a film that will play differently if we cast movie stars in it, which is how the Korean film was. They had two biggest stars in Korea. There’s a lot of questions about how to actually make it into a film. Fortunately I don’t have to worry about any of them but the movie is still happening. I actually don’t know if it’ll be our next film. I feel like I Saw the Devil, it’s pretty safe to say it’ll be the next film that I write with Adam directing, but he’s already made Death Note. He’s got various other things in the pipeline so we’ll just have to see how it goes. I Saw the Devil is absolutely on track. We’re very excited about it. It’s such a larger project than anything we’ve done, with the exception of Death Note which I wasn’t directly involved in. It’s just taking way more planning than we’re used to. We can’t just run off with six weeks of preproduction and make a low budget movie. This one has to be perfect, otherwise people will be pretty mad at us. Of course we always feel like our films need to be perfect. We do our best.