“I think you can only surprise your audiences so much.” – Simon Barrett, screenwriter
Blair Witch made news this summer simply by revealing it was the title of the film. The Woods screened at San Diego Comic-Con, and within the first act, it became clear this was a sequel to The Blair Witch Project. By the time the screening ended, the true tile was announced to the world via social media and all the people who were at the screening.
Screenwriter Simon Barrett and director Adam Wingard made Blair Witch, the team behind You’re Next and The Guest. I actually went to film school with Barrett, so it has been exciting seeing his career take off and catch up with him via his films. We still geek out over our film professors, and we had a great talk about the nature of secrecy pertaining to Blair Witch. Blair Witch opens Friday, September 16.
The Blair Witch Project was famously an improvised movie. How did you go about writing scripted dialogue for a sequel to a movie that was improvised?
There is an actual real concrete answer to that but before I even get into that, I should say that we did encourage all of our actors to do a lot of improv. And then, sometimes they’d do a loose version of the scene with a lot of improv, and then I’d step in and be like, “Okay, I liked it when you said that and I liked it when you said that but cut everything else.” That way, we’d get the same weird spontaneous feeling, but the scenes wouldn’t be 20 minutes long. So there was an ongoing improv collaboration between myself and the actors on set. We wanted a looseness to the scene. We wanted people in the background to be occasionally chattering just to give it that realism, even though that sometimes messed up our sound and we had to redo all that stuff. But we did encourage them to get a little loose with the words. Valorie Curry’s done a lot of television. She kind of prefers to do her dialogue verbatim. Brandon Scott, who played Peter, had a bit more experience in comedy, so he was more comfortable getting loose. That was the same thing that we’ve done in the early days working with people like Joe Swanberg and Amy Seimetz. Some people like to get loose, and some people like to wait until it’s time to say their scripted line that they took the trouble to memorize. So the actors were free to get loose with stuff, and I was always there on set to talk to them about it. So that, first and foremost, I wasn’t like Aaron Sorkin on set letting people know that they left out a pause or whatever.
But it wasn’t improvised like the first one where they didn’t even know where the movie was going. Yours was still formal improv where they knew the scene.
Yeah, and secondly, I actually would write longer versions of the scene than we intended to use. The movie is about 94 minutes with credits and at one point I think our script was 128 pages. The reason for that is that I would write scenes that were designed to have the beginning and ends cut out of them so that we could edit like a documentary. When you’re editing a documentary, you have hours and hours of footage, hundreds of hours of footage and you’re just taking the little snippets that you need. So it has that feel a lot of times of scenes don’t begin and end the way they do in traditional narrative filmmaking. So I would write a one-page scene that I knew we only wanted the three lines of dialogue in the middle. But if we just gave the actors those three lines, it would be very hard to get that to feel totally right. Whereas if they do the entire scene and then we’re like, “That’s the part we want,” then it works great for Adam and everyone, and us later in the editing room. That was another thing just to get the performances so natural.
In terms of scripting them knowing what the ending was and what the scares were going to be, we did our best to not let them see anything. A lot of the times when you see them reacting to noises, Adam is just off camera scaring them with an air horn. In fact, I think that became an editing challenge too. We could do a whole air horn montage. We were out in the woods so we had air horns to scare off theoretically bears, even though we were probably already scaring off bears just by being a film crew. I never saw a bear, but once Adam figured out that we had air horns, he would just wait and blare the air horn right next to the actors, and they’d jump and scream. So we were getting natural reactions, and they didn’t quite know when that was going to happen in some of the scenes. The honest answer is I did my best to write a script that would hold up to this style of filmmaking, and then we cast really talented people who, despite the fact that they knew where it was going, were able to pretend that they weren’t.
That’s not to say that the performances in the first one aren’t brilliant because they’re incredibly good. We almost now can only appreciate how good the three lead performances in the original Blair Witch Project are when you really think about everything they were doing. In our case, we were making something much more traditional, so we just cast people who honestly were quite good at their jobs.
I know you were making a sequel to the original Blair Witch Project, but since I’m Franchise Fred, I want to know: what were your feelings about Book of Shadows: Blair Witch II?
It’s funny. Maybe you can tell me this. We are a sequel and we’re obviously, in terms of how we’re explaining to people what this film is, because it requires a little bit of explanation a this point since we announced it unexpectedly, etc. We’re leaning into explaining this is a direct sequel to the original film, but I guess in some ways, we’re technically one of these soft reboots because there is a sequel and we’re ignoring it.
You are, but you don’t contradict it.
I don’t contradict it. So I guess I would say, if you delve into the world of Blair Witch ancillary materials, there’s a lot of stuff out there. There’s an eight book young adult novel series. There are comic books. There’s various made for TV documentaries and of course there’s Book of Shadows: Blair Witch II. I made a choice early on that the only thing I wanted to reference was stuff that was specifically referenced in the first film. That was the only thing that I would be specifically referencing and extrapolating upon. However, I also wanted to consider anything that had the involvement of the original filmmakers canon and use it in my research, which was The Blair Witch Dossier and the original TV documentary The Curse of the Blair Witch which actually came out before the film in 1999. That was co-directed by the filmmakers’ production designer Ben Rock. Everything else, I just didn’t want to contradict. I didn’t consider it canon, but I didn’t want to do anything that ruined it for the people who do consider it canon.
By the way, we’re talking about 13 people here I think that really care about this, but it’s a responsibility. I love the first film. That’s why I agreed to do this film and I wanted to have the responsibility to the die hard fans while sill making a movie that will play to any fans, including younger viewers who maybe haven’t seen the first film. So there is a challenge to that, and you try to be respectful.
My personal feelings about Book of Shadows is that when you revisit it now, it feels more like a sequel that’s responding to a cultural backlash that the original was receiving at the time which has largely been forgotten, in terms of the actual legacy of the original. You and I remember this because we were in film school at the time. When the first film came out, it was a huge phenomenon. It was and remains the most profitable film ever in terms of budget to box office. But there was a backlash against it where people felt deceived because they thought it was real and it wasn’t. Also people had been told it was the scariest movie ever made, and first of all no movie can live up to that hype but it is a very creepy, brilliant experimental horror film. But everything is off screen. Everything is in your imagination. It’s basically very much an art movie. So there was kind of a backlash against it initially. Even the choice of not making it found footage, setting it in reality where The Blair Witch Project is a real movie that came out and is a cultural phenomenon like it actually was, it feels like they are responding to things that were very much forgotten by the time that film actually came out.
I saw it opening weekend in the theaters and even at the time I was like, “Well, that was not the choice I personally would have made.” 13 years later, I got to do what I would have done.
It was definitely a sequel to the hype of the first movie which is why I thought it was so cool, but it completely lost the genuine fans because it was calling them out for believing the hype.
Well, I understand why Book of Shadows has its strong advocates. Brian Collins is a critic pal of mine who writes an essay about how it’s underrated every six months or so. I read them with gritted teeth. You know, it is, in terms of what it’s doing, very ambitious and interesting. But that said, I wouldn’t say it’s entirely successful. And it’s a tricky thing. All I wanted as a fan of The Blair Witch Project was a film that explored the mythology further and was a more traditional sequel.
Look, I was in a great position. If someone had just come to Adam and me and said, “Do you want to do a sequel to The Blair Witch Project” and there hadn’t already been one, we might have been like, “No, we don’t want to ruin this amazing classic horror film.” But because there already was one highly controversial sequel, for us we were able to be like, “Yes, absolutely!” because we can do what we would have done back in the day. I don’t want to be too negative about Book of Shadows but I rewatched it several times to see what it was doing and I ended up not personally agreeing with a lot of its choices.
I think this franchise is so interesting because the first one was the original viral marketing. The second one was addressing the hype and you’re coming out in the social media world where everyone has a camera. Even the way you revealed the title takes advantage of social media. Does it speak to how the franchise has aged with the culture?
I hope so. I tried to make this part of the film itself. It feels like the franchise hasn’t so much aged with the culture because there’s this huge gap. We’re coming back, The Blair Witch Project started the found footage horror subgenre, even though there were films that did similar things before it. That was the really big one that ultimately led to films like Paranormal Activity and The Last Exorcism and so on. Now it feels like we’re coming in at the tail end of that genre. It feels like that was very fashionable for several years for various reasons and now that’s kind of petering out a little bit. It is interesting to try to approach the concept from this totally different direction. Okay, now that there have been 100 plus films that were influenced by The Blair Witch Project, what is a sequel to that, that acknowledges the existence of all those other films?
Certainly it’s interesting to look at what the internet was when the first film came out in 1999 and how it really brilliantly used the internet. This wasn’t just Artisan. The original filmmakers, this was their whole strategy. They were heavily involved in the creation of the website. The early days of using the internet for research, you’d go online and look up The Blair Witch Project and you’d find these websites telling you it was absolutely real and giving you all this information about the legend. That was a huge part of what led to the phenomenon of that film. You can’t do that now because all of our actors are on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. We have no desire to pretend that they actually died. I don’t think that would be beneficial to anyone. So it was an interesting conversation from the very start of how do we replicate that kind of excitement, but in an era where it’s impossible to hide things now?
The solution was to just hide that we were making the film itself and make that more of a surprise. Kind of deny people the usual crest of hype. I started writing Blair Witch in March of 2013. Say we’d announced that in the trades then. 50% of people would’ve been like, “That’s awesome. I’m interested.” 50% of people would be like, “These guys are all completely out of ideas. Hollywood sucks.” That conversation would’ve percolated over the years and then finally our movie would have come out. The film itself would have been the same and people would have, I think, enjoyed it the same but there’s something kind of exciting about just avoiding that entire process of too much conversation and too much information and making it an exciting reveal a little bit.
It was kind of the opposite of what the first film did. The first film did make a ton of information available on the internet, but the internet was a very different thing back then. We tried to hide as much as we could including the existence of the film itself, and we’re still trying to hide as much as we can in that even our full trailer doesn’t reveal a lot about what the film does. Our actors have been incredibly disciplined about this, as has our crew and everyone at Lionsgate. It’s been remarkable. It did leak a little bit, back when we were shooting. The rumors started to spread online but we just ignored it and it went away.
Was there ever any talk about trying to keep the secret until the film was actually released?
There was. There was. Initially we were like, “Okay, we’re going to keep this a secret.” That’s an easy thing when it’s just me writing a script and the only people that are reading my drafts are Adam and two or three executives at Lionsgate, Jason Constantine and Eda Kowan being I think the main people who shepherded this project from the beginning. Initially, I think there was only three people in the loop. I think maybe Jason’s assistant at the time, who’s an executive now, Jonah Leach, also was reading drafts. So that wasn’t hard. All I had to do was not talk about it which isn’t that hard because nobody cares what I’m writing anyway.
Once we got to the point where the film was actually finished and edited and we were starting to screen this thing at Lionsgate and we were talking to the marketing department there, there was this kind of “this is such a cool, weird opportunity, do we want to never call this movie Blair Witch and people will just go see it?” Actually, I stridently argued against that. Tim Palen, who’s the head of marketing at Lionsgate, was really great to us. He did a lot of incredible work on You’re Next so we had his ear a little bit. We had a meeting where we laid out the pros and cons but to me, two things happened that made me feel it’s not a good idea to surprise your audience with what the franchise actually is.
One was the release of the film The Forest, which we were kind of locked into the fake title The Woods. I was like, “Look, this is not great for us.” I never liked the title The Woods to begin with. It was always a kind of reference to the fact that the original Blair Witch Project was shot under the name The Woods Movie. The Blair Witch Project was a title that they adopted somewhat late in the process. It was originally called The Woods Movie. Everything was shot under the name The Woods Movie. So it was just kind of a cute reference for the three or four horror fans that would get it. But it’s also the name of a Lucky McKee film. I didn’t love that name. The point is The Woods is not, to me, that exciting a title.
Also, from the start, we really thought that Blair Witch was a cool name for this film. We really wanted to put that out there. The problem with a movie that audiences don’t discover what it is until they see it is that they don’t really have anything that would make them necessarily want to see it. If we wanted people to be surprised by our movie and then eventually catch it on Netflix, I think that was the way to go. I think you can only surprise your audiences so much. The fact is, if you look at the worst CinemaScores ever, which include some actually good movies like William Friedkin’s adaptation of Bug, it’s mostly movies that people went to see that weren’t necessarily bad, but the marketing led them, for whatever reason, to believe that they were going to be seeing something very different. That sometimes means that the marketing department honestly did their job well.
I think there’s honestly something to be said for it’s cool to surprise people, especially in this modern era of over sharing on social media and so on, which I’m as much a participant in as anyone else. I’m not judging it but it’s also like you only want to surprise people so much. Surprising people with the fact that the film is a Blair Witch movie, I think people would mostly just be confused.
We got kind of the best of both worlds I thought with our Comic-Con reveal. We got to surprise a theater full of about 500 people. Probably about 50 of them weren’t surprised but a lot of them were. A lot of them really were. The reaction when they first start talking about Burkittsville and then when the words Blair Witch were spoken, that was a fun thing. But I think if you attempted to create that across multiplexes over America, it wouldn’t quite have been the same thing. We get to surprise people but we also get to say, “Hey, our movie is Blair Witch and if you want to see the new Blair Witch movie, it’s coming out in September.” I think it was the right way to do it.
It was risky. I have to give Lionsgate credit for being willing to take a weird chance like that.