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Found-footage flick launched a sub-genre

Director looks back at making of Blair Witch Project

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Heather Donahue in a scene from the influential film The Blair Witch Project, released 15 years ago.

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Heather Donahue in a scene from the influential film The Blair Witch Project, released 15 years ago.

Ed Sanchez remembers the night in 1998 when he walked through desolate Maryland woods at about 3 a.m. with The Blair Witch Project co-director Dan Myrick. Sanchez, a first-time filmmaker, says he had an epiphany.

"We were carrying flashlights, batteries and food to the actors" in the US$60,000 movie, Sanchez recalls. "I told Dan, 'This is either going to be a great movie, or we're going to be the joke of the year.' "

The joke, it turns out, was on the movie's skeptics. Hollywood's first "found footage" flick, which turns 15 years old Wednesday, launched a sub-genre in Hollywood horror.

Sanchez, 44, who is directing episodes of the upcoming BBC paranormal series Intruders, says he and Myrick knew their fictional story of three missing student filmmakers, told through grainy footage, was a novel idea, but had no notion it would resonate to the tune of US$141 million, the highest-grossing found-footage film of all-time.

Instead, he says, the directors simply wanted to emulate the true pioneer of found footage, Leonard Nimoy. Nimoy hosted In Search of..., the documentary television show dedicated to mysterious phenomena, from 1977 to 1982.

'We thought it was going to be seen as a clever gimmick,

but just a gimmick'

"We loved those," Sanchez says. "Those grainy pictures of UFOs and Bigfoot? Those were a lot scarier than the movies."

He and Myrick began cobbling together a rough screenplay in 1994 about three student filmmakers who wander into the Black Hills near Burkittsville, Md., to investigate the legend of the Blair Witch. The movie would be largely ad-libbed and shot over eight days. The actors roughed it: They lived in a tent and ate the kind of bare-bones food usually brought when camping. Additionally, the filmmakers, to frighten the actors, ambushed them with cameras rolling.

The 62-page script, which called for chunks of improvised dialogue, changed dramatically over the shoot. The movie initially was to be a faux-documentary about the faux-footage.

"But when we looked over the footage," Sanchez says, "we decided a documentary about a documentary would take people out of the movie."

Public disconnect turned out to be a non-issue for Blair Witch, which set up a website dedicated to the fake legend: It was so realistic filmmakers fielded dozens of calls from public "tipsters" nationwide. The movie would become Hollywood's first viral sensation, though it preceded Facebook by half a decade.

"Timing and new technologies were key factors" to Blair's success, says professor Tom Schatz, chairman of the film department at the University of Texas at Austin. "This was a phenomenon of both the emerging Internet age (the first movie to benefit from a viral marketing campaign) and the emerging reality-television age."

Not that Sanchez and Myrick (who stopped directing films in 2008 and could not be reached for comment), realized how fortuitous their timing was back then.

"We were just broke Florida college students trying to catch a break," Sanchez says.

And they were unaware just how big that break was.

"We had made it into Sundance, and you were aware that something was happening," Sanchez says of the film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 1999. "We just wanted to scare the crap out of people, and it looked like it was happening. But I never expected it would be my calling card."

It also became the template for an entire found-footage franchise in Paranormal Activity, which has produced five films (a sixth arrives Oct. 24) that have grossed more than US$800 million worldwide.

"We thought it was going to be seen as a clever gimmick, but just a gimmick," Sanchez says. "A passing fad."

But the legend of the Blair Witch movie is as resilient as the legend of the Blair Witch.

"There's not a day goes by that I don't think about it," says Sanchez, who is helping piece together a real documentary on the film to celebrate the anniversary. "I was just learning about horror, and how the trick is to make people feel trapped and alone. I guess, in those woods, people did."

 

-- USA Today

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 20, 2014 A16

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