INTERVIEW: Michael C. Williams Remembers the First ‘Blair Witch’ And How He Didn’t Go Missing in 1994
Back in 1999, a movie called The Blair Witch Project was released to deafening hype normally reserved for the latest Hollywood blockbuster. Thanks to its success on the film festival circuit, and what’s likely the first viral internet campaign, people lined up that July to see the simple tale of three student filmmakers that went into the woods and never came out, made by two inexperienced filmmakers with two cameras and a couple of thousand bucks. One of the actors in the film was Michael C. Williams, who, when he signed up to play the sound engineer Mike, had no idea that he was walking into a global phenomenon. One that persists with the release of Adam Wingard‘s Blair Witch this Friday.
Nerd Bastards got the chance to talk to Williams last month in advance of Fan Expo Canada. Williams, and other members of the cast and crew of the first Blair Witch, were supposed to appear there, but the reunion was cancelled in advance of the show. Still, there is a Blair Witch movie hitting theaters at the end of the week, so in the spirit of nostalgia we reminisce like it’s 1999 by talking to Williams about that time he went into the woods and disappeared forever (in the movies).
Nerd Bastards: To start off with, just to put this on the record, you did not go missing in 1994, you’re still around.
Michael C. Williams: (Laughs) I’m still around! You can’t get rid of me!
NB: I am curious because the Blair Witch is in the news again with Adam Wingard’s film coming up, what are your feelings about that?
MCW: I think its fantastic, I couldn’t be happier actually! It doesn’t really have anything to do with me, but it’s exciting to see a whole new generation of it. It’s my turn to see a movie about the Blair Witch, and I’ve been reading some reviews and it’s supposedly very scary and very well done, and I’m excited for the team of young actors that worked on it and the director. I admit, it’s kind of cool that it came back after all these years. It’s pretty neat.
NB: It must have been somewhat surprising for you going in to see your Blair Witch for the first time because I remember reading that 27 hours of footage from the various cameras was filmed for it.
MCW: There was just one video camera really and the 16mm. It was interesting because I saw a bunch of different cuts of the film and the first couple were just way too long and didn’t work. So I was surprised about how tight [directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez] eventually got it, I think it was 87 minutes. The first couple of passes, it was okay, but it didn’t have the same impact that it eventually had. The surprise was that they were able to get it down to a concise running time that had the most impact. I’m not surprised by their talent, but after the first cut or two I was like, “I’m not sure about this.”
NB: And it is fairly tight. I watched it again recently and it’s still a very tight movie.
MCW: Cool, I’m glad it holds up for you. Some people think it doesn’t hold up at all. It’s a fun debate too because some people never bought into it at all, and some people absolutely love it, so it’s definitely a love it or hate it type of film.
NB: That’s very true. I was looking back at the old reviews and people either fell into the trappings of it, or they completely rejected it as bad acting and bad filmmaking, and it is funny how this movie immediately put people on either side of it.
MCW: I guess what worked about it is that everybody had to go and figure it out for themselves, that’s why so many people were driven to that film.
NB: I wonder too if part of that was whether you bought into the marketing…
MCW: Yeah, true.
NB: I don’t know if this was true or not because I didn’t know about IMDb in 1999, but I read some trivia somewhere that the IMDb page for you, Heather [Donahue], and Josh [Leonard] had you listed as missing for a year after the movie came out…
MCW: Yeah, it’s true. I don’t know if it was for a year, but they initially had us missing, they made up this page and it said we were missing. We didn’t even know what IMDb was at that point, but they really covered their bases that’s for sure.
NB: It feels like you could get away with that in 1999, you probably couldn’t today. It was just a surprise that Adam Winegrad was working on a Blair Witch movie. The fact of its existence was a surprise.
MCW: It’s amazing that they can pull off any surprise in this day and age, I agree with you. Film crews are enormous, and for them and their families to keep that secret for so long, it’s pretty awesome. Another reason its exciting is because they can’t do what we did, I don’t think anybody can do that anymore, but they did something that was exciting and in vain of Blair Witch and I’m kind of surprised.
NB: I do want to go back to shooting that first film because, and not to age you or anything, but it has been almost 20 years; it was shot in the fall of ’97. When you went into the woods to shoot it, what were your expectations?
MCW: I was feeling like it had the possibility to get some attention because it felt like what we were doing something realistic, it was authentic, and it was different from anything anyone had ever done. For me, as an actor, it felt like we’re definitely doing something special here. My expectation was certainly not the eventual… Okay, there were a couple of types of movies here, the independent movie we made and the blockbuster. I certainly wasn’t expecting a blockbuster, I didn’t expect that much attention. I figured that maybe we would do the festival circuit, maybe it would help me get an agent, maybe it would get some notoriety in the film world. That might be as much as I thought. Of course, you also might be thinking that nothing’s going to happen at all, but it did feel like we were working on something authentic, which made is special.
NB: You were the sound guy on the crew for the film in the film, did you have any sound experience?
MCW: No I didn’t actually. They sent me a book, like a manual on the DAT [Digital Audio Tape], and that helped a little bit. But I went down there with the rest of the actors, and I think we had two or three days of a mini boot camp in filmmaking. Josh had some experience with photography, but I worked with the sound designer on the film, Tony Cora who eventually made that famous bellowing sound in the end credits, but he’s well versed in sound, so he kind of led me around for a couple of days. We played with the DAT and its settings, and that’s really my whole experience working on sound, Since then, I haven’t done any sound either. (Laughs)
NB: It hasn’t come up.
MCW: No, no one’s looking for me to be a sound guy now.
NB: In terms of how the characters were set up, I assume you were all playing variations of yourselves, you used your own names, is that easy for an actor, or are you very aware of how you’re playing yourself on film.
MCW: It’s interesting because we were cast as different names: John, Jane and Bill, and I was cast as Bill. So, we were talking about how to get it as realistic as possible, and Ed and Dan ran by us the idea of using our real names. You know, when you’re in the moment it’s just easier because you know those names, and we said, “Sure.” The only note that I had was “just be yourself, but we need you to be the one that’s most resistant. You’re kind of the scaredy cat of the film so be the version of yourself who’s most resistant to searching out this thing. You’re the most freaked out.” And when you touch upon the part of you that has fear, it seems to work out. I though it was a challenge to stay natural because some of these events were so unnatural, like the stick men hanging in the trees. Things on film that tend to be scary and creepy we have to buy into the idea that it’s happening while it’s happening. That was a challenge. Were we believing in this circumstances? Sometimes it was easy, because the woods are generally scary at night, and sometimes it was more difficult.
NB: Movie Michael is the doubter, so was that part of the role all along? It wasn’t something that came naturally out of the process being the “Why are we still going deeper into the woods?” guy.
MCW: Yeah, and I just took some cues from them, and didn’t think about it a whole lot, just “here’s the trajectory,” and I just went with it. So yeah, I’m “The Doubter.” I hadn’t heard that before but that’s pretty cool. You’re right.
NB: Sure, when the first couple of incidents happen Heather’s obviously hyped up to keep filming and Josh goes along, but immediately Michael is like, “No, this is messed up, let’s get out of here.”
MCW: It’s true.
NB: And we’re still talking about the movie in 2016. You mentioned earlier that you though you would get a bit of renown out of it, you’d go to some festivals, maybe get an agent, but as soon as the phenomenon hit, did you even think then that almost 20 years on this was still something people would want to talk to you about?
MCW: Oh man, that’s a good question. I was so surprised with all of that happening, I was just so surprised in the moment that I didn’t stop to think about how far reaching this thing would be. And now, you asked about the new film before, Lionsgate called me a few months back and said “Hey, we have secret we want to let you in on before we let the world know,” and I actually couldn’t wrap me head around it. “You’re doing what?! That’s unbelievable!” That 16, 17 years later, there’s always been rumours of it, but for a big Hollywood company to make a sequel to our little movie so many years later, that was definitely surprising. Even if you asked me a year or two ago if there was going to be another one, I would have said “At this point, probably not.”
NB: And the central conceit of it, the found footage format, has been borrowed and used to an extent that it’s almost passe now.
MCW: Yeah, found footage was somewhat born with the Blair Witch, that’s another thing that’s interesting. Anytime that something resembles found footage and you read an article about it, they mention Blair Witch. I knew it was a big success back then, but I didn’t realize what it did for filmmakers or filmmaking. I guess I didn’t think “This is going to change the way people look at filming,” but it’s also changed the way people look at acting too. Mainly, 99 per cent of the time, you still have actors with scripts, and films are shot the way we’ve always shot them. What’s interesting now though is that we’ve seen a bit of a rebirth in improvisation, like the Duplass Brothers who sort of score out a theme but not so much write the dialogue, and they have the actors work beat to beat. I think that’s amazing. I think that’s such a fun experience for actors and directors, and certainly a challenge to improvise an entire film. I don’t know if we had anything to do with that, I guess digital media in general has a lot to do with that because it doesn’t cost you as much to shoot.
NB: You worked with Dan again on The Objective, and that was almost 10 years after Blair Witch. How was working with him on that different from Blair Witch?
MCW: I actually got to talk to him during Objective (Laughs), we weren’t allowed to talk to him during the Blair Witch. We got our notes in film canisters, and and they didn’t see any of our performances until they’d watch the videotapes that we left in milk crates for them at the end of the day, so Objective was 100 per cent the opposite of what we did [on Blair Witch]. And I also worked with Ed on his sophomore feature Altered. It was fantastic that I got to work with both of them twice, and I just got a sense of how they run an actual film set the second time around because the Blair Witch was anything but a typical film set. So it was fun to see their creative minds at work with a full crew, working with actors, working with a script. They both know what they want, they’re approachable, they give the actors flexibility, they’re fair, they’re just good guys to work with. Hopefully I’ll work with them again some day.
NB: Is there a particular question you get asked by fans of the Blair Witch that you wish you didn’t get asked anymore?
MCW: What is in the bundle we recovered from Josh’s demise? And it is teeth and hair. I won’t get upset if they ask me though, it’s all good. But honestly, what I like about my experience with the Blair Witch is that each fan has their own story about what they were doing when that film came out, and after they saw it about going into the woods, or going on a camping trip. It’s just a lot of fun to hear them tell their version of the fallout from Blair Witch.