INTERVIEW: Daniel Myrick Approves of the New ‘Blair Witch’ and is Still Grateful for the Gifts of the Original
Over 17 years after The Blair Witch Project opened and became not just an indie film sensation, but a pop culture touchstone, another group of hapless young people are taking another fateful trip into the woods of rural Maryland. Adam Wingard‘s Blair Witch premieres tonight, and the studio, Lionsgate, is likely hoping that the franchise that never happened back in ’99 will be a reality 20 years later. If Blair Witch is a hit, Wingard will get the credit, but the it was two then-struggling filmmakers named Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez that coined the term “Blair Witch” back in 1997 when they were looking for a small project they could do for cheap in order to get their names out there. And then they hit the jackpot.
Nerd Bastards got the chance to talk to Daniel Myrick last month in advance of Fan Expo Canada. Myrich 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, with Blair Witch about to be a hit again in theatres everywhere, so the time is ripe to revisit the 1999 original with Myrick, why he thinks his film still endures, and how a one hit wonder is still a hit.
Nerd Bastards: I want to get this out of the way first because obviously there’s another Blair Witch movie coming out, and given that you are one of the originators of the franchise, what was your involvement in the film?
Daniel Myrick: We didn’t have much to do with it. They asked us to consult and we were able to get an early view of the script, and they allowed us a preview screening of the movie, but that was about it.
NB: They wanted your seal of approval.
DM: Pretty much, yeah. They probably didn’t want us to say anything bad about the movie based on the hesitancy of Blair 2 that came out years ago, so we were brought on as EPs. But both [writer] Simon [Barrett] and Adam Wingard are good guys, and we like those guys, and we felt pretty confident that Lionsgate was going to treat them and the franchise pretty well. Or biggest requirement was trying to stick more to the mythology that we created rather than what was done in the sequel. They’ve done that, and we were pleased to see that.
NB: It is curious given how huge the first film was, and yeah there was Book of Shadows, that it’s taken this long for them to come around to the idea of trying again with another Blair Witch movie.
DM: It certainly hasn’t been for a lack of trying on our part, both Ed and I went to Lionsgate over the years with different ideas for the Blair universe that we created, and we even wrote a script for a sequel idea that we had a few years ago. Our approach is probably not what they wanted to take obviously. We love this sort of episodic, mystery we created, and they were sort of movies in and of themselves. It would have been awesome to have taken a non-traditional approach and explore those as historical narratives to help fill in the blanks of the mythology, but that’s certainly a more expensive route to go with period pieces and whether a new generation of filmgoers would appreciate it. Who knows? But I think the success of The Witch film that cam out recently, which is very much in the spirit and tone we envisioned, I think we were still on to something there, and my hope is that Lionsgate, if this recent movie is a success, that they might feel less risk averse. But we’ll see.
NB: Having said that though, I re-watched your Blair Witch and I think it still holds up. It’s still very effective with the found footage, the black and white, the actors improvising the scenes. It’s still really, really effective as a horror movie, I found.
DM: Well I appreciate that, and I think one of our mandates, and strangely enough it’s seldom followed in found footage movies today, is that when Ed and I laid out the script, and we embraced the non-cinematic aspect of documentaries where the camera isn’t always pointed at something you want to film. We embraced that whole kind of theory that gives you a narrative with a certain kind of language and we resisted the urge to have the camera on when it shouldn’t be pointing at something or have a scene feel contrived. I think a lot of found footage movies today do not make that commitment, and Ed and I were very much about sticking to that rule, and that’s why I think it still pays off, and still feels authentic. That was challenging for us as directors because all the directing was coming in the post process, which it typical of a normal documentary. We weren’t sure that it was going to work, but it ended up paying off.
NB: Right, there was something like 27 hours of footage…
DM: Yeah something like that, 27 or 30. There was a lot of extraneous stuff that we shot, but not a ton. When Ed and I started editing we weren’t sure what we had, we knew we had some great moments, and some strong performances from the actors, but it’s sort of like having to go through a really messy room where your first pass is, “Let’s just get rid of the garbage, then we can start arranging things.” So for us, our first mandate was to get rid of anything that felt fake, that felt scripted, that felt like the actor was mugging for the camera or doing a performance. So no matter if it helped the plot, or hurt the plot, it was about sticking to the realism and getting rid of stuff that wasn’t feeling convincing. That really opened the door for us where ultimately the narrative started rising out of the remaining material.
NB: I remember watching the movie in ’99 in a theatre and it comes to the end when she comes down the stairs and finds Michael standing in the corner and the lights go up and curtain draws and that’s the end. It speaks to what you’re talking about with the authenticity because you see a lot of movies that are supposed to be found footage movies and they still find the money shot. The cameras always find the money shot and I’m thinking particularly of Cloverfield where they get in the helicopter and it takes off, and the camera turns around just in time to see the monster lay the city to waste in this perfectly staged vista of New York. I can’t help but think that ending the Blair Witch, the way you did it, was a rather bold choice.
DM: It was a tricky one for us because Ed and I hadn’t figured out the ending shot, we were still trying to work it out three or four days before we started shooting. We knew we needed a pay off ending, but we were trying to avoid revealing the witch at the end, so it’s like “What can we have as a big oh f**k moment, but not be cheesy and not be contrived and push you over to one side of the fence or another?” We wanted to maintain this debate after the movie you know, one person might say “It was a bunch of red necks messing with them,” and another person can argue “No, it’s supernatural.” It’s kind of like a blurry picture of a UFO: it could be a hub cap or it could be a UFO. That was really tricky for us, what scene brings it all together, pays off, and finding the house was a big moment because you’ve been in the woods the whole time. But going in the basement with Mike in the corner we felt was the right balance we were able to strike, but even after we cut the movie, shot and screened it, we still weren’t sure and when Artisan bought the film they were so worried about that ending because there were so many questions, and that scared the pee out of those guys and they had us shoot five new endings. The endings we tossed out during pre-production, we shot those, cut those in, and nobody liked them. So I got on the phone with Bill Block himself and I told him that we think we want to keep the original ending, and he said “I think it might cost us millions at the box office.” (Laughs) And it ended up being one of the most talked about aspects of the film.
NB: I do wonder if it ended up costing them millions, how much more the movie might have made.
DM: I know! I joke “Is that another $50 million we left on the table?” Who knows?
NB: I wanted to talk to you about your own expectations for the film. I read another interview with you, and you said the best case scenario was that it would go direct-to-video, it would get you some attention, and I’m wondering if you learned a lesson about expectations and how a film will end up connecting with an audience.
DM: There are a lot of people in the business that pretend to know what they’re doing, and I don’t mean that cynically. There are formulas that have worked in the past that are working now, and you can’t forget all that, but we were coming from a place outside of Hollywood. We had nothing to lose, and we threw this thing against the wall to see if it would stick, and having fairly pragmatic expectations about. We had some very dedicated followers, and we went to Sundance with the hopes of getting sold and pay our investors back, and most realistically, especially with a movie like Blair, which by all definitions is a small film, we never really intended it for theatrical, we thought we would get some kind of cool cable deal and move on to the next thing. It wasn’t until post-Sundance we started feeling that this could be a lot bigger than any of us really anticipated. Even in our wildest dreams we never thought it would be what it was, and to this day I’m amazed how it has became this pop culture icon.
NB: Well, it almost 20 years ago you filmed it, 20 years next fall is when you went into the woods and came out with the Blair Witch, so it’s probably pretty hard for you to believe that its 2016 and you’re still on the phone talking to reporters about the Blair Witch.
DM: Every time I see “Blair Witch” used as sort of a verb, or a talk show bit, or a reference in a book, I kind of shake my head, you know. It sort of brought it home when we went to Comic Con to talk about the new movie, and there are a whole bunch of brand new fans, half of them had to be toddlers when the first movie came out. That’s a reminder of not just the effect that it had in those days, but the effect its had on the fuller canon that when kids grow up with a genre, it’s something that has to be a part of your video library. I’m just so honoured and thankful that we got to be part of it. As a filmmaker, that’s just a dream come true.
NB: The flipside is that this was so big its practically eclipsed everything else you’ve done. You still work, Ed still works, but if I went to someone on the street and said, “Tell me what Daniel Myrick’s latest movie is?” They’d say “What? Who?”
DM: “Who?” exactly. (Laughs) It’s a brutal, double-edged sword. Certainly it was an unorthodox entry into the film business for us, and you can argue that the movie was too big and will overshadow everything we will ever do ever again, and it’s so pigeonholed us as horror genre filmmakers when in all reality Ed and I did the movie out of practicality, it was just the cheapest idea we had at the time, but we had comedy, sci-fi ideas and whatnot. I don’t consider myself a horror geek, it was just a sensible movie for us to make and that it was just a cool idea. It is certainly probably going to be on the top of my headstone whenever I die, and I just have to sort of carry on. On one level I could get frustrated and feel like I’m not getting the artistic respect I deserve on other movies, yet at the same time, it’s a good problem to have, trust me. To be known for at least one thing, there are a lot of people that never get to be known for anything and I have to keep reminding myself of that. But I’m still pretty young and we’ve got a bunch of movies in us. I’ve gotten a little older and wiser over the years, and I’ve gotten over the need to repeat the Blair success. I just have to go out, do films that I think are cool, and stick true to what I want to do, and if something else hits, then awesome, that’s all the better. I try not to agonize too much over repeating Blair’s success. Those kinds of movies only come along every couple of lifetimes. Ninety per cent of us are just trying to make movies, and make a living at it, so if you make it to the set and you’re paid a bit of chump change to make a movie, you’re ahead of the vast majority of filmmakers.