The strangest thing about talking to writer Simon Barrett and director Adam Wingard is just how nice they both seem. These are the same two guys that dreamed up the animal mask murderers of You’re Next, after all, before they turned Downton Abbey softie Matthew Crawley into a killing machine in The Guest. But as a duo, they’re open and engaging, Barrett cracking up in silent laughter whenever Wingard goes on a passionate tear. They’re here at TIFF to show Blair Witch, their sequel to the 1999 found footage classic about a bunch of filmmakers that disappeared in the forests of Maryland. Made totally under the radar, Blair Witch was such a secretive project that it was actually marketed this year under an entirely different name, until Lionsgate made the big reveal at this year’s Comic-Con.
I sat down with Wingard and Barrett here in Toronto to talk about why The Blair Witch Project worked, their rather strong feelings about how 2000’s rush-job sequel Book of Shadows ruined it all, and what was key to bringing the franchise back from the dead.
This film was a secret for a really long time. How did you get involved in the first place?
Simon Barrett: Lionsgate had bought our film You’re Next, and during the window between them acquiring it and releasing it, they set up this top-secret meeting for Adam and me at their studios in Santa Monica. We weren’t quite sure what it was about; we just hoped it wasn’t that they were postponing our release any further, honestly. And they told us, "We own the rights to The Blair Witch Project and we’re talking about doing another one. It’s top secret, even here at the company." No one outside that circle knew about it, and they wanted to know if that was anything we’d be interested in, I think partially because they were also fans of the two VHS films that Adam and I worked on.
That was February 2013, and that was really the beginning. We’ve been offered a lot of remakes and sequels over the course of our careers, especially after You’re Next was a success, and none of them were creatively exciting to us. Blair Witch was the first one where it was like, "Absolutely, that’s something we really want."
What was it about the property that changed your minds?
Adam Wingard: Found footage has really gone through so many different facets over the years, it felt like it was time to return to what originally started it all. We had just met Eduardo Sánchez and Gregg Hale, the original creators of The Blair Witch Project, only a few weeks before at Sundance, and I was picking Eduardo’s brain endlessly about Blair Witch Project on a long van ride to Salt Lake City. I remember asking him, "When do you think you’re going to make a Blair Witch sequel? Because it feels like it’s the right time." There were all these lesser found footage horror films coming out, that were doing well at the box office, but that everybody just seemed to kind of hate, honestly.
SB: I think something that creatively excited me about it was that there’s no obvious kind of version of what a Blair Witch sequel is. It was kind of a blank slate, because the first film really has a very complex mythology, but it hints at it very obliquely. So it was a chance to do something really fun and creative and different, because no one really has any preconceived expectations of what a Blair Witch film in 2016 would be.
AW: One of the questions we get asked a lot is, "Were you afraid of competing with the legacy of the first film?" My answer to that is always that the legacy of the first film had basically been completely tarnished by how bad the sequel was and how off the rails it went. I think it took a lot of people a while to take the first movie seriously again. Only in the last five years or so has it resurfaced and come out on top as a horror classic.
You can see how things went south on it becoming a franchise right away. If you go back in time and look at all of the marketing materials that came out after the first film, they just tried to bleed that thing immediately. Bad video games, bad adaptations, book adaptations. All this stuff that they just immediately did without trying to actually set up the franchise. Being a fan of the original film, it was very transparent that there was all this cash-in stuff, and that sucked the life out of it right away.
SB: People probably forget that Book of Shadows came out 15 months after the original. "Here’s your fucking sequel. Give us more money." That’s not how you make a film properly. This one took us three and a half years pretty much, from script to its first screening.
I was telling a colleague after the screening this felt a little like The Force Awakens for Blair Witch, in that both films are all about telling the audience, "Hey, remember? This is why you loved this thing!" As part of that, were you laying down hooks for possible future installments? I’m sure Lionsgate would love for this to become a healthy franchise.
SB: Well, I think I can say in all confidence that our film is going to outgross The Force Awakens. [laughs] Like Adam said, for us as fans and as filmmakers, the challenge of this project was getting the franchise back on track, and that means building something new and creating something that can go in different directions. I don’t want to ever jinx anything and assume that you’re going to have a sequel to complete a story, because that’s hubris and that will almost always backfire. So we told a complete film that reminds people what the Blair Witch legend is, and reminds them what they loved about the original film. But we also set things up so that if this is a success — if this is a story that either we’re able to continue, or someone else is able to continue, hopefully with our guidance — there’s some really new and exciting and possibly more experimental places they can take it.
AW: The Force Awakens is a really great example. I think everybody’s in that same nostalgic headspace now. Blair Witch and Phantom Menace both came out in ‘99, and now we’re in this new cycle where everybody’s saying, "Okay, we need to get back to the things that we loved about these things."
Hopefully Eduardo and those guys will be able to do the [Blair Witch] prequel that they’ve talked about. I really want to see that, but to get that [you have to] convince audiences that they want to see it. You have to get them back into the horror headspace, and you have to keep it in that found footage world, and then you can kind of re-explore the mythology. It’s about setting up the franchise and setting up that world so you can go outside of it. You couldn’t have done A New Hope and then done Rogue One and all those kind of things right away. You have to get the series out there, and then you can explore the universe once it’s set up. But it really depends on people watching it.
You could have had anybody out in the woods running into the Blair Witch, but you choose to focus on the brother of one of the characters from the original, and how he deals with her disappearance years later. How important was that in building out this universe you’re talking about?
SB: Lionsgate, when they first sat down with us, they were clear that they wanted it to be a very direct sequel. Found footage. It was actually their idea that it be the younger brother of the Heather character, searching for her. The idea of creating a sequel that was narratively linked to the original, and in a character-based way, really felt like the right creative approach.
AW: It was really important for us to directly link this film to the first one with the kind of family legacy, the "lega-sequel" approach, if you want to call it that. Because it’s one of those things where the second film went so off the rails to the point that it even takes place in a universe outside of the first film, so it’s technically not even a direct continuation of the first film in any way.
It’s cool that they attempted something like that, but ultimately the tone of that film is, "We’re better than this silly shot-on-video movie," and it has this nose-in-the-air quality to it, weirdly, like the first film’s ridiculous or something because it’s a found footage movie. But that’s what you want out of it. I know the main reason I didn’t go see part two in the theaters was because it wasn’t [found footage]. It didn’t understand that the reason that the first film was so interesting was because it was shot by the characters within the movie itself, and at the time, that was something so unique that I think that people just couldn’t imagine spending millions of dollars on something that looked cheap, basically. But that’s the key to it. You have to embrace that.
But you do add some new things to the found footage formula here. There’s a drone camera, and a sequence where one of the characters is throwing a camera ahead of her to light her path. It plays within the conceit of the world, but it's also giving you shots to cut together in a more traditional manner.
AW: We had a lot of trial and error experience with that over the course of making the VHS [anthology] films. In each one of those films they have five to six segments of different styles of found footage, so we saw almost every way available right now — and even some ways that we made up — in terms of how you could have characters filming themselves.
When we were making this film, it really was trying to create something that was right on the edge of being a cinematic experience mixed with the found footage experience. If you go too far in one way or the other, it’s not going to work, and that’s what I discovered with VHS. Unfortunately, you need a little bit of shakiness and some of the things that are stigmatized by found footage. But on the other end of it, you can do things outside of that realm stylistically that border on more conventional cinematic language. I think that’s the future of this [genre], is trying to bridge that gap. And ultimately, your goal as a filmmaker doing a film like this is to make people forget about why people are filming, what they’re filming on, or any of that stuff. Ultimately you want them wrapped up in the predicament that the characters are in, and hopefully we achieved that.
Blair Witch opens Friday, September 16th.