Blair Witch screenwriter on making a secret sequel to a horror classic - and not screwing it up

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Sep 15, 2016, 8:33 AM EDT

Watching The Blair Witch Project back in 1999 was a cinematic experience. I saw it while visiting Washington, D.C., on midnight of opening day with my friend Bridget. And there was a lot of screams in the audience that night.

As a native of Orlando, there was the sense of pride for directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, who graduated from University of Central Florida. But there was something else. The viral online campaign that stirred curiosity and, amongst some, belief in an urban legend come to life fascinated me.

The movie itself -- shaky cam, resulting motion sickness, Heather Donahue’s runny nose and boggin, and all -- elicited a response from an audience that is increasingly rare when one goes to the movies. People freaked the f--k out, frankly. They laughed, then screamed. And then they laughed again, and then freaked out more.

Subsequent viewings – including an opening night in Glasgow, Scotland, where an audience was chomping at the bit for this American horror story -- never quite captured my initial experience, but that initial experience also never dimmed from my cinematic memory.

Directed by Adam Wingard (You’re Next, The Guest) based on a screenplay by partner Simon Barrett, the new Blair Witch – the sequel opening in theaters this Friday, Sept. 16, but also something of a story refresher -- was unleashed upon audiences in a surprise screening at San Diego Comic-Con, under the code name The Woods. This was a screening I admittedly was invited to but skipped because, hey, I like the filmmakers but SDCC is about work, and is this flick The Woods going to garner me headlines and many clicks?

(By the way, bad call on my part. Pro tip: Always take a risk on the unknown movie.)

But Blair Witch captured the attention of internet journos, and remind movie fans that, yes, this name still has value. Yet I still went in with skepticism when I checked it out at a small Times Square screening room with, maybe, five other people in the room.

And I am happy to say we have Blair Witch back – and it’s the “real” Blair Witch, and not the Book of Shadows misguided sequel. This is a horror movie in the found footage style that is an update of the original concept while still faithful. If you have a favorable memory of the original, I think you’ll dig the scary joyfulness at play here. And if you don’t remember the 1999 flick at all, you’ll still nearly poop your pants, and have a few laughs at this fun flick.

All this is a long-winded lead up to me being excited to speak with Simon Barrett about his Blair Witch screenplay. Our conversation was extensive and nerdy. And I can only share a little of it with you – although I will give share more next week when the movie has been out a few days, and we can talk about the ending.

First off, I think you kept the spirit of the original alive …

I mean, we’re huge fans of the original and wondered how come this never happened. I saw the first one – not opening night but Saturday matinee because my girlfriend at the time was working – in the theaters. If there had never been any ancillary Blair Witch properties, and it came to us, I might’ve just said, “No, it’s kind of perfect.” Fortunately, with the weird spinoffs, we thought this absolutely needs to get back on track. I wanted to say, “This is what I would have done back in 2000” if anyone had asked me.

"The original Blair Witch Project is a modern classic that inspires a very passionate response in people, and we wanted to make sure we were honoring that in an appropriate way."

How did you and Adam get attached to this?

The short answer is, we got offered the job. The long version is a lot of weird coincidences that allowed us to say yes to a studio movie. They had an entry point to the idea fleshed out but were open to the idea of changing whatever I wanted to change. We kind of also knew, working with Lionsgate on You’re Next, they’d trust us, and let us do the movie our own way.

Did you think you’d be able to keep the lid on this as a surprise?

As a viewer, I like to be surprised. If I know I am excited about a movie, I don’t even watch the trailer. Part of that was trying to create that experience for our viewers, and try to make the movie fun and surprising in the same way the original was. Did I think we’d be able to achieve that? No, I absolutely did not. I remember talking to Adam in 2013 and just saying, we won’t be able to keep it a secret. We figured some actor’s agent or someone’s assistant would get word out. And there were definitely rumors online. We didn’t address them, and it kind of went away.

But it really did surprise me. We had a whole crew up in Vancouver. Everyone signed NDAs, but still. Only a couple people got real scripts, and everyone else got fake pages. But once actors start talking, they’re saying “Blair Witch” and signs said Burkittsville. But we had a great team, and everyone saw this is serious. We were keeping it from our friends and family. It is probably the closest thing I’ve ever had to an affair, where I had this weird secret part of my life I didn’t talk about. Everyone saw how good Adam and I had been at keeping the secret, and did the same thing we were doing.

As we got closer and closer to Comic-Con, I thought there was no way we’d pull this off. I thought it would leak and the surprise would be spoiled. And I’d be so depressed since we worked really hard to keep it a secret for three-plus years. But I have to give Lionsgate and everyone involved in the production all the credit in the world. We actually did pull it off.

What were the ideas you knew you had to incorporate versus what had to change?

Initially, they gave us total creative freedom. In our initial conversation, we talked about what we thought the expectation would be. Basically the requirement Lionsgate had was they wanted it to be a direct sequel that, in some ways, served to remind people what the first film was. It was their idea the plot would involve Heather’s younger brother trying to find out what happened to her. They wanted to use found footage, and bring back iconic symbols, like the stick symbols and piles of rocks. The burden of a Blair Witch film now is you do have a bit of heavy lifting to remind people of the legacy of the first film. So we thought having a direct approach to the events of the first film is smart.

I also thought there was an interesting creative element, which is having the haunting almost reach out through these connections. I added the local characters, and changed a ton. But they creatively trusted me. What I felt need to be part of the sequel was take the mythology further. I felt a good sequel would clarify some elements of the mythology, and extrapolate on the mystery of others. It’s not about answering questions but taking things further.

"With all the legends, I wanted to find a way to pay that off in a scary sequence that maybe explains it a little more."

Your style is to be more loosely scripted, and the original was very loose, so how scripted did you go on this project since it’s a bigger franchise project?

This was completely scripted. Because of the nature of the story, we weren’t doing the improvisational experiment of the first film. The first film had already done that perfectly. We needed to do something different. I was open to actors doing improv, but found this works best scripted. The funny thing is we tried to make feel improvised and loose, but it is tightly scripted and choreographed because everything was technically complicated. In the first film they were able to improvise because the actual cameras the actors were actually filming the first movie. We weren’t doing any of that. The cameras you see the actors holding are not what we’re shooting on. We’re faking everything! It was very technically challenging. What I did do was script longer versions of scenes – a couple lines before the entry point and a couple after – to give the improvisational feeling and partial clips for a documentary feel.

Not everything about this movie ages well. Talk about the things you knew might not work in 2016.

I never felt creatively compelled to imitate the original film, in any sense. And I had the blessing of the original filmmakers to do whatever I wanted. I didn’t want to do anything the first film did, because it already did it. You’re correct that my creative approach was simply modernizing the technology. Instead of kicking the map in the river, they kick the GPS in the river. While making a Blair Witch sequel, and one that adheres pretty closely in some ways to the structure of the original, which was intentional, I didn’t want to imitate its scenes. Ideally people will watch them back-to-back and have a fun experience with that.

What the first film did that I really liked is it took the technology of that era, and found a way to make them feel unearthly and creepy. Because of the cameras from the first film is 16mm, and they’re running sound on a DAT, the entire end of the house you’re seeing something from a character’s perspective but hearing the character’s voice from a completely different perspective because the sound is being recorded separately from a different part of the house. It creates a weird, unnerving effect. It doesn’t make sense to shoot our film on 16 mm. But what I wanted to do is find the modern version of cameras to lend the same creepy effect. What’s the modern equivalent of that? Yeah, the drone. It is also leaning more into the POV horror, and the way cameras have gotten smaller and more portable, and more ubiquitous.

Also, in the years between the original and ours, we’ve gotten so reliant on cell phones. We’ve gotten so reliant on technology so quickly, I thought it was interesting to go back to a film about capturing primal human anxiety about being lost in the woods.

"There is a whole portion of the original about them trying to figure out a map, and modern audiences probably haven’t held a map in a decade, and wouldn’t know what to do with one."

Finally, what was your reaction in the theater as “The Woods” was revealed to be Blair Witch?

For some people in that theater, it was a weird experience because we were just screening this movie called “The Woods.” It wasn’t our normal premiere experience where audiences are buying tickets to see our movies, and know kind of what they’re going to get. This was Comic-Con people given free tickets, coming to see a horror movie and get free air conditioning. Right at the beginning of the movie a title card comes up that says Burkittsville, so some people got it right away. There was laughter and cheers. But it’s not a secret Blair Witch movie, like 10 Cloverfield Lane. They’re talking about Blair Witch right away. At that point, there was laughter, and I wondered if it was because they were pleased or at our creative hubris. I was still on the edge of my seat, and pretty stressed out. I didn’t really relax until 45 minutes in the movie when a couple big scares happened, and the audience really freaked out. And I thought, not only did we keep a secret, but everyone is going to be into this.

Instead of telling you we’re making a Blair Witch movie, and having you wonder if it’s going to be good or is it going to suck, and I bet there’s a bunch of way it could suck, we were like, “No, no, no; we already made it, and here it is.” That’s how we wanted to reveal it. Everyone is so cynical in this era of reboots, and remakes, and they have every right to be. But we didn’t want to be part of that conversation. We wanted to be like, “We made a sequel, and have the confidence to show it to you.”

And the reaction was positive in a way that made the last three and a half years of lying to my friends and family totally worthwhile.