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Back to Burkittsville: Simon Barrett On Resurrecting The ‘Blair Witch’

“After seeing all those films that were inspired by Blair Witch Project — movies like The Last Exorcism or Cloverfield or Chronicle — you go back and look at the original Blair Witch Project and it’s still the most authentic of all of them.”

1999-poster-blair_witch_project-3 In 1999, the horror genre was changed forever when The Blair Witch Project became a worldwide phenomenon. Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s ultra low-budget spook-show kicked off a brand new world of found-footage horror, spawning countless copycats that never quite mastered the level of dread and hysteria as The Blair Witch Project did.

The set-up was deceptively simple: three film students head into the woods to make a documentary about a witch. They’re never seen again — but the footage they shot is. That simplicity is what gave The Blair Witch Project its power, and it’s something the large amount of films it inspired never grasped. With The Blair Witch Project being such a box-office smash, it was inevitable that Lionsgate Films would want to fast-track a sequel. Which they did, with 2000’s Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. That film would eventually find a cult following of its own, but at the time it was so disliked by critics and the public alike that it all but killed the franchise.

Until now.

In 2016, trailers for a mysterious horror film called The Woods intrigued genre fans. Increasing the interest in the film was the fact that it was yet another work from the team of director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett, who worked together on films like V/H/S, You’re Next, and The Guest. A few months after the first The Woods trailers arrived, there came an even more exciting announcement: the film was actually called Blair Witch, and was a new sequel to The Blair Witch Project.

I spoke with screenwriter Barrett this week as he was promoting Blair Witch, and asked: why now? Why, after all these years, was there finally going to be a Blair Witch Project sequel?

“Ironically, that was part of the appeal of doing a new Blair Witch for Adam [Wingard] and myself,” Barrett said. “But I feel like something that’s kind of interesting is, since the original Blair Witch Project came out in 1999, it feels like the found footage genre, which that movie somewhat started and [which] then really hit its stride with movies like REC and Paranormal Activity, has kind of hit its peak or run its course.

“And going back now, after seeing all those films that were inspired by Blair Witch Project — movies like The Last Exorcism or Cloverfield or Chronicle — you go back and look at the original Blair Witch Project and it’s still the most authentic of all of them. It actually holds up better now that we’ve seen kind of all these ersatz found-footage movies [that] imitate what it was doing. Because the experiment of The Blair Witch Project is that [Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez] almost really did create the reality of the film — with those actors filming the entire movie, and improvising all of their dialogue in many of their scenes — so it really holds up very well and it has a truly rich mythology that didn’t really get explored in its sequel, Book of Shadows.

“So I think it just is kind of time to revisit that film’s legacy, because I think initially there was somewhat of a backlash against it because it was just such an experimental film and a lot of mainstream — it was a very experimental film that grew into the American mainstream and was a huge blockbuster, but people were then kind of frustrated. You know, some people thought it was real, some people expected more traditional scares — and now you can really look at it clearly and be like, “No, this is a horror masterpiece” — not only does it look innovative but it has this incredible rich mythology.

“So look, if someone had offered Adam and me a Blair Witch sequel sooner, we would’ve done it,” Barrett says, laughing. “It wasn’t like we got offered it in 2000 and [said] ‘No, we must wait until 2016 to release it.” Maybe it could’ve happened sooner but I think it feels like the right time to me for all those reasons.”

Screenwriter Simon Barrett seen at the Lionsgate Booth to sign autographs for 'Blair Witch' and meet fans at San Diego Comic-Con at 2016 Comic-Con on Saturday, July 23, 2016, in San Diego, CA. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision for Lionsgate/AP Images)

Screenwriter Simon Barrett seen at the Lionsgate Booth to sign autographs for ‘Blair Witch’ and meet fans at San Diego Comic-Con at 2016 Comic-Con on Saturday, July 23, 2016, in San Diego, CA. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision for Lionsgate/AP Images)

As Barrett mentioned, the original Blair Witch Project did not use a traditional script. Instead, the filmmakers would leave notes in the morning for their cast detailing the emotional and story beats they wanted them hit, and let the actors improvise the rest. That’s not the case with Blair Witch, which is very-much a scripted film. I asked Barrett how he approached that drastic difference, and wondered if he strived to maintain that same feeling of unscripted authenticity from the original.

“That was the challenge of writing this film, because this was completely scripted — all of the scenes and dialogue were scripted,” Barrett replied. “I mean, the actors were encouraged to do some improvisation, just to give it sort of a spontaneous natural feel, but usually even in those cases I’d given them some lines to riff on and so on. And the reason for that is that Adam and I were doing something narrative — we wanted to make something that narratively was pretty tight. We knew we wanted to do something that was very fast-paced and that built to a certain climax, and you obviously can’t do that if you’re improvising the entire film. We were doing something very specific technically.

“So I did have to script the entire movie, obviously, well in advance. In fact, I did many drafts of the script over a three-year process, basically, and it was basically just trying to find a natural cadence for each of the characters that would feel more spontaneous and feel very authentic and then also I would tend to write sometimes a slightly longer version of scenes than I knew we would use, so that we could choose our edit points, kind of more organically, and it would feel more like edited from actual found, or documentary, footage.

“So the actors would sometimes — so, say that we wanted a five-line scene — I might write like fifteen lines so that we’d kind of cut into the scene mid-stride, and the actors would kind of already be in the middle of the moment, and that way it would feel more authentic to what the first film did, which was they actually did capture just hours and hours and hours of footage of them out in the woods and then they edited it together based on what they were constructing, almost like they constructed a real documentary with the original film. And so we kind of had to come up with a way to imitate that so we would still have that sense of authenticity while at the same time creating what hopefully is a very technical and very clearly planned thrill ride.”

blair1Blair Witch is in theaters today.

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Chris Evangelista is the Executive Editor of Cut Print Film & co-host of the Cut Print Film Podcast. He also contributes to /Film, The Film Stage, Birth.Movies.Death, The Playlist, Paste Magazine, Little White Lies and O-Scope Musings. 'The House on Creep Street' and 'Beware the Monstrous Manther!', two horror books for young readers Chris co-authored with J. Tonzelli, are available wherever books are sold. You can follow him on Twitter @cevangelista413 and view his portfolio at chrisevangelista.net

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