Shot on a shoestring
Fact and fiction: 'Blair Witch' team gets happy ending
July 15, 1999
By Paul Clinton
(CNN) -- Part of the advertising campaign for the new film "The Blair Witch Project" includes this statement: "On October 21, 1994, three filmmakers, Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael Williams, hiked into the Black Forest of Maryland to shoot a documentary film on a local legend called 'Blair Witch' and were never seen or heard from again."
Sounds like a real-life story, doesn't it? That's what the filmmakers and Artisan Entertainment want you to think.
Last August, before the film ever hit the festival circuit, the two co-directors, co-writers and co-editors of the film -- Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick -- alumni of the University of Central Florida in Orlando -- launched a Web site, www.blairwitch.com. There, they posted an entire mythology and evil history of the supposed 200-year-old "Blair Witch" legend, complete with drawings, old photos and journals. Every bit of it is fake.
Then, the three members of the supposed documentary crew were unavailable when the press was invited to Los Angeles to interview Myrick and Sánchez. After all, they were dead. Weren't they?
Apparently Artisan Entertainment -- which bought the film in an all-night bidding session the night it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, last January -- decided to continue the gimmick. Artisan dished out a reported $1 million for the movie. No one will confirm this at the moment, but the film's entire budget is said to have been only some $25,000.
Surviving the 'Witch'
"People come up to us all the time and say, 'We're so glad you're alive.' To me that's a real gauge that it worked," says the film's female cast member, Heather Donahue.
She's an actress, not a documentary filmmaker. And she's alive, as are the other two "documentary film-crew members," actors Joshua Leonard and Michael Williams.
Donahue and Leonard did do a few interviews the day the film was sold. Both actors knew something special was happening at the first screening in Park City. "None of us anticipated a reaction like this," says Leonard. "I could have come here doing interviews with the Park City Gazette and been happy."
"I was like, 'Oh my God, it's crazy,'" Donahue says. "It's like a very sort of raw film. It was hard to know how audiences were going to respond to that."
The wondering is over. "The Blair Witch Project" is one of the most highly anticipated independent films of the summer.
"Our goal was to kind of blur the line between reality and acting and take them to the edge." says Sánchez. "The actors were out there from the first shot of the movie 'til the end shot. They were out there -- they camped out there, they ate out there, they went to the bathroom out there, they did everything."
Everything, including shooting the actual film. Leonard was the main cameraman with a large 16mm camera. Williams acted as soundman, using a digital recorder. And Donahue had a Hi-8 video camera she used to shoot behind-the-scenes tape.
"Blair Witch" was shot entirely on location in Maryland in eight days. The actors were only told the basic concept of the story. Then with cameras at the ready, they were put into frightening situations created by Sánchez and Myrick. The actors improvised and filmed each other through it all.
In order to have as little contact as possible with the actors during the making of the film, Sánchez and Myrick used a Global Positioning System (GPS) device to keep in touch with their actors.
"We'd send them little directing notes," says Sánchez, "along with food and fresh batteries and fresh rolls of film and video cassettes. We just led them around the woods with the GPS -- one of those trackers that has wave points in it. And they'd go from one point to the next and we'd have things set up for them, you know, things for them to experience there."
The result is a stark film with hard-to-decipher images, shaky camera work and a soundtrack full of shrieks and mumbled dialogue. The film is also frightening, even though there's no violence and no blood.
"We took pretty much just every limitation that independent, low-budget films have, and used it as our strength," says Sánchez: "Shaky camera, no lights, improvised dialog, you know. I mean, we don't show anything."
The check arrives
No one seems to have thought they'd make any money with this project. The actors were paid, but Donahue says, "It was about the same money as temping or bartending. Your usual. It didn't take money away, which is good, because that's what most projects of this type do. My financial situation didn't change. It was seamless poverty."
Donahue talks about the industry's equivalent phrase to "The check's in the mail" in such situations. "'You get deferred pay,'" she says, citing the standard line.
"Oh sure," she says, laughing at an actor's customary response to the promise.
But now that the film has sold, she really has gotten deferred pay. "I don't know anyone who ever got deferred pay. I'm the first of my friends to ever actually get a deferred paycheck."
Sánchez and Myrick say they were down to their last dime while making this film. "We had every major utility shut off," laughs Sánchez. "We basically financed everything through credit cards and a couple of private investors. But it was tough. We've been living paycheck to paycheck."
But now, things are looking up for these young filmmakers. They've got one of the hottest movies of the summer coming out, and a first-look deal with Artisan Entertainment. They're writing a comedy with a friend, David Brown, to be called "Heart of Love."
"It's kind of a wacky comedy," says Myrick, "something that hasn't been seen in a long time."
Donahue, Williams and Leonard are also ready for their next acting projects. Now all they have to do is convince casting directors they're still alive.
"The Blair Witch Project" opens in limited release on July 16 and in wider distribution July 30. The film is rated "R" with a running time of 82 minutes.
Winners at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival
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