“We all thought we were making a cool film.”
In October of 1994 three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland, while shooting a documentary. A year later their footage was found.
The Blair Witch Project is now the stuff of movie legend. The first film to successfully make use of internet marketing, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s found-footage horror film swelled into a cultural phenomenon. After it debuted at Sundance in 1999, critics were fast to declare it “scary as hell!” and “scarier than The Exorcist!”, much to the delight of the film’s PR team. Part of the driving-force behind the film’s mammoth success was how it was sold: the Blair Witch Project was so damn scary because it was all true. “Everything you’ve heard is true,” warned one tagline. “The scariest movie of all time is a true story!” said another. Of course, it wasn’t true. The three student filmmakers, Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams and Joshua Leonard, were very much alive and well.
Eventually word trickled out that the “true story” claims were bunk, but it didn’t matter. The film was just as effective as a work of fiction, and the crazy thing about urban legends is that once they’re out there they never really go away. Even after Donahue, Williams and Leonard appeared on late night talk shows to promote the film, Blair Witch viewers still insisted the film was a true story. Some audiences rebelled against the film — they were angry that you “never see the witch”, or they complained about the film’s shaky-cam aesthetic. But the film cemented itself in history as a horror classic.
It also made a hell of a lot of money. On a $60,000 budget (although subsequent re-shoots put the total somewhere around $500,000 to $750,000), The Blair Witch Project netted something close to $248.6 million. When studio executives see a profit margin like that there’s only one word that comes to mind: sequel.
But how does one craft a sequel to a story that doesn’t seem to warrant one? Part of Blair Witch’s power was that questions were unanswered — we didn’t know what happened to Heather, Mike and Josh, but we knew it was bad. To learn more would negate some of the film’s appeal. Of course, thoughts like that never stopped a studio before, and Artisan Entertainment, who owned the film, were eager to get a sequel out while the film was still in the public’s consciousness.
Artisan kept Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez on as Executive Producers, but the Blair Witch creators had little input in the sequel itself. Instead, Artisan turned to documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger, the filmmaker behind acclaimed docs Brother’s Keeper and the Paradise Lost series. It made a certain sense: Paradise Lost was a documentary about a horrific crime discovered in a wooded area, so who better to helm the sequel to the one of the most popular horror movies set in the woods outside of Evil Dead?
Ironically enough, the element that might’ve most interested Artisan in having Berlinger direct — his documentary background — was at odds with how Berlinger himself regarded the original Blair Witch.
“I have tremendous respect for the original Blair Witch Project,” Mr. Berlinger tells on a phone call. “My feeling about it, and it hasn’t changed, is that it’s less about the found footage idea — I think the found footage idea is an interesting — this idea of found footage as a horror device was terrific then and continues to be terrific. What I objected to — what I found quizzical, confusing, disappointing — is that the idea of bad camera work — shaky cam and overly bad shooting, somehow has become equated with documentary-making and reality, because any good documentarian is making beautifully crafted, well-shot documentaries. Brother’s Keeper is a beautifully shot, well-crafted film… Hoop Dreams… Capturing the Friedmans. I mean, you name the classic… Give Me Shelter from the ’60s.
“What I objected to at the time was that somehow degraded video that is shaky and poorly shot has become equated with reality and with what documentary is. It’s wallowing in the worst cliches of bad documentary-making somehow equals reality. As a maker of well-crafted, well-shot documentary films, I didn’t want to pursue that path when they asked me to do the sequel.”
Berlinger also was not particularly fond of the film’s “true story” marketing.
“[A]s somebody who deals in the reality business — and by reality I don’t mean reality TV, I mean the journalism business — I objected to how the film was marketed without any social commentary about that marketing… meaning forty percent…the statistics that I’ve read are like forty percent or more of the people who went to see Blair Witch went because they were told that it’s real, that it’s a real documentary.
“Time and Newsweek — they put Josh, Heather, and Mike on the cover of these magazines and celebrated the marketing hoax instead of somebody stepping back and saying, Well, you know, if you trick people into thinking something is real and they go into a movie theater thinking something is real, there is some danger to that because if you carry it to its natural conclusion it means you can’t trust information that’s put out there on any subject, because how do we know what is true or not.
“I don’t want to be positioned as criticizing the first movie,” Berlinger stresses. “I think the filmmakers did a brilliant job at creating a horror movie and establishing a new genre. I had a problem with the studio’s marketing of it without any comments from real journalists saying, Well, this could be a dangerous trend if you trick people into thinking something is real.”
One might have expected that the minute Berlinger made it known to Artisan that he wasn’t interested in replicating the “found footage” style of the original that the studio would consider finding another filmmaker to tow the company line. But Artisan appeared to have an actual interest in the ideas Berlinger offered.
“I was as surprised as anybody that I’d be doing the sequel to The Blair Witch Project,” Berlinger says. “I was at Artisan pitching them a whole other movie — I was going up the ladder to higher and higher executives until I’m finally sitting with, the three top people who ran Artisan Entertainment, and I started launching into my pitch for about the fourth or fifth time, thinking, Wow, I’m almost at the end of this — it looks like I’m gonna sell my movie, and they raised their hand and said, Stop, you’re not here about that movie. We’re here because we think you’ll be an interesting choice for doing the sequel to The Blair Witch Project — the whole subterfuge of getting me into that room under the false pretense of another movie should’ve set my alarm bells off louder, but I was so surprised at it I just listened to what they had to say.
“They handed me three different scripts that they had already commissioned, [and] I read those scripts and at the end of Thanksgiving vacation, and I called them up and I said, Look, this is not for me…aside from my concerns that, as a real documentarian who doesn’t shoot shaky-cam, and as a real journalist who is concerned that nobody seemed to care that a movie was marketed to people as real when it isn’t, and I think that’s a dangerous thing to do — Besides all that, I think it’s just not good storytelling.“
End of story? Not even close. Berlinger continues: “They said, Well, what would you want to do for a sequel? And I said, Well…if you want to do a script about…the dangers of blurring the lines between fiction and reality, about doing a film that is actually about the phenomenon of the success of the first movie…if you wanted to do something like that, I’d be interested, thinking they’d never say yes, [because] basically I was blowing up the mythology. And to my surprise they said, Well, let’s do it, but the only thing is, this is December, right after Thanksgiving, this conversation is happening in 1999 — and they said, Well, look, we’re — no matter what — we’re releasing this movie in October of 2000 on three thousand screens, which at that time was one of the biggest releases of a movie ever. They said, If you think you can write that script and starting shooting in February, we’re all for it.
“By making a sequel about the impact of the first movie through five characters who are obsessed with it,” Berlinger later wrote in his Director’s Statement for the film, “I hoped to create a psychological horror movie that serves a mainstream audience while simultaneously commenting on the media-created event called The Blair Witch Project, thus connecting my first feature with the kind of social analysis I have undertaken in my documentary work.”
For a while, it seemed like this was exactly what Berlinger was going to do. The filmmaker worked with writer Dick Beebe, who penned 1999’s remake of The House on Haunted Hill, and set about casting unknowns — Tristine Skyler and Stephen Barker Turner as a husband and wife team writing a book about the Blair Witch; Erica Leerhsen as a wiccan upset with media depictions of witches; Kim Director as a tough-as-nails goth girl; and Jeffrey Donovan as a mentally unstable resident of Blair Witch hometown Burkittsville offering a tour of the first film’s locations. Berlinger’s film would almost be a satire of the original, and the culture it established, with a dark twist in the end. Unfortunately, the studio had other plans.
“I just kind of jumped off a cliff and decided, look, I’m being given an opportunity to make social commentary and to do something that maybe has some intelligence,” Berlinger says. “[L]ooking back, I think my mistake was not appreciating how much people who were invested in this mythology wanted it to continue. [N]ot to criticize the audience, but I think I was trying to do something intellectually ambitious in a place that it wasn’t wanted or desired. I feel like if I had done the same kind of film that wasn’t called Blair Witch 2…not a sequel to The Blair Witch Project, I think it would have fared a lot better.
“I think the other mistake I made was greatly underestimating the venom that people had towards anything called Blair Witch 2, because I think everyone appreciated that this little indie phenomenon came from nowhere and exploded, and the attempt the commercialize it, and sequelize it, really created a backlash, long before my actual movie was seen. And I think I underestimated the venom, although ironically, in my original director’s cut, I was making fun and satirizing the whole idea of doing a sequel.”
“Those are the mistakes I made, but what further complicated it is the well-documented interference by the studio and turning my movie into a traditional horror sequel, when it fact it was supposed to be social commentary with a satirical kind of approach that then takes a dangerous and horrifying twist at the end of the film. I can’t say that my director’s cut would have fared any better, maybe people would have hated it as much as they hated [what was released] — and I’m talking about the majority of film critics, people at the time. So I’m not saying that my director’s cut would have gotten any different kind of a reaction, but at least it would have been the movie.
As Berlinger dove into filming, things seemed to be going well. “The experience of making the movie on the set was one of the great joys I’ve had in my filmmaking experience,” the filmmaker says. “Because I pitched this wildly ambitious idea. They bought it. We went right into writing the script…By early February we were actually shooting the movie.
“One of the things that was interesting [during filming]: there were no Artisan executives around or even seemingly like they cared about the film. We kept sending dailies back and I kept getting very few notes and [was] just told, Keep up the good work, and, We’re happy. I had tremendous creative freedom. Everyone felt like we were doing something really cool, and special, and meta, and making fun of the whole idea of doing a sequel — which was a bold approach to a sequel, making fun of it, of the idea of commercializing it, making fun of the idea of commercializing the first film by… it was very self-referential. We all thought we were making a cool film.
“What I didn’t know at the time, the reason nobody was around [during filming] — this just demonstrates why the making of this film was predicated on all the wrong reasons — [this was] just before the internet stock bubble blew up in March or April of 2000, I believe. There was a huge internet mania, and stock prices were through the roof, and there was an IPO mania. Artisan was trying to sell itself on, basically, they wanted to have Blair Witch 2 in the pipeline so that they could get a lofty stock price and sell, and take their company public and have this massive IPO. That is my theory — I can’t prove that. So tremendous creative freedom then turned into a nightmare of forced changes and filmmaking by committee, literally at the twelfth hour.
“I handed in my director’s cut, we started scoring, doing all the post, and literally in August of 2000. And Artisan tested the movie for a couple weeks in focus groups and came back to me and said, Oh, we need to make changes.”
Those changes included adding odd scenes of gore that would appeal to a more bloodthirsty horror audience. The satirical elements of Berlinger’s film went out the window to make way for more slasher-movie-style thrills. “At the twelfth hour they completely bastardized the movie,” the director says. “So it became the nightmare in August, when I lost control of the movie. It [was] recut [and] there are things in it that I absolutely find — I can’t believe my name is on that movie. The gore, and just some of the stuff that was inserted that literally makes no sense to me.”
Despite some misgivings about the film, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 was not a box office bomb. The film made made $47.7 million on a $15 million budget. A hit, but not the hit Artisan — who netted nearly $250 million on the first film — was hoping for. Box office was one thing. Critics were, to put it bluntly, unkind to the film. In his review, Roger Ebert said, “The movie shows no special insight that made it necessary for Berlinger to direct it. It’s a muddled, sometimes-atmospheric effort that could have come from many filmmakers.”
“What was painful was getting this really negative reaction to a film that was not my vision,” Berlinger says. “Things were so changed that it was really…it wasn’t a film that I could stand by and say, this was the script we wrote, this was what I was intending to do. And the changes went counter to what my original vision was.”
There’s still a glimpse of that vision in the theatrical cut. Muddled as it may be, there is at least the presence of clever ideas at work in Book of Shadows. Instead of just simply remaking the first film, an approach the recent Blair Witch, from director Adam Wingard, took, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 is more of a twisted mind-game of a movie, with characters seemingly obsessed with the original film getting in way over their heads. At times it feels more inspired by films like Jacob’s Ladder and Angel Heart than it does The Blair Witch Project.
Book of Shadows would eventually find its own cult audience online, but Artisan was not pleased — even though they had no one to blame but themselves for the cut that was released to theaters on October 27, 2000. The Blair Witch franchise would be put on hold for 16 years until Wingard’s Blair Witch was released — a film that would again turn a profit but still disappoint audiences and critics. In light of the disappointment of 2016’s Blair Witch, perhaps the time is right for people to rediscover Berlinger’s tampered-with film. I saw 2016’s Blair Witch at an advance screening with a noisy, incredulous crowd. As we exited the theater, a marketing representative started asking random audience members what they thought of the film. “I didn’t like it,” I heard one person say. “Book of Shadows was better.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.