In the sweet spell of success


With 'The Blair Witch Project' well on its way to becoming a hit, its creators are enjoying the spotlight. Not bad for a couple of guys who just wanted to frighten people

July 18, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,sun film critic

It was surreal at Cannes in May, when they were on a panel moderated by critic Roger Ebert, with Ron Howard at one end of the dais, Spike Lee on the other and John Sayles in between.

And it was surreal at Sundance in January, when "The Blair Witch Project" made its triumphant world premiere at the most influential film festival in America.

"The whole thing was surreal," recalled Myrick over breakfast the morning after the Charles event. "[You've] just come from Orlando, you're knee deep in snow and you're looking at this huge line outside for your film and you're like, 'Wow.' You're just in this daze. And you only hope that the film is going to live up to the hype that's been generated on it, and that the people waiting in line won't be disappointed."

They weren't. "The Blair Witch Project" proved to be the most talked-about film at Sundance this year. Not only was it the first movie to be picked up -- by Artisan Entertainment -- but even sophisticated festival-goers came home shaken by the film, which is a scary movie on the order of the great scary movies of the 1960s and 1970s. No gore or special effects -- "The Blair Witch Project," which opened in theaters Friday, scared filmgoers out of their seats with old-fashioned suspense, atmosphere and decidedly creepy realism.

Myrick, 35, and Sanchez, 30, made "The Blair Witch Project" in 1997, filming in Seneca Creek State Park, Patapsco State Park, Burkittsville, Brunswick and Adamstown. They chose Western Maryland because Sanchez, who grew up in Takoma Park, lived nearby, in Rockville.

Sanchez and Myrick had met in the early 1990s, while they were film students at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. They shared a common passion for Z-grade mock-documentaries like "The Legend of Boggy Creek" and the television series "In Search Of." So they decided to make a film together that would be a homage to those horror flicks of yore, the ones whose terror lay in the ambiguity between fact and fiction.

"The Blair Witch Project" is the story of three student filmmakers who venture into the Maryland woods to make a film about a legendary witch and are never heard from again. The film and video footage they leave behind becomes the movie, giving "The Blair Witch Project" its creepy verite immediacy.

Myrick and Sanchez auditioned 2,000 actors in New York before casting Heather Donahue, Michael Williams and Joshua Leonard as the three filmmakers. They brought them to Maryland and put them through a two-day crash course in film and video-making. Then a crew of seven and the cast of three embarked on a grueling six-day exercise in what Myrick and Sanchez came to call "method filmmaking."

Maximizing terror

For maximum terror, Myrick and Sanchez knew "The Blair Witch Project" had to be flawlessly authentic, with no trace of artifice, performance or predictability. So, to heighten the film's realism, the directors sent their actors on an improvisational journey. They gave them a minimum of information and put a variety of startling events (or "gags") in their way. Then the actors captured each others' responses on camera.

The crew stayed close but out of sight, communicating minimally with the cast. Myrick and Sanchez gave the actors a two-way radio and a hand-held global positioning system as links to the outside world. Fresh batteries, new tapes and performance notes were left at a designated point every day.

Of course, this pared-down approach made not only artistic but economic sense: Myrick and Sanchez funded "The Blair Witch Project" almost entirely on credit cards. The movie, whose budget was equivalent to "the cost of a fully-loaded Taurus," according to Sanchez, was shot in eight days.

"We had a base camp which had to be in radio contact with the three actors, to make sure that if somebody broke an ankle or something they'd be nearby," Myrick recalled. "I did a lot of running in the woods and shadowing the actors, just to kind of observe the performance and see how their dynamic was working. ... We were in full camouflage so they wouldn't see us, or if they were shooting the camera I wouldn't be standing there in a polo shirt in the background. And then whenever we needed to pull one of the gags, like run around the tent, it was all of us going out there at 3 in the morning and sneaking up to the tent and running around. So it was like a little military operation."

Myrick and Sanchez credit co-producer Gregg Hale, who had been in the U.S. Army Special Forces, with coordinating the complex series of moves with military precision. Indeed, Myrick is still shocked that nothing more serious than a broken camera lens befell the filmmakers.

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