Flickering Myth’s Mark Bartlett chats with screenwriter Simon Barrett about Blair Witch…
Director Adam Wingard’s surprise sequel Blair Witch is terrifying and something of a rebirth for the found footage format. It’s a welcome surprise and an excellent continuation of the lore established in the original Blair Witch Project. In this interview, writer Simon Barrett goes into detail about his own love for Blair Witch, his writing process and influences.
SEE ALSO: Read our interview with Blair Witch director Adam Wingard here
I loved the film. It really feels like the right time to be bringing ‘Blair Witch’ back. How did the project materialise? Did you approach Lionsgate with a take on it with Adam (Wingard- Director), or did they come to you?
SB: To be honest, we had so little idea as to who even owned the rights to The Blair Witch Project that in the month prior to us having our first meeting about it at Lionsgate, we’d worked with one of the original and directors, Eduardo Sánchez, and the producer of the original film, Gregg Hale. They co-directed a segment on V/H/S/2 and we ended up hanging out with them a bunch, and talking with them a bunch during that process and hanging out with them at Sundance when that film had its premiere.
I remember we took a van ride to our Salt Lake City screening and I remember specifically sitting in the back, and Adam was asking them why there were never any more Blair Witch films, basically. They were like, “I don’t know, don’t bother us”. They’re really laid back, funny self-deprecating guys so they were like, “It became its own thing”. We were just asking as fans of the original. It felt like some weird… it certainly felt serendipitous that one month later we got called to this super secret Lionsgate meeting.
It was the executives who had bought You’re Next, Jason Constantine and Eda Kowan at Lionsgate, who were our main contacts on everything. They wanted to have a super secret lunch with us. We didn’t know what it was about. We were like, “Is this some Twilight spin-off? What is going on? Why is this so secret?”
They sat us down and were like, “We have the rights to The Blair Witch Project, we have been talking to Steve Schneider and Roy Lee about maybe doing another film and we’d like to know if you guys would potentially be interested in working on something like that because we really like working with you” and they were big fans of You’re Next and they really liked the V/H/S films.
We had this weird double reaction of, “Wait, we were just talking about this and now we’re being offered it. How did you guys know? Have you been listening in on us? How do you know?” They were like, “What are you talking about?” They knew that Ed and Gregg were involved in V/H/S/2 but they didn’t know that we were just discussing about this in the weeks prior. Beyond that, we had this reaction of, “We can’t let anyone else do this, this has to be ours because anyone else will screw it up”.
It was this immediate, “Yes”, which is funny because we turned down a lot of remakes and sequels, including properties that Lionsgate had actually offered us, and we really had a good relationship with Lionsgate.. but working directly with Jason and Eda felt safer in some ways because we’d worked with them really directly on You’re Next and we knew that there was a mutual creative respect, which is what you really need before you consider doing a project with a studio.
It was this weird thing. Actually, they brought it to us but I’m somewhat convinced that we conjured it somehow prior to that. I’m convinced that Adam did some ritual or something to bring it to us because it was such a strange coincidence. Then we had the weird thing where Lionsgate didn’t want us to tell Ed and Gregg and Dan Myrick.
We wanted to be the ones to talk to them about the fact that this thing was going into development. There was this totally weird thing where Ed and Gregg reached out and they were like, “You guys are doing Blair Witch? Why didn’t you tell us?” We were like, “No, it didn’t happen until after that”.
Was that maddening for you to have to keep a secret for that length of time when it’s something you feel quite close to?
SB: Yes. I had to keep this film a secret for almost three and a half years. It wasn’t too hard but actually, the hardest people to not talk was in that initial period where I wanted to talk to Ed and Gregg. I’d been in the same room with Daniel Myrick before but I hadn’t really met him, but I wanted to make sure that we really had their blessing because they’re our friends and it was a very different thing. I assumed they’d be excited about Lionsgate giving it to us versus people they didn’t know but we wanted to make sure.
I know they weren’t creatively involved in Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows and maybe they were being polite and it was the kind of thing where they don’t want any sequels made. Fortunately, Lionsgate reached out to them right away and we got their blessing and they really gave us permission to do whatever we wanted to do, because I think they knew that we were approaching it from the right creative perspective. That was actually the hardest part.
I was a private investigator for ten years. I worked as a licensed private investigator while Adam and I were making movies, like A Horrible Way to Die. Even when we were working on the first V/H/S, I was still doing PI work as a day job. In theory, I was never supposed to talk about any of my cases with anyone, including many of my co-workers, except the client. I worked for a great company with lovely people but I had developed a good system of mental compartmentalisation.
Another thing that people forget, because there’s no reason anyone would remember this specifically, because it was so much less of a big deal but nobody even knew, ‘You’re Next’, V/H/S or V/H/S/2 never existed until their premieres were announced. The Guest leaked, its existence leaked but no one knew what that movie was until it premiered at Sundance.
We’ve always tried to keep our work a secret because initially, in the first stages of our careers, no one was interested in what we were doing. It just felt like trying to hype it wouldn’t be successful in the best way to get people excited about it, it was best to let the film speak for itself.
I appreciate it as a fan, actually, because like ‘10 Cloverfield Lane’ this year, it’s nice sometimes to have not have years and years of hype and expectation, and just have it fall on you. You’re like, “Wow, it’s here”. You just get to enjoy it.
SB: Me too. Exactly. We don’t do that necessarily from a calculated marketing standpoint. We do that mostly from being fans of film. I like it when a movie surprises me. I like it when I go to see a film not knowing exactly what it is. If I know I’m going to see a movie, I’ll try to avoid its trailer. I’ll try to avoid reading too much about it because I like to discover a movie watching the film itself.
Even with films like You’re Next, which was very much under the radar just because it was a very small film, we hadn’t publicised anything about it and it was about discovering it at the premiere. Lionsgate was like, “We want to keep this a secret”. We were like, “We keep all of our films a secret”. Largely it’s easier to keep a film a secret if no ones cares but with Blair Witch we knew it would be a little more challenging because it was the kind of thing that people would be interested in if they knew we were working on it.
Really, it’s just a matter of you just don’t talk about it. When people ask you what you’re working on, you just be vague. Generally, most people who are like, “What are you working on?”, they don’t really care, they’re just being polite. If you’re just like, “You know, this and that”. They don’t really want an answer.
It’s a just a social pleasantry to ask.
SB: Yes, they’re just asking you how you’re doing. It did leak a little bit but it didn’t go far because we just didn’t talk about it. We didn’t acknowledge it one way or the other and we really were still able to surprise people with it at Comic-Con in July and that really was so rewarding after three and a half years of hoping that would work out. It was difficult but it also really felt like as soon as Lionsgate’s marketing department, the head of which is a brilliant guy named Tim Palen, who really does like to do creative marketing campaigns, he did all the Hunger Games stuff; as soon as they were like, “We’re down for keeping this a secret, we’re down for announcing it with a screening”, as soon as we knew they were down for that, frankly, weirdly brave approach of not putting a film’s IP forward initially, we were like, “There’s no way we’re going to spoil this, this is so cool”. From that point on, it was less about keeping a secret that is any way a bad thing and more about working towards the cooler deal.
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