Given that you and Adam had serendipitously spoken about it quite a lot prior to being offered it, did you come in with a specific idea of what you wanted to achieve?
SB: No. The weird thing about the Blair Witch franchise, such as it is, with all the materials and what not, is that it’s really all over the place. It’s somewhat of an open book and we were really open to having that conversation with Jason and Eda at Lionsgate. We were really open to that first conversation of like, “We are interested, what do you guys think? What do you have in mind?”
I think we all knew that we wanted it to be… What the film never had was a direct sequel that continued the mythology as hinted at and referenced in the original film. That was what we all wanted to do but that’s not the most innovative approach. You could even say that’s a fairly obvious approach. It was all about what are the details of that. In a lot of ways we knew the burden the film might have, because there was one sequel that didn’t get seen by a ton of people and there hasn’t been anything in the intervening 16 years.
One of the challenges we faced was reminding people a little bit of what the original film even was, and also make a film that would hold up for viewers who hadn’t even seen the first film. We knew we wanted to be as direct as possible and that was where the idea of having a character who had a relationship with Heather, and doing a very straight forward narrative entry to what the sequel is and then using that to get wild with the mythology and add new things, and extrapolate on certain things and take everything in a new crazy direction.
We knew we wanted at least the first half of the film to feel like a fairly traditional sequel because we also wanted people to recalibrate and get used to the kind of film they were watching before we started to really start throwing some scary stuff at them.
From a writing standpoint, was this one more challenging for you than your last few projects? The first ‘Blair Witch’ was based on a 32-page outline and then crafted in the editing room afterwards. Was this more tightly scripted or was there a lot of footage shot and then worked through afterwards?
SB: We knew we weren’t going to improvise the movie the way they did that first film because that’s just not the way we make films, and they’d also already done that. You don’t want to imitate too much of what the first film’s doing because what’s the point of making another one then, you’d just watch the first, which is my overall approach to remakes and sequels.
I’ve been offered a lot of remakes of films that I really like but it’s like, “I don’t know that I would do anything differently to what the original film did, so I don’t have anything really to add to this”. You have to find that magic property where it’s a property that you really love and you also see a different creative direction for it that could add to the legacy of the original, which I would say, so far, the only two films that people have brought to me that I’ve felt that way about are The Blair Witch Project and the Korean film I Saw The Devil, which we’re working on a remake of.
Those are very unique and films that I love in a really unique way. It was weirdly challenging. We wanted it to feel very authentic and we wanted the actors to do some improv and have a certain spontaneous looseness in the scenes but we still were trying to make a very tight film with a very tight narrative. What I would do is I would script longer versions of scenes than we intended to use.
Say, I wrote a page long scene but I know we were only going to use two or three lines in the middle. That way it would feel like the scene was being edited like a documentary, like someone’s found the footage and used the snippets that they needed. If I’d just written those two or three lines, the actors and Adam and everyone would have had a difficult time making that feel right. In that way you have the looseness to the scenes but then you could cut into a very tight edit.
The script was much longer than any script I’d done previously. I think, at one point, it was 128 pages and the film is 94 minutes, I think, with credits. That was always, pretty much, what we were going for. I knew I was writing something long but I was explaining to Adam along the way, “This is how I see this scene playing out. This””. He was very down for that. Even then, sometimes, it didn’t work and we’d end up reshooting a scene two or three times during production just to get it just right because you could see sometimes, “Wait, we don’t have the correct outpoint for an edit here”.
I’ve edited stuff before and I, at least, have an understanding of how that works so at least I could see, once we’d failed at something, how to do it correctly usually. It was a lot of trial and error in the filmmaking process. The writing process, it was difficult. This was the first time I’ve ever written something from scratch that wasn’t based on my own ideas and so it wasn’t entirely the creative process that I’m used to, which is completely inventing the story, the characters and the world.
It was challenging for me honestly, a little bit at first but then it also was a mythology that I really loved and a film that has a really huge amount of material hinted at in the original but never fully explained or expanded upon. It was such a cool tool box to be able to work with that once I got over the initial hump of I have to adhere to what people are expecting me to write a little bit here, I was able to get back into my usual creative process with it.
Is there a part of the lore that you particularly enjoy or is there a part of the film that you love having seen it a few times now?
SB: Yes. It’s not in our film, it’s referenced briefly but I love the story of Coffin Rock. I think Robin Weaver is the young girl. This would have taken place in 1896 in Blair Witch mythology and she sees a woman whose feet aren’t touching the ground who leads her out to the house in the woods and leaves her there and she escapes. The men who are sent looking for her are found eviscerated and bound together in a circle, each man’s hand bound to the next man’s feet. I think that’s how it’s phrased in the original film.
Yes. You’ve just reminded me myself. I used to have this book, ‘The ‘Blair Witch Dossier’, I think it was called. It had all that stuff in it. I think Oni Press might have released a comic book when I was a kid. I saw ‘Blair Witch’ when I was maybe 15 or something at the cinema for the first time.
SB: They did three different comic book series of The Blair Witch and The Blair Witch Chronicles I think, the one that had the Coffin Rock story in it, which is really great. It’s referenced in Dave Stern’s ‘Dossier’, of course. It is referenced in the original film though, like everything in the original film, somewhat obliquely. I think that’s such a cool, creepy little bit of mythology and it’s almost why I didn’t want to address it in our film because I almost want people to discover it on its own because it is just a really creepy tale.
All the details are really bizarre and it makes you start thinking, “Wait, is that Rustin Parr’s house? If so, how long has it been there?” It just makes you start connecting other bits of the mythology together. We referenced Coffin Rock. We have a character actually say the words but we don’t give in to the legend. It’s partly because I think that legend is so cool that I’m hoping that people watch our film and revisit the original or look it up online or something like that and then it’ll make, if anything, our film feel even scarier.
They used to watch documentaries and they found them scarier than actual movie narratives.
SB: It makes it feel real too. In modernising Blair Witch, one thing that I wanted to update, the way the internet has evolved in the intervening years from 1999, from the release of the first film up until now, is now we have a surplus of information and it’s less about having to really search for information, it’s more about having to part and weed out the bad information, the misinformation when everyone’s getting their news from sources that are politically aligned to their beliefs.
There’s a lot of garbage that crops up on your social media feed that you don’t know if it’s real or not. To me, what’s cool is that the Blair Witch legend feels like actual history in that there’s room for debate about it. There are people who are like, “Yes, but no, that didn’t really happen that way” and “I read this thing that says it’s this”. Without getting too obnoxious about that, I wanted that to be part of what the modern version of that mythology would be, which is that people don’t really know what happened in 1896.
We have some sources that tell us one thing and, if there’s a contradictory source, we have no idea what happened. It was too long ago. That’s what, I think, the first film did brilliantly is it feels like a real history. It feels like they’re really referencing the thing but nobody quite knows all the details, and that feels realistic versus a horror movie that gives you all this information. How would anyone possibly know that that’s what happened?
We don’t even know what happened in our actual reality. We have people debating news events that occurred a week ago ceaselessly online and no one knows what the reality of these things is. That was an exciting creative licence I gave myself. As long as something kind of adhered to the original mythology, I could also get pretty free with it.
Would you like to be involved in any sequels should they occur or have you had your fill of Blair Witch for the time being?
SB: Yes. If things were to go well enough, that we actually made a film that was enough of a success to warrant a sequel, which hasn’t happened to us previously but I’m told it does occur; I would definitely want to have some kind of creative input because I do have, I think, a lot of cool ideas about where a sequel to this movie could go.
Our film, actually, in some ways, did have to remind people what the original was and I think you could make a sequel that took a very different narrative approach. That said, I never like to jinx things. I don’t think I would want to even try to think about sequels until I knew that there was actually a demand for one.
That’s fair. I think it’s going to play, though. It’s really, really scary.
SB: You just never know. We’ve had films come out… None of our films have ever lost money but we’ve been indie filmmakers on the periphery of the film industry for long enough that I’m like, “It would be really cool to do a sequel to this but I’m definitely not counting on it”. I definitely didn’t hold back anything.
Sorry, I’m not trying to jinx you, man. I apologise!
SB: No. The short answer is yes. If there is a sequel, I would want to be involved.
I enjoyed an Evil Dead-ness about it, in a way, a physical threat of the woods that you’ve got all around you all the time.
SB: Yes. Or Picnic at Hanging Rock where it’s a place where something really bad happened there one time but nobody remembers what it was. It’s just always been bad. They hint at this in the first film and, from talking to the original filmmakers, I know it was more their intent that the people over the years that people are blaming for the haunting might be more its victims than its cause.
That’s really what we tried to do with our film is show you a bit of that process. The extent to which people totally get that or not, honestly, I don’t think in any way detracts from anyone seeing the movie itself. It’s more like if you watch it a couple of times, hopefully, certain things start to add up a bit more in terms of what we’re doing with some of the characters and things like that. What you’re seeing are things that have been entrapped in almost a spider web of the Black Hills Woods over the centuries and that haunting is reaching out and expanding to the characters in this film.
It is interesting to me that you used Peter Weir’s ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ as a reference.
SB: Yes. In terms of found footage, maybe another Australian movie like Lake Mungo.I think that movie does a pretty good job of hinting at a weird, simple haunted place. The horror movies that tend to stick with me are more films like… There is that weird ambiguous Australian genre of haunted nature, which is like Long Weekend, Picnic at Hanging Rock and stuff like that. Razorback, if you want to be a little less subtle. It’s more interesting.
I’m more almost scared by the idea that there are bad places in this world that we don’t really have a full understanding of why. You could go back through history and maybe find out, “This bad thing happened here” but you never know if that was because of the haunting or a symptom of it. That’s the exciting thing about how deep the Blair Witch legend, in my opinion goes.
You never know, when they’re talking about Elly Kedward, Rustin Parr, Eileen Treacle, etc. are they talking about something that caused this place to become the way that it is or are they talking about something that was a result of that? People who were just its victims, in a way, over the centuries? More than anything else, I wanted our film to reflect that kind of story, that overarching narrative of a bad place but also that place that can reach you no matter where you are.
That, to me, is the exciting depth of Blair Witch mythology and why I think that, actually, aside from the fact that the original film was incredibly groundbreaking in both its filmmaking technique and its marketing campaign, the real enduring legacy of that movie is, to me, its mythology and its narrative. It’s been a true pleasure to get to work in that world.
That is a great place to jump off, I think. Thank you so much for being so generous with your time with me there.
SB: Thank you. I’m thrilled to hear that you liked the movie. I feel like, even if our movie comes out and does the box office of The Guest, it’s still been a success because people that really loved the first film are, so far, responding to it exactly the way we hoped they would. I’m very excited.
Blair Witch is out in cinemas now – read our review here
Many thanks to Simon Barrett for taking the time for this interview.