Luke Owen gets on the phone with writer Simon Barrett…
Last year I spoke with Adam Wingard just a couple of months after his project The Woods had been revealed as a sequel to 1999’s The Blair Witch Project and a few weeks before the film was released [read that interview here]. At the time Wingard was very excited about Blair Witch, even noting that it was the first film he’d directed that looked to make a lot of money at the box office. However some reviews were pretty unkind (although we rather liked it) and Blair Witch didn’t light up the box office as expected. Now it’s out on Blu-Ray and DVD in both the US and the UK, I spoke with the film’s writer Simon Barrett about the reaction the film received, and about where the idea of keeping it a secret came from.
“It’s tough to say,” Barrett tells me, audibly exhausted after a long day of press interviews. “With some things I’m all too eager to take credit for, but if anything it was Lionsgate [who wanted to keep it a secret]. Although it’s worth noting that Adam and I like to keep our projects as secret as possible. You know, films that have less scrutiny on them so people wouldn’t even notice we’re keeping them secret like You’re Next or the V/H/S films. We do this with some films and just announce them as the premiere is announced. Both Adam and I are people who, if we’re going to see a movie, we’re not going to watch a trailer if we can avoid it. I’m gonna see it, so why spoil anything? So we try to replicate that. In this modern era of ‘over-hype’ on social media, I’m almost saturated with information to the point where it makes me less excited about a film. I feel this is a way to be different. And I suspect we’ll see more of it. With this new Star Wars movie, if they just announced the date and nothing else, people would be going absolutely insane with excitement. But hey, those Star Wars movies are doing just fine without any advice from me.”
However it wasn’t just the film’s announcement that was kept secret, as Lionsgate wouldn’t even tell the duo what they were meeting about. “They wouldn’t put it in writing and they would only tell us in person,” he says. “So the secrecy started before we were involved with the project. Lionsgate have had big titles like the Twilight movies and The Hunger Games where people are trying to get ‘scoops’ and they had to be very secure. I think they were just thinking ahead.” But the idea of keeping it a secret and only ever referring to it as The Woods appealed to Barrett as it reminded him of the original movie. “We knew it was impossible to market a new Blair Witch movie the same way the original was so famously marketed,” he adds. “People know what found footage is and they know what The Blair Witch Project is, so they were trying to come up with a new way to surprise people.” He does joke, however, that he never expected to keep Blair Witch a secret for the next three-and-a-half-years. “We were like, ‘how long could this possibly take? It’s a found footage movie and the first one was shot in like three days! How big a deal could this possibly be,'” he says chuckling. “[Book of Shadow: Blair Witch 2] was rushed to be out within a year of the first one, so we thought this was going to be like one of the V/H/S movies where we’re filming in three months, and instead it was a much more complicated process.”
That complicated process included writing a script that was not only a sequel to a very revered horror icon, but also a found footage movie released in an era where the subgenre has become over-saturated. “I think it was really difficult,” Barrett jokes, “and I’d say 70% of film reviewers feel very strongly that I failed at it.”
The Blair Witch Project is one of the most successful horror movies of all-time, made for only $60,000 the film grossed $248 million worldwide. While it wasn’t the first found footage movie, it is often seen as the Godfather of the subgenre. “I will say that it’s a challenge,” Barrett says of writing the script. “But it’s the same challenge, I imagine, when you’re working in any other existing property. With Blair Witch, we knew from the start that it was going to be an extreme challenge doing a sequel, because The Book of Shadows sequel in 2000 went in a totally different direction in terms of the mythology, and I think that was because they were faced with the conundrum of ‘how do you escalate something that is based on improvisation, experimentation and subtly?’. It was a film that had a rich mythology, but doesn’t really tell you what it is. Unless you watch all the ancillary documentaries and read all the books that [the original filmmakers] did. And of course all the marketing materials they put online. That wasn’t the studio, that was the filmmakers’ plan. How do you take this further, how do you add new ideas to this, without spoiling what made it interesting to begin with.”
Barrett admits that it was the challenge of writing a sequel to The Blair Witch Project that attracted him to the project, but it was also another chance to work with Adam Wingard. Blair Witch marks the ninth collaboration between the two dating back to 2010’s A Horrible Way to Die, through two V/H/S movies, the critically acclaimed You’re Next and the magnificent The Guest; and Barrett appears to like working with people like Wingard as writing for studios is a “thankless task” as he puts it. “I like working with Adam, and I like collaborating with Adam because it’s a slightly different process than if I was writing for a studio,” he says. “I wouldn’t do that unless I needed money, or something. A lot of the time it’s just a lot of remake and sequels, and then it looks like I don’t have anything original to say. But with The Blair Witch Project, it was made by our friends [Adam and Simon had worked with Eduardo Sánchez and Gregg Hale on V/H/S/2], and it was a project we already knew and loved. We knew there was no template that said, ‘this is what the sequel should be’. And that kind of challenge is what really excited me about it.”