Remembering ‘Blair Witch’: The Bloc Interviews Director Eduardo Sánchez

Eduardo Sánchez has loved horror films since childhood, but he never expected that someday he could make a living out of them as well.

As a graduate of the University of Central Florida’s film school, Sánchez and Daniel Myrick came up with an idea for a horror film that, only a decade later, is regarded as a film that redefined the horror industry.

The Blair Witch Project” has become world renowned, described as the “new face of horror” by the Rolling Stone magazine. “The Blair Witch Project” chronicles the disappearance of three college students who vanish while filming a documentary on the local legend of the Blair Witch. Sánchez filmed the movie right in Montgomery County, Md., where he has lived most of his life.

On Oct. 24, more than 15 years after his cult-classic, Sánchez plans to release his fifth feature horror film, “Exists,” another “found footage” movie, this time based on a group of friends who encounter Bigfoot on a forest retreat.

Sánchez spoke with the The Writer’s Bloc last week about his latest film, his interest in horror and found footage films and how “Blair Witch” fares among fans today:

Q: “Exists,” which was shown at the Spooky Movie International Horror Film Festival in Silver Spring, Md., Oct. 10, is your fifth feature length horror film. Where does your interest in this genre come from?

A: Well, I’ve always been a fan of films, and I’ve always wanted to make them. But I never thought I’d be making horror films. When I went to film school, my films were more comedies and action; that was more of my thing.

When [Dan Myrick and I] came up with the idea for “The Blair Witch,” it just happened to be the best idea we had that we thought we could make with a low budget. So that’s kind of where my main interest stemmed from.

And after you succeed in a certain type of film, you tend to be pigeonholed into that genre. But I’m happy. The cool thing about horror is that there are a lot of sub-genres. You can do action horror, drama, comedy; there are lots of different things you can do, and I appreciate that. It’s the only genre that allows you that much flexibility. So, it’s a good place to be stuck in, if I am stuck.

Q: “Exists,” like “Blair Witch,” is a “found” footage film. Where does this interest in found footage come from?

A: As far as “Blair” was concerned, it was a totally pragmatic decision. It was supposed to be film footage that the filmmakers filmed themselves, so the plot of the movie led us to a place where it was found footage. It had to look like a documentary movie; the story kind of depended it.

Now, “Exists” is my first found footage movie since “Blair.” Personally, I thought we were going to film it normally, but, as a team, the more we thought about it, the more found footage made sense to us. It’s Bigfoot, and what you know about Bigfoot is mostly found footage, documentary style. So, if we were going to make another found footage film, this was the perfect one for it.

"Exists" re-imagines the idea of the legendary Bigfoot.  (Photo courtesy of existsmovie.com)
“Exists” re-imagines the idea of the legendary Bigfoot. (Photo courtesy of existsmovie.com)
Q: Many view “Blair Witch” as a revolutionary “found” footage film. It was not necessarily the first of its kind, but it definitely popularized the genre (followed by movies like “Paranormal Activity,” “Cloverfield,” etc.) What is it about “Blair Witch” that you think made this particular film such a success?

A: I think it was successful for a bunch of different reasons. It was a creepy film. I think it paid off, at least if you watched it with realistic expectations. A lot of people who expected a classic horror film hate the movie, but this was more experimental. It told a good story; it was scary, and it was in the woods. There are always monsters in the woods. That’s why I think it did so well universally.

I think “Blair Witch” was one of those stories of the classic American success story. Dan and I were pretty poor; we didn’t come from money, and we kind of had to fight our way through our education. To make such a big film that made so much money inspired people, and not even just filmmakers. So it was just a good story.

I think, on the filmmaking side, it inspired a lot of people. A lot of people have come to me and told me that “Blair Witch” inspired them to get into filmmaking. And that’s gratifying. With luck and some decent execution, you can come out of nowhere and become a filmmaker. We also marketed it in a very unique way at the time, so I think it got a lot of people’s attention and sparked a lot of people’s imagination.

Q: The thought process behind the filming and marketing of “Blair Witch” was very innovative in 1999. It was one of the first movies to ever be marketed on the Internet, and it grew into a viral campaign. Where did the ideas behind “Blair Witch” come from?

A: It was a very collaborative process. Dan and I came up with the idea together, and then we got a lot of other talented people involved. The Internet campaign was sort of born out of necessity… We had no money, and I had a little experience with websites, and the Internet, at the time, was just a fraction of what it is now. So we put up a website, which cost like $15, and people started showing interest.

Honestly, though, we probably wouldn’t have made “Blair Witch” if we had better resources and more money. And we probably would have made commercials and marketed the movie in different ways. But we put up the website, and people started showing interest and getting really attached to this idea. They were excited about this kind of movie that they’d never seen and they didn’t know.

Q: “Blair Witch” was filmed in Montgomery County, which is where you have lived for most of your life. What was the local reaction when the film campaign began and when the film was released?

A: I wasn’t living here at the time. I was living in Orlando, but we heard a lot of reports about what was happening here, mostly about Burkittsville [where the Blair Witch legend originally began]. They started getting a lot of strange visitors. People seemed to think it was a set for the movie.

For a while there, people from Burkittsville were kind of cursing us. It’s a very small town – there’s no reason to go to Burkittsville unless you live there, and I think people like that. So when people started coming around, especially toward Halloween, they were pretty unhappy. There were some weird people who walked right into peoples’ houses thinking it was a movie set. And there was some vandalism. People started stealing ‘Burkittsville’ signs, which we ended up replacing.

We were really sorry about it though. We never thought the movie was going to be that popular. If we had known, we totally wouldn’t have told people what town it was, but we had no way of knowing. There would have been a lot of things done differently had we known about the success. But there’s no way to know that, obviously, and that’s just part of the magic.

Q: “Exists” was well received at South by Southwest in March, where it won the Audience Award, which is decided by public votes. What do viewers have to look forward to with this film?

A: Well, it’s a really fun Bigfoot movie, and there haven’t really been many good Bigfoot movies lately. Not that my film is better than anybody else’s, but mine shows the creature, which is a big pet peeve of mine with Bigfoot films. You make a Bigfoot film and you don’t show Bigfoot? I understand that a lot of Bigfoot films are low budget, and the costumes and effects are expensive.

My big thing is that if you advertise Bigfoot, you better show the creature. And my film shows the creature. Some really talented people made the suit, and the guy who played the creature, Brian Steele, is pretty famous for doing creatures, and he did a really amazing job with his performance.

It’s really amazing because at the end of the movie we get really close to Bigfoot, and it really works; they really made it look real. So, if nothing at all, you can expect the best-looking Bigfoot put on film, I think.

More Than 15 Years Later, Students Remember

Many students at the University of Maryland, located just one county away from where “The Blair Witch Project” was filmed, continue to discuss and analyze the larger implications of the film today.

Curtis Dickens, a sophomore in letters and sciences, said he found “The Blair Witch Project” to be immersive.

“I think the fact that it was kind of a low-budget ‘found’ footage movie made it more real,” Dickens said. “They made it seem like I could go into the woods and get lost, like this could happen to me.”

Senior philosophy major Ivan La Rocca is from Montgomery County and lives close to where much of the movie was filmed. He appreciated what “The Blair Witch Project” did for film in popularizing the first-person perspective, though he was not a big fan of it, he said.

In his hometown of Frederick, Md., which is also Sánchez’s hometown, “The Blair Witch Project” is a bit of a running joke for some residents.

“It’s kind of like our thing, like, ‘Yeah, I’m from where the ‘Blair Witch’ was filmed,’” La Rocca said. “Everybody respects it. We kind of embody the fact that Eduardo Sánchez did his thing. He really made a specific type of genre in horror film, so [we] respect and understand where he comes from.”

writersblocheadshots11Daphne Pellegrino is a sophomore journalism major and can be reached at dpellegr@terpmail.umd.edu.

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