Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard are the current kings of genre deconstruction. Their last film, The Guest, found the writer/director duo mashing up the stone cold kill crazy attitude of Cameron's original Terminator with a synth-pop variation on a lost Halloween sequel. Before that, they made home invasions funny with You’re Next and put an addiction spin on serial killers with A Horrible Way to Die. Now they're stretching a bit outside of their comfort zone and tackling one of the great inventive horror films of all time by crafting a straight ahead sequel to the original Blair Witch Project. Ignoring Book of Shadows completely, their Blair Witch is a glitchy roller coaster ride that looks to update the found footage storytelling technique with drones and blue tooth technology while still integrating DV tape visuals. It's a haunted house spook show that leads us out into the woods and leaves us there to die alone, wondering just what is lurking in the darkness.
We were lucky enough to sit down with Simon and Adam and discuss their approach to found footage, the Blair Witch mythos, and if Book of Shadows is actually canon within the franchise...
BMD: So before we dive into the specifics of Blair Witch, talk to me about found footage. Obviously this isn’t your first rodeo with that technique, as you worked on the VHS movies. Why are you coming back to that mode of storytelling? It’s so divisive.
Simon Barrett: In truly good found footage filmmaking – of which there are admittedly very few examples – you are able to achieve not only immediacy with the film, but you can literally put the audience in the character’s perspective while they’re having a thrilling or horrific experience. But there’s also a wonderful suspension of disbelief, where you’re playing with authenticity. Now obviously we’re creating during an era of found footage films where nobody really thinks they’re “real”, but you can kind of enjoy it as if it were “real”. It makes it creepier and gives it that verisimilitude that traditional horror films – especially the very slickly made ones – lack.
Adam Wingard: Subgenres, specifically within horror, have been very thoroughly explored throughout the years. Zombies, monsters, ghosts – things of that nature. You’re constantly trying to find new ways not to just come up with a story, but to tell the story itself. Found footage is a way to really try and reinvigorate the perspective, since that’s how you create a new story nowadays. You take these elements that we’ve seen before and you place it in a new light. Cloverfield, [REC] – these are examples of tried and true subgenres that suddenly feel like new movies because they’re done in the found footage style.
BMD: One of great aspects of your collaborations is that you take established genre tropes and deconstruct them – to the point that they become distinctly yours. Did working inside of a universe already established by other artists change your approach at all?
SB: Well, there are two different sides to that question. One is that what really unifies our work is that we never want to repeat ourselves. So while A Horrible Way to Die, The Guest, and certainly You’re Next are mixes of different genres and tone shifts, we had already been talking before taking on Blair Witch that we wanted to make something really scary. We were too used to doing “our thing”. Even when I had just finished writing The Guest, we both decided that it was time to make a true horror movie.
Now – in terms of the second part of that question – working with someone else’s ideas was very new to me. Everything I had written while working with Adam was based on original concepts. I was really scared when we took this on and said to Adam “what am I gonna do? What am I gonna write?” But we were both such big fans of the original film that we were sure we could come up with something.
AW: Doing a movie in a pre-existing universe was part of the draw to doing Blair Witch. If you look at a movie like The Guest, for instance, it’s almost like fan fiction of Halloween III and The Terminator. We’re just kind of bullshitting around. Here we were looking for a very specific IP that we could play around with. What does our style look like when it’s in somebody else’s world? If we were continually doing our genre deconstructions and meta takes on genre, it would become kind of lazy. It forced us to get out of our overt comedy zone, even though there’s still a distinct sense of humor to the film, just like the original had.
But it even goes as far as applying myself – getting out of my own comfort zone visually and sound-wise. Because when you’re playing with the found footage format, you can’t use music as a fallback, and I do that a lot. I use a lot of music in my movies. You can’t do that here. You have to focus on a different style.
BMD: This is interesting, though, because you’re still credited with the music.
AW: Sure, but the music here is very unconventional.
BMD: Its very drone influenced.
AW: Yeah – and we’re going to be releasing a soundtrack to the movie that Robert Rich mastered for us, which is really awesome. But in the movie we downplay it a lot, because we wanted it to almost be subconscious. The last thing we wanted to do was have a piece of music that rose up and took you out of the found footage style. I wanted it to add to the dread without you realizing it. However, there are two tracks on the soundtrack that are a little more melodic and synth-driven; real pieces of melodic music.
BMD: You know, we joked about Book of Shadows when I first walked in*…
SB: It’s good to joke.
BMD: Especially about that movie…but how did you approach returning to the original’s mythology? Because Book of Shadows disregards that almost completely in favor of a meta-textual thing. To be honest, I’m not even really sure what Book of Shadows is doing.
AW: I don’t think they did, either.
SB: Look – Book of Shadows, whether you love it or hate it, did not have the involvement of the original filmmakers. It was not made with their blessing. So I think it is very safe to say that, within the original mythology of the film and even the ancillary materials such as Blair Witch Dossier and The Curse of the Blair Witch, it is not canon.
BMD: And your movie returns to making the Blair Witch herself something more akin to Bigfoot, which is closest to how Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez envisioned their evil.
SB: They’re obsessed with Bigfoot – Eduardo and [Blair Witch Project Producer] Gregg [Hale] especially. I’m not sure if Daniel’s as fascinated by it. They love the Sasquatch mythology and The Legend of Boggy Creek.
AW: And that’s what’s fascinating about the Blair Witch mythology. It’s not just about this thing in the woods – it’s about an area. This patch of wood; the Black Hills Forest and its curse. There are a lot of crypto-phenomena around America like Skinwalkers Ranch and Bridgewater Triangle, which are very similar to what we’re riffing on here. You want those vibes in there, because these haunted, energetic areas have all types of phenomena, and Bigfoot is one of the carry-overs. Time loops, UFOs – many things happen in these places.
SB: A bunch of people are really disappointed with the ending of our movie where the witch dismounts her broom and takes off her witch mask to reveal the original Sasquatch costume from Harry and the Hendersons.
BMD: It’s a weird creative decision, but you’re the artists so…whatever.
SB: But that’s canon. The Blair Witch is actually a broom riding Sasquatch.
BMD: But your Blair Witch is like knocking over trees and shit.
SB: Which is what Sasquatches do when they have like the slightest itch. It’s a real problem.
BMD: Speaking of problems – how worried were you guys about authenticity? The original was obviously marketed around being “real”, and some people were actually tricked by it in the earliest days of the internet. But in a post-Paranormal Activity era, we know this is all horseshit.
AW: That was the number one concern going into the project. I watched the original like four times during pre-production and each time I’d be hit with this intense anxiety. The movie’s total commitment toward reality works because you’ll have a moment where a character is arguing with another character and the camera’s pointed at their feet. People complain about that aspect of the original, but that’s what makes it work. I knew we couldn’t do that again. We were essentially making the roller coaster version of Blair Witch, which is a totally different beast altogether. We had to find the fine line between realism and cinematic language.
So we structured the first half of the film more along the lines of a traditional found footage horror film, but then shift over to the blue tooth cameras that the characters are wearing on their ears, so it stabilizes the environment while still keeping you in the POV of the characters. So as the horror sets in, you’re more and more immersed in it.
BMD: It’s a very restrained roller coaster, though, in terms of what we see. You almost seem to be replicating the original’s trickery – playing with the audience’s heads and sometimes convincing us that we’re seeing glimpses of things that may not actually be there.
AW: We knew we had to show you something, or else you’d be disappointed. But even if we were showing you something, we still wanted your imagination to imprint on what we’re showing you. It’s Lovecraftian that way – because everyone has a different idea of what’s lurking out there in the darkness. We had something concrete that was used as the monster in the film, but we wouldn’t even let the on still photographer on set take a picture of it. It’s all about what’s in your head.
*Simon referred to BMD as being “the site that loves Book of Shadows the most”.