Back Into The Woods: An interview with 'Blair Witch' screenwriter Simon Barrett

City Paper

Screenwriter Simon Barrett, with directing partner Adam Wingard, made his name on two of the best thrillers of the last decade: 2011's "You're Next," a wry and stylish deconstruction of the home invasion horror genre and 2014’s "The Guest," which pitted an unassuming small town against a Terminator-esque horror played by Dan Stevens (Matthew from "Downton Abbey") as David, a wolf-like killing machine that symbolizes America’s sins abroad. The duo's newest project, at first marketed as simply "The Woods," is by far their most high profile: a surprise sequel to "The Blair Witch Project." I spoke with Barrett over the phone while he was stuck at an auto shop in Los Angeles about the film's unholy genesis, approaching "Blair Witch" as a fan, and the challenge of writing a sequel.

City Paper: Why do you think "The Blair Witch Project" has endured? Or do you even think it's endured?

Simon Barrett: There's a couple reasons "The Blair Witch Project" is historically important in our cinema. The first is, while it's not the first so-called "found footage" horror movie, it's the first one that really registered as a mainstream massive hit and the first one that was a real cultural phenomenon. "The Blair Witch Project," to me, feels the most authentic of the found footage films. And it wasn't like [co-directors/co-writers] Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick set out to make a found footage movie. I talked to them about it and they just thought it was a cool way to make this particular story. Even after "Paranormal Activity" when it became a sort of fashionable thing for Hollywood to do, no one's ever attempted the authentic experiment of sending actors out in character to improvise scenes. Adam and I certainly didn't attempt it. The thing about "The Blair Witch Project" is it has this kind of rich creepy mythology where the more you dig into it, the more interesting it gets. The film kind of cleverly hints at these things as if they were real historical fact. Even the performances of the supporting cast hold up to some scrutiny, which is certainly not the case for most low budget horror movies.

CP: How did you and Adam become involved with "Blair Witch"?

SB: You know, the answer to that isn't actually too interesting. It's just that Lionsgate asked us to do it. There were a couple of executives at Lionsgate, Jason Constantine and Bobby Cohen who had purchased "You're Next," which at that time was the previous film that we'd done not counting various anthologies. And while they were sort of in the process of putting together the release of the film, we got called into a top secret meeting at Lionsgate's offices. They basically told us, "Well, we have the rights to the 'Blair Witch Project' and we've been talking to the original producers about maybe doing another one. And, you know, we haven't really talked to anyone else about it yet. Would you guys be interested?" We'd also just worked with Eduardo Sanchez and [BWP producer] Gregg Hale on "V/H/S 2." So we'd like just talked to them, Adam was quizzing them [about "The Blair Witch Project"] on some Sundance van ride to Salt Lake City about why there'd never been any more Blair Witch ancillary materials out there since 2000 or so. We honestly had this weird moment [with Lionsgate] where it was like "...How did you know?" Our creative approach to things is to make films based on my original concepts or whatever we're feeling like. So it was really just a total weird coincidence that they came to us first but they liked the way Adam and I worked together as a team. We were very happy to be asked.

CP: Did you see the original film when it was out in theaters?

SB: I did. I was living in Waltham, Massachusetts of all places for the summer and I saw it at a local arthouse theater near my apartment. I was in film school at the time so I had kinda already heard about it from various film school buddies and I knew it wasn't real.

CP: How did you feel about it at that time? Did you think it was corny? Did you like it?

SB: Yeah, I really liked it. I was spending the summer out there because my girlfriend lived nearby but growing up in Missouri I never got to see movies until they'd already been out for a while. At that time, only wide release films opened in my hometown so it was cool to see it before the hype reached the inevitable point of backlash. Even though I knew it wasn't real, what I liked about it was that it was completely authentic in every element and you could pretend it was real. It didn't matter if you knew it was real or not, it felt real while you were watching it. And I really liked the mythology and ended up doing a fair amount of reading online trying to dig a little deeper into the legend. Actually my appreciation of it kind of increased over time. At the time it came out, I was like 19 or something so it wasn't that clear to me how it had been made. It was only after I saw a bunch of other films imitating that style then imitating that style myself somewhat on "V/H/S" that I started to appreciate just how deep the experiment of the original film had gone to create that effect, the realism of what they were pretending "The Blair Witch Project" was. I kind of like it more every time I watch it.

CP: As far as approaching a "Blair Witch Project" sequel as a screenwriter, what kind of considerations did you make as far as authenticity? What, if anything, did you want to do differently?

SB: While it's true that this is the first found footage feature I've written—and also likely the last—I had quite a bit of experience with found footage filmmaking working on the first two "V/H/S" movies, which Adam and I helped to assemble the final versions of. So it wasn't just that we were learning from segments we worked on ourselves, we were also seeing what the other filmmakers were doing. So we knew a lot about what worked and what didn't at least in the short film format. Obviously doing a found footage feature is much more difficult because the unique perspectives that can work for a short can become tedious or implausible. I'd already put a lot of thought into what kind of scares worked and didn't in found footage. The first film does what it does for that sense of authenticity pretty much perfectly and it achieves its creepy effects through that. I knew that not only was that not imitable in 2013 when I started writing the script and the found footage fad felt like it was sort of winding down. But it wouldn't have been a creatively interesting thing to just imitate that anyway, because the first one did it and it did it perfectly. I knew that my approach here creatively had to be fairly different but also extrapolated upon the mythology the first film references and hints at. As a fan of the original film, I tried to look at "as a fan, what is the sequel that I'd want to see?" Lionsgate fortunately had a very similar approach, they had the idea that it should be the younger brother of Heather character searching for her. They wanted a very direct sequel that would serve to remind an audience of what the original film was and that would somewhat follow its structure. That was the burden of making a sequel 17 years later: You don't have the benefit of everyone having just seen it. The difficulty that you have, as a screenwriter especially, is that when you're doing a sequel that explains too much you run the risk of making something that was cool and exciting kind of lame and too clearly defined. The first film felt very unsafe, very mysterious and those to me felt like two elements that were missing from modern horror. I wanted to find new ways to scare people and to make it feel sort of real again. 

CP: There's a real ambiguity to "The Blair Witch Project," where you're not seeing anything that the characters are seeing. It's really bold, I think.

SB: Yeah the first film is borderline an experimental movie in many ways. It really doesn't give you a whole lot of concrete information, that's why it really creeped people out. There's not much heavy-handed Hollywood exposition in it and that's why there are still people debating the meaning of certain aspects of the film on online message boards (on which I'm a lurker). You don't want to do the Star Wars prequels and just show people the somewhat less cool version of what they assumed happened. But you also don't want to give people nothing and be totally creatively beholden to just replicating the original. Truthfully, it's about splitting the difference: I wasn't worried about my ability to do this because I think I had an instinct for what I'd want to see and what I’d want explained and what I wouldn't and how to tow that line. The "V/H/S" films, in their kind of vaguely unserious way, have a weird mythology we never made enough films to explain but we were headed somewhere with it. I was mostly worried whether the original filmmakers would be cool with what I was doing and I did have their blessing fortunately.

CP: As far as shooting the woods scenes for "Blair Witch" in British Columbia, were there challenges in attempting that?

SB: We talked about trying to shoot in the same areas where they filmed the original. [Note: The original film's forest sequences was largely shot within Seneca Creek Park outside Rockville] It would have been more difficult to make the kind of film we were making in that area. So at a certain point, British Columbia was selected as a place with kind of "the most woods." But Adam and I had a lot of concerns about shooting in British Columbia because we're both from the American south and you see a lot of movies that are supposed to take place in the Appalachian mountains but it's clearly the lush Pacific Northwest forests of Vancouver [laughs]. It has that early "X-Files" look to it, you know, all those furs and pine trees. That's not how western Maryland looks. Our production designer Tom Hammock went up before Adam and I did and went on a few location scouts to really try and find sections of woods that matched. And then even in the color grading process we had the challenge of making it look a little less beautiful. The woods we were filming in were gorgeous, if all we were looking for was to make something look beautiful like "The Revenant," we were in the right place. But we were going in the opposite direction, we wanted it to look creepy and way more sparse. We had a great greens crew who took out any foliage that didn't match geographically and conserving trees and fauna that did. Our greens crew did the "Twilight" movies and stuff like that and we were very lucky that they were available because was an enormous amount of work to do. I remember there was one area that had had a fire and that was, you know, a very good look for us. Now is the average viewer going to notice this stuff? I dunno. Adam and I are very detail-oriented filmmakers and I think you have to be if you're going to respect the audience's intelligence.

"Blair Witch" is out tomorrow.

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