'They Wished I Was Dead': How 'The Blair Witch Project' Still Haunts Its Cast
Starring in "The Blair Witch Project" sounds like a career highlight. The low-budget indie grossed $248 million and spawned a franchise that reboots this week. In an oral history, key players from the film share how "Blair Witch" affected them.
Illustration by Katherine Killeffer
Lionsgate reboots the Blair Witch franchise on Friday with the third film in the series. The movie comes 17 years after America became obsessed with The Blair Witch Project in the summer of 1999. Shot on a microscopic budget over the course of eight days, the movie grossed $248 million against a $60,000 budget, making it the fifth highest-earning independent film ever made.
Many viewers had clamored to theaters to see what they believed was authentic found footage of a witch haunting kids in the woods. Their belief stemmed from a fake website director Eduardo Sanchez had set up prior to the movie's release; the campaign transformed the Blair Witch into an urban myth. (Years later, some people have continued to believe the movie was a documentary.) The movie's cultural ubiquity obscured its ingenious production techniques, which influenced a slew of fake found-footage horror movies, like Paranormal Activity, and launched one of the first successful viral marketing campaigns of the Internet age.
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The success bolstered the movie's creators and stars into Hollywood, but the movie's urban legend marketing campaign plagued the actors, whom many believe died in 1999. In anticipation of the new movie, Broadly spoke to The Blair Witch Project's original writers, directors, and actors about the film's deranged eight-day production and how the movie scarred their lives.
Writer and directors Eduardo Sanchez and Dan Myrick met as film students at the University of Central Florida in the early 1990s. The friends collaborated on a number of student films before deciding to collaborate on a horror movie.
In the Beginning
Eduardo Sanchez, writer-director: We were hanging out one weekend and just decided to start talking about horror films, so we went out and rented a lot of the horror films that had freaked us out as kids, and a lot of the more pseudo-documentary style movies and TV shows, like In Search of..., Chariot of the Gods, [and] Legend of Boggy Creek. These kind of movies, to Dan and me, were scarier because they were presented as reality. We both wondered, "Could you do that with a contemporary audience?"
Dan Myrick, writer-director: From there we started thinking about how creepy it would be to come upon this old house in the woods with that style. You're unable to pull away, you're just forced to watch as you pull up to this creepy house at night, and you're forced to walk in—there's no turning away. We just thought that would be sort of primal and scary. Over the course of the next year, we came up with a premise as to why you'd be seeing that. Originally it was a large group of explorers on an expedition in the woods. It was a cult maybe.
Sanchez: All the ideas we came up with for the [Blair Witch] mythology—we just wanted them to be very rooted in reality. We wanted people to say, "Yeah, that sounds like that could be real, something happened." We didn't want anything too outrageous; we didn't want to draw too much attention to the mythology. We didn't want people to go in to disprove it. We just made it believable enough that we thought that people could believe it.
Myrick: We used American contemporary folklore as a reference point. The Devil's Triangle was a really good reference, a mysterious place where people reportedly disappeared, lots of conspiracy theories surrounding it but no one has any real proof one way or the other. Civil War folklore, Native American folklore—a blend of stuff from that area of the country to flesh out this whole kind of universe we were created.
Sanchez: We always thought it would be based in Maryland. Dan and [the crew] were based in Orlando, and we were like, "It can't be a Florida legend."
A New Cast in the Woods
With the help of producer Greg Hale, Myrick and Sanchez began assembling an eight-minute pitch video to attract funders. The video was eventually sold to the television series Split Screen. Money from the sale—along with funds from friends, family, and videos Myrick edited for Planet Hollywood—funded the film. From there, the men cast the film, searching for actors with improvisational backgrounds that would contribute to the movie's "found footage" style.
Sanchez: We knew that if for even a second, if you felt like these people were acting, if it felt like a movie at all, we were going to lose the audience. So it was very important that these actors know how to improv and know how to improv creatively and not overdo it.
Heather Donahue, actress: I was the founding member of an improv company called Red Shag, and I was in this feminist off-off Broadway fringe movement theater company called Collision Theory, where we did documentary plays. I was doing a lot of improv, but in a very different direction, so I was very excited when I saw The Blair Witch [Project].
She was a very driven woman who didn't wear mascara and was on camera in 1999.
Sanchez: The [actors] would come into the room and we would immediately start grilling them with certain questions. We told people during the audition, "As soon as you come into the room, the audition starts." That worked for a lot of people, and it didn't work for others. There were a lot of actors that came in and just didn't understand.
Donahue: Dan, Ed, and Greg set up improvisation scenarios for us, so when I went to audition, they said to me, "You have served half of your sentence for killing your baby. Why should we let you out?" And I looked at them and said, "I don't think you should." And I think I was the only woman who actually said that, and so I got the role.
Joshua Leonard, actor: I wound up getting Blair Witch because I had some acting experience and because I knew how to run a camera, which is what I was doing freelance a lot of the time at that point. I think I was in that state that a lot of young people in New York are, where I thought, Maybe I'll go be a photographer, or a documentary filmmaker, or a spoken word poet, or an actor, and I just kind of followed whatever was deemed cool at the time.
The Campers Go to Maryland
Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael C. Williams won the parts, and their characters used their real names. With the crew, the actors set out to Maryland for the eight-day production, first in the real town of Burkittsville and then into state parks for a shoot that resembled a creepy scavenger hunt. The actors camped in real tents each night and shot all of their own footage, with the crew shadowing them. The actors improvised a large portion of the film, while the crew would create commotions to incite the required reactions.
Donahue: The initial reaction of my loved ones was that I definitely should not go into the woods with a bunch of guys I didn't know. My mom wanted to know if she could have all of their Social Security numbers. All of my friends pitched in to make sure that I bought a knife. I actually thought it was going to be much harsher than it turned out to be. I thought I was going to have to skin a squirrel.
Leonard: I was working with an experimental film company that did all the Kenneth Anger films and Derek Jarman and Maya Deren [movies] and really weird-ass outré stuff, so it just seemed like a really fascinating experimental technique to make film with. Plus I was probably too stoned to be scared.
We shook their tent, we played sounds of little kids playing outside their tent, we made noises in the middle of the night, we led them to this crazy house at the end—we basically just played the Blair Witch.
Myrick: All the weird kind of noises and stuff is just us running around in the woods. When they wake up and there are rock piles outside their tents, we planted those, obviously. The stick figures—we hung them. We just led them around on a 24-hour-a-day stage play, really. We set up all the set pieces before hand, and they would just follow our directions. They had a GPS unit we would pre-program daily [and] just let them know where they were supposed to go [and] the time they were supposed to be there. We shook their tent, we played sounds of little kids playing outside their tent, we made noises in the middle of the night, we led them to this crazy house at the end—we basically just played the Blair Witch.
Donahue: They let us know that our safety was their concern, but our comfort was not. We knew it was definitely going to be 24/7. We knew that it was going to be uncomfortable. We knew that it was going to be about a witch. We knew that every time we got notes from them, they were designed to generate conflict, and we knew that we should keep the cameras running as much as possible.
Myrick: As far as the Blair Witch mythology was concerned, we gave a little bit of a tidbit to Mike and Josh, but Heather was the one that knew the bulk of what Blair Witch was all about. We gave her all the backstory of the Blair Witch. We wanted the other actors to ask questions like, "Why are we out here? What's this Blair Witch thing?" To ask these questions and not have any foreknowledge about what the purpose of their student film was.
I don't think there were a lot of female characters like that in movies at the time.
Donahue: I had actually done a student film two years before with a young female filmmaker who definitely had a lot of bravado. I had to think, "What kind of woman would actually keep the camera running through horrible times?" A normal person would have stopped filming, so I had to take that character to that extra driven edge. I don't think there were a lot of female characters like that in movies at the time. Definitely I feel like things have changed a lot. There's been a little more leeway for female characters. I won the Razzie for worst actress that year, and I think that was partly because of the character being judged, rather than the performance. She was a very driven woman who didn't wear mascara and was on camera in 1999.
Sanchez: The actors were great, they didn't really shy away from anything, they were very brave to do what we asked them to do. And I think that they trusted us and that was probably our biggest accomplishment during that time, just to be able to tell these actors, "We're going to do all this stuff to you, we're going to have you in the woods 24 hours a day, and we're going to scare you at night," and they trusted us—somehow they trusted us.
The Myths of the Movie
Like the legend of The Blair Witch Project itself, the film's production has inspired many true tales. Rumors abound about the cast sobbing and hysterically crying during scenes because they believed the legend was real. The real life filming was much more mundane and a real slog for the actors.
Leonard: Well, there were no ghost children in the woods. So that was not real, as far as I know.
Donahue: A pile of rocks is not inherently scary. We had to believe in the fictional circumstances, like you do in any acting job really.
Myrick: We probably startled them, but I can't imagine them really being scared. For example, the final scene with the house, it looks like it's all one take. Heather's shrieking in the house, and it looks like she's losing her mind, but we shot that over multiple takes and over two days—that was one of the most traditional segments of the movie. We had to really set and reset and be careful walking through that house so that nobody got hurt. It was much more orchestrated. Nobody was scared. They were tired! The real fear that registers on their face is just pure performance.
Leonard: You've always got in the back of your head, "This is not Colonel Kurtz going up the river in Heart of Darkness. This is not the Apocalypse Now shoot where you're there for a year and slowly lose your minds."' This was, "Let's be clear, this is an eight-day shoot," so there was always a level of acting that went into it, because, you know, we weren't actually out there for that long. That said, I think the techniques that Ed and Dan and Greg and those guys used to make us uncomfortable and pump up the conflict, you know, [were real]. It was actually cold, we were actually hungry, we were actually tired—that certainly played into it.
Myrick: Over time, we ramped back their food supply a little bit. We never starved them or anything, but we made it so they were sort of grumpy at the end.
Donahue: We had a code word [with the crew], bulldozer, for when we wanted to drop out, like a safe word. Our safe word between each other was taco. We had been hiking in the rain all day one day, and they had put our tents up, and when we got to our tents following the GPS system, the tent had like an inch of water in it. We were like, "We're done. We're actors. We do not have to do it this way. We've had enough." And so we got on the radio and were like, "Bulldozer, bulldozer, bulldozer!" But they were having dinner at Chi-Chi's, so they didn't hear us. We left the woods and found the first house that we went to, and knocked on the door. The guys were like, "You have to go, you have to go, because if a guy knocks on the door at a house in the woods at night, nobody is going to let them in!" So I knocked on the door, and I'm like, "I'm sorry, we're supposed to be lost in the woods, but we're not, and we have to call these guys!" They were weirdly nice enough and trusting enough to let us in, and they gave us hot cocoa. We ended up staying in a hotel that night.
The Unplanned and the Infamous
Some of the film's best and creepiest moments were total surprises to the crew, while other planned scares weren't properly recorded, altering the course of the movie and changing the Blair Witch mythology, including the famous monologue scene in which Donahue cries into the camera. Her close-up later became the movie's iconic poster.
Myrick: We had this whole plan of having this guy—this creepy moment where there might have been an analysis where if someone looks closely there'd be a little glow-y, white humanoid figure in the woods somewhere. We had a friend of ours dress up in white long johns and be parked off in the woods just between the trees, and our hope was that as the camera was running, it would catch a little glimpse of this guy. That was was what Heather was reacting to [when running through the woods], saying "What the fuck is that?" but we never got it to read on camera. I felt bad for the guy, because it was pretty cold that night and he fell into the water. We had to take our clothes off to get to him. A lot of work for no end result, except for, "What the fuck is that?"
Sanchez: We didn't know [Donahue's final monologue] was going to be such a crazy iconic moment in our movie. We actually gave [Heather and Williams] the same direction. We told Heather, "You don't want to freak out Mike obviously, so take the camera and find an area near the tent and basically say goodbye to everybody you know. You're gonna die." We were feeding them ideas where they went as far as their character. At that point, Heather pretty much knew she was going to die, and then she went out and delivered this crazy, brilliant performance. It was one of those moments, as filmmakers, we hadn't seen her shoot that because we basically left her alone, but when we saw that we were like, "Wow, this could be really powerful."
Donahue: The idea was that I knew my character was gonna die now, and I knew that Josh was probably dead. I knew that Mike was gonna die, and it was all my fault—I was as simple as that. What I say in that monologue is pretty straightforward and was what I went into it with, like, "I was a very bad girl, and I failed." I knew that I went for broke, and I obviously knew that my nose was running. In retrospect, I would have done a couple of things differently. I would have never used my real last name, and I would probably put the camera at a higher angle.
Leonard: We made a found footage movie because our budget kind of justified the aesthetic, and, because we were such a small film, trying to pretend like we were a bigger film was just never going to work. I think built into the storytelling itself is, "This is gonna look real shitty, and it's gonna sound pretty bad too sometimes, and that's okay because that's intentional and this is something that's really supposed to be happening to these people." We had a $300 camera and another one we got for free, so it's funny to me when a big studio tries to make something look shitty and sound bad. It cracks me up, but I can see how it's a good story telling technique for the right story.
Myrick: There's a lot of things that we intended that didn't happen, and there's a lot of things that we intended that did. That's the kind of thing about the whole process: It never comes out of the way you intended it.
When Everyone Thinks You're Dead
After filming wrapped, Myrick and Sanchez spent months editing footage and condensing their actors performances into an 81-minute film, which was accepted to the Sundance Film Festival, where the now defunct Artisan Entertainment purchased its distribution rights. Sanchez created a website for the movie that provided background mythology for the film; the site convinced perspective audiences that the movie was found footage. Artisan also hid the cast during the film's initial release and edited the actors' IMDB pages to say they had died. The hoax went so viral, Donahue's mother received condolence cards.
Donahue: Being dead? How did effect my career? Adversely.
Leonard: It was fucking weird, because people would call up confused to my parents and say, "Is Josh actually okay?" But in terms of my career, I didn't have a career before the film. It wasn't like I was a hot commodity actor who was all of a sudden listed as deceased.
Sanchez: Once the movie was sold, you lose control of it as a filmmaker. Artisan was like, "We want to market it as real, we want to hide the actors for a couple of weeks." At that point we were like, "Yeah, it could work!" It was probably not the way that we would have done it but it did work. It pulled in a lot of money because they decided to go that way with it.
Leonard: Whoever set up that website that Artisan completely took credit for might have been a little pissed off. It's a really fascinating thing that I just experienced over the course of 20 years now where people—even people who have nothing to do with the film industry—will often lead with, "Oh my god, that was such a brilliant marketing campaign that the studio did." Which is so fascinating, because marketing a film is generally such an insider-baseball kind of thing in the industry itself. I think Artisan took a template that was already created and really did an amazing job of capitalizing on that and pushing it out and making it bigger and enhancing the mystery and legacy surrounding the film. But it was already there to begin with, from the very first time that the directors got in touch with me.
[The Blair Witch's success] is something you have to live with, like a tumor or a tattoo on your face.
The Blair Witch Backlash
The movie grossed $248,639,099, and critics initially loved the film. Myrick and Sanchez even won an Independent Spirit John Cassavetes Award, but the enormous popularity prompted a huge backlash that affected the cast and crew.
Sanchez: Pretty quickly when the movie was released, there was this backlash that began about the film. People were not expecting it to be what it was. People were expecting a much more conventional horror film. When it did not deliver, because Blair Witch doesn't deliver like a conventional horror film, I think the backlash began because people were saying, "Oh look, they're trying to fool us, they think we're stupid!" But by that time the movie had made a lot of money and had a lot of success—by that point it's sort of like, "Who cares?" But as filmmakers, it's our film and so it bothered us a lot more.
Myrick: I think that [backlash] is pretty natural. Some of our best reviews for the movie were early on, when it was just being discovered and there were no expectations for the film and people were witnessing it in a more honest and subdued environment. There's this cycle with publicity where you over-saturate and over-promote and it becomes fashionable to not like what everyone else says they do like.
Leonard: What I'll get a lot when people find out I was involved was like, "I fucking hated that thing! I want my $10 back!" To which I'm like, "I don't know what you want me to do with that." We never made the film for mass consumption.
It was my mother getting sympathy cards, it was people coming up to me on the street telling me that they wished I was dead, saying they want their money back.
Donahue: It's very hard for me to talk about the backlash because for me it was so directly personal. It was my mother getting sympathy cards, it was people coming up to me on the street telling me that they wished I was dead, saying they want their money back. It was me in my 84 Toyota Celica breaking down in LA in La Cienega underneath a billboard with my own face on it. It was a profoundly surreal experience.
Sanchez: For the audiences that did get it, it was a very intense and unique experience. For the people who didn't get it, it was a lot of shaky video footage.
Donahue: I had no experience with the camera, as is evidenced by my shaky camera style. Apparently a lot of people threw up, so I feel kind of bad about that.
The Enduring Legend
Although the film was made more than 15 years ago, the legend of the Blair Witch endures, and many fans still believe that the legend, if not the Blair Witch herself, is legitimate.
Sanchez: Artisan did a survey as far as who believes if the Blair Witch legend was real or not, and pretty crazy numbers, like 50 percent of the people thought it was a real legend.
Donahue: There are some people online who think that we are hired shills because those kids really did die and we've been hired to be them so that nobody will get arrested.
Myrick: I think it's just the nature of the beast that we want to believe that there's some supernatural force out in the woods that has an effect on people— whether it's the Devil's Triangle or UFOs or ghosts. It's part of our DNA. Blair Witch falls right into that zeitgeist, so people will forever believe that there's some component of The Blair Witch that's based on fact.
Sanchez: We're pretty good liars. We're pretty good at making up a bunch of bullshit.
Greatest Regrets and Next Frontiers
After the film's success, the cast and crew went on to have varying careers in Hollywood; Sanchez and Myrick both directed more horror films, while Leonard has consistently worked as an actor in Hollywood. Donahue worked in several more films before quitting show business to become a medical marijuana farmer, although she still occasionally works on films. She says using her real last name for her character in the film is her greatest regret, making her unable to escape the franchise. In the new film, the lead character, James Donahue, is her character's brother, and shares the actress's real last name.
Donahue: [The Blair Witch's success] is something you have to live with, like a tumor or a tattoo on your face. It's just like this thing that's always there. It had really receded in the background, and now with the new movie coming out, it's very much present for me and my family again, which is challenging for them as well. My mother is being asked again about sympathy cards. My sister, people at her work are like, "Is your sister in that movie? Do you really have a brother named James?" Well, no, but my dad is named James! And that's on my Wikipedia page.
Myrick: As an artist, part of why you're doing this is to leave a mark, to leave an impression, and to influence people, to move people, and Blair Witch did that. Forever I'll be grateful to have been apart of that, to be part of an amazing thing, and to be remembered for at least one thing. Maybe not everything, but that one thing is something I'm appreciative of. Not many filmmakers get to say that.
Donahue: All those found footage movies now are union movies. Those are actual movies with actual budgets, so it doesn't have the same punk rock ethos that Blair Witch had. You couldn't have made Blair Witch with SAG actors; there was no meal penalty or meal breaks. We were shooting 24/7 without meal breaks, with nobody really directing us. It was definitely feral filmmaking, which you can't do if you have a craft services table and real safety all around you all the time. That poses a challenge to a lot of current found footage films. You'll just never quite capture the wildness or what the Internet was then.