Interview: Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett On Fear and 'Blair Witch'
by Jeremy Kirk
September 16, 2016
The creative team behind the horror films You're Next and The Guest seem like the perfect choices to bring something as groundbreaking and phenomenal as The Blair Witch Project back to modern audiences. That team, director/producer Adam Wingard and writer/producer Simon Barrett, are no strangers to the world of indie horror and all that comes with it and this shows in everything the pair have delivered so far. Taking what they learned in creating the V/H/S series, the filmmakers once again take to the stage of scares for Blair Witch, a direct sequel to the 1999 film that shaped the horror genre that directly after. Their update is relentless in its intensity and loaded with surprises that fans of the original will eat up in droves.
I had the good fortune of speaking with both Wingard and Barrett about their process getting a third Blair Witch film to the big screen (don't forget Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2), the long and winding path the sequel took to finally see the light of day, and what it is that scares these particular fright fans. Spoiler alert: it may not be what you're expecting. This new film first appeared at the San Diego Comic-Con earlier this year, when a screening of "The Woods" was revealed to be the world premiere of the new Blair Witch sequel. Now that it's been released in theaters nationwide as of this weekend, let's get right into the interview.
Go back to 1999 and talk a little about where you were when you first heard about this new movie called The Blair Witch Project and how that ultimately affected/inspired each of you.
Simon Barrett: Well, I was in film school, actually. I'm a little bit older than Adam by, like, several years. I was in my second year of film school, and I'd heard about it when it premiered at Sundance. So I knew already it wasn't real but that it was this extremely hyped kind of innovative, horror experience. I was dying to see it, and, of course, the trailers and the marketing campaign worked me into this frenzy like just about any horror fan at that time.
I finally saw it. The first showing I could see was when I was living in Boston, and my girlfriend couldn't go Friday night, so I went to see it on a Saturday. You wouldn't think it'd be the right way to see it, and in some ways it wasn't. But it still unnerved me in this busy, urban environment in broad daylight. It definitely stuck with me, and that's when I also read the "Blair Witch Dossier". I'd already seen the Curse of the Blair Witch documentary done by Ben Rock, and I dug deeper into the material that was out on the internet. The film was really designed for that experience.
Adam Wingard: Yeah I was in high school as well, so the first time I remember hearing about it was on Entertainment Tonight or something like that. I remember, I think, that they were interviewing Eduardo [Sánchez] at Sundance about it, and I was instantly fascinated. I actually didn't think it was ever real. By the time it got around to where I was in a small town in Alabama there was enough information about it that I knew it was this marketing thing.
Still, whenever I first saw it, I originally caught it on VHS when it came out. It was still cool to me, because the marketing gimmick didn't matter to me at all. Even knowing that it wasn't real in the sense that they actually went missing it was still an effective, horror movie. That was an invaluable experience to have, because if I'd seen it and thought it was real I think I'd always be questioning myself in terms of, "Was it just a gimmick? Would I have actually been scared otherwise."
Stop me if I got this wrong, but you bumped into Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez (the directors of the original film) at Sundance when you were promoting V/H/S, right?…
Adam: No, we were doing V/H/S 2, so Eduardo Sánchez and Gregg Hale were working on it with us. We had not met them at that point. We had worked with them just through email.
Simon: Well, I had met them here in Austin when we had V/H/S at SXSW in March of 2012. They had Lovely Molly in the festival and they were prepping Exists, so I had a meeting with them and Brad Miska and Roxanne Benjamin to try to get them to do V/H/S 2. That was a brief meeting.
Adam: And then they were involved throughout the process of it, and we were all giving each other notes on the V/H/S films. It wasn't until Sundance that year, 2013, that we met them and had a great time and instantly got along. They're very down to earth guys. It was while doing that that I asked Eduardo if he thought they were ever going to bring back The Blair Witch, because it felt like it was about time. It felt like the found footage thing, including us doing V/H/S, had kind of run its course. It's like this whole, massive cycle, and it feels like it's ready for Blair Witch to return. It was kind of serendipitous that all that happened, because it was two weeks after all that happened that Lionsgate came to us and asked if we wanted to do a Blair Witch movie. It turned out it was all a good thing, and they were all very supportive. It was an interesting domino effect that came together.
After the meetings with Lionsgate at that time, did you already have the basic premise for a third Blair Witch movie or did all of that come later?
Simon: No, I didn't really have anything in my head when we had those first meetings, but it was a creative collaboration at first. Then Lionsgate gave us total, creative freedom to do more or less whatever we wanted to do as long as it was good. Initially there was a conversation with our executives there about the approach to take. They knew they wanted it to be found footage obviously, and they knew they wanted us to use the stick figures. They also said: "We think this should be a direct sequel in a character-based way." They already had it in their minds that they wanted it to be about the Heather character's younger brother, and they actually already had the name James decided on that. I couldn't see why not, you know? It's a pretty inoffensive name.
Adam: They already had the creative approach in mind that that was the way the film would be a direct link to the original thereby reminding modern audiences that might not have seen the original recently or might have never seen it what the film was about. Approaching this as fans of the original film as well as filmmakers we agreed that that was totally the right tactic to take. We felt it was respectful and interesting, and it gave us a framework more or less following the path of the original film to get wild and creative and try to create a really fun rollercoaster ride of scares. That's what we wanted as fans of the original film to have seen back in 2000, and that's what, in 2013, they hired us to start making.
What kind of research do you do for something like this beyond watching the original?
Simon: Obviously we re-watched the first film right away and we were reminded and intimidated by how authentic and incredibly real it feels, but the good news is there's a wealth of material out there about The Blair Witch Project ranging from the young adult novels, the Cade Merrill case files, the graphic novels, and the Todd McFarlane toy. Obviously Book of Shadows. Video games, which we watched. For me, and I think Adam agrees, we didn't want to reference anything that wasn't in the original film, because we wanted our film to be a companion piece to that original film where if you watch the original before or after our film it will illuminate certain things and hopefully enrich certain things.
That said - "The Blair Witch Dossier" that Dave Stern wrote and Curse of the Blair Witch, which was directed by Ben Rock, the production designer of the original Blair Witch Project, working with Eduardo and Dan both had the direct involvement and input of the original filmmakers and were based on the materials they created. I totally consider these as canon and they were hugely helpful research tools in creating the film. Everything else I did read, and if I found something funny, I'd make Adam read it, as well. Only The Blair Witch Project, the Dossier, and Curse of the Blair Witch were my main research tools.
Did a lot of your scares stay the same from when you initially came up with them or did a lot of that change once you started shooting?
Adam: I think the original draft was much gorier.
Simon: A lot less subtle in some ways, not that we've made an especially subtle movie.
Adam: We were coming off the V/H/S series, so everything was a kitchen-sink approach to found footage. We initially had to take our heads out of that, and going back to the original film again and again was the catalyst for trying to find this middle ground where it was still a thrill ride, but we weren't throwing it in your face. I think that's the main distinction we tried to make with this. As soon as you overtly show something fantastic you really start questioning more and more the actual found footage format itself. It feels less and less real the more stuff you show. We were always trying to find ways of escalating the scares as the movie goes but keeping them grounded as possible. Easier said than done, but it evolved in that way.
Simon: There was a lot of trial and error. There were definitely some scares in the first draft that Adam wasn't sure about, and all that stuff ended up getting cut out. Even when we were making the movie there was a bit of trial and error.
Adam: There were a few minor scares early in the film we ended up cutting out. We thought it was too early to be throwing the audience into it, and it made the other scares feel less authentic. We sculpted around it a bit like that, but mostly what you see is what you get in terms of production. The main trial and error in production was finding the right balance of shakiness and not shaky, finding the right style of acting that is authentic in this style within this format, while still getting all the mythology and story beats in there. There were all these challenges.
What scares each of you, and, Simon, we've seen V/H/S, so you can't say public nudity?
Simon: Clearly not. Actually it kind of does now, but truthfully I'm not scared by a whole lot. I guess I would say the thing that gets most under my skin: I'm not a huge fan of spiders. I'm not a huge fan of tight spaces as Blair Witch may indicate, and ghosts. The films that scare me the most tend to be ghost movies that have this sense of a bad feeling or a bad thing that happened that continues in some inexplicable way, because I think that is somehow true to the human condition whether or not you actually believe specifically in the paranormal. There's some metaphorical truth to it certainly in that the horror of human existence and the fact that our lives and deaths are finite, and our future is unknowable. It's the true horror that we as creatures live with every day and try to never think about, because it's hard to get through the day if you really think about it. Oh, and Ghoulies.
Simon: Yeah, the toilet Ghoulies.
Adam: For me, I grew up in this kind of small town in Alabama. This house I grew up in was built in the 1800s, and the back yard was like a cemetery. Naturally I grew up in an environment where ghosts and supernatural things were very unnerving to me, because my brothers and I dealt with it on a daily basis. Those were really the only movies that get me.
Actually, you know, I take that back. The Strangers was very scary. Home invasions are scary, and that also comes from that isolation you have in a place like Alabama where that danger is real. There's a reason people down here in the South have guns, because when you're in the country by yourself you can't call the cops and have someone there in five minutes. You have to hold it down, so there's always that inherent fear.
Thank you to both Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett for taking the time to speak with me. And thank you to Fons PR for making the interview possible.
Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett's new Blair Witch is now playing in theaters nationwide as of today, Friday, September 16th. The film was made quietly as The Woods, and premiered at Comic-Con earlier this summer, also playing at the Toronto Film Festival in Midnight Madness. Watch the first official trailer here.