Fresh Blood

The left-field, ultra-low-budget The Blair Witch Project scares us in a way that Hollywood's forgotten

The idea for the witch and her legend also took shape. Myrick explains: "We asked ourselves, 'Well, if they're gonna be out in the woods filming, what are they filming? What's their motivation?' So we came up, originally, with some kind of cult in the woods, and it evolved into this legend of a witch."

And once they were dealing with a legend that dated back through the centuries, they knew they had to get out of Florida, with its transient population and reputation for leisured retirement. They had to find an older, spookier state. As Sanchez puts it, "There's not a lot of witch stuff in Florida."

Myrick and Sanchez took about a year to audition close to 2,000 people for the film's three roles, looking for people who complemented each other. It was their first major investment in their idea. Instead of asking the actors to read a monologue, they had them improvise: The actors became prisoners pleading to a parole board, plumbers facing angry homeowners with overflowing toilets, gymnasts giving pert, chipper interviews after scoring perfect 10s.

And instead of making the female lead a big-breasted sex symbol--always the first to get killed in a slasher film--they looked for a woman of determination. The female lead--they called her Jane in the original script, but in the film itself she is called by her real name, as are the other actors--was important: She heads the expedition and bears the most psychological pressure, since she has to reassure the others when things go wrong. Originally, they wanted what Myrick calls a "Joan of Arc character . . . strong and noble." But they were convinced by the Captain Ahab-like glint they saw in Heather Donahue's eye, which suggested that she could go down with her ship. "She could really go further," Sanchez recalls. "She could go somewhere normal people couldn't go."

The film's shooting was as unorthodox as the casting. Blair Witch had no script--just a set of situations against which Donahue and the other doomed "students," Joshua Leonard and Michael Williams, could improvise. (Originally East Coasters, Donahue and Leonard now live in L.A., while Williams remains in New York. All three have more experience onstage than in film; for all three, Blair Witch will be their theatrical film debuts. Artisan has decided to shield the actors from the press and turned down requests for interviews.)

Early in the movie, before the three students head into the woods, they speak to a few locals about the legend of the Blair witch. ("It actually sounds kinda familiar," a young waitress says. "My older sister went to Blair High School.") Many of these extras, including a woman who holds a baby and is pretty sure she saw a documentary about the Blair witch "on the Discovery Channel or something," are nonactors who weren't in on the film's conceit.

In some ways, the actors weren't, either. "We wouldn't give them any more information than they needed to know," says Myrick. Each plot twist took them as much by surprise as it does the audience. Instead of being handed scripts, the actors were given a rough, two-day course on how to shoot video and were sent into the woods to eat, sleep, hike and film everything in sight. Their contracts said they'd be harassed and scared but not put in any real danger.

The actors were trained by Gregg Hale, the film's producer and a veteran of the Army Survival School. (Another graduate of UCF, Hale, like Myrick and Sanchez, is part of a five-member creative collective in Orlando called Haxan Films, whose members all contributed to Blair Witch.) Years ago, while serving in the Army Special Forces as a way to make money for his filmmaking career, Hale had been through a rigorous process called SERE--Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape. This training required him to hide by day and hike by night for four days. After being deprived almost entirely of food and sleep, he recalls, "It began to get blurry as to what was real and what wasn't real."

This kind of training, Hale realized, could lead to the ultimate method acting. When he called the actors to tell them they got the parts, he explained the ground rules: "You are gonna be cold, you are gonna be hungry. We are gonna fuck with you, mercilessly."

In the course of shooting, which took place in October of '97, the actors wore Global Positioning Systems headsets that kept them on track and responded to directing notes left in baskets along the way. Only once did the actors break out of character and flee their positions--after losing radio contact with the filmmakers and enduring almost 24 straight hours of cold autumn rain. They ended up at the house of a sympathetic older couple who gave them shelter and dried their clothes. Confounded, the filmmakers searched the woods for them. "We came to this house," remembers Hale, "and they're inside sipping cocoa."

The editing, in which 20 hours of film were boiled down to 87 minutes, took eight months. It was not only more time-consuming but far more expensive than the shoot itself. Myrick, luckily, had landed a gig editing in-house videos for Planet Hollywood, and he made enough to lease editing gear. Still, the process was costly, and the filmmakers weren't sure if they'd come up with a tale of chilling terror or outrageous humor.

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