Eduardo Sánchez, the man who redefined modern horror (and independent filmmaking) with 1999’s game-changer, “The Blair Witch Project,” has just returned from his latest trip to the woods. His upcoming thriller, “Exists,” is an unabashed creature feature about Bigfoot that utilizes in-camera effects from Spectral Motion’s Mike Elizalde (“Hellboy”), rather than opt for tiresome digital trickery. It’s an old school technique fueled by fresh invention, but according to Sánchez, that sort of formula is a hard sell in Hollywood these days.
His latest effort, “A Ride in the Park,” is a gleefully grotesque short co-directed by Gregg Hale that serves as a segment in Brad Miska’s “V/H/S/2,” a superior sequel to last year’s found footage horror anthology. Typical of most recent indies, it has been released on VOD well before its limited theatrical engagements, but is guaranteed to satisfy more horror fans than most of this season’s mainstream offerings. In this exclusive interview, Sánchez reflects on his success with “Blair Witch,” tackling the considerable challenges of “V/H/S/2,” and why it’s increasingly difficult for films like “Exists” to find a home in Hollywood.
Q: Were there certain filmmakers who inspired you to break into indie filmmaking?
A: I read Spike Lee’s first two books religiously, and the work of people like Robert Rodriguez and Kevin Smith inspired me. My friends and I had already been trying to make feature films for a while. I made two features before “Blair Witch” that never went anywhere, so we were already in that low-budget indie mode. I was one of the first guys in Maryland, other than John Waters and Barry Levinson, to take up that mantle in the ’90s. Back in ’96, “Blair Witch” was the best idea we had for a low-budget movie. We weren’t expecting the film to go theatrical. If we could get a cable or DVD deal, we would make enough money to get the next film made. That’s what we were looking for.
Q: I don’t think the actors in “Blair Witch” get enough credit, considering how they improvised their dialogue and operated their own cameras.
A: They’re all smart actors, and I agree that they didn’t get enough credit. They brought this crazy concept that [co-director] Daniel Myrick and I had to life. It took a long time to cast those three roles. It was interesting how the actors took our direction and made it their own. Most of the moments in “Blair Witch” were planned, but the actors were able to expand on them in an amazing way. The most satisfying moments in that film are the ones that I hadn’t dreamt up. We were literally watching those moments unfold as the audience would, because we weren’t around to shoot them. Some were completely outside of the scope that we had established, which was part of the plan. The most important thing that I learned from making “Blair Witch” is that sometimes the best directing is not directing, and staying the hell out of the way to let the people you’ve hired do their work.
Q: By putting the mythology of the Blair Witch into the accompanying faux documentary, “The Curse of the Blair Witch,” as well as the hugely successful website, it prevented the film itself from being bogged down in exposition, and allowed it to be a lot more organic. Your website subsequently served as a marketing model for countless indie filmmakers.
A: For us, it was the only way to do it. We started the website in ’98. I knew a little bit about website design from a previous job, so it was my job to build it. We had no money and it seemed like a good idea to put up a website for 15 bucks a month. Let’s just put up the info and see if people come, and luckily, a lot of them did. Once we sold at Sundance, [our distributor] Artisan saw the pragmatic nature of our viral marketing, and came up with the idea of reestablishing the site and putting up new sections every couple of weeks. They took what we were doing and made it bigger.
We tried to frame the story like a real documentary. The movie was originally going to be an amalgam of “Curse of the Blair Witch” and “The Blair Witch Project,” but it didn’t work out that way. We realized pretty quickly that the footage we had shot [in the woods] could work as a standalone movie. Artisan asked what we could do for a TV show, and we came up with the idea of utilizing the documentary footage we shot—such as interviews with “family members”—and they were completely up for it. It was a perfect moment for us and Artisan. They just had a pretty big success with “Pi” the year before, and they were ready to take risks. In the current market, there aren’t really any artisans around anymore. Everyone wants the same crap that the studios are making. It’s a tough time right now for indie filmmakers to get their stuff out into the mainstream. The web was the right size for us when we made “Blair Witch.” It was a perfect storm in many different aspects.
Q: How did you get involved in the “V/H/S” franchise?
A: I hadn’t seen the first one when I was first approached about the sequel. I knew that it was getting a lot of buzz, and since it was found footage, every article about it mentioned “Blair Witch.” I met [“V/H/S” creator] Brad Miska at SXSW when we were screening “Lovely Molly,” and he asked if I had any interest in making a film for him. I didn’t want to be the weak link in the movie, and have people think that they let the old guy in for his honorary lifetime achievement just because he happened to start the whole [genre]. Once [screenwriter] Jamie Nash came up with the idea, I immediately pictured it in my head, and thought it would be really fun and unique. My partner, Gregg Hale, ended up co-directing it with me and it was a great experience all around. But at the same time, there was this pressure to make a movie that would excite a new generation of moviegoers, while sort of competing with filmmakers who are younger and doing some of the most creative work that’s out there right now. A bar was set that made Jamie, Gregg and I realize that we had to make the best film we could.
Q: It must’ve been mightily challenging to capture such well-framed shots with a GoPro camera attached to the lead actor’s bike helmet.
A: We were basically using the actor’s head as a tripod for the camera. [laughs] Our star, Jay Saunders, was a great force on the set. He never complained, and he knew early on what kind of movie this was—the fact that he wasn’t going to have much screen time and his main function was going to be that of a cameraman. It’s a lot of trial and error. You’ve got to keep it formulated and structured, but at the same time, you have to make it feel like it’s spontaneous. We would do enough takes where we knew we had variety. We would work out the angles as we went along and figure out where we would cut and what marks we had to hit. The actor would go through the scene hitting all of his marks, and then we’d go back and ask him to lower his head a bit more or stick on this [image] a bit longer before he turned. We had to choreograph the cameraman, and sometimes, our DP [Stephen Scott] would strap the camera on and do a scene himself. I had just wrapped “Exists” a month before, and we were working a lot with head-mounted cameras and shoulder-mounted cameras, so I brought a lot of that experience to this film.
The whole challenge of first person is that you need to feed enough elements into it in order to make it satisfying. “Blair Witch” inadvertently takes on a three-act structure, but if it were released today, it wouldn’t do as well because audiences are expecting to see Hollywood moments in found footage films. As a filmmaker, you end up fighting two sides of your brain. I’m having the same challenge while editing “Exists.” How much character development do you allow in, how much do you leave out, what’s the balance of scripted and unscripted moments that you must strike in order to keep it fresh? The prime directive in “Blair Witch” was to make it seem as real as possible. With “Exists,” I’m not trying to convince anyone that the events onscreen really happened. It frees you in a certain way, but at the same time, it traps you because you have to deliver certain things and can’t deliver them in the same way that a normal film does.
Q: I think it just comes down to an audience’s investment in the characters. Your “V/H/S” segment does that in a matter of seconds by establishing the protagonist’s relationship with his girlfriend, which brings an added layer of tension to all that follows.
A: That was important to us. When you’re limited to a certain amount of running time in an anthology movie, it’s really difficult to get the audience to make any kind of emotional attachment to the characters. But honestly, to a certain extent, that’s kind of what an anthology is all about. It’s about getting your hit and moving on to the next thing, and I think that’s why “V/H/S/2” works better than the first “V/H/S.” It’s a lot shorter and each film is more guided. There isn’t much meandering in any of them. As for “Exists,” we’re trying to figure out how to get the audience invested in the characters without devoting a half-hour to simply hanging out with them. “Jaws” is one of the great movie classics, but I wonder how it would do coming out now. It’s a different audience.
Lucas and Spielberg were absolutely right at their USC appearance when they said that the industry is changing. It’s easier than ever to make a film, distribute it and put it up on YouTube, but it’s harder than ever to break into the mainstream Hollywood world. Even as an established filmmaker, it’s very difficult. They just want the same crap. They want the same kind of superhero movies and the same kind of horror movies. I like superhero movies as much as the next guy, but I just can’t take a new superhero movie every week. Even though there’s as much fandom for those movies as there ever has been, there is a growing disinterest in the Hollywood output.
Movies like “V/H/S/2” definitely aren’t made in the Hollywood vein, but they do get an audience, and that audience is really hungry for stuff like this. The biggest problem that people have with [mainstream] horror right now is that it doesn’t challenge audiences anymore. If a movie is challenging at all, it goes right to VOD. That’s just the way it is. They’re not going to chance millions of dollars in distribution costs and marketing costs to send a movie to theaters if they don’t have all those boxes checked off. A movie like “Blair Witch” would not be released today. If it got distribution at all, it would go straight to VOD, and that would be the end of it. That’s sort of what Lucas and Spielberg were talking about. There’s very little innovation anymore.
Q: Has the competition of online entertainment caused studios to simply hammer profitable ideas into the ground rather than take risks? The “Paranormal Activity” franchise is a perfect example, since it has so strayed so far from the original, marvelous vision of creator/director Oren Peli.
A: They can’t help it. It’s funny because I know Oren Peli and he feels exactly the same way about it. Though he only directed the first film, he’s led the way through the sequels, and they’ve brought him a lot of money. Honestly, I think that it has more to do with the corporate structure of the studios and television networks. The best shows are on HBO because once they decide to air your show, they seem to leave you alone. They trust the filmmakers. Obviously getting in is very difficult because they’re the Rolls Royce of television networks, but once they give you the green light, they leave you alone. They supervise and make sure everything is running smoothly, but that’s it. Sometimes they hit and sometimes they miss, but when they hit, they hit in really unique ways.
The studios can’t do that because there’s a hierarchy of jobs and people don’t want to make bad decisions because bad decisions get you fired. If a movie fails, it’s harder to blame someone if they played by the rules. We developed a couple shows with networks, and we got to know some of the most successful guys in the industry, and none of them want to do network shows anymore. Unless you have the clout of a J.J. Abrams, they don’t leave you alone. They don’t trust the filmmakers because their jobs depend on these things succeeding, and it’s the same thing with movies. If they look at a movie and they can’t check off certain boxes, then the marketing department doesn’t sign off on it.
Nobody in Hollywood knows what’s going to hit, but their jobs depend on this alchemy of knowing what will succeed. But now, nobody has a 100 percent track record. The inherent business model of television and film is falling apart, but there is a new system coming in, so it’s just a matter of making it work.
“The Blair Witch Project” will be screened on the first night of Indie Outlook creator Matt Fagerholm’s six-week microbudget film class, “Beyond Mumblecore: The DIY Generation,” on Monday, July 15th, at Facets, with guest filmmaker Spencer Parsons (“Saturday Morning Mystery”) in attendance. For more info, visit the official Facets site.
“V/H/S/2” screens at midnight on Friday, July 19th and Saturday, July 20th at the Music Box Theatre. It is also available On Demand.