1999 was a remarkable year for horror fans worldwide, as they were introduced to one of the most successful independent movies in history, The Blair Witch Project. With a scanty budget of $20-25k, the pioneer of the found footage horror technique earned more than $248 worldwide. 17 years later, it joined the legendary class of horror movies to spawn sequels, such as Friday the 13th, Halloween, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
All of those films have actually gone further than just a sequel, with several starting their own universes and crossover films. To date, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has eight movies in its franchise, Halloween has 10 films, and Friday the 13th has a whopping 12 (including the 2003 Freddy vs. Jason, a crossover with the Nightmare on Elm Street films).
Whether or not the new sequel can compare with the original still remains to be seen. But for now, how about we count down some of the most interesting facts about the production behind the phenomenon?
12. All of the film’s dialogue was improvised. Directors Dan Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez are credited with the film’s writing credit but have explained that going into production, the script was more of an outline. Clocking in at around 35 pages, the script features no dialogue whatsoever, just telling the story behind the scenes. The directors said they didn’t want to put any limitations on their actors.
11. Adding to the legend behind the film is the eerie story about the woman who tells the threesome about her own account of meeting the witch. The character was a random woman the actors came across while filming who improvised her entire story about The Blair Witch. The directors searched for the woman in order to get her to sign a release form for the film but were never able to locate her.
10. For a film with a meager budget, any form of licensing comes at a very high cost. The most expensive scene of the film was when the three sat around the campfire, and Heather recited the lyrics to the popular 60’s television show Gilligan’s Island. The production had to purchase the rights to the song in order to keep the scene in the finished film.
9. The actors stayed in character throughout the entire production. While the production team was nearby, filming and sending them notes and directions on where they would move next, the actors mainly only interacted with each other. But whenever the actors needed a break, or the production team had to be involved in some way, they used the code word ‘Taco’ to signify they were breaking from character.
8. The sounds of the children playing outside their tent came from a group that lived across the street from director Eduardo Sanchez’s mother. Tony Cora, who did the music and sound for the film, recorded them one day, playing and speaking gibberish. In order to project the sound for the actors to react to, the production had three boomboxes playing the audio outside the tent during the scene.
7. The production team had to provide a lot of props and terrifying images for the actors to see. This included setting up the cairns around their tent at night. In one scene, while running, Heather Donahue’s character yells, ‘What the fuck is that?’ at something off camera. It was art director Ricardo Moreno, dressed in white long johns and white stockings with white pantyhose pulled over his head, running alongside them.
6. In order to cultivate a tumultuous environment, the production team slowly cut down the actors’ food supply during filming. Over the eight-day shoot, their goal was to make sure the group went into the woods well-rested and fed and then slowly were forced to subsist on less sleep and less food, making them believably tired and worn from their journeys. It also made them more prone to snap at each other. When it came to the last two days, the actors were only living on a Powerbar, fruit, and water.
5. Some small scenes and images were shot after the initial filming when the film had been picked up at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival. Most notable was the scene where the actors are told the story of Rustin Parr, the hermit who kidnapped and murdered eight children in the 1940s, presumably under the spell of The Blair Witch.
4. As a part of the marketing plan for the movie when it was released, the actors were intentionally left behind from screenings and interviews in order to make their disappearances in the film more plausible. Heather Donahue said that following the film’s release and popularity, her mother ended up receiving sympathy cards from strangers who believed she actually had died.
3. Filming the entire project took place over 8 days, netting the production of around 19 hours of usable footage that then had to be edited down to 90 minutes. VHS and DVD releases of the film include some extra footage, including extended scenes with the actors drunk in a hotel room, reciting poetry. It took eight months to edit the film.
2. After the film wrapped, the camera Josh used throughout the movie, a CP-16 film camera, was sold on eBay for a whopping $10,000. Today, similar models fetch around $1,500.
1. Arguably, the film’s most iconic shot, Heather recording herself, was a fluke. When filming her terrified and phlegm-filled apology, Donahue believed she had framed the shot normally, not realizing she had zoomed in so far. Regardless of her original intention, the image went on to be used in many of the film’s marketing campaigns and even in the poster.
Now that over two decades have passed since the initial release of The Blair Witch Project, the audience is aware of the completely fictional nature of the footage. So, with that element of shock and mystery debunked, can The Blair Witch Project keep its status as one of the scariest horror movies ever?
Set in the Black Hills Forest on the outskirts of the small town of Burkittsville in Maryland, The Blair Witch Project captures the ambiance of a real place. This movie tells the story of three film students (Heather, Michael, and Joshua) who embark on a mission to create a documentary about the rumors about a town legend, the Blair Witch. The beginning of the movie finds the students documenting stories from townspeople and eyewitness testimonies of unusual events, such as the mysterious disappearance of a little girl in the nearby forest.
What gives the documentary its unique appeal is the realistic nature of the location and acting, with many improvised lines and a deliberate downgrade in quality for a grainier appearance of the footage. The creators put special efforts into making the premise of three students’ adventure going awry look as authentic as possible. For that purpose, they added scenes where even the actors felt genuine fear. Yes, you’ve read it right - the actors were sometimes unaware of the directors’ decisions in order to showcase an authentic level of shock. Before joining the set, the three main actors had to sign waivers agreeing to go through the eventual psychological trauma of filming this movie.
Although the main actors played fictionalized versions of themselves, the directors used their real names for the sake of authenticity. Furthermore, they improvised their dialogues so that the scenes appear alarmingly natural. While filming the movie, the actors really got lost in the forest three times, and the crew reduced their daily food intake to create confusion, agitation, and frustration among them.
As a part of their efforts to frame the project like an actual documentary, the creators went out of their way to develop a website outlining details about Heather, Mike, and Joshua’s project. To increase the tension and anticipation, they told the leading trio that the townspeople truly believed in the legend of the Blair Witch, when in reality, they entirely made up the story and hired actors to play the locals.
So, upon the initial release of The Blair Witch Project, a large part of the audience really believed that this documentary depicted real-life events. The thought of real young people experiencing the horrifying events in question is what made the movie an instant success.
Even today, the legend remains so well-developed that people who have never heard of the movie might believe it was based on an authentic myth about the witch. The eyewitness accounts of supernatural events are endowed with such ambiguity that people could assume that something out of the ordinary indeed happened there. At the very least, the story still prompts viewers to check whether the film is based on a true story on Google.