We’ve all fantasized about making sequels to our favorite movies. That’s why when they actually happen, they’re usually a letdown. Nothing can live up to our expectations. However, for Adam Wingard, he actually got to make his teenage dream happen. He got to make Blair Witch.
Opening Friday, it’s the third film in a franchise that started with the groundbreaking 1999 smash, The Blair Witch Project. It takes places 14 years after the events of that film and follows the story much closer than its first sequel, Blair Witch: Book of Shadows. The film follows the brother of Heather Donahue (the girl at the center of the original movie) who believes his sister is still alive. He and a documentary team then go into the woods to explore.
“I was obsessed with The Blair Witch Project when it first came out,” Wingard told us on the phone from the Toronto Film Festival. “I bought it on VHS and watched it like six times in three days because every time I watched it I would swear I saw something else lurking in the darkness. Then I’d cross reference that with different online message boards and stuff and it was really fun.”
Eventually that early obsession faded and Wingard went on to make genre movies himself, such as You’re Next, segments in V/H/S, The ABCs of Death, and more. During that time he, like a lot of us, convinced himself The Blair Witch Project wasn’t as good as he remembered.
“After its initial run, all the other found footage movies started popping up,” Wingard said. “For me, The Blair Witch Project started feeling a little bit less special because I started looping it in with a fad.” But that’s when he and writer Simon Barrett got called into Lionsgate and asked if they wanted to make a Blair Witch sequel.
“Instantly I recalled all the useless information I’d looked up online,” Wingard said. “It was all flooding back to me. And I remembered what I wanted out of a sequel growing up. So I had this kind of advantageous outlook where I had this pure teenager, ‘What I wish a Blair Witch Sequel Would Be’ feeling still inside of me. So my immediate reaction was ‘Yes, we really want to do this.’ This is the perfect movie for us to try our hand at.”
It was at this point when, for the first time in a decade, Wingard watched The Blair Witch Project again. “I was blown away,” he said, “It’s still the best and most realistic found footage movie in my opinion. They just nailed it with their commitment towards realism.”
Suddenly, Wingard knew a sequel would have a high bar to clear. More importantly, he’d never made a movie that presented itself as being “real” a la found footage, meaning he’d need to, which posed a major problem. So he not only had to completely change his style, but he had to try to innovate in a genre that’s been so well-explored that many people—himself included—had dismissed the film that originally inspired it.
“All my other movies, especially The Guest and You’re Next, were very music reliant with a lot of slow-motion,” Wingard said. “So going into this and not being able to be inspired by music or incorporate that into the film, it really took me out of my comfort zone.”
The advantage Wingard had over other filmmakers was the 17 years of found footage movies that had come out since The Blair Witch Project. Out of those he took note of what worked, what didn’t, what major throughlines had to be used, and which could be avoided.
“The main experience you get from [found footage films] is they’re still kind of riffing on the documentary format,” he said. “But once you commit to that it means the characters are usually holding the cameras with their hands and when their lives are in peril and they’re still filming and framing shots, it takes you out of it as an audience.”
This conceit was the heart of the original Blair Witch Project, however, if not the entire found footage genre, which the movie pioneered. So, in Wingard’s mind, the sequel needed to utilize it in some manner.
“Obviously, we have to start this as a documentary,” he said. “This is a Blair Witch film and, at least for this sequel, we have to acknowledge and reset it in that kind of Force Awakens way. You’re not remaking it but you’re getting back to the nostalgic basics that made it good again. But it was important to me that the film shifts as it goes.”
The question then became, “How much should it change?” In earlier versions of the script, Wingard admits things got way more gruesome. At one point the movie was more “creature feature” than Blair Witch, and featured people mutating. “We strayed away from that, ultimately, because when you see stuff like that you’re immediately in movie land and there’s no turning back. Plus that’s not what Blair Witch is about,” he said.
So Blair Witch starts where you’d expect. The typical, hand-held, shaky cam, documentary style. But as things get scarier and scarier, the movie becomes something else.
“We slowly shift away from that into more of a POV experience where the characters are almost exclusively filming the movie through their Bluetooth earpiece cameras, which are just always rolling,” Wingard said. “In a way, it’s a more of a hassle for the characters to stop filming than it is to continue filming. So that takes care of that logic puzzle and allows you to immerse yourself even more and empathize with the characters because you’re literally seeing things from their point of view. I hope that’s the kind of evolution that I’m pushing with found footage, more into this POV direction. We’re not the first ones, but we may be the first ones to do it quite as aggressively.”
In addition to Bluetooth earpiece cameras, there are all kinds of modern technologies in Blair Witch. GPS, drones, and camera phones not only give the film a modern take, they help justify its existence.
“In a weird way, the technology answers the question of ‘why now?’” Wingard explained. “The ‘why now ‘of it all is that technology is at a new point where you can reexplore Blair Witch in a new way from a new perspective.”
This is exactly what the original film did for Wingard as a filmmaker. Growing up in rural Alabama, he clearly remembers first hearing about The Blair Witch Project on Entertainment Tonight when it premiered at Sundance—and realizing that these filmmakers did the impossible. They had a good idea, a little money, and made a film that was grossing hundreds of millions of dollars.
“It opened my eyes in a lot of ways,” Wingard said. “It was an extremely inspirational cornerstone for me in terms of my indie film background. It was the film that said anything is possible. All you have to do is have solid ideas and the drive to do it, and it can happen.”