(Spoiler alert! Although I doubt people would read a review of the commentary before seeing the movie itself, but just in case….)
Odds are that you closed your eyes at some point during The Blair Witch Project, the only question is whether it was from fear, shaky-cam induced nausea, or both. Either way, people opened their wallets to see as much of co-writers/directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s indie horror film as they could stomach, turning it into one of the surprise hits of 1999.
Although the shaky camerawork produced by hand-held cameras had a long history by the time The Blair Witch Project was released, its use in the context of an extremely low-budget horror mockumentary was perhaps unique. Its success attracted a lot of attention in the film industry, and the stylistic influences of recent films such as Cloverfield, Paranormal Activity, Chronicle, and District 9 can be traced back to The Blair Witch.
Almost 15 years after its release, the raw power of this little film is undiminished. The film’s limitations work in its favour. The rough quality of the images is reminiscent of the home movies that we all have stored in a box or on a hard drive somewhere. Shot almost entirely in the woods, the cars, fashions, and “modern” technologies that can make a movie feel dated even ten years later are kept to a bare minimum. The use of relatively unknown actors also keeps the viewer focused on the characters rather than being distracted by the personal life of a big-name star.
The DVD audio commentary provides some details about how the performances were shaped by the filmmakers and the experience itself, but overall the commentators waste an opportunity to provide some insight into the process of making a low-budget film. Nevertheless, unless the woods themselves become a relic of the past (which increasingly seems like a distinct and disturbing possibility) The Blair Witch Project might end up aging better than its bigger-budget descendants.
00:02:30 – In this scene, the actors are really buying the food for the actual shoot. The filmmakers thought the money would last three days, but the actors spent it all on this shop. (The joys of low-budget filmmaking: take a look at the cart, it’s only half full!)
00:05:08 – This scene was totally ad-libbed, and the woman is not a professional actor.
00:07:40 – The set decoration in this scene was done by Patricia DeCou, who plays Mary Brown, and it’s her actual house. DeCou got involved after the filmmakers posted flyers at Montgomery Community College looking for interns; she was the only person who responded to the ads. (She must be a supporter of life-long learning.)
00:10:30 – The actors are actually hammered in this scene.
00:14:00 – Does life imitate art, or art imitate life? Either way, the actors really did get lost in the woods for an hour.
00:14:45 – Flexibility is key in low-budget filmmaking. In the script, this was Hunter’s Ridge, but the filmmakers couldn’t find a ridge. When they found this location, they renamed the location Coffin Rock.
00:19:00 – The actors really did shit in the woods for the whole six-day shoot. That’s dedication.
00:32:40 – To let the actors know that they were doing something that wasn’t part of the world of the film and wasn’t meant to be recorded, the filmmakers used a codeword: “taco.”
00:38:10 – In terms of both the characters and the actors, Mike was the only one that knew he’d kicked the map into the creek and was waiting for a moment to release this information.
00:40:05 – Mike told the filmmakers that he’d played for the farm team of the New York Yankees. It wasn’t true, but the lie was given credibility when it was included in the press kits.
00:41:35 – The first cut of the film was two and a half hours long.
00:42:30 – Random Star Wars connection: the filmmakers nicknamed this giant stick man “Chewbacca.”
00:45:18 – The sounds of the kids in the woods are actually sound recordings of children which the filmmakers played on boom boxes outside the tent.
00:46:00 – To make sure the actors didn’t run into a tree or lose an eye, the filmmakers had to mark out a trail for the actors to follow while running through the woods at night.
00:48:45 – The “slime” on their gear is actually KY jelly.
00:50:15 – Josh’s comments about the camera providing an escape from reality were his own invention, but they also provide a necessary explanation for Heather’s decision to keep filming through all this.
00:52:45 – This scene, and the line about walking south all day and still ending up back at the same spot, was intended to question whether the characters are just lost or if there is something supernatural going on.
00:59:05 – The filmmakers left a note in Josh’s canister that told him to wait until the other actors were asleep then sneak out of the tent, but apparently he either didn’t find it or fell asleep himself, because after waiting a while in the cold they finally had to whisper for him to come out.
01:01:08 – By this point, each day the actors were only given a Powerbar, an apple, and water.
01:13:45 – The filmmakers found this house in the woods, but it needed a lot of work before it was ready for the film. Graffiti had to be removed, handprints had to be added, and some of the floors had to be reinforced.
01:16:00 – Careful sound design helped to make this scene work. Josh’s voice was pre-recorded and played on boom boxes. To increase the tension, the wind subtly picks up as Mike runs downstairs.
Blair Witch Project (1999) | Written & Directed by Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sánchez | Starring Heather Donahue, Michael Williams, Joshua Leonard | Commentary by Robin Cowie (producer), Daniel Myrick (co-writer, co-director), Eduardo Sánchez (co-writer, co-director), Gregg Hale (producer), Michael Monello (co-producer) | DVD release date: 2007 (special edition)