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A bewitching project

Eduardo Sanchez is working as a bartender and Dan Myrick is driving a blueprint truck and they're out of film school in Florida and going nowhere fast, and Ed says, "We've got that woods movie. We gotta do that woods movie." Nothing else was happening for them.

Ed made a movie named "Gabriel's Dream" in 1991. "It was a financial and emotional nightmare," he says. Unfortunately, that described his experience, not the plot. Nothing else had panned out. "But every time Dan and I would pitch the woods movie, people would be like, intrigued."

And so they made the woods movie. For the cost of a new car.

"A normal new car," Ed says.

"Not a Masaratti," says Dan.

"The average new car," Ed says. "What's the average fairly good new car cost now?"

"Twenty grand?" I ask.

"Ballpark," Ed says.

They get two cameras. One is a 16mm with synch sound. The other two are RCA Hi8 camcorders.

"Just a consumer grade $500 camera," Ed says.

"From Circuit City," Dan says. "We bought two and returned one of them."

"That cut our budget in half," says Ed.

This was their plan. They would make a fake documentary about three young filmmakers walking into the Black Hills Forest of Maryland in search of the legendary Blair Witch. The entire movie would consist of footage allegedly shot by the three characters. The movie would open with the information that all three disappeared in the woods, but "a year later, their footage was found."

The result is "The Blair Witch Project" and is both (a) footage that looks like it was shot by three people wandering around in the woods with two cheap cameras, and (b) the hottest independent film of the year, a surprise hit at Sundance and Cannes, and a hit with preview audiences because, yes, it is convincing and scary.

If "Blair Witch" looks like it was really shot by the three people in the movie, that's because it really was.

"The actors were actually the camera operators," Dan told me. This was last May at the Cannes Film Festival.

"And we shot it all in real time," Ed said. We were sitting in the gardens of the Grand Hotel, a long way from bartending and blueprint trucks.

How did you find the actors? I asked.

"We auditioned for over a year," Dan said. "We found Mike Williams, Joshua Leonard and Heather Donahue, and we told them the film was gonna be in an entirely improvised environment. Brett Hale, our producer, helped set up the logistics of the system. We set them loose in the woods, with a Global Positioning System [an inexpensive portable computing device that uses a satellite signal to pinpoint a position on a map]. We had our own GPS handset. That enabled us to rendezvous with the actors in the woods without having to interact with them, so they could remain in character."

They made up the movie as they went along?

"We told Heather, 'This is your house, this is your room. Ad-lib an intro to the documentary you are making.' And from then on everything was real time."

"When they arrived at a restaurant," Ed said, "we had actors planted in the restaurant, but they didn't know who was an actor and who wasn't. We just had them interview whoever they wanted to, asking the locals what they'd heard about the Blair Witch. Some of the people they chose were our actors."

You had the luxury of being able to burn hours and hours of film, I said, because it was costing you nothing.

"Once they were in the woods," Dan said, "every two or three hours or so, we'd give them directing notes. Each of them got their own notes and they couldn't show them to each other."

"We had a base camp," Ed said, "and we could get in radio contact with them. We shadowed them as they went through the woods and then we reviewed the tapes at each checkpoint. They'd find a cache with script notes and fresh batteries, and leave their footage. And then they would go back to their tent and get back into character again and just be lost; be out there..."

He grinned. "And then, at night, they go to sleep and at three in the morning they start hearing weird noises and they wake up..."

"It's us, running around the tent," Dan said. "They react to that and then we sneak away and in the morning they find the little rock piles, the arrangements of twigs, the omens."

"They had no idea what was coming," said Ed. "Their prime directive was to shoot everything, to roll film on everything that's weird or whatever."

The actors had no idea how long they would be wandering around in the woods, the directors said. Sometimes only one of them was provided with information about a scene, and the others just reacted.

Other times, only one had directions. Sometimes they were really lost.

"We had a pretty detailed outline," Ed said, "but a lot of the moments in the film, there was no way we could have scripted them."

The real name of the forest area they used was Seneca Creek State Park. Walkie-talkies were used for mayday situations; the code word was "bulldozer" if someone broke an ankle or fell in a well.

In making a fake documentary, they said, they paid a lot of attention to details. Many fake docs are all too obviously faked, and experienced viewers can spot the fakery, particularly when the camera always seems to be in the right place at the right time; in real life, cameramen can't always anticipate the next development.

"The whole goal was to avoid convenient cutaways," Ed said. "There's no pre-shot of them walking through the woods. Sometimes events happen and the camera is in the wrong place. Things happen offscreen. "

"Like the scene where there's a noise outside the tent," Dan said. "When the camera comes on, the scene has already started. They would have been asleep when the noise first occurred."

They said they liked pseudo-documentaries like the Big Foot movie, and the 'In Search Of...' programs with Leonard Nimoy.

"We went back and kinda re-examined all those documentaries and they still creeped us out, even as adults," Dan said. "Then we started talking about the theory that the edits in those films killed the realism--killed the horror. When they cut a certain way, you know it's fiction. We came up with the idea of making a film that feels completely real."

"Where the camera's not conveniently in the right place," Ed said. "In the fake films, you'll see a guy anticipating something before it happens. You used to be able to fool people that way, but today, with all the cop shows showing real footage of arrests, and with everyone owing a camcorder, people are more sophisticated."

For the same reason, the film never says definitely whether there's a witch or not. The ending, frightening as it is, is ambiguous. As I was walking out of the Sundance screening at midnight, people assured me it was a "real" documentary. When I disagreed, they said they'd "heard" it was, or remembered reading in a paper about the disappearance of the three documentarians. Thus do urban legends bloom; everybody knows a "friend" who is the source of the story.

"The explanation could be supernatural," Dan said. "Things are just inexplicable enough to leave that open to interpretation. But we don't just show you or tell you. That would be a disappointment. I think people's own conception of the boogie man is much scarier than anything we could have shown on the screen."

"Yeah," said Ed. "This is a monster that still lives in your brain as you leave the theater."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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