Even before being tapped as director of the new “Blair Witch” sequel, Adam Wingard had already earned respect as one of the top helmers in the horror genre with films like the “V/H/S” series and “You’re Next.”
With “Blair Witch,” Wingard has taken on his first franchise after years of delivering original material, with hopes that fans of the 1999 box office sensation, as well as brand-new filmgoers, show up to theaters. Prior to its opening, Wingard spoke with Variety about the film, including how the filmmakers were able to keep the project secret for so long. Caution: There may be minor spoilers ahead.
After several original projects, why did you want to make “Blair Witch” your first branded property?
(Screenwriter) Simon (Barrett) and I had been talking for a couple of years, after doing “You’re Next,” “The Guest,” and even “A Hard Way to Die,” and felt that we needed to make a more straightforward horror film. We’re known for being horror filmmakers but we’ve never really committed to making a full-on horror movie — most of them are meta deconstructions or half-comedies, things that have horror elements or stylizations like “The Guest.”
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We felt that we were due to do one and wanted to prove we could do a straightforward horror movie, but we didn’t have a firm idea of what that was. Flash forward to 2013 and we’re about to go off and do “The Guest.” Lionsgate is about to release “You’re Next,” and we happened to be in Sundance and ran into (original “The Blair Witch Project” director) Eduardo Sanchez and (producer) Greg Hale. We happened to ask Eduardo about how the found footage thing went through a whole cycle and he felt it was time for “Blair Witch” to make its comeback as a sequel, reboot, remake, or something along those lines. It was weirdly in the air enough and we sensed something.
Two weeks later, Lionsgate called Simon and me in for this secret meeting and wouldn’t tell us what it was for. Once we showed up, they told us they had the rights to “The Blair Witch” and were interested in making a sequel with us. They had not gone out to any other filmmakers and we were the guys they were interested in, specifically because of our jump-scare driven segment in “V/H/S 2.” Instantly the nostalgia of the original film flooded back and all the mythology came to me immediately about Ruston Parks, things I haven’t thought about in years but I was immediately talking about it and the ideas I had for it, and I just wanted to make it a slightly bigger version of “The Blair Witch Project,” where the scale was a little bit bigger. It was one of those things where it was the right place at the right time — we didn’t know exactly what we wanted to do, but we knew we wanted to do something, and that ended up being “Blair Witch.”
What did you want to add more of that wasn’t in the original and conversely, what did you want to keep intact from the first film?
The main thing we wanted to keep from the original is its commitment to authenticity. The first film is a sort of sparse character study of people getting lost in the woods and there just happens to be some supernatural occurrences that get stronger as the film goes on. For me, I wanted to take that world that they had built and I wanted to take the audience on this roller coaster version of it because that’s how I felt when I saw it the first time. I’m drawing back on that nostalgia from watching it in high school and thinking what would I want to see out of this sequel that I never got. That’s a really pure thing to build a drama from as a filmmaker, that teenage thought process. You’re never going to get full ideas from it but the emotionality is almost always correct and that’s the audience you’re going for.
Since it is a found footage movie, cameras are an essential part of the storytelling since you are showing the audience the cameras. How did you decide what kind of cameras to use?
When we were gearing up in pre-production, we did a ton of tests. We tried the real Bluetooth cameras the characters wore, but unfortunately we couldn’t shoot with those, because they would look like basically a Sega CD. We knew this was the right idea, that kind of discreet approach to cameras. It took a lot of extensive testing because it was really important to me that we didn’t actually light the movie like a movie. I wanted the nighttime footage to be pure dark and that means flashlights would be a key component to the look and feel of the movie, which is a lot harder than it sounds, honestly. The flashlights that you want to use that put out the right kind of light are LED light, which means that a lot of them have a weird flicker thing on the camera’s shutter and they end up producing this pulsing pattern that’s really annoying.
So what we ended up doing was buying a ton of flashlights and a ton of different cameras and we were rigorously doing all these tests to see which ones hold up the best. For the earpiece camera, there wasn’t just one camera we used for the film, we had one that worked for nighttime — the Sony a7S which was basically the hero camera, and for daytime we had this totally bizarre camera that was a little lower res because we knew when it was daytime we didn’t want as much sharp detail. We wanted to have a more grainier and shittier look especially on sunny days so it doesn’t look too clean. The cameras you see on screen aren’t necessarily the ones we are filming with. I hate it when you are watching a movie where the characters are on the news and for some reason they shoot it with a 35mm camera or a 4K camera and they just put it on the TV as if that’s the way it would look — it always takes me out of it by putting a filter on certain things. If it’s too high quality, you’re never gonna buy it.
Are there a lot of CGI effects?
I love going on IMDb message boards and there are some hilarious things that go on there — the most negative people on the planet. I remember seeing one person’s thread complaining about when you see the witch in the film that it was the worst CGI ever created and I just go, “buddy everything you see in this film is real, there is no CGI in the movie.” The only time any kind of post effects were utilized were mainly just straightforward pan outs and a couple displays that the cameras were looking at that we had to add and that was still more takeaway then adding anything. The glitches were enhanced in post as well, but anything you see on screen is real, the gore, anything in the woods…
That thing she pulls out of her leg?
That’s really a prosthetic built over the actor’s leg and that’s her really pulling something out of it. For the most part, it’s all old-fashioned tricks just done in a new way or new perspective because of found footage.
The witch is never shown in the original — how decide whether to show her and how you wanted her to look?
The main thing that was important to me was that we couldn’t do what the original film did and have another movie where you don’t see any evidence at all of the supernatural stuff, so we knew we had to show something in this film. I knew that everyone would have an interpretation of the witch or the thing that’s out in the woods and I didn’t want to ruin that. So we tried to design a sort of Lovecraft-style thing that would hopefully hold up under scrutiny even if you are freezing the frame whenever the film is released on video and stuff.
Everyone these days is on Tumblr and you know they are making GIFs of movies and making these still-frame collections of films, so I knew someone would create a still frame thing of every shot of the witch in the film or whatever people think that is, so I wanted that to hold up.
Did you expect to be able to keep the film secret all the way up until the Comic-Con presentation?
I was completely blown away that we kept it a surprise. Simon and I were signed on to this thing since February 2013, so it’s been like three years that we have kept this thing under our hat. We haven’t even been able to say the words “Blair Witch” out loud in fear of someone picking up on it and we’re constantly looking over our shoulder at restaurants. The main thing we did to keep it secret was to never acknowledge it in any kind of way. We had it on lockdown, even at Lionsgate, about what movie we were making, but eventually some rumors leaked online. Brad Miska of Bloody Disgusting somehow caught wind of it and of course since we have a relationship with Brad from the “V/H/S” films, it looked like we leaked it, but we didn’t.
So he ended up putting this article out while we were filming, saying “The Woods” is “Blair Witch” and everyone should be excited, but the funny part is that the reaction was hilarious because everyone in the commenting section was like “Shut the hell up, Brad.” I think there were like 50 messages saying he was wrong and no one picked it up, and we also never acknowledged it. And by not acknowledging any of the rumors it ended up going away. Even now it seems that it’s an obvious choice to make this film but, say, a year ago, it would have seemed completely insane, because nobody was thinking this was going to happen anytime soon. So, long story short, the secret to keeping the secret was just not ever acknowledging that there was a even a secret.