The Blair Witch Project was truly the first film of its kind. Two directors and three actors headed into the woods with handheld cameras and a rough plot concept, and the rest was history.
It’s now been 20 years since the film was released and some odd and downright frightening secrets are being revealed…
Years in the Making
The Blair Witch Project blurred the lines between fantasy and reality. While most viewers knew it was fictional, they still weren’t so sure exactly what they were watching. Directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo SÃ¡nchez met in film school and came up with the concept beginning in 1993 and production started in 1997. For how rough it looked, the directors said that post-production and editing took two years alone.
The legend goes, that in 1785, a woman named Elly Kedward was accused of witchcraft in Blair, Md. – later Burkittsville – after she was discovered pricking the fingers of children to let their blood. She was found guilty at trial and banished to the woods, where she was tied to a tree in the dead of winter and left there. By the following winter, half the town’s children had disappeared. Kids would go missing and return saying they saw a woman whose feet never touched the ground. An old hermit was found with the bodies of seven kids in his home and said that “the old lady ghost told him to do it.” Another woman spotted a cloaked woman while fishing with her father. Stories like these led to the production of the film…
The Casting Warning
Initially, Myrick and SÃ¡nchez wrote a 35-page screenplay with no dialogue and envisioned three men to play the film’s roles. However, they met Heather Donahue, from an improv group in New York and knew she had to get on board. They posted a casting ad in Backstage Magazine for an “IMPROVISATIONAL FEATURE FILM!” referred to at the time as “The Black Hill Project.” “EXTREMELY CHALLENGING ROLES; to be shot under very difficult conditions,” the ad promised.
To find their filming instructions for the day, the actors used GPS wait points to locate milk crates with notes on where the story was going for each actor. They had to improvise the dialogue and not tell the other actors what their directions were.
Ironically, shooting wrapped on Halloween of 1997. The actors headed to a local Denny’s for their first real meal since filming began and seeing people in costumes was “very surreal.”
To make the project feel as real as possible, Donahue read about witchcraft and surviving in the woods. The filmmakers even sent the actors fake flyers advertising events in Burkittsville.
Scaring the Cast
Using GPS trackers, the filmmakers steered the actors around the woods and were out there setting up the noises, odd symbols (ie: the stick figures, the rock piles) that the actors encountered without them knowing to be able to catch their raw reactions.
The teeth in the twigs were actual human teeth and were supplied by Eduardo SÃ¡nchez’s dentist and the hair was Josh’s.
People Believed The Actors Were Dead
The studio that bought that rights to the film kept Donahue, Leonard, and Williams out of the spotlight for a while to go along with the story. People believed it so much that Donahue’s mother even received sympathy cards.
Braving the Elements
The actors slept in tents and ate less and less each day just as they would if they had truly been lost on a camping trip in the woods. When their tents were soaked from a day of rain, and they couldn’t get a hold of the directors, they made their way to the first house they found and the people were hospitable and gave them hot cocoa. That night, the actors stayed in a hotel.
The Code Word
The actors had a code word – “taco” – they used when they needed to stop being “Heather,” “Josh” and “Mike” for a minute and return to reality. It eventually just made them hungry.
Donahue, the director in the film, was the only one who knew about the legend going into it, so when they asked her things on camera about the Blair Witch, it was in earnest.
Even when the group realized they were lost in the woods, Donahue continued to film, against her friends’ wishes. She said, “I had to think, ‘What kind of woman would actually keep the camera running through horrible times?’ A normal person would have stopped filming, so I had to take that character to that extra driven edge.”
Because of the POV filming style, many moviegoers got physically ill while watching. Loews Cineplex Entertainment estimated that one person per show asked for a refund due to the shaky camerawork.
One Remains in Show Business
Josh Leonard is the only cast member who remained in showbusiness. Heather is a medical marijuana grower and Michael went back to his job as a furniture mover on the set of Late Night with Conan O’Brien.
Fans of the film swarmed to the town and vandals stole Burkittsville’s signage time and time again. The mayor of the town even awoke one night to a man standing in her living room believing there was a Blair Witch tour.
A Plot Twist
Originally Mike was supposed to disappear first, but when Josh and Heather started to fight, they had Josh go first. “That day, my note said, ‘When everybody goes to bed tonight, stay awake, and once you’re sure they’re asleep, leave the tent. If anybody wakes up, tell them you’re going to take a piss.'”
The Final Monologue
“I’m sorry to everyone. I was very naÃ¯veâ¦What is that? I’m scared to close my eyes, I’m scared to open them. We’re gonna die out here.” Heather entirely improvised her haunting final monologue, in which she acknowledges they’re probably done for (Josh is already gone) and apologizes to all of their moms for getting them into that mess.
The Final Scene
The final sequence in which Heather and Mike go in the house looking for Josh, frantically search, are briefly separated and Heather ends up finding Mike standing with his face to the wallâa foreshadowed sign that the other person in the room is about to die. The final scene was shot in a few takes, unlike the rest of the docu-style film.
A Change of Course
Originally, the film was going to be more of a “documentary” looking into the trio’s disappearance, but when they got the footage from the three actors, they decided to change course.
Nineteen Hours of Footage
Nineteen hours of footage was cut down to 90 minutes for its Sundance premiere. Another hour of footage was used in the faux documentary that ran on Syfy.
Talks of a Prequel
The original directors have talked about doing a prequel that would be set in the late 1700s.
The website for the film created an eerie realness to the whole thing. It included a timeline of events surrounding their disappearance, news interviews, fake police reports. Even after people knew it wasn’t real others thought it had really happened.
Because the film was the first of its kind, an unconventional horror flick, people started an avalanche of backlash.
The cast members went their separate ways after filming. They said the attention was overwhelming and for Donahue specifically, Sundance was as much attention as she was comfortable with. She had a hard time with people being angry with her for actually being alive.
Worst of Awards
Despite its popularity, the film was nominated for Worst Picture at the Golden Raspberry Awards and Donahue “won” the Razzie for Worst Actress. Donahue felt wrongfully attacked as a female in a film who wore no makeup and was driven, while her directors and producers won real awards and praise.
Blair Witch 2
As is typical with an unexpected blockbuster, a sequel was rushed into production and was an utter flop.
Cost and Profit
Myrick told The Guardian in 2018, that The Blair Witch Project cost about $35,000 to shoot and ended up costing about $300,000 overall to put out. Regardless of the final figure, it went on to make $248.6 million worldwide and remains one of the highest-grossing independent movies of all time, with one of the biggest-ever returns on an initial investment.
Inspiration for the Film
It’s 1980’s “Cannibal Holocaust,” about the fate of a documentary crew that’s gone missing in the Amazon, but not before they managed to film their own gory demises, is credited with the distinction of being the first found-footage movie.
The actors were paid a modest $1000 a day to film for the Blair Witch Project.
A Bone to Pick
Originally, Heather and Josh were supposed to be former lovers but the idea was scrapped. Oddly enough, tension developed between the two characters, and the directors decided to then kill off Josh first.
Sounds of the Children
Rights Were Expensive
The directors tried to get the right to use The Animals “We’ve Gotta Get Out of This Place” to play on the radio at the beginning of the film, but it was too expensive to use.
Eight Days of Shooting
No sane person would have put themselves through this for a standard filming duration, but because the Blair Witch Project was filmed in just 8 days, the three actors made it through unscathed.
Fooling the Actors
When the cast asked locals about the Blair Witch phenomenon, they all seemed to know about it. The filmmakers, though, planted these “locals” and filled them in on the supposed story.
Inspired by Hunger
The actors had food given to them every day, but the amount was reduced each day to get the actors into the moody, combative states required to tell the story…method acting at it’s finest.
Pushed Too Far
Heather was genuinely shaken up during that iconic final scene. She was really crying and hyperventilating, stressed from the filming and the actual fear.
Saving Some Money
After filming, the filmmakers actually returned one of the cameras they used to shoot the film back to a Circuit City in Maryland.
The film was marketed as a real documentary, so if your friends came home from the theater believing it to be true, the campaign worked.
In the months leading up to the release, the actors were listed as “missing, presumed dead” on IMDb.
A Bit Too Far
At the Cannes Film Festival, the filmmakers tried to stir up some buzz by plastering the Croisette with “missing” posters. This, unfortunately, took away from a real kidnapping that had occurred, and they made them take the posters down.
Scaring Away the Game
In the quaint town of Burkittsville, no one hated the intrusiveness of the film’s fans than the local hunters. The influx scared away all the game.
A New Path
Heather Donahue retired from acting after the Blair Witch and then became a professional marijuana grower. She wrote a book about it called “Growgirl.”
The actors were fed Power Bars and bananas and Williams even refused to eat at all.
The audition was unlike any other. The directors asked, “You’ve been in jail for the last nine years. We’re the parole board. Why should we let you go?” Anyone who paused for too long or stumbled was ruled out.
Josh’s disappearance in the film was welcomed by actor Joshua Leonard since there was a Jane’s Addiction concert he wanted to go see.
Blair High School
The name “Blair” came from co-director Eduardo Sanchez’s older sister’s time at Blair High School.
Gilligan’s Expensive Island
Production had to get (very expensive) rights for Heather quoting the Gilligan’s Island theme song around the campfire.
The camera that Josh uses in the film ended up selling for $10,000 on eBay after the film wrapped.
The entire dialogue of the film was improvised. The script only gave them a bit of direction and background.
The eerie story behind this character was that of a random woman the actors came across while filming who improvised her entire story about The Blair Witch. Later, the directors searched for her in order to get her to sign a release form and they were never able to locate her.
A few smaller scenes and images were shot later on and added afterward for the 1999 Sundance Film Festival. The most noteworthy addition to the story was the scene where the actors are told the story of Rustin Parr, the hermit who kidnapped and murdered eight children in the 1940s under the spell of the Blair Witch.
The three leads believed that the Blair Witch was a real legend while they were filming but they knew the film was going to be fake. Only after the movie was released did they find out that the entire mythology was made up by the film’s creators.
The directors kept in touch with Heather, Michael, and Joshua with walkie-talkies to make sure they didn’t get lost while out in the woods. Apparently, they still got lost at least three times.
In the scene where they’re sleeping in a tent and the tent suddenly shakes and scares them half to death, their reactions were actually genuine because it was unscripted. It was the director who shook the tent unbeknownst to the cast.
The film premiere on January 25th, 1999.
The Small Town
Not only did visitors flock to Burkittsville and steal signage, but they also went as far as stealing headstones in the small town’s cemetery.
The Witch was supposed to appear in The Blair Witch Project, and an actress was on set. She was intended to appear briefly in a shot when the documentarians are running through the trees, but the cameras never panned over to her. In retrospect, it’s no doubt best that the witch was never confirmed.
Sanchez and Myrick met in college and came up with the idea for The Blair Witch Project back in 1993. They were inspired by old documentaries about the occult and paranormal phenomena, which they believed were scarier than fictional horror movies.
Stars Heather O’Donohue, Joshua Leonard and Michael C. Williams actually reunited in 2014 at the Texas Frightmare convention in May.
When Heather O’Donohue screams “What the f**k is that?”, she’s actually looking at the film’s art director Ricardo Moreno dressed in white long-johns, white stockings and white pantyhose pulled over his head