‘Blair Witch’ director visits Winchester

Eduardo Sanchez

In the summer of 1999, a small fake documentary found-footage film called “The Blair Witch Project” took many moviegoers by storm, causing a nationwide phenomenon.

Carrying a cost of around $60,000, “The Blair Witch Project” defied conventional wisdom by grossing more than $140 million domestically, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com.

Eduardo Sanchez, co-director of the film, visited the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Winchester on Wednesday night for a live director’s commentary screening of the film and a question-and-answer session with fans.

Alamo Executive Director Steve Nerangis organized the screening in conjunction with local film groups Film Club 3.0, Psycho Cinema and the Virginia Independent Horror Film Festival.

Prior to the screening, Sanchez noted that this was the first time he had seen the finished film “in quite some time” before Wednesday’s event.

“After you finish a film, you’ve been with it for so long that you … don’t wanna see it ever again,” he said, “The problem is that right when you’re sick of it, is when you have to start talking about it.”

The film has become a phenomenon since its July 31, 1999, release, influencing countless found-footage films and altering the state of the horror genre.

During the commentary, Sanchez provided audience members with various tidbits and behind-the-scenes facts about the film’s production.

For instance, Sanchez noted that two of the film’s leads – Heather Donahue and Joshua Leonard – were actually at odds during the shoot of the film.

“They really disliked each other,” He said, “Half of our job when we were editing the movie [was]  just to take some of the fighting that they were doing out of the movie.”

Sanchez also explained that the film was largely improvised acting from the stars, based on vague, secret and ambiguous directing notes they all received.

During the forest shots, Sanchez and the crew would be out of sight with walkie-talkies in   hand in case the actors needed help.

Sanchez and company were also responsible for all of the mysterious nighttime “happenings” that terrorized the characters throughout the film. The actors themselves had very little clue as to what was going to happen before a large portion of the plot’s twists and turns.

As a result, Sanchez noted that a good amount of the on-screen screams, anger and overall terrified reactions were, on some level, genuine emotions from the actors.

Sanchez said that one the actors, Michael C. Williams, told him later that “the shooting creeped him out” and that he did not have to pretend to be scared too much during portions of the film’s guerilla-style shoot.

While the pseudo-documentary approach appeared to have been very effective, “The Blair Witch Project” is also known for its innovative viral Internet marketing campaign, which was unheard of at the time.

The level of detail in the campaign – parts of which can still be viewed at BlairWitch.com – included fake newscasts, police reports, eyewitness accounts and a fake documentary using cut film footage called “The Cure of the Blair Witch.”

While it was a novel idea, Sanchez said they simply viewed the website in particular as an affordable way to market the film for a whopping $15 a month.

These tactics were so convincing at the time that many people thought it was real. Sanchez noted that they were even contacted by a detective from New York “wondering why he couldn’t find any records of the kids.”

“We based the whole movie on a documentary so we wanted the foundation of the movie to be as real as possible,” Sanchez said, adding, “We wanted there to be nothing on the screen that showed that it was a movie.”

Winchester resident Paul Peters attended the screening and said that his daughter Jessica was a senior at Parkview High School in Annandale at the time and believed that the “Blair Witch” mythology to be real.

“They kept trying to convince my wife and I it was true, it was just crazy,” Peters said, noting that he, too, saw the film and didn’t believe that it was true.

“It was great, because it was one of those things that you kind of got excited as it moved along,” Peters added. “It was fun … everyone was absolutely frightened and knew it was true.”

On the response they received from the film and the viral marketing, Sanchez said, “We love the fact that the movie is only part of the experience.”

At the end of the question-and-answer session, Sanchez said, “I feel very blessed to have been a part of this movie, it gave me a career … I appreciate you guys coming out and listening to my ramblings.”

Contact staff writer Kevin Green at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kgreen@nvdaily.com