Interview: 'Blair Witch' Director Adam Wingard & Writer Simon Barrett On Reinventing A Horror Legend For 2016

Director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett have become two of the most exciting new voices in horror over the past five years with films like A Horrible Way to Die, You're Next, and The Guest (as well as memorable segments in both VHS movies and The ABCs of Death). Now, the duo have decided to enter someone else's playground with Blair Witch, a sequel to the 1999 classic The Blair Witch Project.

Blair Witch is a very different film than the original movie, replacing the slow-burn psychological terror of the first film with visceral scares and a relentless pace. It is very much its own beast, the result of Wingard and Barrett setting out to make a movie on their own terms, the sequel to the original that they always wanted to see.

With Blair Witch in theaters today, I sat down with the duo to discuss how you keep found footage horror fresh, what attracted them to this project, and the glory that is drone cameras.

I'm assuming that since A Horrible Way to Die, You're Next, and The Guest, you guys were offered a lot of movies that weren't your own personal projects.

Barrett: Absolutely.

So what was it about Blair Witch that convinced you to work on someone else's property? What attracted you to it?

Barrett: That's a great question. I think it was a weird combination of factors. That would include our pre-existing friendship with [The Blair Witch Project director and producer] Eduardo Sanchez and Greg Hale, having worked with them on V/H/S/2, where it was kind of like this is our friends' property and we know we'll have their blessing and can talk to them creatively and get feedback. But in addition to that, The Blair Witch Project was a film that both inspired and really excited both of us when it came out. It was a film that we had a very passionate fanship towards. As fans, we had always wanted a more direct sequel to the original that would extrapolate directly on its mythology and stuff. Beyond that, it has this incredibly complex mythology that had gone unexplored, so there were a lot of obvious opportunities for things we could do that were really exciting.

Normally, when someone offers you a sequel or a remake, it's just like oh, this is going to be by the numbers or a recreation of the original. That doesn't creatively excite either one of us. So we turned those films down. This was the first one where I was like "Well, what is a sequel to The Blair Witch Project in 2016?" There are no real expectations for that is. In other words, we still had a lot of creative freedom and the ability to come up with a lot of cool ideas while still technically making a studio sequel.

Wingard: Yeah. And Simon and I had been discussing for some time doing a more straight-up horror movie. We're more well-known...well, not well-known [Laughs] but known as horror filmmakers–

Barrett: In small areas of Austin. [Laughs]

Wingard: And yet we had never attempted to make a truly scary movie before. Whenever Lionsgate approached us and said they were interested in doing a sequel to The Blair Witch Project and asked if we were interested... We were like, this is the perfect starting point for doing something like that, because we didn't have any ideas for where we would take a straightforward horror film. But we were the kind of people who wanted to see a Blair Witch sequel. We were just at Sundance with Eduardo Sanchez and Greg Hale with V/H/S/2 and this was about two weeks before Lionsgate sat us down and talked to us about Blair Witch. I was already thinking and talking to Eduardo about that, saying "When do you think they're going to bring back Blair Witch?" Because with all of the remakes and found footage movies that have been coming out over the years, it feels like it's time for it to return. It went to movie jail after part two and it's kind of like "It served its time! Let's get this thing out!" So it was already on our minds in a lot of ways. It's one of those things where everything just synchs up and you just go with it.

Barrett: Yeah, it was serendipitous for a lot of reasons.

I'm a sucker for found footage horror because I feel like it has its roots in stories by Lovecraft and Poe, which were often written as suicide notes or letters. Even Bram Stoker's Dracula is written as a series of journal entries. So when you're dealing with a horror format that has existed in its own strange way since the 19th century, how do you go about making that feel fresh and different?

Barrett: It was a couple of things. We were very aware from doing the V/H/S films of what the technical limitations of crafting a scare sequence in found footage actually are. That didn't necessarily give us any more confidence, but I felt like we were the right people to do it. For me, and this is something Adam and I have talked about a lot, you go back to Bram Stoker's Dracula, which as you said, is written in "found footage" format in some ways, but the modern equivalent of found footage is evolving so quickly based on technology and so on. The challenge for us throughout the script process and the filming process was finding the modern camera and the modern perspective that would give us both the sense of authenticity, so the audience can suspend their disbelief and enjoy the movie on the ideal level that you want to enjoy found footage, which is, while you're in the theater, to pretend that it's real. But also to give us a creepy, unnerving perspective. Obviously in this film, we embraced the idea that found footage horror sometimes works best as POV horror and the film kind of transforms into that more and more as it goes on. That was very intentional from the start.

Wingard: I think that coolest thing about found footage is that it's a way of taking familiar genres an stories and being able to reinvigorate them. Cloverfield and REC are great examples of movies that took kind of tired genres, the monster movie and the zombie film, and by filming them in found footage, it was a new perspective. It gives you a whole new take and helps you re-experience that all over again. It's such a valuable tool when you're living in a time when so many genre ideas have been fully explored in all of these different ways. For me, it's just really cool to be able to take something and make it new again.

Blair Witch Producer Talks Sequels

I really enjoyed the movie. I even did a literal armrest grip for most of the second half. But I watched the original the night before and it's a very different movie. It's a slow descent into madness while your movie is a chase movie. It's a roller coaster. Was that an early decision? To make a movie that was so different from the first one?

Wingard: Oh, yeah. Yeah. It was like, if we're going to do this... roller coaster is the exact right word. That was our goal all along. Let's take the Blair Witch world and make it a thrill ride. If we tried to do the same thing the first film did, the authenticity would be lost because of the years of found footage movies that have come out since then. And the first film just did it so well. You go back and look at it and no one has topped it in terms of realism and authenticity. The total commitment to reality in that film is still unparalleled. For us, it was like "If we're going to do this, we're going to what I would've imagined a sequel to be when I was in high school when the first came out." I wanted to see an amped-up version of Blair Witch. Maybe that's because we were coming off the V/H/S films and those are very amped-up found footage horror films. Maybe that's just our voice within the medium. Absolutely. That was cooked in from the start.

How do you construct a movie that is, by design, one very long chase built out of various set pieces? Do you make a list of scenes that you think will be scary and go from there?

Barrett: Speaking to what Adam said, we knew we wanted to do something very different and very thrilling from the original because the original is perfect in that they authentically created the experiment of the film itself and that's how they made the movie. It was about trying to find a way to make the movie feel relentless. At a script level, that's easier to do than at a filmmaking level because I can just write a bunch of horrible stuff! The reality of actually having to build that and figure it out is difficult. It was really about that segue into lulling the audience... into getting the audience used to the style of the movie so that when we fully transition to the truly horrific set pieces, you are hopefully completely with the characters and completely experiencing those moments.

One thing I tried to do in the script is that I tried to never have the same kind of scare twice. We have a lot of jump scares at the beginning of the film, but the one time we do the same scare twice, a character calls attention to it. There are a lot of different ways you can be unnerved by found footage filmmaking and I really hoped that our film could contain all of them, as much as we could possibly get in there. I find that when I watch modern horror movies, if the scares are the same it gets monotonous to me. And predictable. We didn't want to make something that was predictable. We wanted to make something that had that same unsafe and surprising feeling of the original film while being more of a tightly constructed and very technically challenging and, hopefully, entertaining and rewarding horror experience. Ideally. I love the first film and it's very frightening, but it's frightening in a very unique, ideas-based way. The first film did that. It's us trying to do something different.

Wingard: One of the things that is unique about found footage is the way that your story and your style are integrated within one. Early on, when we were first talking about what this thing would be, our first discussion was about the different perspectives we could show within the film. Simon had already decided, quite wisely, on the Bluetooth camera idea, which allows us to give you the POV experience. One of the things I brought to the table, just as an idea... We had just done The Guest and on that film we had used a drone camera for a few shots and we realized these things were really cool and we hadn't really seen anybody really utilize them before.

Naturally, you first inclination when you have a budget of any kind, and this was the biggest budget we've had to date even though it wasn't that much bigger than The Guest, the first thought is how do we get a helicopter shot to get scope into it? The drone was a cool way to do that without breaking the rules of the found footage thing. But when you introduce something like that, you have to come up with a set piece around it. The idea of using this camera informed one of Simon's set pieces. That was one of the trickiest ones to figure out. The tricky thing about a drone is that it's not attached to any of the characters, so how do you come up with a horror set piece that none of the characters are around? Fortunately, Simon came up with the great tree set piece, which is one of my favorites now.

Barrett: I think you came up with that.

Wingard: I think it was one of those things where we kept fleshing it out. Originally, you just saw something moving in the trees–

Barrett: Oh, yeah, yeah.

Wingard: And then we took that out. That's how these things progress. That's the cool thing about found footage. It starts with the perspective and you go from there.

So what's next? I know Adam is working on Death Note, but is there anything Simon can talk about?

Barrett: I think the only thing I'm talking about right now is the script for the I Saw the Devil remake, which Adam is directing.

I had forgotten you guys were doing that! The original is one of my favorite movies.

Barrett: That's still somewhat in the... I think we will be making that film pretty soon. And I think it will be hopefully pretty great.

Wingard: Death Note we just wrapped. I literally wrapped the day before we went to [the Toronto International Film Festival] on Sunday and came straight there. I'm in this weird whirlwind of wrapping one movie and releasing another. In a week or so, I go back into the editing room on Death Note and just get started on it. I think it turned out great. I think it's going to be a really wild movie.

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Blair Witch is now in theaters.