Filming The Blair Witch Project Was More Bizarre Than You Probably Realized

"The Blair Witch Project" was a unique experiment in gonzo filmmaking. Directors Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick sent three unknown actors into the woods with video cameras, essentially having them improvise their own movie. The experience was a harrowing one, with the stars eventually capturing some real fear on camera, but many fans don't realize just how bizarre filming got. In an oral history for Vice for the 20th anniversary of the movie, the actors explained the lengths they went through to create this cult classic.

A Film Shoot that Blurs the Lines of Reality

The directors put out a job listing for three non-union acting gigs, noting that they would be for "extremely challenging roles; to be shot under very difficult conditions." The three actors, Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael C. Williams, would play fictionalized versions of themselves going camping in the Maryland wilderness. While they were prepared to be uncomfortable, the actors didn't understand just how much madness they had signed up for. They would be in charge of filming their own video and recording all of their own audio, as well as improvising all of their dialogue. For three relatively inexperienced actors, it was the challenge of a lifetime. The directors eventually gave up on even following the camping cast, as it was too difficult to stay out of the shots and they trusted the actors to stay true to their vision. 

To direct from afar, the directors set up milk crates with bicycle flags in precise locations for campsites. The actors had been given GPS locators, and were given the coordinates for these locations. After they had set up camp, each actor would take out a small film canister just for them with individual instructions inside. They were told not to discuss these notes with one another, to keep surprise elements as real as possible.

Eight Days in the Wilderness

Producer Gregg Hale told the actors, "Your safety is our primary concern, but your comfort is not." Over the course of the eight-day shoot, where the actors were actually camping in the woods, the crew made sure to make things difficult. They kept the actors in the dark about one another's directions as much as possible while also trying to keep the performers on edge. By the fourth or fifth day of shooting, genuine exhaustion had set in and the actors were as miserable as their fictional counterparts. Leonard explained that the filmmakers made him sneak him out in the middle of the night without telling the others, just to keep them on their toes:

"The night I was supposed to leave, the filmmakers left me a note telling me to wait for everyone else to fall asleep and then sneak out of the tent. I remember it said "If anyone wakes up, tell them you have to take a piss and get out of there as quickly as possible." After I snuck out, Ed, Dan and Gregg were there waiting for me. They threw me in the car and told me I was going home."

Even though this style of method acting couldn't have been very much fun, the final result is a truly terrifying horror classic. 

A Little Too Real for Some Fans

The realism created by the shooting style, along with the actors using their real names, led to some confusion when the film was released. Some viewers became convinced that the movie was actually a snuff film, documenting the real deaths of the actors. Hale shared just how strange it was to have people think he was actually dead:

It was pretty silly, but I also think it worked. As individuals, it got a bit weird since we'd used our real names in the film. Our parents were getting condolence calls.

In this way, "The Blair Witch Project" repeated horror history, following in the footsteps of Ruggero Deodato's "Cannibal Holocaust," which saw the director put on trial for the murder of his actors despite the film being a work of fiction. There probably isn't a better indicator of a found footage movie being successful than people believing it's actually real. Thanks to the grueling work of the "Blair Witch Project" cast, their film will always be remembered as one of the rare few that made people truly believe.