‘Blair Witch’ Director Adam Wingard on the Challenges of Making a Scary Sequel and That Wild Ending
Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett have collaborated on several projects together, including recent genre favorites You’re Next and The Guest, in which they subversively repurposed familiar tropes in new and original ways — which is what makes their decision to create a sequel to The Blair Witch Project both surprising and exciting. A solid follow-up to the 1999 found footage classic, Blair Witch offers recognizable beats with bigger, more frightening (and louder) scares, and a third act that features a pretty clever twist. Ahead of the film’s release, we had a chance to speak with Wingard about the challenges of making a sequel to one of the most beloved modern horror films, the evolution of found footage and that crazy, mind-bending ending.
(Later on in the interview we get into some spoilers from the third act, which Wingard has some really interesting thoughts about. I’ve marked that section just in case you haven’t had a chance to see Blair Witch yet.)
I’m going to be honest with you: I really love the second half of Blair Witch…
[laughs] Thanks. I get that.
Isn’t it sort of intimidating to make a sequel to such a classic horror film?
Yeah, for me I think it was less about just making a sequel as it was Simon and I, ever since we did You’re Next and The Guest, we started realizing that we were getting a reputation as being horror filmmakers. But, to us, we never set out to do a horror movie. So, to us, it almost felt a little misleading, because everything we had done were half comedies, half deconstructions. But, it was never what we set out to do in terms of making something scary, that has never been our number one goal.
So why Blair Witch?
We’ve always been talking to ourselves and being like, “we need to try our hand at doing something a bit more straightforward and more committed to just being a scary movie.” It was one of those things where we were on the — we had just premiered V/H/S/2 at Sundance in 2013 — and about 2 weeks after that we came back to L.A. and Lionsgate…this is kind of when they were sitting on You’re Next for a little while. But they were still huge fans of us and Jason Constantine from Lionsgate took us aside and made this like an eerie, secret meeting, and he couldn’t tell us what it was about. In the meeting he revealed that they were going to do a Blair Witch sequel and they asked if we were interested. They didn’t have any script or outline or anything like that, the only thing that they knew is that they wanted it to be about Heather’s brother looking for her. That rang true to us and we immediately sparked up with excitement because that seemed like the perfect kind of place to start.
It was a pre-existing name, but it was also one that hadn’t been run into the ground. It was one that, if anything, had kind of been ignored for quite some time. So, it was a perfect place to start that. In terms of it being a sequel, I remember when the first film came out and, you might like Book of Shadows, but Book of Shadows wasn't a film that I felt took it in the direction that I wanted.
You’re ahead of me. I was going to ask you about Book of Shadows because there’s a very small group of us that love it…
Brian Collins [from Birth.Movies.Death]…
Yep! And me, and Sam Zimmerman from Shudder. We’re getting tattoos of those little witchy stick men when he’s in town next week.
And it will say, Part 2: Book of Shadows underneath it.
You know it.
That movie went in a direction that I — I think I was 16 or 17 when Blair Witch Project came out and I was super obsessed with the mythology, all the website stuff, the message boards where people were theorizing with what the hell’s going on, the final moments, all that kind of stuff. And so, I had in my mind what I wanted to see out of the sequel and, say what you will about Book of Shadows, the main thing that I was disappointed by is that they didn’t do it found footage. For me, that was synonymous with the story, it was part of the language of Blair Witch, it is what made it Blair Witch.
The sequel is more of a satirical meta-commentary directed at fans of the first film.
It was so early at that time, I think the studio probably — even though all the characters are basically filming themselves, and they could have made that almost into a found footage, really, just by the story. I think that it probably made sense to do it the way that they did it because, if you’re going to make a bigger sequel, and you’re going to spend 15 million dollars, it’s probably really hard to justify doing that if you’re going to do it and it’s not going to look like a movie. And, there really wasn’t that much of a precedent for it, still. If anything, maybe the Blair Witch seemed like a gimmick, the found footage element.
But with that said, that’s what I wanted out of a sequel, and there were lots of elements to that that I wanted.
I would say that your Blair Witch shares a sense of self-awareness with Book of Shadows, but that film was incredibly cynical.
The sequel’s self-awareness is so extreme even to any other movies that have a self-awareness to it, because it actually takes place in a universe where the first movie wasn’t a movie. So, that is kind of outside the standard canon of the movie we’re doing. We’re kind of saying that Book of Shadows is its own thing and, which it is, really. And, we’re saying that Blair Witch Project happened the way that it seemed to happen in the film and that this is a direct continuation of that.
And found footage was a big part of what made the first film such a hit. Only a few films have succeeded in replicating that success.
Yeah. Well, a question I’ve always been asked since we’ve been doing the V/H/S films is, “is found footage a fad, is it going to go away?” The answer that I always give to that, and am only now basically able to totally clarify after having made this movie, is the fact that I don’t think that found footage is a fad, and obviously it’s not, it’s been around for way longer than disco ever was. [laughs]
Blair Witch sort of touches on a concept I find fascinating, which is how technology evolves and becomes more accessible, sometimes to our detriment.
It’s one of those things where, it will continue to evolve because it evolves alongside technology and there will always be new ways of filming things and new experiences to be had in kind of experimental ways that can propel that POV medium forward. I think it’s really cool that there’s this sub-genre that’s synonymous with technology evolving. That’s where we started with this film. The movie itself takes place in 2014 so that it hits that 20-year anniversary of the original film, or when the original film takes place, which is 1994. But the idea was, or going into it, the starting point was what happens in the Black Hills Forest in 2014? What does that look like, technologically? That was the starting point. There’s so many more options, and like you said, the second half of the film in a lot of ways is a lot stronger because the first half we’re kind of setting up the story and familiarizing people, what the Blair Witch is and what the stories are, who the characters are.
Covering the basics.
Ultimately we’re trying to lull you into a comfort of, this is another documentary style of found footage movie, and playing into more or less the feeling of the original film in our own way. But at the same time, as the horror sets in and the danger becomes more real for the characters, you always have to address in a found footage movie, why are they still rolling? Why don’t they put down the cameras? And that’s exactly what our characters do. They stop handholding the cameras and it shifts into this POV experience where the bluetooth cameras become the primary source of our experience. You suddenly become more — it becomes more of an immersive, almost virtual reality kind of thing.
Some have said that Blair Witch feels like it was made for people who didn’t enjoy The Blair Witch Project — that it hits a lot of the familiar beats, but it’s more eventful, bigger and scarier.
I love the original for its sparseness and it’s got a real classiness in terms of the mystery that it has to it. But ultimately, if we did that again it would just be sad. It wouldn’t be original and if we didn’t show anything more or give you a different experience, it would just be literally remaking the same film. What we really wanted to do is, because it was such a defunct kind of franchise, what we had to do with this film really is — it’s not a reboot because it is a sequel but we really do have to reset the sort of, foundation. Which meant we structurally needed to stay close to the original film so that you were having an experience that made you get back into the Black Hills Forest in that way. But we wanted to frame it in this kind of roller coaster ride of an experience. There’s nothing really subtle about our film at a certain point, but that’s kind of the fun of it.
I agree. That entire second half is relentless.
I’m a Paul Anderson fan, like, I love Event Horizon. That’s the idea, we wanted to give you Blair Witch: The Ride, and that’s an experience you haven’t had before.
[SPOILERS to follow from the third act of Blair Witch]
I want to talk about one of the most effective things in the movie, which is that crazy time loop concept.
The genesis of that is, it does come from the original film. It’s definitely implied that there is some sort of time loop going on in addition to the fact that supposedly Rustin Parr’s house burned down in the woods in the mythology and there it is there at the end of the original film. It’s definitely there in the original, but it’s much more subtle.
Right, they go in circles and time seems to slow down.
I think, we approached it almost from a functional point of view. I think when Simon was writing it, we kind of looked at this thing and said, there’s nothing scary about the woods during the day and the original approaches it the same way. Danger comes at nightfall. What we ended up using the time loop thing for, or even basically designing it as the main thing, is that it allows us to create this perpetual darkness at a certain point. The original film takes place over quite a few days, almost a week what it feels like.
Our film only takes place over two days, but those days are elongated and stretched out because the sun stops coming up at a certain point. I felt like that really increases — there’s so many different elements of claustrophobia and it’s a little claustrophobic in the tunnels, but to me it increases the actual overall claustrophobia or the feeling that you’re really trapped in the woods. You can see everywhere around you, but you’re just surrounded by endless woods and kind of trapped in this time loop labyrinth.
But it goes beyond that…
The other interesting thing about that, since we’re talking about spoilers and as long as it says that… There’s — alert viewers will notice, but they’ll realize the whole movie is a loop. We start at the end and work our way back there.
You do! There’s a scene early on where they’re watching this “found footage” on YouTube, and there’s that shot of the mirror in the house, which repeats itself in the climax…
Right! It’s one of those things where, it’s like James was almost already in the loop before the movie starts.
And then you sort of wonder how much agency he has in this story…
Exactly. There’s something kind of interesting about that, the fact that in a way the forest has to find some kind of way to bring new people into it. Somehow it’s growing in its power or whatever it is, and whatever kind of energetic Bridgewater Triangle type of situation is going on out there, I think it’s growing and getting stronger somehow or maybe it works in these 20-year increments. It has its own way of pulling you in just like a creature would in trapping you or something.
Like The Ring.
[laughs] Yeah, yeah.
It also really makes me question Lane’s motives in wanting to take James and his friends out to the woods in the first place — is he aware that he’s in this time loop?
Right. Is his interest in the Blair Witch from the beginning his own interest or is he somehow infected by his proximity to the woods and he’s an agent, like you said, an unwilling kind of sleeper agent. There are so many fun things about it and that’s the whole point.