On a dark and stormy night—or rather, in the aftermath of a strong and quickly moving storm that downed trees and knocked out power, “The Blair Witch Project” writer and director Ed Sánchez sat down to talk to Emmy award-winning journalist and film critic Arch Campbell at the Gaithersburg Arts Barn. Their July 17 talk-back, held prior to the screening, marked the 20th anniversary of the ground-breaking horror film and was in many ways a return home.
A Montgomery County native who now resides in Urbana, Sánchez has history with the Arts Barn/Kentlands Mansion complex—and he has known Campbell for decades. Just prior to “The Blair Witch Project” success, Sánchez worked for American Reprographics in Rockville. “I would deliver (blueprints) to this building when they were designing the Kentlands,” he recalled. “It was just the woods and one main road going into the mansion, and this was where the architects worked. … I was the man with the plans.”
His relationship with Campbell began before that, during his student days. Campbell said, “You and I go back to 1988 or ‘89 when you were a student at Montgomery College, and you came to interview me for the paper. And then we sat around talking, and you said, ‘I’m going to go on to finish and I either want to go to USC (University of Southern California) where Steven Spielberg went or to University of Central Florida (UCF)’ … and I said, ‘USC by all means’ … and I’m so happy you did not take my advice.”
Sánchez said that he couldn’t afford to take Campbell’s advice, so he attended UCF “and we were literally in the portables in the middle of the parking lot because they didn’t have a film building. And I was like, maybe I should have taken Arch’s advice.”
But “The Blair Witch Project” wouldn’t have happened without UCF, Sánchez stressed. That’s where he met “all the guys that I did ‘Blair Witch’ with … Dan (Myrick) and Gregg (Hale) and Rob (Cowie) and Mike (Monello).”
UCF is also—in part—where the idea was born. Sánchez and Myrick had gone to see the 1991 film “Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare” starring Roseanne Barr and Tom Arnold. “It was like a mess,” Sánchez recalled. “I mean, it was a horror movie but not really a horror movie. Dan and I got back, and we were like, ‘Man, what happened to horror movies?’”
That’s when the idea for “The Woods Movie,” as it was originally known, began. But its roots in Sánchez’s mind went back much further.
As a kid growing up on the Maryland side of Takoma Park, he was captivated and frightened by a small stretch of woods with a creek behind his apartment complex. “It was really like 100 feet, but to me it was like the Everglades, it was like the woods,” he said. “I would watch ‘In Search of’ and especially the Bigfoot documentaries. I could have sworn that Bigfoot lived in that patch of woods, so I would go exploring and pretend that Bigfoot was there.” His bathroom window looked out over these woods, and he remembers his “paralyzing fear” that the hairy mythical creature might stare in at him at night like a “peeping Bigfoot.”
To this day he doesn’t like watching scary movies.
One of his scariest is “The Exorcist.” “In my house, it was like a documentary. We would all gather around the TV and watch ‘The Exorcist’ because this is what could happen if you messed with Satan. Seriously, I remember sitting on my mom’s lap and watching ‘The Exorcist’… the TV version. … It just scared the crap out of me, so I was never into horror movies when I was a kid, I did not like being scared—I still don’t like horror movies. But I love the idea of scaring people,” he acknowledged.
That said, by the time he began “The Blair Witch Project” in 1997 with his UCF friends, it was “our last hurrah.”
“Dan was in his early 30s, I was in my late 20s, and ‘The Woods Movie,’ as we called it, was the best idea we had,” Sánchez said. They
decided to “try and see what happens.”
They spent $60,000 making the ground-breaking film. Found video footage—really filmed by “The Blair Witch Project” crew and actors Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael C. Williams locally in Seneca Creek State Park, Patapsco State Park and Burkittsville, Maryland, tells the tale of three film students who are creating a documentary on the Blair Witch when they disappear in the woods.
If “Blair Witch” hadn’t sold, Sánchez said he would have had to declare personal bankruptcy.
Fortunately, what happened was “surreal.” Perhaps in part due to their leveraging of a World Wide Web then in its infancy, “The Blair Witch Project” was an Internet sensation before the film even debuted. Two “Blair Witch” episodes had aired on the TV show “Split Screen” hosted by John Pierson, and the show’s “discussion board, which is basically what the Internet was like—home page and then chat rooms or discussion boards—his discussion board blew up with ‘Blair Witch,’ so we were like ‘Holy crap, everybody wants to know about it,’” Sánchez recalled.
They had no money, but Sánchez had a little website building experience and created a website “as if we had actually been hired by the family of Heather Donahue” with police information related to the disappearance of the three film students, as well as mythology about the Blair Witch and the town of Burkittsville.
“It was crazy,” Sánchez said about the film’s success. “It was just like a series of extraordinary moments followed by extraordinary moments. We were on the cover of Time Magazine. I was in Mad Magazine, that was the best thing for me. That Time magazine cover looked like something you do at Ocean City … but Mad Magazine … they did a parody of ‘Blair Witch’ and we were in it …
“It was just a series of shocking things that just kept coming—even to this day like the fact that we’re celebrating 20 years and the fans people are still passionate about it.”
And the best part for him?
“The greatest thing for me as a filmmaker … is the idea that I inspired other filmmakers because I never thought that I would inspire anybody,” Sánchez said. “For me ‘Blair Witch’ was like a little spark … (for other filmmakers who thought) if this dumbass with a video camera can do it, I can do it, too.”