It’s no easy task making a belated sequel to “The Blair Witch Project,” the mother of all found footage horror movies. But, according to the makers of the new “Blair Witch,” it’s not easy making any found footage film. Director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett have done found footage before, in their shorts for the “V/H/S” omnibus series. Since then they’ve collaborated on a horror-comedy (“You’re Next”) and a highly stylized thriller that’s also funny (“The Guest”). Returning to the genre, and making a film that both respects the original and tries to be its own thing, was a challenge they were up for. Wingard and Barrett talk to us about how they approached updating the series to the age of ubiquitous gizmos, how to make actors look scared and their film’s terrifying tunnel scene.
If you’re making a “Blair Witch” movie in 2016, one thing you have to show is how much technology and how we record video has changed since 1999.
Adam Wingard: Every year that goes around everyone asks, “Do you think found footage is going to go away? Is it a fad?” I don’t think it will ever go away. As technology advances, there’s going to be new and inspirational ways of creating found footage stories. Fifteen years ago Skype didn’t exist, and now it does. That’s a new facet that’s being explored in the found footage subgenre.
So what kinds of things did you talk about tech-wise?
Wingard: The first thing [Simon Barrett and I] did was discuss what types of cameras we wanted and what kinds of things we hadn’t seen before. When you’re doing a film that, for us, is a bigger budget, your first instinct is, “How do we get a helicopter shot? How do we expand the scope of this?” That’s where the idea of having a drone came in. That’s something we’ve never seen before in a found footage film.
Simon, tell me about the art of writing a found footage film, which needs to feel real and raw but also needs a structure. How specific would you be in your writing?
Simon Barrett: The way they made the first film feel like authentic found footage is they more or less had the actors go into the woods and improvise all their dialogue. Adam and I knew from the start that we wanted to do a much more technical, fast-paced thrill ride of a film. We didn’t want to imitate what the first one does, because the first one does it perfectly. Our challenge was about being respectful to the first film’s legacy while expanding upon its mythology. I was trying to write dialogue that had a natural quality to it. The actors were encouraged to improvise, but usually it was based on something that was written.
Though you’ve collaborated on found footage before, your last two films were very different. “The Guest,” for one, is extremely formal and controlled.
Wingard: It was good for us to do something like this, because you can get too far into the comfort zone of who you are as a filmmaker. You start to put style ahead of the story sometimes. The thing I like about doing a movie like this is it takes you out of that headspace and forces you to think in a completely different way. That can be kind of shocking, because you can’t fall back on your usual bag of tricks.
Barrett: We both never want to repeat ourselves. We never want to do the same movie we just did. All of our films are stylistically very different and tonally very different and narratively very different. Doing a sequel to the seminal found footage film was an attractive challenge.
There’s probably an assumption that found footage is easy to make, but I’m assuming it’s almost as hard as making something like “The Guest,” or maybe harder.
Wingard: Making a found footage film is deceptively difficult. It’s way harder than making a normal film. When you’re doing a normal film the rules you’ve set up for yourself are a lot looser. You can always break from it, do slow-motion here and there, whatever you want. With a film like this you have to stay consistent. It can feel very restrictive when you’re filming. In this movie, it’s very difficult because all the characters are presumably wearing cameras on their heads. But the way we’re filming it sometimes require camera operators. That means they have to duplicate the actions of the actors. If in one shot the actor moves their head and walks a certain way, whenever it’s our turn to shoot coverage from their POV, we have to remember how they moved and what they were doing. That can be time-consuming and exhausting.
What tricks did you use to keep the actors looking believably scared?
Wingard: In a movie like this, it’s less about showing you scary things than showing people being scared. What I think is the climax of pure terror is the scene where Callie Hernandez climbs through the tunnel. For that sequence to work you have to build a reality with the actors. So we built this 60-foot-long tunnel that was measured just barely to fit past her shoulder length. Her claustrophobia is real.
You do have a few jump scares.
Wingard: Sometimes people use the term “cheap jump scares.” But there’s no such thing. They are very technical and difficult to achieve. There’s nothing cheap about them. To get those moments to work you have to not just have the scare but the characters’ reactions. You jump because you see them jump. With the loud noises, the way I achieved them was I had a collection of air horns that I jokingly called my “scare horns.” I can pick and choose moments where I want something big to happen onscreen, and just by pushing the button on the airhorn I can scare the bejesus out of them. [Laughs] Their reactions are authentic and very real.
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