Don’t let anyone tell you hail mary passes aren’t worth it every once in a while. No, Guillermo del Toro’s agent never responded to my email, but there’s always next year.
I sent an email into the creepy abyss of John Carpenter’s official, untouched website and came away with a fun, albeit brief, conversation with one of horror’s masters. And when a user offered to put me in touch with Eduardo Sanchez, the co-director of The Blair Witch Project due to a family connection, it didn’t take long for say “sure, why not?” Worst case: nothing ever happens.
But the best case scenario happened, and I spent nearly an hour talking with Sanchez about games, pioneering the found footage genre, the legacy of The Blair Witch Project, and what the hell Mike was doing at the end of the movie. Yeah, we go there. Since The Blair Witch Project, Sanchez has continued to work in the genre, though he took seven years off before returning with Altered. His most recent contributions, a fun zombie short for the anthology V/H/S 2 and Lovely Molly, are both worth checking out. But The Blair Witch Project remains his defining work.
It’s been nearly 15 years since The Blair Witch Project, a film Sanchez started developing with a partner, Daniel Myrick, back in 1994. When the movie arrived in 1999, the movie stole an entire summer from me. I was 14-years-old, just old enough to buy into the movie’s assertion it was based on a true story, that The Blair Witch Project was, in fact, compiled from footage discovered in a forest. My youthful naivety was emboldened by the film’s excellent Sci-Fi Channel marketing doc that expanded upon the film’s mythology, and a website that never pretended what it was presenting was anything but the honest truth.
The movie worked because of what it didn’t show, and that’s the reason the film still holds up today. Your imagination is a powerful ally for a clever filmmaker, and it’s hard to imagine a remake of The Blair Witch Project wouldn’t feel compelled to, well, show you the damn witch. A studio-driven sequel stopped any future developments. In 2013, The Blair Witch Project would have become another annualized horror machine.
It’s the sound design of The Blair Witch Project that's stuck with me. It’s the screams for Mike, the disconnected audio and video during the climax, and the crunch of leaves and sticks while Heather, Michael, and Joshua huddle together in a tent. Those crunches stuck with me because I heard those crunches every night from my bed. It was too expensive to have the air on every night, so my bedroom window was often open. As animals ventured into the night, the very same sounds that Elly Kedward made would haunt my ears.
To date, I haven’t been camping, though it helped my family wasn’t really the outdoorsy type. A bunch of my friends in Chicago are, though. At some point, I’ll have to confront my biggest fear from childhood. Imagine watching it on a camping trip? In the meantime, enjoy this conversation with one of horror's pioneers.
Giant Bomb: Are you into video games at all? Is that anything that’s on your radar?
Eduardo Sanchez: Yeah, I am. I mean, I wish I had more time. My son, who’s 10-years-old, is really into it, and I play with him as much as possible. And I also am addicted to Minecraft.
GB: [laughs] Is that what your son is into, as well?
Sanchez: He’s into Minecraft, but he has all the [machines]--PS3 and Xbox--so he plays more of those games. Uncharted. Mostly [he plays] shoot ‘em up games, first-person-shooters. But he’s definitely into Minecraft, too. And actually it’s kind of interesting, man, my son--his interest in engineering and all kinds of scientific things have grown since Minecraft, since he started Minecrafting. I was telling my wife--in the next 10 years, there’s going to be this huge resurgence or interest in engineering. Lucas, my son, he got into Minecraft, and he loves any kind of game that has to do with demolishing things in a controlled way. He just got this app where you, basically, just build bridges. You have these challenges of building a bridge across a certain span, and you have to engineer it in a certain way so that it doesn’t fall. Then, you have to open it up to traffic. It’s really cool! It’s really made him think in a different way, and even his drawings are more three-dimensional. It’s very interesting to see such a fun game also really educating these kids. It’s pretty amazing.
GB: It’s interesting because games are traditionally known for having really strict rules, and the player tries to push against those. Whereas with Minecraft, there are things you can and can’t do, but you can still do whatever you want. I’ve always said it’s similar to when I grew up and having Lincoln Logs or LEGOs.
Sanchez: Yeah, yeah. I was into LEGO--I’m still into LEGO. I have a crazy Star Wars collection. LEGO is, right now, my main concentration. I’ve kind of given up getting all the action figures and stuff. So I loved LEGO while I was growing up, and it absolutely was the toy I played the most with...before I got my Atari 2600, of course.
Then, to me, absolutely--Minecraft is just this huge, unlimited LEGO set, where you have your own LEGO world. It’s a pretty amazing program. Actually, man, I discovered it about three years ago, and then Lucas started playing it right away also. It’s something we discovered together, and I’ve been working on my world for almost three years now. It’s this huge, crazy world with tunnels and skyscrapers and cities and bridges and castles. I love developing it, and it really is the most relaxing and zen-like video game there is, you know what I mean? I love it, man.
GB: You mentioned that you had an Atari 2600. Were games just something that got left behind as you got older and filmmaking became the thing you were chasing after?
Sanchez: Yeah. I mean, I was really into the 2600. I remember I got Space Invaders and Combat, the cartridge that it came with. It was the first time I was cognisant of how much time I was spending doing something. I looked back and went “wow, I got this in December, and it’s June.” And I played it every single day for a certain number of hours. I was just addicted to it. Then, I got the ColecoVision and I got all the expansion modules, which, I don’t know if you remember, but it had the trackball and the super controller--this big ass controller. The one where it was a 2600 thing where you could plug it into the ColecoVision and play your 2600 games?
GB: Right, right, right.
Sanchez: For the '80s, man, it was definitely ahead of its time. After ColecoVision, I started getting into filmmaking. You know, you get into high school, and you start spending your time doing other things. Then, once I got into college, I always had a video game system. I had an NES. I remember a friend of mine let me borrow the first Sega [machine]. Was it Saturn?
GB: The Genesis.
Sanchez: The Genesis! That was a big leap, you know what I mean? I’ve always been interested. Then, I got into Myst. A lot of computer gaming. I seem to gravitate towards the slow, kind of mystery creepy vibey video games. But, again, my son and I have played Resistance, Resistance 2. I love playing co-op stuff with him. It’s just a great way to bond and still have fun and keep up-to-date. And keep an eye on what he’s doing, too!
GB: You sound like a more responsible parent than most when it comes to that stuff. The amount of parents I see that just go and buy a copy of the new Grand Theft Auto for their kid is pretty incredible.
Sanchez: Yeah, man. Grand Theft Auto was one of those things where my kid has been playing pretty crazy video games for a while, he’s very mature. I don’t see it giving him [a bad influence]. He doesn’t cuss. It doesn’t seem like there’s any discernable bad effects, but the thing about Grand Theft Auto V, man, is that it’s just so...it’s not even the gameplay. It’s great. It’s just so gnarly. There’s always cussing and talking about sucking dicks and so I was like “you know, I think this game is a little too much for you.” [laughs] So I’ll wait for a little while before I let him play that one.
GB: You mentioned that some of the games that you’re attracted to are reflective of the movies you’ve ended up making in the horror genre. Has horror and being scared always been something you’ve enjoyed?
Sanchez: Well, no. Actually, dude, it’s kind of a funny thing. I never really liked horror movies. I guess I’m a pussball. I’m a coward. When I was a kid, I would freak myself out very easily. I still freak myself out pretty easily! I think it’s why I can write horror movies. I can get into that mindset of shit that freaks me out pretty easily. But, no, man, I watched The Exorcist when I was young, and it really scarred me. My daughter, who’s 12, she loves horror movies. She loves going to the movies and being scared. At least now I have someone to go to the horror movies with! I have to keep up with them because I love horror movies, but she loves being scared. I don’t like it. To me, when I go see a horror movie, there’s always this sense of dread. It’s the same thing as riding a rollercoaster for me. I’m just not built that way.
So I never thought I would be making horror movies, but when we were in college, Dan and I, who wrote Blair Witch with me, we just came up with this freaky idea, man. It was the best idea we had, and every time we pitched it to somebody, they’d get really excited. Eventually, we raised a little bit of money and we decided to make it. The rest is history, but it’s definitely put me in a place where I have to make horror movies.
I don’t complain about it because I actually am getting better, and I appreciate horror movies now. I appreciate them a lot more than when I was younger, and I think that every movie I make, I’m getting better at it. But I never thought I would be making horror movies. I always thought that when I first started making small films [and] short films, I would always make action movies or comedies. It’s very weird that I ended up making horror movies, but I have a career and I can’t complain.
The great thing about horror movies is that they have a lot of different subgenres. You can have a straight-out psychological horror movie like Sinister, but at the same time, you can have something over-the-top and crazy like Evil Dead 2. You can have straight action horror, you can have monster horror, you can have romantic vampire horror. It really is a genre that lets you explore a bunch of subgenres in it. I’m pretty lucky to be in the horror genre. Like I said, I enjoy it now, and I feel like I’m getting better with each film.
GB: It definitely seems like it’s the kind of genre where, both from the creator’s side and the viewer’s side, you end up projecting a lot of yourself into it. What comes out of that is a reflection of what scares you and what your life experiences have been in a way that’s a lot more obvious and profound than in other genres.
Sanchez: Yeah, it is. It really is based on the movies that you watched and how you filter your reality or your vision of reality filtered through the movies that you’ve seen. It’s one of those basic emotions. More than 50% of any song written is about love because it’s singing just goes together [with] love songs. [laughs] Horror movies, even though they sometimes lose popularity and sometimes they go through a dry spell, there is something very basic about being scared.
We, as humans, used to be scared a lot more than we are now, especially in the United States [and] in our modern world. It’s the same reason we like fire so much, I think. We’re attracted to fire because so much of our past evolution was based on the fireplace. There was so much danger back then, whether it was diseases or bad food or a frickin’ tiger coming out of the woods and killing you. Horror movies fill in that feeling that we miss. All of us have it inside us. It definitely has a lot to do not only with your surroundings but just what the internal workings of a certain psychology.
"I never really liked horror movies. I guess I’m a pussball. I’m a coward. When I was a kid, I would freak myself out very easily. I still freak myself out pretty easily! I think it’s why I can write horror movies."
GB: Is it weird to think back and realize The Blair Witch Project is almost 15-years-old?
Sanchez: It is very weird. It definitely feels like 15 years! [laughs] I’ve been through a lot, both professionally and in my life. It feels very strange that it’s almost 15 years. I talk about it all the time. It’s one of these movies [that’s stuck], and I feel so fortunate that I was a part of it.
First of all, everybody knows of it, whether they’ve seen it or not. Everybody has heard of it, even younger people, even the kids. It’s one of these movies that the kids know about. It’s one of these movies that keeps coming up in things. Obviously, I’m the creator, so whenever anybody talks to me, they asked me Blair Witch questions. To me, it’s like an everyday part of my existence. There’s always some kind of Blair thing happened in my life. It is kind of unbelievable that it’s been 15 years, but it’s been a pretty good 15 years. Can’t complain, man.
GB: That’s an interesting perspective. Most of my time is spent interviewing game developers, and there are similar instances where someone has, right out of the gate, one that comes to define a lot of their future work. Not everyone has that perspective, where they look back on it and they have a fondness for the fact that it’s the thing that comes up over and over again.
Sanchez: The thing is, man...yeah, sometimes I’m like “yeah, I’ve made other films” and this and that. But when it comes time to publicize those films, enough people want to talk and whatever, but it always ends up being Blair Witch. To me, man, I wouldn’t be making any films, nobody would be asking me anything if it wasn’t for Blair Witch! [laughs] And it’s honestly that I don’t mind talking about. It’s one of these movies that people are genuinely interested in, it’s not lip service. “Oh, I’ve gotta ask you the question about Blair Witch.” Most of the time it’s a topic that people want to talk about and are interested in.
For me to have an attitude about talking about it doesn’t make any sense. Eventually, nobody’s gonna want to talk to me. To me, I actually appreciate the interest. Almost every time I do an interview, somebody's like “well, I know you’re tired of talking about this, but what about this?” And I always say “you know, I never really get tired of it.” It really is something that I’m proud of. I feel very fortunate that I was a part of it. As long as anybody wants to talk to me about it, I’ll talk to them about it, absolutely.
GB: Part of the reason it keeps coming up, other than the fact that it’s still effective as a horror film, but sort of by accident, you guys stumbled into what became tropes of the genre. Viral marketing, pretending something is real, and even the term found footage, which certainly didn’t exist back in 1999. How do you look at that stuff now, as it’s become a staple of the genre?
Sanchez: I think it’s an amazing development or whatever you want to call it. It’s an amazing thing that there’s a whole genre of film that was basically named after the title card of Blair Witch. But to me, it keeps me relevant! With just about every review of a found footage movie, they always mention Blair Witch. It definitely keeps the movie relevant, it’s part of the timelessness of the movie. But at the same time, when Dan and I and the rest of the guys went out into the woods to make this movie, it was a very pragmatic and logical end result of, basically, going through this idea and [saying] “what would they be shooting with? What would it look like? It wouldn’t have any lighting. There wouldn’t be any stars. The audio would kick of suck. They would have problems with batteries.” For us, it was planning a documentary trip. The movie was an experiment that just worked, and worked really well. It lit this fire that was out there just waiting for it.
The way I feel about it is, again--it’s fascinating, man. Sometimes I’m proud of it. Eh. Most times I’m proud! Obviously, I love the idea that people are inspired or were pushed by it. A lot of people tell me they were inspired because it was such a simple movie and that it was so easy to execute. Really, when you come down to it, once you came up with the idea, it was relatively easy to do, even though making a movie is never easy.
GB: It’s always easier in retrospect, once you’ve already done it.
Sanchez: Yeah. [laughs] It’s always a struggle. But if you look back on it, yeah, you didn’t need a lot of the things that most movies need. So for me, it seemed like it was just one of these things that happened. Luckily, I was a part of it. It pushed a lot of people into getting inspired and saying “hey, if these fools can do this, I can do this.” I’ve heard it time and time again. Time and time again, somebody’s been [like] “you guys really inspired me, I wouldn’t be in filmmaking if it wasn’t for Blair Witch.” That really is, for me, the thing I’m most proud of. But also, at times, I see certain movies, I see certain found footage movies, and I’m like “wow, that is really...not good. That is really tasteless.” Or whatever. And sometimes I’m like “wow, if it wasn’t for Blair Witch, this probably would have never happened.” But there’s a lot of good stuff out there, too.
I had breakfast with Oren Peli, the guy who did Paranormal Activity. Him and I have become friends. Right off the bat, he was like “I wouldn't have done anything without Blair Witch. Blair Witch was this thing that resculpted my reality.” Paranormal Activity is basically a scientific breakdown of Blair Witch in a house. It’s very effective. So, for me, the movie has definitely inspired a lot of people, and that’s the biggest compliment that anybody could give me. Our film inspired people to make great things, and sometimes not-so-great things. But at least it’s inspiring some people. To me, that’s always the thing that I’m most proud of.
GB: You said you’ve felt like you’ve improved as a filmmaker from one film to another, but you’ve never really returned to the found footage angle. Is there a reason you left that behind?
Sanchez: The thing about Blair Witch is that now you think “why didn’t they just release another Blair Witch movie the next year and do what Paranormal Activity did?”
GB: It seems like that’s what would have happened if you’d released that movie in 2013, though.
Sanchez: Oh, absolutely! People who weren’t around or were old enough or aware of what was going on in 1999, this movie just came out of nowhere, man. The first major found footage movie that appeared was Cloverfield, and that was...2006? 2007? It was definitely at least five or six years after Blair Witch came out, maybe seven years. Another found footage movie after Blair Witch, like a part two, it would have been a different thing. I don’t know if it would have worked. The movie was a crazy thing. It was perfect for what the movie was. Honestly, we thought it was more of a gimmick. We didn’t want to be gimmick filmmakers. We didn’t want to be people who were like “alright, they’re gonna do the handheld thing again, the found footage thing again.”
Now, obviously, it’s much more acceptable. That was before Saw had done [the sequel thing]. Saw 1, Saw 2, Saw 3. Every year, during Halloween, a Saw movie came out. That was before that was ever done. For us, there was no precedent to take that chance. Also, Dan and I were completely burned out on horror movies, and wanted to do something else.
The found footage thing, for us, was a gimmick. For me, I didn’t want to make a found footage movie, honestly. I didn’t feel like I should go there again. Then, a couple of years ago, I was coming up with this idea for a bigfoot movie, and it was the first time where I was like “you know, I think this would really work best as a found footage movie, and I think that I could get into it as a found footage movie.” It was the first time that had happened, where I found this energy that didn’t really exist before. Exist is the first feature-length found footage film I’ve done since Blair Witch.
But then I also did a short film in a movie called V/H/S 2 that’s out right now.
"We definitely wanted to keep it very ambiguous to us. If you asked us, 'what is the Blair Witch?' I couldn’t answer that. For me, that’s part of the fun."
GB: Usually anything with aliens happens to be, for whatever reason, the thing that always gets me. There was a segment in V/H/S/ 2 that was exactly that. But yours was, far and away, the most unique and interesting in that set.
Sanchez: Oh, thanks, man. It was a lot of fun. Like I said earlier, it was good because there was a lot of comedy in it. It let me do a little bit of that, and show people I could do that. Honestly, right now, if somebody came to me and said “hey, let’s do another found footage movie,” I’d totally be up for it. But at the end of the day, it’s not really a gimmick, but it is gimmicky.
It has its place, but at least for us, at least for me and the other guys that are involved in Blair Witch, we’ve gotta be very careful. Even with V/H/S/ 2, we got invited to be a part of it, and we were like “yeah, that’d be great!” We thought it’d be a lot of fun and all this stuff. But the first thing we started talking to them about was “okay, what’s the idea? Without the right idea, we’re not gonna do it.” The last thing we’re going to do is be the weak link in the movie. Just because [we wanted to avoid] “oh, they’re bringing in the Blair Witch guys to throw them a bone.” That’s not the situation we wanted to be in. For us, it was “okay, we’re going to do it, but we have to find the right idea, and we want to knock it out of the park.”
But other than that, it was a really great experience. I loved meeting the other, young filmmakers. I loved working with my partner, Gregg [Hale]. We co-directed the piece. Him and I were the grandfathers of the filmmaking group. All the other guys are in their late 20s, early 30s. But it was fun, man. I loved the energy, and we did some big festivals and it was just fun going back with an anthology movie that went back to something we had started and had been a part of.
GB: With Blair Witch, found footage was a technique, as opposed to a genre. That seems to be what’s flipped in the 15 years since.
Sanchez: Absolutely, man. There’s definitely a certain amount of laziness sometimes when people are “oh, let’s just do it found footage.” They don’t realize that found footage has its own challenges. Some things are, obviously, easier in found footage, but a lot of things are harder. There’s a lot of things that you can’t fall back upon that you can fall back on in a normal film.
You’re absolutely right. Now, it’s a genre. When we made Blair Witch, it was a complete oddity, a completely experimental thing that came out of nowhere. It touched a nerve.
GB: Are you wrapped on on Exist? What are you up to in the upcoming months?
Sanchez: We just finished the edit on the bigfoot movie. We actually ended up editing it twice. I took over the film to re-edit some stuff. We’re working on the sound mix now, and we’re going to go to AFM [American Film Market], which is a big film market in LA. We’re going to sell it in November in LA. Hopefully, it’ll be out sometime next year. I would imagine sometime in the next year or so it’ll be out.
I’m really proud of it, man. I’ve never seen a bigfoot movie like this. The creature looks really good. The creature’s not CG, it’s a guy in a suit, but it looks like a real animal. It looks just like the classic big foot from the old days of big foot. It was a lot of fun, and I think people are gonna dig it. It’s probably the most action [driven] movie [that I’ve done]. It has a lot of action and crazy shit going on with the creature. That’ll be coming out, hopefully, next year.
I have a script, a movie that I’m about to go into production on, called Mallers. It’s basically a movie that I’m shooting here locally in Maryland at a vacant mall that’s near my house. It’s basically a rave. These kids go to a rave, an underground rave, in an abandoned mall, and bad things start happening. Really bad things start happening. We’re trying to get that going for early next year.
I’m developing a bunch of other stuff. We’re getting into TV now. In early January, there’s a show called The Quest, which is a reality show like you’ve never seen. It’s Lord of the Rings-meets-Survivor. My partner, Gregg, and I were supervising producers on it. I think it’s going to be fun. The stuff I’ve seen of it looks pretty amazing. It’s like 10 or 12 people get transported to the set of a Lord of the Rings movie, and they have to play in that world all the time. It’s actually pretty cool, and the contestants were pretty amazed by it. We were amazed by the contestants. It’s gonna be on ABC on, I think, January 2. Definitely early January it’ll premiere. We’re pretty excited about that.
That’s about it, man. I’m sure it’s probably similar in your guy’s business. You have to develop a bunch of things at the same time, and whatever…
GB: See what sticks?
Sanchez: Whatever sticks to the wall, you stick to it. Whatever sparks the next flame is what you gravitate towards. You never know what you’re doing until the contract is signed. That’s where we’re at right now, man. I’m excited about what’s going on.
GB: As long as I’ve got you, the last question I’ll ask is about the ending. Part of the reason that movie works is because of the ambiguity. It chooses to not show so many things. Your imagination does all the work for you. The way that movie ends...how much of what is happening had you worked out?
Sanchez: That’s a good question. We definitely wanted to keep it very ambiguous to us. If you asked us, “what is the Blair Witch?” I couldn’t answer that. For me, that’s part of the fun. Once you answer it, that’s like “well, that’s kind of lame.” Once you know that there’s some kind of logic behind it, it loses its charm. For us, it was “okay, it’s just like a bad mojo, there’s something bad out here.” It’s something supernatural, but it’s not a cliche. It’s not like “oh, there’s an image in the woods, and it’s a ghostly image.” It’s just very random.
The ending was just something we came up with at the last minute almost, man. We didn’t know how the movie was going to end. We started shooting. I remember Gregg Hale, one of our producers, would come when Dan and I were sitting around talking about stuff or planning the day or whatever, and he would be like “how are you going to end the movie?” And we’d be like “well, we still don’t know.” [laughs] He would be like “well, you’ve got four days. And you’re running out of time for us to build anything.” I remember one time he came in, and there were like three days left. He’s like “okay, so the ending now has no art direction because you’ve given us no time. Our art department is booked up, they’re just trying to catch up with what they’re doing. They have no time to do anything for the ending. You have to come up with something now that doesn’t use any kind of art. No building anything, nothing.” [laughs]
We came up with this idea, and just shot it and it worked. What was interesting about it was that once we sold the movie, Artisan, the company that bought it, said “well, we want to do a new ending, we want to do something a little bit more conventional.” So they gave us money, which was amazing to us. “Wow, we’re getting more money for this than we had for the whole movie.” They gave us money, and said “go back to Maryland and do some endings--fuck with it, experiment.” We went down and shot a bunch of endings that are available on the Blu-ray version of Blair Witch.
But while we were there, we were like “we love our ending, we love the idea that this guy was standing in the corner.” But if we can give some explanation to that, to why he’s standing in the corner, even if it’s something very ambiguous and something only one out of 10 people are going to pick up, I think that would be more effective than anything we could come up with him hanging or him splayed open on a stick man cross. We tried all these weird things that you can watch on the Blu-ray.
When we went to Maryland, we went and shot some interviews about people talking about Rustin Parr and about how he made the kids stand in the corner while he killed the other kids. To us, that was an idea that came up after we shot the movie. It was an idea that came up while I was building the website. I was looking for an explanation for why the hell this guy would stand in the corner, and I was like “it’d be cool if that house was supposedly where all these kids died. It’d be creepy if the guy made the one kid stand in the corner while he killed the others because he didn’t want to see the kids watch him doing this stuff.”
So we stuck that into the edit, and, luckily, Artisan was very cool about it, and they let us have our ending. And that’s pretty much the full story of that ending, man. It was something where we knew we wanted to be ambiguous, but it’s very challenging because, like you said, it doesn’t really show anything. For the ending, it’s like “we want to do something that definitely hits or almost proves that there’s some kind of supernatural element involved, but we don’t want to have a witch come out of the floor or something. We don’t want to have something hokey.” So we just figured Mike standing in the corner, being unresponsive, to us, was the most horrifying thing that could happen. Why wouldn’t he turn around?
That was the end of the movie, man, and that was the story of how we lucked into it, really.
GB: I really appreciate your time, and it’s been a true pleasure. I really appreciate you taking this time to chat with me.
Sanchez: No, man! Thanks for the interest.