Blair Witch: Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett Talk about The New Sequel

The filmmakers behind You’re Next and The Guest tackle found footage.

Sixteen years after The Blair Witch Project first shocked and spooked moviegoers, Lionsgate are finally delivering a sequel that’s more in line with the original movie than 2000’s Book of Secrets: Blair Witch 2.

To come up with the new story and direction for the sequel, they called upon director Adam Wingard and his long-time collaborator, writer Simon Barrett, the team behind 2011’s excellent home invasion thriller You’re Next. Wingard and Barrett had already established themselves among the horror cognoscenti at that point with their lower-budget films like A Horrible Way to Die and Autoerotic, and they went on to do segments in the V/H/S horror anthology and make the thriller The Guest.

Blair Witch follows the journey of James (played by James Allen McCune), who happens to be the brother of Heather, the young woman who disappeared in the Burkitsville woods in the first movie. With new clues to the whereabouts of the mysterious house in the woods, James and his friends go there with hopes of finding Heather, all of them armed with the latest in technology to capture any clues about the existence of the legendary Blair Witch who terrorizes anyone who enters her domain.

Den of Geek was in Toronto for the Toronto International Film Festival where the movie premiered in the “Midnight Madness” section, similar to the duo’s You’re Next did five years ago. You can find our review of Blair Witch here.

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(Note: This interview was done on-camera and we hope to have the video posted soon.)

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Den of Geek: In 1999, The Blair Witch Project was one of the must-see movies of the summer, so where were you guys? Were you already friends and talking about making movies together?

Adam Wingard: We didn’t meet each other for a few years. It wasn’t too many years after that actually, but I was in high school, so my experience was getting it on VHS and checking it out at home and obsessing over the internet aspect of it.

Simon Barrett: I saw it when I was at film school—I’m a little older than Adam—and I was living in Boston and I went to see it at the local arthouse, which was packed. I remember I saw it at noon, because I remembered I saw it at the very first showing I could get to, so I came out in bright sunlight in a big city and it had still cast a spell over me. I was still unnerved.

Wingard: The first film was really hugely influential for me, being from Alabama andjust living the furthest possible from Hollywood and all the film action. But it was really cool to be able to see filmmakers take something where they didn’t have a lot of money or resources or stars and be able to make a huge hit. It was one of those life-affirming moments where when I saw that happen I realized I could have a career in the same business… and here we are mooching off of their success.

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What was the conversation like? You worked with Lionsgate when they released You’re Next, so was it something they threw your way or something you pitched to them? Or something you had been thinking about doing for some time?

Barrett: They hadn’t released You’re Next yet when we started working on this. This has been gestating for a while. They bought it. It was the year that it came out, so they were preparing for the release. It was February 2013 when we started talking about this film, and it really was just that they brought us into a top secret meeting to talk about something that they wouldn’t put into writing or talk about on the phone. Once we got in the room, [they said], “We have the rights to The Blair Witch Project and we’ve been thinking about doing a follow-up.” They owned the rights to it since they merged with Artisan Films, which was 2001 maybe? No one had done anything with it for over a decade. It was something that did really excite us. We were the first filmmakers that they talked to about it, and it was even kept a secret during development, even at Lionsgate itself. It was really just our two executives there, Jason Constantine and Eda Kowan, who knew what it was we were working on really. Everyone else just knew that they had a low budget horror movie in the works.

How hard was it keeping it a secret since you’re both ingrained into the horror community and you know everyone who writes about horror movies. You’ve been talking to them this whole time about other movies.

Wingard: It was very interesting because even whenever we were on production on the film, there were rumors going around that we were doing a Blair Witch film. Somehow it got out, but it was one of those things where it never took off. All we did was never acknowledge in any kind of way the rumors at all, because I think if we had, it would draw attention to them. And at the time, the idea of doing a Blair Witch film was so out of left field, and the fact that we wouldn’t announce it just seemed so odd that everybody—when this one article went up saying “The Woods” is Blair Witch everybody just ignored it. Nobody picked it up, and we were kind of scared for a minute and we were having some pow-wows with Lionsgate, like “What do we do now that this is out?” They said, “Just don’t acknowledge it at all,” and that’s what we did. The key to keeping this thing secret was just staying on course, and just keeping our mouth shut and never acknowledging any rumor whatsoever. They just kind of went away.

I feel like that similar to the way that the original Blair Witch Project was able to trick audiences into thinking that the characters were actually lost in the woods and it was real. You can’t do that again. That’s just a trick that you can only pull off once, and I think the thing we did with this film, it’s going to be hard to repeat for other people, because any suspicious working titles are going to come under scrutiny as, “Oh, what is this actually?” Anything that comes off as too generic… “The Woods” should have set off alarm bells anyways, because there were already ten “woods” movies….

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Barrett: And then there was The Forest, but no, we were fine with rumors just as long as people didn’t have facts. We were fine with that.

I was at Fantasia Festival a few weeks before Comic-Con and there was definitely some buzz about “Did you see this poster? What does that look like to you?” There was that kind of stuff going on.

Barrett: Yeah, exactly.

Wingard: Right before Comic-Con, people really started picking up… they started pushing up the brightness on some of the shots and you can actually see some of the stick figures in the background. I feel that if it had been another week before Comic-Con, people would have started figuring it out even more, so it was kind of a miracle that the timing worked out just right.

Barrett: Because that was on the message boards, but it didn’t get picked up by any mainstream news sources, which honestly, was just a stroke of fortune.

As a writer, how did you approach this one differently from the other movies you’ve done together? There’s a lot that relies on camera shots and the technology. Is that stuff you’re taking into consideration? Adam, are you involved in the writing process at all? How does it work?

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Barrett: We work in a pretty specific way, which is I tend to come up with the script on my own, but I’ll have initial conversations with Adam, what we want and spit-balling ideas, and then I usually go up and come up with the actual story and characters and stuff on my own, so that when Adam reads it, he has a fresh perspective. If I’m just writing a script for fun, kind of like we did You’re Next and The Guest, that’s kind of one thing, but this was a studio project that we were both attached to, so this was a little more stressful in some ways, because if Adam didn’t like the script, we’d have to have some contractual conversations for both of us, but fortunately, it worked out great. But yeah, I worked on the first two V/H/S films, and that gave me at least a bit of understanding of how to write “found footage,” and you talk about the cameras, but you’re obviously not indicating shots or anything like that, because that’s Adam’s job to figure out that stuff.

How closely did you guys work with Daniel and Eduardo as producers? Was it strange for them to be involved since they only had $600,000 to make their movie and you probably had a little more.

Barrett: We had their blessing from the very start, but we also had their blessing to creatively do what we wanted to do. They did approve the script at a certain point and gave us some notes and Greg Hale, their producer on the first film, gave us some notes as well, which were very good, and I took some of them. They really were happy with us just doing our own thing, interestingly enough. I think it had been so long since the movies and their film and since Book of Shadows and all the other ancillary materials that they were like, “You know what? We trust you guys.”

Wingard: I think if they were going to do a Blair Witch film, I don’t think they would do a found footage version of it. Ed’s gone on record plenty of times saying that they have this really cool prequel idea, which is really great. I’ve heard some scenes from it that he told us over dinner one night. I think to get there, you have to set the course. The Blair Witch Project kind of got derailed after the sequel, and it kind of lay dormant, which worked for us, the amount of time it took from them to now, technology with cameras and stuff developed to the point where one of the reasons why it’s the right time to make this film is because the cameras have changed just enough that you can do different things and cool things that you’ve never seen before. It’s a true update of the material, but they were all really supportive and they’ve all seen the movie, and they’ve all given us the thumbs up and that kind of stuff.

Blair Witch will open nationwide on Friday, September 16 with previews tonight!