The Den of Geek interview: Daniel Myrick

The co-writer and director of The Blair Witch Project talks about the influence of his film, what he did next, Cloverfield, and his latest project...

Since bursting onto the scene with The Blair Witch Project, Daniel Myrick has maintained a surprisingly low profile. We caught up with him for a chat about Blair Witch, its legacy, and what he’s up to now…Your story is quite an extraordinary one. Within five years of leaving film school, you’d made the most talked about film on the planet! Can you fill in the gap of those five years?Well, Ed [Eduardo Sanchez, co-writer and co-director] and Gregg [Gregg Hales, producer] and myself, we graduated film school at slightly different times, and kind of went in slightly different directions as we all looked for work. I got into editing, and ironically enough cutting a lot of Planet Hollywood videos! [laughs]

But strangely enough that kind of helped us pay for some of the Blair Witch stuff. A little while after that, I met up with Greg, and we were co-writing a script together, and he had been working in LA, and I pitched him this idea. It was called The Woods idea.

He really liked it, and said I’ve got a little bit of money saved up, how about I help you produce this thing? And then I contacted Ed and from that point on it was okay, let’s make the woods movie. It was practical. It was the cheapest film that we had on our slate to do, and from that point on it got going, and shortly after that I got to know John Pierson who had a show called Split Screen on the Bravo network, and did a couple of segments for him as a cameraman. And then I told him about this idea, and shot this little investor trailer. It was in the spirit of the eventual film, a fake documentary, and it completely fooled him. And then he showed that on his show, and that got the ball rolling for Blair Witch.

But there was a pretty long development process for Blair Witch, a year or two trying to raise money for it and so forth. It was fairly shortly out of film school that we wanted to do it.At one point did it hit you that you’d come up with something a bit special?Well, I don’t know if it ever really hits you at any one time. It’s such a process. And I think Ed and I originally came up with the concept back at film school, and thought it was a cool concept, and those that we related it too thought it was really interesting. It got a good initial response when we pitched the idea to people, and that was always a good sign.

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But even after we sold the film at Sundance, we knew we had something a little special, but to what degree no one knew. Because there were just so many events that converged around Blair Witch, that nobody could have predicted, and it took off in the imagination of the public. We were as surprised as anybody else how big it became.It came out after the summer of Phantom Menace and Sixth Sense, and lots of really big films. But there was a real distinction to it. Appreciating that you never thought it’d go toe to toe with big blockbuster films that it eventually ended up competing with, was it an anti-reaction to some of the films around at the time that drove you to do it?

Absolutely. That was part of the recipe. A lot of films were coming out at that time, horror films specifically that just weren’t scaring people. And the whole genre had fallen into this rut of marginality that had the pretence of being scary, with high concept and big budget, but at the end of the day people were coming out of the theatres not being frightened.

And I think that people miss that. When I was growing up I saw films like The Exorcist and The Shining and Jaws, and they had a residual effect on me and the audience for weeks after we saw the movie. So I think a lot of that was missing in a lot of the Hollywood fare that was coming out at the time, and people just wanted to be scared again.Is horror a passion of yours?Not really. As I said, it was the most practical film to do at the time. But I’m just passionate about good film making, and I look at The Exorcist and I look at The Shining, or Rosemary’s Baby, and they were just good films. They had good characters, well written, well-acted films. And I never really classified them as horror genre films. They were good films.

In the midst of the furore for Blair Witch, you were fielding all sorts of offers, and you elected to go a different way?

Yeah, I just, you know, we were very fortunate with Blair Witch that it did as well as it did, and we were able to make a little money on it. And at least personally be a little bit choosy about what we got involved with afterwards. I think Ed and I at the time were intent on not being pigeon-holed as horror directors as Hollywood wanted us to be. They sent us all these really bad scripts to direct, and wanted to throw a lot of money our way, but for me, making a film is so difficult, stressful and hard. It’s like going to war. And if you don’t believe in your mission, it’s a miserable, miserable experience. I just would rather get involved with things that I have fun with, that I had some level of control over. And Ed and I aren’t always going to be successful, and some films may fall flat on their face. But I’ll take my hits. I want to be involved with projects that I can do somewhat on my own terms, for better or worse, and go home every day somewhat satisfied.The making of Blair Witch was surely about control, too. You had an ending in there that would have survived no studio process whatsoever.

Absolutely not. There’s no way you could have pitched something like that back then. It was so counter to the conventions of the time. Now maybe you could pitch it. But it was a theoretical experience, movie-wise, we approached this thing rooted in our love for old documentary techniques. Like The Legend Of Boggy Creek. These slow documentaries that we felt were so creepy and scary, and bathed with reality. It was a theoretical perspective on film making that the average Hollywood executive doesn’t have time or inclination to get into.

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I remember at the time there was talk of a pair of sequels. I recall you saying back then that you would get involved with a third film but not the second, which it appeared that Artisan was pitching left, right and centre. Can you clear that up?

Artisan, like most distributors, they’re a business. They’re out to make money. I don’t begrudge them that. The world is a marriage between commerce and art, and Artisan at that time were going to IPO their company, and they felt that Blair Witch was this diamond in the rough. To their credit they did a great job marketing the film, but I don’t think their intent was to get into a long-term brand. And so they wanted to capitalise on the Blair hype immediately, while it was in full swing.

We cautioned them against it, because we just felt it was getting to a point of backlash, and we advised them to let it show for a couple of years, and then we’d revisit the Blair Witch, but they thought otherwise. And they owned the rights to the movie after the purchase at Sundance, and did it their way.

We regret that that’s what happened, and Ed and Greg and myself like to think that by distancing ourselves from that, we’re able to maintain the pedigree of the Blair Witch brand. That if we decide to do another one, that people would forgive that speed bump in the Blair Witch incarnation.

And would you revisit the Blair Witch?

Yeah, we have several ideas. The great thing about Blair Witch is that it’s more than just a single movie, it’s a whole mythology. Everything from Rustin Parr to Elly Kedward at the beginning of the original, to the original curse and mythology that surrounds it. We have a prequel idea that would be cool to do. I even outlined a whole sequel, way back in the day.

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It’s like a Star Wars trilogy in a way, that you can really take it into these narrative directions, with the mythology built around it. There’s definitely room to explore that. And our hope is that we can collaborate on something in the future, with a new generation of audience members out there that would embrace it.

But it’s hard to live up to that. There’s also that part of me that says well, Blair Witch was a special thing, it was lightning in a bottle, and it’s unlikely that we’d ever repeat that success again. And there’s that part of me that says why bother, why try to repeat that.

So did you see the sequel? And did you have any thoughts on it?

Yeah, yeah. [long pause]

I’m assuming there’s not much you want to say about it!

Well, it is what it is as they say [laughs]. It’s not what I would have done, and Joe Berlinger who directed the movie, he’s a good guy and I think he’s an extremely talented documentary film maker. I just felt that he was hobbled in a lot of ways. I think the sequel was just a result of a movie getting made for all the wrong reasons. And that happens all the time in this business. Good ideas can go bad because they’re made for the wrong reasons. The mission isn’t the right mission. Even though all the players may be noble players, the mission itself is fundamentally flawed.

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The three stars of the film have all said that they felt cursed by the original film in a way, and it’s hampered how they’ve got on with their career. With you it sounds like the other way round: that it’s given you the freedom to say no?

Yeah, the thing is that you’ll always be compared to Blair Witch, and I try to be optimistic about it, because I wouldn’t be doing half of the interviews that I do if it wasn’t for Blair Witch, and I wouldn’t have the opportunities that I have if it wasn’t for Blair Witch. The way I look at it is that it’s a good problem to have, at least I’m known for something!

And as an artist, as much as some say they don’t care what the audience thinks, I think that’s bullshit. The bottom line as artists, we want people to respond to our work, we want to move people emotionally. That’s the whole purpose in life! I know of very few artists that wouldn’t want to have people respond to their work to the level people did with Blair Witch. I’m the luckiest guy on the planet in that respect.

But it’s a doubled-edged sword. There are future projects that I want to be involved with, and past projects that, you know, have a tendency to get put into a box: you are the Blair guy!

Ultimately I think the difference between allowing that box to lock you and not lock you in is just sticking to what you do as a film maker and why you did it, and try not to compare that to anything else you do. Let the work speak for itself, and hopefully your body of work will speak about you.

Do you take it as a complement then when something like Cloverfield, ten years on, gets compared in certain ways to Blair Witch?

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Absolutely, yeah. I thought it was very much in the spirit of the Blair Witch, and a very ballsy move for a high budget film to take that kind of cinematic approach. I thought they executed it on a lot of levels very well. I would have done a couple of things differently. But I think that for a film like that to get made is very encouraging.

And then even, a year or two ago, we were talking about Snakes On A Plane, a film that would seemingly have no link with the Blair Witch, but for the way it used the Internet as a promotional tool. The parallels keep being drawn. Does it come across to you that Blair Witch is now seen as almost iconic?

Yeah, it really is staggering sometimes. I see references to Blair Witch and it’s almost like a verb. I’ll pick up a random book, some political book about the Bush administration, or this and that, and there will be some reference to some guy getting Blair Witch-ed. And I’ll just go what! It really becomes part of the lexicon of culture.

I don’t think Tony Blair ever appreciated the name of your film…

[Laughs] There were a lot of references to it! I have friends that e-mail me a lot of the time, and they’ve found something that mentioned Blair Witch in a particular context, and they hand it over to me and I just shake my head!

You didn’t immediately follow Blair Witch up, though. There seems to be a five or six year gap before you reappeared on the map again, and while I assume you were busy during that time, I’m curious what you did in the aftermath of Blair Witch, before starting projects such as Raw Feed?There was soul searching after Blair Witch. We didn’t take the more traditional route of film making, if there is such a thing. In most cases someone will have a relatively successful film at a festival, and it’s a stepping stone to the next project, and they work their way up. We were catapulted to absolute nobodies to the top of the heap in a matter of weeks. And that had a profound effect on how we viewed the business, and on how we viewed ourselves as film makers. What is our place in the world? Was it a fluke? Was it on the merits of the movie?

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We had this internal struggle, at least I know I did, about our validity as film makers. I just got to a point where I knew what I liked and didn’t like, and didn’t want to do some movie just because I could do it, and didn’t want to do something I didn’t believe in. And Blair Witch showed me that the emergence of these new markets on the Internet, and stuff like that, was very exciting. I consider myself a little bit of a film maker insurgent if you will, because I like to find new ways to make films, and new ways to distribute them that are outside the mainstream of the Hollywood system.

So we did this show called The Strand, which was an online episodic show that we thought was very cool. A little bit ahead of its time. But Blair afforded me those opportunities to experiment, and so I was developing a lot of these ideas and projects and scripts. I was pretty busy during that downtime, taking stock of who I was as a film maker and trying not to let it all go to my head. And just, you know, taking my time as to what I got involved with.Going through the Gear Head Pictures website that you’re involved with, and your Raw Feed work, the unifying objective between both seems to be to keep things simple?

Yeah. It really is. Again, I’m sure I’m naïve and have hobbled my rise up the corporate ladder in this business because I had a tendency to want to do things on my own terms. But again it goes back to, you know, I would rather do something smaller and a little more experimental, and be happy doing it – as happy as you can be making a movie! – than something that you feel is not really inspired.

Even the Raw Feed project, as genre-specific as those are, it’s another experiment. Setting up a model that makes direct-to-DVD genre pictures that allows unknown film makers to come and take a shot at it. I just like that idea, giving these film makers a crack at doing these small, low-budget features. Can you set up a model, a methodology, that gives them an avenue to get into distribution for DVDs? It may work, it may not work, but it’s an interesting experiment to try.Now you’ve got to the point where you’re back with a feature of your own, The Objective, and you have a director’s commentary up on the film’s site even before the film’s out! But again, you’ve gone against expectations here: instead of doing a claustrophobic horror film, it’s as if you’ve gone as far the other way, setting the film in the middle of the desert.

Yeah! I think again it’s probably to my detriment that I don’t want to fall into a particular brand or way of doing things. I leave that to other people to make that assessment about me and my work. I just can only do things that I would want to see myself. That’s my criteria. What would I do that I would pay ten bucks to go and see.

So having moved out to LA, I romanced about the desert and this and that. I was intrigued by how still the desert is, how creepy it can be, and how I think it shares in common a lot of things that are a part of our latent neurosis. Man feeling small and insignificant and out of his element. Whether you’re in the ocean, or in the woods, or in the middle of the desert, it’s us not in our element.

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And I’d never really seen a movie that takes place in the desert where it’s so vast, and so much bigger than us, and the smartest guy on the planet is reduced to just having to fend for himself, or be “eaten”. I think the desert was a good backdrop for that, and also felt that it’s fairly timely. Especially with what we’re seeing in the visual lexicon of the Internet with all the war footage and CNN reports, all taking place in the desert. Maybe all that influenced my decision to make this film, but I do think it’s a great backdrop for a thriller.

And the film is finished, and you’re hitting the selling process now?

Yeah, it’s in the Tribeca Film Festival, we have four screenings there throughout the festival, and so far the buzz has been very good. We’re very excited about it, I’m really proud of the movie. I like to think of it as a thinking man’s thriller, and it leaves a lot of unanswered questions, and some ambiguity, that the audience can debate afterwards. Hopefully they will be debating it. But I like it when films do that, when they make the audience work a little bit.

Any news on a UK release? Does it come off the back of the film festivals?

Yeah, I think so. The goal now is to sell the movie and go into distribution. I’d like nothing more than to go to London and showcase the film there – that would be incredible.

What’s the plan after The Objective?

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That will be determined by what happens with The Objective! I’ve got this other film that I’ve been developing for a few years called that I would really like to do next, and it’s kind of in that thriller genre again. It’s hard to describe – it’s a guy with the ability to turn ordinary people into serial killers. And so it isn’t so much that he’s the villain, he turns you into one. It’s a different take on that. I’d like to get that going if possible!

Daniel Myrick, thank you very much.