Hell is other people. We should know

The makers of The Blair Witch Project, Ed Sanchez and Daniel Myrick, on the nightmare of collective film-making
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The Independent Online

If you like a little sex with your death, don't waste your money on The Blair Witch Project. One girl and two boys go into the woods for eight days to make a documentary - share a tent, sweat and shudder together in the face of escalating horror. And there's not one velvety look, not one ounce of seductively displayed flesh, not one innuendo-laced bit of banter between them. "The actors weren't interested in examining that issue," says one of the film's directors, Ed Sanchez, with a laugh. "That really would have involved them in acting," chips in his other half, Daniel Myrick, "cos they hated each other!"

If you like a little sex with your death, don't waste your money on The Blair Witch Project. One girl and two boys go into the woods for eight days to make a documentary - share a tent, sweat and shudder together in the face of escalating horror. And there's not one velvety look, not one ounce of seductively displayed flesh, not one innuendo-laced bit of banter between them. "The actors weren't interested in examining that issue," says one of the film's directors, Ed Sanchez, with a laugh. "That really would have involved them in acting," chips in his other half, Daniel Myrick, "cos they hated each other!"

Sanchez and Myrick - one long and flubby, the other bespectacled and hunched - are a confounding pair. The Florida Film School graduates who sold Blair Witch, their first, no-budget film for one million dollars after an historic screening at the Sundance Film Festival, you expect them to sweat arrogance, to talk up their auteur-like control. But if the hype surrounding Blair Witch is overwhelming, its directors are human-scale. So human they actually seem dwarfed by their project.

"Lots of things weren't up to us," admits Ed, "we let Heather and Josh and Mike [who use their real names in the film] do what they wanted to do. They shot it themselves. We gave them little clues as to where we wanted the scenes to go, but most of it was it improvised."

Turns out the directors themselves did plan to incorporate a smidgen of sex. "When Dan and I first envisioned the characters we thought there might be some romantic thing," drawls Sanchez (no surprise to learn that he's an inveterate pot smoker), "if they'd put some homosexual thing there in between Mike and Josh we would have left it ..." The directors' aim, though, was actually for something more conventional. "When we were auditioning for actors we always had some sort of romantic link between Heath and Josh," Sanchez continues, "with Mike as the outsider, getting pissed off with them siding with each other."

Myrick is temporarily distracted by a knock on the door ("Probably someone with the coffee," I say, "I hope so," he groans). Cup in hand, he then concludes "the bottom line was, the actors were all in relationships - they really weren't into each other at all and we just went with what they gave us."

What unknown New Yorkers Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael Williams gave them was a light-handed portrait of American youth, a gothic version of Richard Linklater's Slacker; a study of the fault-lines that exist in the most innocuous of relationships. And real-life (if not sexual) tensions were undoubtedly crucial to the evolving narrative. In the film, Josh is the first to disappear from the woods; in the world of the here and now, he was ready to go.

"We took Josh out early," explains Sanchez, scratching one of his ironically Byronic sideburns, "and he left for New York two days later. He tells people now that he was mad we pulled him out, but he sure wasn't mad that night. He didn't even stay for the wrap party, man. He left, dude. He was done with it."

The split within the trio seems to have persisted. Sanchez talks about meeting up with the actors in New York: "We saw Heather outside the screening theatre and she looked great!" His eyes light up, "I was like holy moly. And Mike was there, too..." What about Josh? "Oh," they say, almost in unison, "by then, he was already living in Los Angeles ..."

The directors themselves know all about the trials of collaboration, for they share Blair Witch not only with the actors but with Haxan, the five-man, Orlando-based collective they belong to.

Myrick, who looks electrically wired for worry, confesses he found the group dynamic particularly difficult. "Originally," he says, taking great gulps of his cappuccino, "we were going to include all sorts of other footage in the film, clips of the child killer Rustin Parr and this Seventies supernatural show, really cool stuff ... We tried to integrate it with the footage from the woods, but it wasn't working and that took a while to sink in, especially for me. I didn't want us to not give that stuff a chance just because we were in a hurry for Sundance and we didn't have any money ..."

And things were to get even more frustrating. "I was just internalising everything," says Myrick, "but I was also preoccupied. I had to go to Boston for two weeks to shoot some thing (he makes a face) to pay the bills." He allows himself a little shiver of paranoia. "When you do that, you're not only taking yourself out of the editing process, you're also taking yourself out of the discussion process. I'd come back and things would have evolved and I'd be catching up. It's just impossible to do that over the phone ..."

He and Sanchez soon found themselves at odds with one another. "Ed and Gregg [Hale, the film's producer] went off for the weekend and I stayed on in the editing room. I went home that night and I remember saying to myself, 'I'm going to take one last shot at it and if I can't make it work I'm going to jettison it'. The next morning I came in and Ed and Gregg were sitting there and said that they'd been talking to our executive producer and we needed to let that stuff go. They were all worried about telling me," he says, as if that were a ludicrous idea, but it's obvious how wound up he was. "I was going to do it anyway," he says softly, "if it didn't work today". Note the use of the present tense. He nods to himself, as if he's about to enter that editing room all over again.

All of these wranglings drip, drip, drips into Blair Witch. Like so many of the best horror films, it's about the creative process itself (think of The Shining's mad typist or Frankenstein's feverish scientist) - the obsessiveness that it entails, and the lack of sensitivity. The method by which the film was shot, however, adds a new twist.

Sanchez and Myrick discuss Heather's ruthless desire to get the truth on camera as if it had nothing to do with them. "She's insensitive enough to keep a camera in those guy's faces when they're her crew!" they say, horrified. "Heather has this reporter's instinct - this Geraldo Rivera streak. That's what made it buyable that she would continue shooting, despite everything, but it's also the thing that makes her so irritating. When Josh turns on her it is so justified!"

Now normally, as directors, Sanchez and Myrick would be equally guilty in relation to their cast, but of course they didn't need to keep a lens in any one's face. They were often miles away when the shooting took place. Their hands, so to speak, never got dirty.

They weren't even the ones to blame for the harsh, some would say, sadistic conditions in the woods (the actors would often be woken up at night by the Haxan team, so that their dazed expressions would look genuine). "We knew the actors were working for little or no money and one night all their stuff got so wet and they couldn't even contact us on the radio. But Gregg kept us on track. If they bitched too much he'd be like, 'they're fine, keep going'." Gregg Hale, in other words, was the Heather of their group.

So where does that leave Myrick and Sanchez? I begin to wonder if their vaguely hangdog relationship to their movie has something to do with the fear of being seen to look. Sanchez compares the Blair Witch footage to a car crash: "You want to look, but you know if you were in that accident you wouldn't want people to look." "When we were looking through the footage," he recalls soberly, "I kept thinking, 'Am I supposed to be watching this, should I keep watching?'"

The need to watch is one of the film's most interesting themes. Just as Josh and Mike come to detest the all-seeing eye of Heather's video camera, so we learn that child killer Rustin Parr couldn't bear to have the eyes of the children upon him, always making one of his victims stand with their face to the wall.

This desire for privacy is what connects the hunter and hunted, and as directors Myrick and Sanchez somehow managed to get others to do the peeping - the violating. But there's a downside. As Heather says at one point, "I'm scared to close my eyes, I'm scared to open them." In relation to Blair Witch, Myrick and Sanchez appear similarly paralysed.

I ask if they'll continue working together and Myrick says he hopes they'll work together "for the rest of [our] careers". Sanchez frowns slightly, coughs, and says he wants to do something on his own. Myrick, as if relieved, nods in agreement. "It's healthy to separate. Sometimes I find myself thinking, 'was that my idea or was it Ed's? Or someone else's?' I begin to wonder if I'm the Ringo Starr in this group - it would be nice to know, one way or the other."

Blair Witch is about the things that tear us apart, not the things that glue us together (which explains why sex is so irrelevant). It's a film about the limits of collaboration. But maybe it's because its creators are so very alive to these limits that the film itself, far from encouraging the budding dictator, confirms the dizzying power of the motley crew.

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