Okay, hear me out on this one.
No, The Blair Witch Project didn’t need a sequel, and no, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 is not the sequel that modern horror classic from 1999 deserved. But, love it – and some do really enjoy this film – or hate it, Blair Witch 2 was a controversial sequel to a film that already sparked enough controversy on its own. Book of Shadows, if for nothing else, takes an interesting path for a franchise that could just have as easily turned down Straight-To-DVD-Rehash Boulevard, but it tried something a little different, putting the character in a world where The Blair Witch Project actually exists.
What’s more, this wacky horror sequel was also directed by documentarian Joe Berlinger, most famous for the Paradise Lost trilogy. Book of Shadows was taken out of his hands, and Artisan, wanting another horror hit on their slate, opted for re-shoots and re-cuts to make the film more traditionally scary. To Artisan’s or whoever’s credit, Berlinger was given the keys to a commentary on the DVD, which is what we’re digging into this week. The result is an honest look at what happens when a director and a studio have two very different visions.
So sit back, crack open a Pete’s Wicked Ale, and blast that Godhead, because we’re all virgins on this bus! Yeah, I’m one of the people who actually digs this movie.
Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000)
commentators: Joe Berlinger (co-writer/director), lots of blurring the lines between fiction and reality
1. To start, Berlinger did not agree with the title card that starts the film stating it is a “fictionalized re-enactment of events that occurred after the release of The Blair Witch Project.” This was a studio decision. The director wanted to make it very clear that the first movie was a work of fiction that caused mass hysteria and that this was a film about people caught up in that hysteria. He felt this put the audience in the same territory as the characters.
2. Most of the people in Burkittsville disapproved of the sequel and, as Berlinger says, “chased them out of town.” The documentary footage at the beginning of the film was pieced together from the small handful of residents who would actually talk to them.
3. The force-feeding scene early in the film was Berlinger’s homage to Frederick Wiseman’s Titicut Follies, a documentary film about inmates in a mental institution. Berlinger also notes this was one of the many scenes Artisan forced in after he had turned in his initial cut.
4. “This aerial comes straight out of Paradise Lost,” says Berlinger over Book of Shadows’ opening credits, a shot of woods with Marilyn Manson blasting “Disposable Teens.” He does note later his original choice was Frank Sinatra’s “Witchcraft.”
5. The shots of gore interspersed throughout the opening credits were a studio addition. “I believe that the gore in the movie fights with the ambiguity that I purposefully tried to nurture, but that’s life in studio filmmaking,” he says. He also notes that in his original screenplay there is no gore at all. “The studio had a certain point of view, and I did it.” The gory scenes were shot five weeks before the film’s wide release.
6. The ambiguity Berlinger was looking for was in whether the kids in this film committed murder or if they were victims of some evil force, a theme found in both The Blair Witch Project and the ambiguous nature of the murders in his Paradise Lost films. Fortunately, that story had a happy ending.
7. Berlinger notes that as difficult a shoot as it was, everyone on set had a fun time making Book of Shadows. “This was our first, big adventure together,” he says.
8. The director’s casting process involved having the actors switch up characters and perform different roles during auditions. He notes everyone was auditioning for different parts than the ones they ended up playing.
9. Berlinger notes the different characters in his film and how they represent different archetypes in American culture and how they reacted to The Blair Witch Project. Included are the Wiccans, who were upset with the way the first film misrepresented them; the Goth crowd, who were infatuated with the paranormal and outside-the-box nature of the first film; intellects, who wanted to debate the film’s mythos; and entrepreneurs, who only looked to make money off the first film’s success.
10. Berlinger wanted Books of Shadows to serve as both a standard horror movie as well as a look at violence in the media, and how the media drives fanaticism seen with movie phenomena like The Blair Witch Project. “To me, the movie is about the dangers of blurring the lines between fiction and reality,” he adds.
11. The director originally wanted the first half of Book of Shadows to be a fun trip through the forest with nothing foreboding happening at all. The interrogation scenes and shots of violence were cut to be early after the film was out of his hands. Berlinger wanted the first third of the film to be complete satire without a hint of horror, almost a thumb-of-the-nose to horror-rabid fanatics.
12. To that end, the role of Sheriff Cravens was intended to be ludicrously over-the-top, and Berlinger even notes the ponytail is a direct reference to a character from his Paradise Lost films. We assume he means John Mark Byers. We’d know that ponytail anywhere.
13. Berlinger notes that it was his choice to have the character not react to the amount of paper spilling out of the sky when they awake from their “lost night.” The fact that they don’t question that it’s practically snowing paper was a way Berlinger showed the lines between fiction and reality blurring.
14. The director points out that the first film was about filmmakers disappearing and their footage being found, where Book of Shadows is about filmmakers and even camera equipment remaining, but the contents of the equipment have disappeared. “This goes back to one of my core themes of this movie is that we, as a society, have so blurred the lines between fiction and reality, that we’re so willing to believe that The Blair Witch Project was… a real documentary, because we’re very lazy in our consumption of media,” he says. All good points.
15. As another way of going against expectations, Berlinger chose to have much of the horror take place in the last half of Book of Shadows in an interior location instead of out in the woods. He wanted it to play more as a psychological horror movie about a group unravelling from paranoia instead of as a bloody slasher movie.
16. The cuts back to Jeff’s past in an insane asylum was the studio’s choice to make the character more of a villain, but Berlinger fought against this, not wanting any of the characters to come across as the film’s antagonist.
17. The main work Berlinger notes as influencing his approach to Book of Shadows was “Six Characters in Search of an Author,” a play by Luigi Pirandello for all you literary types out there who want a good read.
18. Another decision by the studio that Berlinger disagrees with was to have the ghost girl evaporate as she’s doing her freaky-backward-dance or whatever the hell that is. The director wanted the girl to disappear through cuts between POV shots. He felt his method worked better as fake-outs, and he just thinks the disappearing effect looks bad. Who decided on the freaky-backward-dancing remains a mystery.
19. For one scene, Erica Leerhsen had to chant an actual Wiccan chant over and over again until, by the end of shooting the scene, she collapsed from exhaustion. Berlinger’s Wiccan friend told him that she was calling up the God of the Underworld in that chant, a fact that freaked the actress out.
20. Berlinger notes a difficulty in finding a way to pay service to fans of The Blair Witch Project and expanding on the mythologies set down in that film while also bringing new audiences who hadn’t even seen the first film. The Blair Witch Project made $248.6m worldwide. Book of Shadows made $47.7m worldwide. Do you think anyone watched the second in theaters who hadn’t seen the first?
21. The director points out that his film doesn’t incorporate the shaky cam technique until it hits its third act, and the tension really starts to mount. Take note, Olivier Megaton.
22. Berlinger makes it clear that it was okay for Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez to make a fake documentary with The Blair Witch Project, but he disagrees with the decision that it was marketed as a real documentary. He does note he respects the first film, that Myrick and Sanchez have read the screenplay for Book of Shadows, and that they don’t like it. Berlinger also mentions he feels Artisan was expecting him to deliver another found footage, fake documentary. “I think that would be dishonest of a documentary maker to make a fake documentary,” he adds.
23. This commentary was recorded precisely one year after Berlinger signed the deal to direct Book of Shadows. He had initially gone to Artisan to pitch an idea for his first feature, but they weren’t interested. Instead they sent him three scripts they were looking at for a possible sequel to The Blair Witch Project. He passed on their scripts but they asked how he would handle a sequel. He pitched them his idea, and they bought it, giving him only nine months to deliver the finished film as the release date had already been set. “It’s a miracle that movie got done,” Berlinger says.
24. It was Berlinger’s intentions to have all the characters share the full names of the actors playing each of them. It was the marketing department’s decision late in the film’s post-production that the names needed to be changed. A middle ground was met on only changing the last names.
25. Berlinger’s “guiding principle” in shooting Book of Shadows and how the different sides of the film were to be represented was that the subjective delusions of the characters would be shown in 35mm, and reality is shown through video. “The question is why,” he adds. That crafty Berlinger.
26. The director purposefully included obvious references to classic horror movies like the dogs barking a la The Omen and the girl swinging around a tree backwards like in The Evil Dead. He wanted these to serve as the delusions of his characters, who were all well-versed in horror movie culture and who would have horror movie moments in their delusions.
27. As mentioned earlier, Berlinger’s original cut didn’t have any of the interrogation scenes or any shots of the massacre until the last 10 minutes of the film when all of that was revealed, and how you view the first half of the film is changed. He feels showing the violence earlier takes away any ambiguity that they were killers or not. “What do I know,” he jokes. “I’m just the director.”
28. Berlinger does make the West Memphis Three connection again late in the commentary only to add that since the finished version of Book of Shadows takes away his ambiguity and makes it appear that the characters in his film are murderers, he wants it to be perfectly clear that he thinks the West Memphis Three are completely innocent.
Best in Commentary
“I tried, as a documentary maker, not to do the obvious connection to my documentary roots, which would be to do the shaky-cam technique, which made the first movie popular. But I didn’t feel that that was something I wanted to do. Instead, I tried to find more subtle ways of connecting this film to the documentary tradition.”
“What I’ve learned in my documentary making is that what we really have to fear is what people do to each other, and to blame it on some supernatural element is somewhat unrealistic.”
This commentary backs up any beliefs that Joe Berlinger was aiming for something deeper than a run-of-the-mill horror sequel with Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, but Artisan, wanting to meet fan expectations, went in at the 11th hour and shoehorned moments of traditional horror. It also backs up Berlinger’s vision for a film that was trying to shed light on the media’s hold on public belief and how the Blair Witch phenomenon had many moviegoers questioning if what they saw was real or not. Unfortunately, Berlinger reiterates his point again, then again, and then a few more times.
This commentary is 90% theory and the themes Berlinger was aiming at with his movie, which is fine until repetition becomes quite obvious. For a quick drinking game, take a shot every time the commentator says the words “fiction”, “reality”, “lines”, or any variations of the word “blur.” You’ll be hammered by the second act. Enough is divulged in the commentary to justify giving it a listen, and hearing Berlinger speak on the subject of documentary film, the horror genre, and film in general is always a treat.
The man is clearly intelligent and well-schooled in the art. Someone should have taken this commentary away from him, though, and edited in some gore.