Welcome back to Commentary Commentary, where we dive into the shiny backside of your favorite DVDs and bring you the magical insight that comes from hearing filmmakers talk. This week we’re going back to the woods, trekking through miles and miles of uncharted forest area, and looking for some lost film students. Not necessarily film school rejects. You can’t really be rejected if you wind up dead in the woods, right? Doesn’t matter.
This week we’re listening to the commentary track for The Blair Witch Project, the infamous, no-budget shocker that became a cultural phenomenon in 1999. It also remains a sure-fire way to scare your friends or making them violently ill from all the shaky cam. Here’s what we learned from the commentary on this, the movie that kicked off the latest trend of found-footage moviemaking.
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Commentators: Daniel Myrick (writer/director), Eduardo Sanchez (writer/director), Rob Cowie (producer), Gregg Hale (producer), Mike Minello (co-producer), Eduardo Sanchez’s stomach growling
- The off-camera voice heard in the opening shot of the film is Lonnie Glerum, head production assistant on the film. Likewise, this shot was filmed in Lonnie’s house. The directors spent a number of weeks testing people on the crew to find the right “moron voice.”
- The shot Heather takes at Josh calling him “Mr. Punctuality” is an in-joke, as Josh Leonard was extremely late to the shoot that day.
- Josh’s camera used throughout the film, a CP-16, sold on eBay for $10,000. This was about 10 years ago, so the inflation on that makes the camera worth at least $10,500 in today’s market.
- The scene of Heather and Josh picking Mike up at his house is the only scene that was overdubbed. Heather’s voice during this scene and the song were mixed in later. Mike’s voice during this scene is that of Tony Cora who did the film’s score. Likewise, the song playing on the radio during filming was The Animals’ “We’ve Gotta Get Out Of This Place,” but the production could not afford the rights.
- It took forever to get approval to use Power Bars during the scene where the three are buying groceries. Now the production team receives boxes of Power Bars shipped to their offices.
- The scene at the cemetery is the only scene actually shot in Burkittsville, Maryland.
- The woman on the street telling her account of the Blair Witch and the events in Burkittsville was just a random woman the actors came across on the street. She made up the entire story on the spot. After filming, the directors tried with no success to find the woman to get her to sign a release form.
- A number of shots and small scenes were filmed after The Blair Witch Project had been picked up at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival. Chief among these was the scene of the man with the backwards baseball hat whose story about Rustin Parr ended up giving the story the biggest clue as to where it was headed.
- The production put out fliers at a local community college looking for interns. Patricia DeCou, who plays Mary Brown, was the only person to sign up. She’s referred on the commentary as the “world’s oldest college student,” the scene was actually shot at her home, and no production design was done to it. The make-shift wooden gate was already there.
- The shot in the car of Josh complaining about meters on the camera was really actor Joshua Leonard trying to explain his inexperience with the camera. During the scene with Mary Brown you can tell he’s mishandling the camera, as much of it is out of focus.
- The directors recognize certain anachronisms in the film. A few vehicles shown were not around in 1994. Also the flavor of Power Bar Mike was holding up earlier in the film was not available in 1994.
- There was an hour and a half worth of footage shot in the hotel when the actors are getting drunk. They really are drunk by the end of the scene, and each person’s real characteristics came to light. Among the footage that was cut includes Mike and Josh reciting poetry and a scene of the three at a diner. This latter scene is included on the VHS version of the film.
- The actors immediately found themselves lost in the woods. In the shot where they are walking away from their car, they are already going the wrong direction and ended up being lost for roughly an hour. “I just figured at that time we are so boned. They got lost off of a road. We’re just screwed,” says Myrick.
- The directors wanted Mike to be seen as the antagonist from early on as indicated by the first big blow-up between he and Heather. Mike was also originally going to be the first of the group to disappear, but this was changed to Josh during filming so the end of the film would focus on two characters with completely different dynamics.
- The scene with the three sitting around the campfire is probably the most expensive few seconds in the film, as the production had to get the rights for Heather to quote the Gilligan’s Island theme.
- The team out in the woods making noises to scare the actors was comprised of Myrick, Sanchez, art director Ricardo Moreno, Tony Cora, and producer Gregg Hale. Certain sound effects were also included in post-production. The entire team had to wear safety goggles, as it was completely dark and they could have been injured from all the dry branches. During filming the first night’s scene, Heather began yelling at the other two actors berating them for not wanting to go out to investigate. It was one of the only times the directors stepped in to address the actors while in the woods.
- Throughout the production in the woods, the directors would leave drops for the actors with notes and directions where to head next. On the third day, the actors completely missed their drop, went the wrong way, and ended up at someone’s house. That night, the directors let the actors stay at a nearby hotel and restarted the next morning to reshoot the “third day.” The weather was drastically different, rainy the first time, sunny and windy the second, so much of the footage used is from the first run-through.
- On the “third night” the directors had to wait for the actors to go to sleep before sneaking up to build the rock piles. This didn’t work, and the actors heard them. The production team yelled the set code word “taco” which meant to break scenario and not to come out of the tent.
- The tooth necklace Josh wears through much of the film was actually lost in the woods. He asked the directors to go into the woods to try and find it, but they didn’t. So find a necklace, win a prize, right?
- The CP-16 Josh uses in the film broke about three days into filming and had to be taken to cinematographer Neal Fredericks to be fixed. This is the same camera Fredericks would go on to sell on Ebay for $10,000.
- One of the dropped messages to the actors revealed to Mike that he was the one who was to destroy the map. He improvised on the spot to kick it into the river and thought Heather and Mike had seen him do it. Mike carried this information to himself for much of that day’s filming before finding the right moment to reveal it to the other two.
- The big stick figure with leaves and grass is referred to as the Chewbacca.
- According to a Christian, right-wing review that the directors and producers bring up, the word “fuck” (also referred to as the “foulest of the foul” words in the review) is uttered 137 times. The Blair Witch Project — 137. Commentary Commentary – 1.
- The sounds of children outside the tent in one scene are sounds of kids who live across the street from Eduardo Sanchez’s mother. Tony Cora recorded them playing, reading, and talking gibberish. The production team had three boomboxes with this audio playing outside the tent during this scene. Mike Williams has said that this was his most terrifying moment during filming.
- When the three are running through the woods and Heather yells, “What the fuck is that?” at something off-camera, she is really reacting to art director Ricardo Moreno dressed in white long-johns, white stockings, and white pantyhose pulled over his head running alongside them. Commentary Commentary – 2.
- It bugs Eduardo Sanchez during the scenes where Josh or Mike are yelling at Heather to put down the camera so they can start hiking. It bothers him that they are in such a rush to leave, but they aren’t packing up the tent or their gear. “They’re not packing, because they know we’re gonna come and pack it,” says Myrick.
- During the shot where Mike tries to force Heather to put down the camera, she actually bit him to get him away from her.
- 54 minutes 11 seconds into the commentary, Eduardo Sanchez’s stomach audibly growls. Or maybe it’s a throat gurgle. Or it might have been the witch. We haven’t gotten confirmation either way.
- On the night Josh was to disappear, the production team had to wait for him to come out of the tent. They had left him a note telling him to wait for Mike and Heather to fall asleep before coming and looking for the production team’s flashlight. Gregg and Eduardo waited outside for nearly 45 minutes before calling out to him. Josh was happy to leave the production, since there was a Jane’s Addiction concert he wanted to see.
- Over the course of filming, the production team left less and less food for the actors in each day’s drops. Over the last two days, Heather and Mike were down to getting a Power Bar, a piece of fruit, and water each day.
- During the scene where Heather finds the bundle of tied sticks, production designer Ben Rock was looking on to see her reaction when she looked inside. She didn’t open the bundle but instead threw it away. Rock conveyed this back to the production team who stepped in and to tell her to go back and look inside. The teeth inside the bundle are from Eduardo Sanchez’s dentist and from casting’s Lisa Dane. The hair is really Josh Leonard’s hair.
- During the infamous scene where Heather is speaking directly into the camera, she thought she was getting her whole face in the shot but didn’t realize she had zoomed in so much. The directors and producers are also clearly impressed by the amount of snot and phlegm Heather Donahue is able to create.
Best in Commentary
“His line about ‘Damn fool kids will never learn,’ kind of seems corny. It’s a total Scooby Doo line, but then it turns into he really was right.” – one of many commentators
All in all, the commentary on The Blair Witch Project is interesting and insightful, a nice look into the making of a film that had absolutely no budget to work with. To hear how the directors handled the actors while shooting in the woods is very intriguing. You can also tell the pride the production team has with how the film turned out, particularly in the acting of the three leads.
What hinders the commentary, though, is a matter of too many cooks in one kitchen. There are five men talking on this audio track, and most of them have similarly sounding voices. That makes it pretty difficult to know who is speaking at any given moment, as indicated by the vague attribution I had to put in the Best in Commentary section. It’s not for lack of trying to understand it, though. I listened to that part of the commentary four times, listened to the introductions where each person says who they are five times, and still can’t be 100% sure who is talking there. It could have been Daniel Myrick. It could have been Gregg Hale. It could have even been that fucking throat gurgle Eduardo Sanchez dropped. I’m just not sure.
Commentary Commentary – 3