Welcome to Commentary Commentary, our long-running series of articles exploring the things we can learn from the most interesting filmmaker commentaries available on DVD and Blu-ray.
Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett have delivered some entertaining genre movies over the years, but 2016’s Blair Witch remains their only pure horror movie. (Judging by the response it may also be their last pure horror movie.) It ended up being fairly divisive among audiences for several reasons — my own review lands me somewhere near the middle — but if you’re on the “love it” side of things then the Blu-ray is most likely already on your shelf. Hopefully, that means you’ve listened to the commentary track too as the filmmakers have a lot to say, but for those of you who haven’t yet (or just don’t like re-watching with the commentary on), I’m here to help.
Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary for…
Blair Witch (2016)
Commentators: Adam Wingard (director), Simon Barrett (writer)
1. The commentary was recorded two weeks after the film opened in theaters (and three weeks before it closed). Judging by some of what follows they really should have waited the extra few weeks before sitting down for this.
2. They were brought onto the project by a pair of executives from Lionsgate who were also the ones who bought Wingard/Barrett’s You’re Next (2011). “And notably they started talking to us about doing this film after they bought You’re Next but before they released it and it also was a box-office disappointment like this motion picture you’re watching now.”
3. Lionsgate’s initial suggestion was that James (James Allen McCune) would discover a photo online, but Barrett wanted a video to help immediately draw a theater into the intensity of the experience.
4. Wingard also composed the film’s score and “had to make a case for the fact that the music in this film is music to get a credit for it.”
5. They weren’t sure early on how to handle the film’s opening, so they didn’t actually film the character introductions until they left Vancouver, Canada and were back in Los Angeles. This left some early viewers (ie studio folk) worried as they didn’t know who these people suddenly in the woods were.
6. They shot two hours of motel room footage as a nod to scenes in the original but only used a minute or so. “You have to sometimes shoot a whole bunch of nonsense to get those little tiny spontaneous pieces.”
7. The actual town of Burkittsville, MD has had to change and replace their welcome sign more than once as people keep stealing it.
8. Early scenes of the characters walking through the woods originally ran longer as James and Lane (Wes Robinson) debated the origins of the Blair Witch legend, and those were the sequences where the film explored the idea that the “witch” wasn’t something that could actually be shown. Cutting them may have left some viewers confused and grasping for more info.
9. The first two weeks of filming was rough-going as Wingard realized they had “so much footage that didn’t work.” It wasn’t working, and the uncertain feeling was more intense than he’d ever experienced before.
10. “You think found footage is going to be easier to do,” says Wingard, but they discovered that the format’s restrictions actually made it tougher. “It’s almost like doing a sort of Dogme 95 thing but without the prestige.”
11. Lionsgate chose the name “James” for the lead character. Barrett doesn’t elaborate (and adds that it was a coincidence that the actor is also named James), but is this normal for a studio to be that hands on with a small film? Crazy.
12. One of the reasons Wingard wanted to do this film was because he was “disappointed in his entries in the V/H/S series.” He was “bummed out” by the sequel’s lack of found footage, and this gave him the opportunity to tackle a follow-up to the original which he loves.
13. Barrett wants to dispel rumors that the studio interfered with the film and says Lionsgate was incredible throughout production. “If you like this movie or don’t like it, this is the movie we wanted to make.”
14. Other complaints have criticized the film for feeling like too much of a retread, but they felt it was necessary to get the franchise back on the rails after 2000’s Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. “If the movie had been a bigger hit in the theaters we would have done a sequel that would have gotten into much weirder territory, but it felt like we couldn’t just jump into that.” The film ultimately earned $45 million in theaters on a $5 million budget, so I think that crazy sequel could — and should — still happen.
15. Barrett points out that the film has the same Cinemascore — a D+ — as King Kong Lives (1986), adding “I don’t know what to make of that information.” It’s unclear if he already knew that Wingard would be tapped to direct the upcoming Godzilla vs. Kong (2020) or if he’s just a little bit psychic.
16. The first script draft was very gory, but it didn’t really feel right for the franchise.
17. They tried a few different things to get the POV footage of the drone crashing — the drone pilot did it successfully but wasn’t filming at the time, they launched a GoPro into the trees with a sling shot but lost it in the woods — before Wingard just settled for running through the brush with another GoPro.
18. The night they lost their GoPro in LA’s Franklin Park was the same night The Forest (2016) was having a special screening in the park. Interestingly, Blair Witch was filming under the title The Woods.
19. Wingard wonders how many viewers actually even notice the thing in the woods at 44:28. “But the people who do see it are furious with us,” adds Barrett.
20. While he had requested a gun with blanks, Wingard had to settle for an air horn which he would use when he wanted the cast to react suddenly.
21. Something Wingard missed seeing in Book of Shadows and definitely wanted to include here was “that moment where characters are just wildly running through the woods.”
22. The thing Ashley (Corbin Reid) pulls from her leg wound at 59:08 — accomplished with all practical effects — is supposed to be a root, but some viewers think they see movement and suspect it’s a CG creature. It’s not, and some digital removals aside the film is free of CG.
23. Casting the film was a challenge as they were being secretive about it being a The Blair Witch Project sequel. “They had no idea what they were auditioning for.”
24. The KPG symbol can be seen on Lisa’s (Callie Hernandez) phone at 1:02:22 meaning that You’re Next, V/H/S (2012), V/H/S/2 (2013), The Guest (2014), and Blair Witch “all take place in the same cinematic universe.”
25. That’s a hand slapping Ashley’s extended arm up in the tree at 1:04:30, and while they want to make sure you know that they’re not about to explain who it’s supposed to belong to. Barrett does add that he believes it’s Lane dragging her away after she hits the ground.
26. They hid the map from the original movie somewhere in this film and “foolishly” offered $400 to anyone who could locate it, but “now that the film’s come out we know that we obviously can’t afford that anymore.” Wingard doesn’t think you can find it even with a freeze frame, but they do confirm the map is somewhere in the house.
27. The inspiration for the tunnel scene was the sequence in Aliens (1986) where Bishop has to crawl through the tube. “That always really bothered me as a kid,” says Barrett.
28. The tunnel sequence is legit terrifying, and hearing about its construction and design just makes it worse. It was fifty feet long and featured tight spots crafted to Callie’s shoulder width meaning that when it looks super cramped it’s because it really is. One camera operator had a panic attack and had to be replaced for the scene, and the part where Callie’s stuck was shot with two other people in there with her — one was behind holding her legs so she couldn’t move forward, and the other was in front of her filming. So Callie was literally trapped in this tunnel which is unnerving to hear about even from the comfort of my couch.
29. “We didn’t want to answer anyone’s questions,” says Barrett, “and so they assumed that in fact we just did the dumbest thing possible and in fact we’re idiots.” I’m torn on this idea in theory as I like when films feel free to leave some things open for viewer interpretation, but by their own admission this movie leaves almost everything unanswered. If the scares and thrills work for you then that may not be all that important, but if those visceral elements fall flat then the lack of narrative detail leaves the film desperately wanting.
30. The Shack (2017) was scheduled to begin filming on this same sound stage the moment they wrapped, and the crew was ready to tear down the set as soon as the cameras stopped rolling. Barrett comments that the film will probably earn more than theirs once it opens, and he was correct — The Shack earned more than double what Blair Witch did. Hopefully he takes some comfort, though, knowing that The Shack also cost four times as much to make.
31. The end credits still feature credits for the “Blair Witch stunt double” and “arm double” despite them making it fairly clear that the Blair Witch never actually appears in the film.
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“If this were the opening weekend for Blair Witch right now you’d be watching Sully instead.”
“If you’re listening I presume you’re not one of the people who hated this film.”
“What we actually discovered is that if you call your movie Blair Witch anything you show everyone’s just going to assume you’re actually showing the Blair Witch, and then they’re going to be annoyed about that.”
“This movie was just a nightmare.”
“We didn’t ever want to fully explain something.”
“We personally like jump scares.”
“You’re not gonna get an explanation for these lights because you didn’t come see this moving opening weekend, so now you’re just gonna have to fucking wonder what is going on out there.”
Buy Blair Witch on Blu-ray/DVD from Amazon.
Wingard and Barrett deliver an entertaining and informational commentary track as both filmmakers offer technical details and fun anecdotes in addition to plenty of bitching (which is also fun). I get it, and as someone who listens to a lot of commentary tracks I love the honesty, but I also wonder how much of an issue they created for themselves by making a film that is in many ways a setup for the next film. Related, I’ll be the first to admit I don’t know shit about Hollywood accounting, but the film made $45 million on a $5 million budget. That’s better than most horror movies can claim (outside of some Blumhouse productions) so while Wingard and Barrett were understandably down recording this just a couple weeks into its release I have to imagine things have changed. They repeatedly say they can’t make the next sequel — the one that would answer some of the numerous questions raised here — because it bombed, but it didn’t! So yeah, I’m hoping to hear soon that Barrett is busy writing The Woods 2 while Wingard wraps up his giant monster movie.