Moment of Truth
3am-ish on October 25, 1997, and Eduardo Sanchez, Gregg Hale, and Dan Myrick and I were in full-body camouflage (and still cold) at the first campsite for “The Blair Witch Project,” exhausted actors tucked away in their sleeping bags inside a mossy-green tent set up where we’d told them, in a dense darker-than-fuck pine forest in Seneca State Park in Germantown, Maryland.
Eighteen months earlier I’d sat in my film school friend Gregg’s one-bedroom house on Elmwood Street near downtown Orlando as he’d proposed this batshit concept: three actors making a documentary and us creating a scenario – the scenario – wherein we’d run them down hiking all day and fuck with them at night in their tent, and they’d document us extensively without ever seeing one of us.
Related Stories: The Making of The Blair Witch Project: Part 1 – Witch Pitch
In other words, we’d get to haunt them.
Such a delicious and irresistible idea. And here we were. This was it. We were inches away from the tent in the dark forest. We were about to haunt.
Close enough to touch. Crawling, on our hands and knees.
Close enough to smell the ash of their burned-out campfire.
Actually, too close. Back the hell off.
The four of us silently inched backward, away from that tent, and once we were at a safe distance, the haunt was on. We ran into the woods, fanned out.
No matter where Heather’s camera pointed when she inevitably emerged, one of us would be somewhere else. We ran loudly, made as much non-vocal noise as we could. Here we were – the first big scare. All we needed was the camera pointed into the void, the void being us.
Now separated and out of contact with one another, it only then hit me that there really wasn’t much of a plan per se for this first haunt. We were just trying not to be seen. Really that first night was all about just making our presence be known – there were more elaborate plans for future nights, but this was pretty simple. Make noise, wake the actors up, don’t get filmed.
It was probably 3:30am and cold, I was alone in the middle of the woods wearing head-to-toe camouflage, trying not to be seen, and it was working because nobody was waking up. Even though we’ve gone over this a bunch and I’d imagined this moment for over a year, I wasn’t sure what to do – they don’t wake up and film us wasn’t a contingency we’d planned on.
In the distance I heard a tree branch smash against the trunk of one of the pines.
Good idea! I grabbed a tree branch, smashed it against a tree several times.
Too rhythmic? Too random? Did someone in the tent just say something?
How would an evil presence menace these three people? Pure adrenaline, a face-punch of surreality. Another voice inside the tent.
I ran up into the area where I’d piled rocks and placed rocks on tree branches. About twenty or thirty feet away I saw the tent light up green from inside like a lantern.
More voices, shadows in the tent. The low sound of the tent slowly zipping open, Heather or Josh stepping out into the unknown…
“Hello?” I heard Heather’s voice echo into the icy, stale woods. A light beam swept my way and I dodged behind a tree. From tests we’d done weeks earlier, I knew I was too far away from her camera for the light to pick me up, but I wasn’t taking any chances.
SMASH SMASH SMASH!
The light spun around to catch one of the other guys making a racket in the empty woods. I dashed from one tree to another, picked up a hefty branch and bashed it against a tree trunk until it splintered. The same sound coming from the other side of the tent. The light swung my way and I stopped. It swung away and I began again.
Chaos. Probably twenty or thirty minutes of making a racket, and this haunting was over.
I think we broke scenario briefly after the haunt, let them go back to sleep, and Ed and Dan drove back to Germantown.
That night Gregg and I camped in the woods, not far from where Heather, Mike and Josh were. We were their safety net – if one of them got hurt, they’d get on a walkie-talkie and break scenario by saying the safe word “Bulldozer” and one of us would be there at all times to get them help. Gregg had extensive camping experience and I did not, but I remember laying in that tent in the same woods, trying to imagine how I’d respond if I heard something outside my tent. Somehow I went to sleep. It was probably close to 5am.
The Bulldozer Didn’t Hear
The next day, October 26, it rained unrelentingly.
By this point Dan’s girlfriend, Julia (who, ten years later, would co-write my feature Alien Raiders), had joined us and the two of them slept on the queen-size pull-out by the front door. Each day the actors would walk through the mousetrap we’d constructed for them using GPS waypoints; meanwhile we were prepping for the next haunt. Each night there’d be more of us out there, culminating with the night we chased them out of their tent. Early that evening, however, we got a phone call that derailed us – from Josh. Basically their tent was soaked through and they’d called the basecamp. They’d taken out their walkie.
Whoever was minding the tent at our basecamp that night (not me) had run out of battery power for the walkie and they heard nothing.
So Heather, Mike and Josh abandoned all their gear at their campsite and walked out of those wet woods, found a house, called us. It was the right thing to do, but obviously we had to adjust on the fly.
Gregg scrambled and got them a hotel room, making them promise to not shower or eat any more than they’d been given by us that day. And all the pricey gear – the DAT and boom mic, the CP-16 film camera, the tent and their supplies, all covered and left in the woods. We had to go get all of it and make it shoot-worthy the next day.
At about 10pm that night, we all put rain gear over our camo and hiked in the slippery rain out to the middle of nowhere and rescued the gear.
Mysteriously, to me this was fun. It was like being in the Scouts or something, but the night’s shoot was scrubbed and we’d have to make up for it. If you watch the movie, you’ll notice that at about 33 minutes in the world moves from overcast and rain-soaked to clear and dry. In the involuntary break, Gregg and I had taken the actors’ tent at a laundromat, gotten everything field-worthy again.
So every day they would walk the path that Ed and Dan had mapped out weeks earlier, for instance taking them through the field of Stickmen that we’d all made and Fahad Vania and I had hung or walking them in a giant circle or argue about the map, and we were rarely there for that stuff, and at night we’d haunt and haunt and haunt some more. We were getting better at haunting every night.
The next night we chased all the actors out of their tent (in this case, we’d placed the freshly-laundered tent ourselves so it opened toward a straight path) with a giant crew of people who’d marched an hour into the woods at 4am with us, carrying audio gear to play back children playing, an actor wearing thermal underwear over his clothes and head so that hopefully he’d turn up on Heather’s camera as a ghostly figure – he didn’t but he did prompt Heather to scream, “What the fuck is that?! What the fuck is that?!” but alas was too far from her camera to be picked up on film.
I then lubed up Josh’s gear with KY Jelly (as he was about to disappear and we wanted to create the idea of a Witch’s “unguent” on his stuff) and let them go back to their tent at dawn.
The next night, Josh was taken out. I think the original plan might have been to have Mike disappear first, or maybe that was just misinformation given to the actors so they wouldn’t know one way or the other. Ed’s cousin (and the composer of the film) Tony Cora took Josh to a recording studio and recorded his screams and just like that Josh was on a bus back to his home in New York.
That night his screams were played for them in the woods – like he was being tortured.
October 31, 1997
Halloween – The last day of the shoot. Heather and Mike were worn down to the nub. They were still in scenario, but they were mostly just exhausted. They’d lost Josh, they’d been hiking all day every day while getting less and less to eat, and we’d been waking them up every night with increasing horrors. The last day of the shoot, they were each given a bottle of water and a microwave burrito to eat, and that had to last them the full day. And I’d left a surprise for them at their tent, a bundle of sticks and twine with something horrifying inside.
Back at Stefanie’s townhouse, it occurred to me that Heather and Mike would never discover the surprise, the answer to the question “what was Josh screaming about,” if they weren’t told to.
The surprise consisted of a few things: Bundled in a swatch of Josh’s actual flannel shirt was a lock of his hair and some actual human teeth Gregg has acquired from a dentist he knew and some acrylic denture teeth I’d bought from a dental supply all covered with blood thickened to the consistency of creamy peanut butter. That was wrapped in a bundle made of sticks and twine, tied up with more strips ripped from Josh’s shirt. I was proud of the gruesome simplicity.
“Did you tell them to open the bundle?” I asked.
Ed and Dan looked at each other. They hadn’t.
“Can I tell them to?” I said. They nodded. I needed to break scenario.
We had to bring them fresh supplies for the day anyway, so I hopped into Gregg’s green Honda, drove down to their campsite and got their attention – the only time in the entire shoot that I personally broke scenario.
“Did you guys see the bundle of sticks?” I asked.
Heather looked at me, ready to be done with this film in general and me in particular.
“I saw it and I threw it away from the campsite,” Heather said.
“You have to open it up,” I said.
“No fucking way,” both of their eyes said to me. Mike was especially done. “Look man,” he said. “We just did a really good scene at the tent and it wouldn’t make sense for me now. I’m not going to open that thing up.”
Fuck. I get it – they’re tired, they’re hungry, they know today is the very last day and they’re ready for this shit to be over. I wasn’t the director and I didn’t know what to say except that the bundle needed to get opened.
“I’ll do it,” Heather said.
So relieved. “Thank you.” I said, handing them the remainder of their supplies, and I walked back to the car, not knowing if I’d done the right thing.
I walked back to the car, exhausted myself with the beginning stages of a cold tickling the back of my throat.
And then I heard that scream. The scream/gasp Heather emits involuntarily when she sees the flannel bundle of bloody teeth and hair. The hair stood up on the back of my neck, and I felt her terror live as it happened. It felt so real, the kind of real that this entire exercise was an attempt to dig down into. It was working.
The Road to Rustin
Rustin Parr’s house had been completed for a week or so, Transitus Fluvii lettering had been written around every doorway and window. The house had been sparsely appointed with wooden children’s toys and clothing that could pass as period. Also, we’d taken some young children Ed knew and had them dip their hands in black charcoal powder and put handprints all over the walls. The house was ready, except it was about an hour’s drive from Seneca State Park in a different park, Patapsco State Park. It was my job to drive them. They had no idea where they were going and I was sworn to secrecy.
They arrived in the woods by the house at dusk on Halloween night, 1997, and Mike absentmindedly left his microwave burrito on the bumper of the Jeep, having never eaten it (now that’s commitment). From where they were, there was no way for them to know that any structures existed in those woods. They each filmed a “confessional” – them talking to the camera and basically saying the last thing they thought the world would ever hear from them. We could again see the tent glowing from the outside from a safe distance, with no idea that Heather was creating something truly iconic in there.
Then we started again.
The whole crew of us were there that night – Stefanie and her sister, Carolyn; Julia; art director Rick Moreno; Tony Cora; Lonnie Glerum – all of us. Gregg and Dan were dressed all in black almost like ninjas, waiting in the basement to guide the actors when they finally got down there. Mike’s camera would be taken from him, and he’d be placed in the corner, then Heather. They’d be led up and down by Ed, Dan, and Gregg playing Josh’s pleas for help on boomboxes.
Much debate had gone into the ending of the film throughout the process, and the final compromise concept was that the children Rustin Parr had killed would have done this, so after Heather’s camera went down, those of us outside the house were to run in and gingerly run around as if we were children who’d been freed. We all waited through the process of bringing them up the stairs, then down into the basement one at a time and then we booked it in there. And when we did, Heather made that final scream you hear in the movie, that guttural manifestation, and we all ran into the middle of the house and ran around on the wood floor like idiots.
Only one thing – her light had died before she made it to the end. Those battery belts only gave us about thirty minutes of juice and it was discharged, needing hours to recharge. She was exhausted and both she and Mike needed food and the battery needed to be recharged. We agreed to come back the next night. Heather had one question:
“Would it be okay if I slept in a bed tonight? I’m holding the camera and I can just act tomorrow.” A humane request. We went back to that house and picked up some random pieces the next night.
“Phase 1” in the can.
Wrap on the film went faster. We took back some rental gear, dropped the remaining 16mm film off at the lab, emptied Stefanie’s living room and said our goodbyes. Gregg agreed to sell me Heather’s Hi-8 camera for $200 and I was excited that for once I’d own my own camera.
Heather and Mike were going back to New York, Ed was staying in Maryland, Neal was flying back to LA, and the rest of us were heading back to Orlando. On November 1 after the pickup shoot, Gregg took the whole cast and crew out to a nice Mexican restaurant in Bethesda, then a wrap party at Lonnie’s house (where the shoot started a week earlier), and everyone celebrated the little victory of having seen an idea like this through to the end. I remember Tony Cora being about as drunk as I’ve ever seen a human being.
On Monday, November 2, Dan Myrick and I drove back to Orlando in his Jeep Cherokee.
I remember cruising south down I-75, listening to Soul Coughing‘s song “Screenwriter’s Blues,” wondering what the future held and if I’d ever make it as far as a magical place called Reseda.
We had no idea what we’d just done.
TO BE CONTINUED NEXT MONDAY
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