Cuba, 1968. Years of political turmoil and civil war have made life on this not-so-remote island nation quite difficult. The country is under embargo from the Western world, allied instead to the Soviets in the East. For many, the outlook is bleak, and some decide to leave…or at least try. Two-year-old Eduardo Miguel Sánchez Quiróz has no say in the matter: he joins his family as they settle, first in Spain, and finally, in Maryland, USA. 31 years later, Ed Sánchez, along with Dan Myrick, would make history, as The Blair Witch Project becomes one of the most successful independent films of all time. This is the story of how this Latino filmmaker helped change the industry forever.
Before even uttering the title The Blair Witch Project, however, one must talk about Shrimp fried vice and pride (in the name of love). That’s the name of one of the short films Eduardo Sánchez, now a teenager, made while attending Wheaton High School. Interested in cinema from an early age, Ed clearly would not let scarce resources provided by the Maryland Department of Education to get in the way of creativity.
As he grew older, his interest in the odd, the bizarre and in creature-features, in particular, would grow too: the television series In Search of… (1977-1982), as well as “Bigfoot”-type documentaries such as The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972) dominated his free time. This approach to pseudo-realism, documentary-style filmmaking and inexplicable phenomena would play a big role in his career.
Having been accepted into Montgomery College, Sánchez continued making movies. Star Trek Demented would perhaps plant the seed for his 2006 film Altered, while his feature Video All (1989), shot entirely on video, would start to showcase his innate ability for turning seemingly inferior resources into assets for storytelling.
After graduating from “M.C.” (as he affectionately calls it), Eduardo would enter the University of Central Florida’s film B.A. program. Here, he’d direct Gabriel’s Dream (1992), a feature-length affair shot on black-and-white 16mm that Sánchez thought would be his ticket to fame.
While Gabriel’s Dream would remain unsold and largely unseen, it was at this time that he’d fatefully meet Dan Myrick, a Floridian filmmaker attending the same program and equally interested in the “different”. A passionate photographer from an early age, Myrick would match Ed’s rhythm and vision and the two soon started working together, first on school projects and then professionally after graduation.
The roots of The Woods Movie, which would later become The Blair Witch Project, were first cemented in 1993. From the beginning, it was to be low-budget, “guerrilla” project. Truth be told, the film had been in development for a while, but they were struggling to fund it. It was Gregg Hale’s involvement and investment that would kickstart the first round of auditions in New York, and get the ball rolling. Together with Mike Monello and Robin Cowie, Hale, Myrick, and Sánchez would establish Haxan Films, the company that would be in charge of making The Blair Witch Project happen.
The casting phase saw Joshua Leonard, Heather Donahue and Michael C. Williams brought on board as leads in the film. Behind the scenes, “The Haxan Five” (as they’d be known by fans later on) along with Ben Rock, who developed the production design for Blair, started to get down to the nitty-gritty of how this thing was going to be made.
Gregg Hale’s experience in the armed forces allowed them to develop a scenario in which the actors were running something more akin to simulated survival training than conventional filmmaking. The dialog would be improvised, based upon prompts left by the crew in film canisters. The talent would have no direct contact with the filmmakers during the shoot. They had security systems in place, of course, and should the actors find themselves in an emergency, the team was never far away.
Neal Fredericks, who was advising director of photography for the film, owned the CP-16 16mm film camera that Josh would operate. The video camera that was handled by Heather was bought for the production and was later returned for a refund when the filmmakers needed some more cash.
“Phase One” of the film was shot between October 23rd and October 30th, 1997. This would render out the main chunk of what ended up on the final product. “Phase Two” would be shot much later, and most of it would be discarded from the film and used instead in the Curse of the Blair Witch TV featurette, which was used to promote the release of The Blair Witch Project.
Haxan took the film to the 1999 Sundance Film Festival, where it was acquired by Artisan Entertainment. After an initially limited release in July of that same year (with Artisan investing in improving the post-production value) The Blair Witch Project went out on wide release to make cinema history: grossing $250 million from a $60,000 budget and establishing the found-footage sub-genre that Paranormal Activity (2007), Cloverfield (2008) and many others would exploit. It created a franchise that has, so far, spawned two sequels, books, comic books, and video games. It changed independent cinema marketing forever, having been the first of its kind to make wide use of the internet to create a buzz prior to the release of the film (that original website is still live today).
But it all stemmed from a seed planted very early in the filmmakers’ lives: the unseen is terrifying, particularly if it’s presented as the truth.
It would be easy, judging by the resounding and unexpected success of Blair, to think that Ed Sánchez is a blip in cinema history. But it would also be wrong.
While he jumped into the spotlight with The Blair Witch Project, it was far from his first, or last, film. Altered released in 2006, presenting a reversal of roles for alien abduction films, and it has since established itself as a cult hit. 2008’s Seventh Moon sees Ed return to the psychological thriller, this time in an international setting. Lovely Molly, which came out in 2011, is probably the closest spiritual successor to Blair so far in Sánchez’s career: a found-footage film set against a background of demonic possession, it accompanies Altered in being a fan favorite from Eduardo’s filmography. His latest directorial outing in a feature film is 2012’s Exists, a creature-feature which brings him very close to those haunting images he remembers fondly from The Legend of Boggy Creek.
It’s important to note that Ed Sánchez was not part of the team responsible for Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, the second film in the Blair franchise. This film divides fans and the jury (such as it is) is out as to how canon it really is. However, for the third film in the franchise, 2016’s Blair Witch, he served as an executive producer. This latest entry fared much better than the previous one, both with fans and critics. He has also worked on TV shows such as Supernatural, Lucifer, Taken, and Queen of the South.
It can be said, therefore, that Eduardo Miguel Sánchez Quiróz has come very far since his toddler years, when he left a troubled Cuba with his family, looking for better horizons. A continued passion for cinema and the feeling of truth on screen, as well as a knack for turning budgetary and technical adversities into tools for storytelling, have been hallmarks of his career for over three decades. The weird, odd and inexplicable will always find a place in Ed Sánchez toolbox, and the world of independent cinema will remain forever changed by his work on The Blair Witch Project.
Gomm, Russ, et al. The Blair Witch Project. Arrow Books, 2018.
Rock, Ben. “Making The Blair Witch Project Archives” Dread Central, 2016.