October 5, 1997 – Pre-production on “Phase 1” of The Blair Witch Project began, unlike pre-production for anything I’d worked on up to that point… or since for that matter.
Usually with pre-production you go through script pages, pull out elements that apply to your department, make lists, audition ideas for the director or directors. With the footage we were about to create, so much of what the it of it was going to be was fluid because one element at the beginning would pull on other elements at the end. We weren’t creating a movie which was figured out before we started; we were creating a massive funhouse to be discovered and documented by people who didn’t know what they were supposed to find – a different mindset entirely.
It’s a weird line to walk – not too overt or it goes cheesy, too subtle and it goes unnoticed by the people with the cameras.
Dan Myrick arrived from Orlando and then Neal Fredericks from LA. Neal’s family lived in Maryland so he crashed there, but at Stefanie’s place in Germantown, Maryland, it was part flophouse/part office, and she was mysteriously okay with all this. Dan on the pull-out queen-size sofa downstairs by the front door, me in the office upstairs on a twin bed next to the only computer in the building, and Gregg in the next room (as I recall) on a pad on the floor. If you would have called Stefanie’s home number any time in the month of October of 1997, one of us would have answered: “Haxan Films!”
The actors wouldn’t arrive for a few weeks, and we had an insurmountable stack of work before then. Gregg outfitted Ed and Dan with newfangled technology none of us had heard of called a “GPS” – a yellow box the size of a paperback book with a black-and-grey LCD display – to map out the actual path the actors would take through Seneca Creek State Park, the woods where everything but the climax of the film would take place – the “maze” part of the funhouse if you will. As the first order of business, the two directors spent a few days traipsing through the woods with the outline of the film they’d written, trying to lay out the eventual path that worked best for the plan. That meant creating “waypoint” coordinates on the GPS to eventually give the actors so they knew where to put their tent each night, they knew where certain things like “Coffin Rock” were, and they knew to walk through a part of the woods filled with stickmen even if they didn’t know that it would be filled with stickmen.
They also had to audition the remaining roles, like the fishermen and other townspeople, as well as a character named Mary Brown, the local crank who believed in the Blair Witch.
While they did that, we did all the work we could do without going into those actual woods.
Gregg ran the show and handled all logistics, setting everything up and putting out fires like any good producer and figuring out how to best spend the economy-car budget we had to work with and coordinating with our other producer, Robin Cowie, based in Orlando. Neal would shoot camera tests at day and night on his CP-16 16mm camera and then work with Colorlab to develop a strategy to process dailies, how many stops to push the stock, etc. Aside from running whatever errands Gregg needed me to, my main task at that time was to go to the house in Patapsco State Park and make it look less like an abandoned crack den and more like the place where an occult-obsessed psychopath would want to murder seven children in the 1940’s.
Like you do.
Additionally there were details in the house, like the fireplace, where we intended to take “period” still images (in this case, an actor playing Rustin Parr with a shotgun in front of the mantle which nobody has ever seen because the idea was abandoned) and line them up with Heather’s shot when she entered the house in “Phase 2,” the analysis of this footage to be shot in Orlando. I also had to make sure that the actors would enter the proper doors – which meant blockading any exterior door except the one we wanted them to enter. Additionally, we drew occult symbols around every door and window (more on that below), and Dan had the idea for the kids’ handprints from one time he’d gone to someone’s filthy house and their dogs had made a giant black smear at dog-height throughout the house.
He asked, “What kind of residual marks would eight children leave?”
A damn fine question.
While I was fixing up the house, sometimes Gregg – who had far more art department experience and power tools than I did – was able to go with, sometimes it was just me. Often Stefanie, her sister Carolyn, and/or our art director Rick Moreno would come along as well – but these were also people working day jobs and living their daily lives so their time was precious, and we tried to bring in everyone on days when we needed all hands on deck. In the meantime, Ed had posted internship notices around his alma mater, Montgomery College, and a single person had responded. I was getting ready to take Dan’s Jeep Cherokee to Home Depot to pick up supplies when Gregg handed me an address.
“Who’s this?” I asked.
“Your intern, Patty,” Gregg said. At 26 I was more accustomed to being the intern than I was to having one. Still – I could use some college-age strong people to help me move a bunch of wood and paint cans…
“I think she might be a little older than us,” Gregg said. I didn’t know what that could mean, but I assumed it meant a lot older.
After my run to Home Depot, I drove over to Patty’s abode, a mobile home park which apparently doesn’t exist anymore. As I drove up, I saw her trailer and, in front of it, Patty – probably in her 60’s or 70’s, standing in front of her trailer with an American flag in the back window and a fence made out of actual sticks. Patty herself was wearing a jacket and colorful stretch pants, with a look people have when they’re waiting for someone to pick them up but they don’t know what that person looks like. Clearly the woman Gregg had sent me to fetch.
“If I just keep driving, she’ll never know it was me…” I actually thought.
I pulled the Jeep over, introduced myself, and Patty got in. I figured even if she wasn’t much help lifting heavy things, I could get her to paint out graffiti and do detail work if she was any good at all. Patty turned out to be an amazing hard worker, great at helping me lift lumber and set dressing when needed, adept with paint, happy to be there. She also had a gift for telling bizarre, often disturbing stories which she claimed were true.
That night Ed and Dan were complaining that they hadn’t found the perfect Mary Brown and I pitched them a wild idea – that they needed to meet Patty – the fence made of sticks in the trailer park, the obvious quirkiness of her personality, her willingness to work on this film. I didn’t know if she could act, but really all she’d have to do is be interviewed and know a few things about the mythology we’d created. They called her the next day, went over, and met with her; and she was game.
And she was willing to work as the art department intern until the shoot. I still had my intern.
The Birth of Stickmen
If there’s one thing I’m known for contributing on The Blair Witch Project, it’s the stickman. Like pretty much every decision on the film, for me the design began in a lack of resources.
Before our shoot, Dan Myrick had created a design for the Stickman. It was, as I recall, voodoo-totem-inspired. Bundles of sticks and twigs and needles with wraps of twine around them in specific places. It was a great idea, but the only issue for me was that we needed to make hundreds of these things, basically in the woods where they were going to be hung, and we didn’t have any power tools or glue guns or really a crew to make them. And we were basically going to have to do it all in a single day. It would have taken a production line weeks to make what we’d need to make, so I had to get resourceful.
Meanwhile I’d purchased a book to use as research for the symbols which Rustin Parr would have drawn around the doors and windows in the house. There was a creepy language I’d heard of, an alphabet used by medieval occultist Cornelius Agrippa called Transits Fluvii (which is what we used – NOT runes) and somehow I’d found a book at our local Borders which explained it. The book, by Nigel Pennick, was called Magical Alphabets.
You can buy your own copy!
So I’d been soaking in Transitus Fluvii for a few weeks, and one day I was driving back to our HQ, that book in the passenger seat, when it hit me. I pulled over, rifled through the book, and found Page 79, where I saw this:
It just called out to me – a moment of actual inspiration. I saw the Stickman as we could make it. We’d need four sticks, some twine or rope, and the only tools we’d need would be some scissors. And that it referenced a rune (the only one we’d use) made it all the more exciting to me. I quickly sketched it out on a yellow legal pad I had with me in the car.
Once there, I went to a nearby wooded area, found four sticks of about the same size, and made a prototype to show the guys. I knew this was our perfect solution. And then, this happened:
Mortified. I thought Ed (and probably Dan and Gregg too) hated it. But when it came time to fill the woods, I did something that no production designer should ever do. Without bringing them other options, I just stuck to my plan. It wasn’t until I saw the posters Haxan had made for the film’s Sundance premiere some two years later that I realized that they’d all actually liked the design, probably why they didn’t demand I go back to the woodshed and create five other options. In October of 1997, there was no time to go off and bang out a bunch of ideas; I just hoped everyone would come around.
Sometime around then, the phone at the townhouse rang, and I picked up.
“Haxan Films,” I said.
“Hello, this is Heather Donahue,” the voice on the other end said. I hadn’t met Heather yet or even seen her audition tape, but of course I know that she was our lead.
“Listen,” she said with a disarming and cautious laugh. “My parents are very concerned about this shoot, that you all might be taking me out there… to, you know, make a snuff movie.” She laughed again, uncomfortable, trying to sound dismissive, but not unreasonably so. “Do you guys have anything else you’ve made that we can show them to assuage their concerns?”
VHS tapes would need to be sent.
“Assuage?” I thought.
This whole thing was going to change once actors were added.
TO BE CONTINUED NEXT MONDAY.