Hard Days at Black Rock
The Black Rock Mill is a centuries-old brick building, one of many fun historical features to be found in Seneca State Park in Germantown, Maryland. It sits along a rocky river, probably a quarter-mile downhill from a dense pine forest. At night, even under a full moon, the pine forest is one of those dark places, one of those can’t-see-your-hand-in-front-of-your-face-it’s-so-fucking-dark dark places. And it was in that pine forest where we first intended to really fuck with Heather, Mike, and Josh in their tent.
But not yet.
I remember in a big production meeting in Stefanie’s living room when producer Gregg Hale said this to the actors: “We’re very concerned about your safety, just not your comfort.” Everyone understood, but someone had to say it out loud.
That always resonated with me, as most movies twist themselves into pretzels making the actors comfortable – even pampered – and we were intentionally doing the opposite and hopefully for good effect. For Army Survival School effect.
Related Stories: The Making of The Blair Witch Project: Part 1 – Witch Pitch and The Making of The Blair Witch Project: Part 2 – Getting to the Woods and The Making of The Blair Witch Project: Part 3 – Doom Woods Preppers
In mid-October, 1997, that day was over a week out, and the three actors were still settling in, learning the craft of Ground Navigation from Gregg, learning the CP-16 from Director of Photography Neal Fredericks (although Josh already had a great deal of experience shooting film), Mike was learning the dark art of running a DAT deck and operating a boom mic, and Heather was also playing around with the analog Hi-8 camera we’d bought for about $300 from the Germantown Circuit City.
And in the meantime, I spent a few days at the Black Rock Mill prepping the site of the first big mystery beat in the movie. Piles of rocks and rock-rings around the trees, rocks piled into the crook of the branches near the campsite in those pine woods. Dan and Ed’s idea was that the members of the Blair Witch Cult (a long-abandoned idea) would put a ring of rocks around saplings, and when they grew into trees the rock-ring would break.
So with no tools to speak of besides some backpacks, I hauled load after load of rocks from the riverbed up to the area by the pine forest, and then a few days later it occurred to me that we needed more rocks so I went back and humped many more loads of rocks up that hill.
Did I mention that working on this movie helped me lose twenty pounds?
Although we were preparing to make a film employing a method we weren’t sure anyone had ever done before, we sought out inspiration. We were unable to track down a VHS copy of Ruggero Deodato‘s 1980 iconic Cannibal Holocaust or Belvaux/Bonzel/Poelvoorde‘s 1992 classic Man Bites Dog (which, coincidentally, I’d seen at the Enzian Theater while in film school with Gregg), but we were able to find Christopher Guest‘s 1996 farcical bending of the mock-doc, a film which would establish his signature style, Waiting for Guffman.
Henceforth the most-quoted movie line on the Blair Witch Project set became: “I hate you, and I hate your ass-face.”
We said this constantly to one another.
Preparing for Battle
Although we’d been shooting one another behind the scenes, Josh’s arrival upped our game – he owned a Sony VX1000 camera that shot some new format called “MiniDV.” I’d read about this sexy new format and how it interfaced with computers via something called FireWire for some time but had never held one in my hands, and you never knew back then which one of these things would catch on. Still, for the remainder of Josh’s stay he let us shoot ourselves with his camera.
We’d all been given used Army camouflage pants and jackets to wear, and a shopping trip to the local REI had outfitted us all with camo ski masks and headlamps so we could get into the woods without being seen. Neal cut some pieces of red gel we could stick into our headlamps, rendering us harder to see from a distance. When we got close enough to be seen at all by the three leads, we’d go dark and see as little as them. To that end, when I was at Home Depot one day, I got everyone plastic safety glasses. After all, we were going to be running around in the tree branch-filled woods at night, and our safety was also a thing.
At REI Ed, Dan, and Gregg had picked out all the gear the actors would have in the woods. The tents, pads, water bottles, sleeping bags, etc. We’d also gotten a second tent, so one of us could be in the woods at all times with a walkie just in case something happened and the three actors needed assistance – medical or otherwise. Plastic baskets and bicycle flags where we would deposit new/charged batteries, food, film stock, and the intentionally cryptic directions written by Ed and Dan. Meetings upon meetings upon meetings to set up the scenario and ensure the actors that they were always safe but that they should be ready to film anything that ever happened to them.
On October 20th I drove the actors down to Montgomery College with a couple disposable cameras, and we staged a bunch of photos to create the idea of a backstory between the three. Heather gave me the sock hat she intended to wear in the film, and I took a Sharpie and blacked out the logo and that’s what she wore through the whole movie.
Tuesday night, as a test of the Hi-8 camera, I took the three actors to the location of a local legend, “Cry Baby Bridge,” and filmed the three of them talking about the local legend, trying to hear ghost baby cry. It was two days before the experiment was to begin.
Burkittsville First, Chi-Chi’s Later
First thing in the morning on Thursday, October 23, 1997, Heather, Mike, and Josh rolled cameras. That first day we were able to follow them from a distance in chase cars with walkie-talkies, hoping they’d follow Ed and Dan’s directions and that all of our three-week long prep work would start to pay off with legitimate looking documentary footage. They started at Lonnie Glerum’s house with Lonnie himself playing Heather’s roommate. Josh arrived at the house, and I remember seeing the two of them filming each other from a block or so away. Then they picked up Mike, went to a 7-11, and headed to Burkittsville. We followed at every turn.
As I recall, Burkittsville was chosen because of its quaintness, its smallness, and the scenery around its cemetery. The truth is that Burkittsville is the home of fewer people than you would find in a mostly-empty movie theater. I think it has a single traffic light. The actors ate at a small diner and interviewed a planted actor about the Blair Witch, then went to the graveyard, then left Burkittsville, and never went near it again. The interviews with “Locals” (most of them plants except that woman with the baby) were shot in slightly larger nearby town. Then they interviewed my intern Patty as “Mary Brown” at her trailer – to which we’d changed not a thing (I wish I’d thought to make a fence out of tree branches and sticks).
That night they stayed in a motel. The next day they went into the woods. They shot the “Coffin Rock” scene with text I’d written for the backstory taped into an old book.
That night, while the actors camped in the woods and made their fire, we had dinner at a Chi-Chi’s Mexican restaurant in a local mall.
“Right now, while we’re sitting here, we’re making a movie!” Dan laughed while we pounded watery salsa packed onto greasy chips.
We all burst out laughing – this was so stupid. What we were doing went against every one of our instincts as students of film and traditional filmmaking. At that very moment they were likely filming the piles of rocks and the stacks of rocks in the tree branches I’d placed. Had I put enough of them up there? Would they see what we wanted them to see? There was a certain impotence to this process (which I’ll touch upon later), not knowing for sure if they’d seen the things we’d wanted them to see until the next day on Hi-8 or possibly later on film.
We went back to Stefanie’s townhouse and went to sleep. I set an alarm for 2:00 am.
2 AM, October 25, 1997
We all woke up. Ed, Dan, Gregg, and I suited up in our camouflage from the skin out. We drove 15 minutes to Black Rock Road and parked by the old mill. We got out of the Jeep, put our masks on, and put our headlamps over our masks on our foreheads. We hiked out a ways toward that same dark-as-fuck pine forest. We shambled up the hill a ways – excited to be finally doing this, yet all of us still tired because it was fucking 3:00 am.
We put the red gels in our headlamps so it would be harder to see us from the campsite. We hiked a little further up the path we all knew that led to the pine blackout.
We turned off our headlamps entirely. I looked up and saw where the dark (but still visible sky) hit the treeline at the top of the pines, and it just went black. I waited for my eyes to adjust, and they didn’t. There was zero light.
We paused. I honestly didn’t know what was supposed to happen next.
Dan tapped me on the shoulder.
“You go first,” he said.
I was surprised and honored at the same time – the part of this process I had been so excited about at Gregg’s house over a year earlier, here I was in the cold Maryland woods in the middle of the night, and whatever it was, it was about to happen.
“Okay,” I said, feeling enormous pressure to lead us up that hill, hoping I wouldn’t be the one getting caught on camera, hoping I wouldn’t be the one to fuck up the scenario. We were close to them and didn’t want to make a sound.
The four of us crawled on our hands and knees as slowly as possible.
Breathe shallow, move slow. Try not to crunch the pine needles below your knees. Try not to think about what animals and bugs are probably watching us right now, completely perplexed. Try not to…
And then –
The tent. About eight inches from my face. We all stopped dead. Slowly backed off.
And then we commenced haunting.
TO BE CONTINUED