INDEPENDENT MEANS: Method Filmmaking - The Blair Witch Project ventures where few films have gone before.

Don't mistake The Blair Witch Project, a new feature which hits theatres this week, with all those teen fright films that have been infiltrating theatres these past few years. For while Blair Witch does fall into the horror genre and stars three good-looking young actors, it is far from your average Scream flick.

Blair Witch's filmmakers, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, have ventured where few, if any, have gone before. Using unique improvisational techniques, Myrick and Sanchez sent their lead actors-Heather Donahue, Michael Williams, and Joshua Leonard-into the woods armed with little but their acting skills, instincts, and two cameras. The result is a film which feels like a genuine documentary of a nightmarish, disorienting journey.

The film opens with the following text: "On October 21, 1994, Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael Williams hiked into Maryland's Black Hills Forest to shoot a documentary film on a local legend, "The Blair Witch.' They were never seen again." The film then proceeds to show an edited version of the students' "documentary" footage that was found after their disappearance.

To give their fictional film the feel of a documentary, Myrick and Sanchez went the extra mile to create that authenticity. The footage seen in the film was shot entirely by the actors. Myrick and Sanchez also decided that the actors should play themselves as much as possible, using their real names and drawing from their own experiences. Lastly and most importantly, the actors were physically and psychologically thrust into situations that paralleled their characters' dire situation.

Parole Board Casting

Dan Myrick and Ed Sanchez, who co-wrote, co-directed, and co-edited The Blair Witch Project, met while participating in the University of Central Florida's film program. After graduating college Myrick and Sanchez, along with three of their classmates-Gregg Hale, Robin Cowie, and Michael Monello-formed Haxan Films, a production company based in Orlando, Florida. According to Myrick, he and Sanchez initially got the idea to shoot a faux documentary about a made-up witch legend based on their recollections of watching TV shows such as In Search Of, as well as old Big Foot and UFO documentaries.

As for coming up with the unique way in which The Blair Witch Project was shot, Myrick told Back Stage West, "Ed and I were talking to Gregg Hale, our producer, about what we were trying to accomplish-the realism we were trying to accomplish-and Gregg recalled a time when he was in the [U.S. Army's] Special Forces and was in this prison camp scenario that they would put the soldiers through. For three days, he was immersed in this scenario as a POW, and even though he knew it was just a training exercise, psychologically he went to a place where he was genuinely scared. There was a point where he crossed that threshold. So Ed and I said, "Well, let's take that approach with Blair. Maybe we can put the actors in that kind of environment.'"

Once Sanchez and Myrick knew how they were going to shoot their film, they began the arduous task of casting it. After all, not every actor could pull off the kind of naturalism they were striving for. The filmmakers placed an ad in Back Stage in 1996 and began holding rather unusual auditions in New York City shortly thereafter.

Explained Sanchez, "We auditioned about 2,000 people and we had this really unique way of auditioning people. We set up this parole board hearing and as soon as the actor or actress would come in with their headshot, we'd say, "Mr. Smith, you've come to us in front of this parole board hearing to plead your case for early release after serving nine years of an 18-year prison sentence, and before we make our decision, do you want to say anything on your behalf?' And the actor would go into why he was innocent or why he should be let out. And basically within 30 seconds, we knew whether we wanted to call them back or not.

"We called back about 20 to 25 percent of the people we saw. And from there we kept narrowing it down. We kept doing different scenarios. We started with an improv diner scene and moved on. We were basically casting completely for their character-besides their believability. It was a very long process."

Into the Woods

Once it was decided who would play the leads-a process which took about a year-and the filmmakers had scouted their locations, production was set to begin in Maryland. The actors were trained in camera work in a two-day "film school," then set loose in the woods. The actors improvised from start to finish, and the film was shot in real time over the course of eight days.

"I don't think any of us were totally sure what was going to happen," admitted Myrick. "All we knew was that we were going to do this experimental approach to method filmmaking. We just had to convince the actors that they were in good hands and build a process that would give them the flexibility to be free and explore their emotions. Fortunately, they did a really good job."

Added Sanchez, "We tried to give the actors as little direction as possible. We just wanted to keep them open-minded so that they could go into the woods and act like normal kids. It was a challenge to guide them along this process and not give anything away, because we wanted them to discover. We wanted their reactions to be genuine."

During the film shoot in the woods, the actors moved from one pre-determined point to another, with the aid of Global Positioning System (GPS) handsets to navigate the forest. The eight-person production team also used GPS and good old-fashioned shadowing to track them. Gear and food were exchanged via baskets marked with day-glo orange bike flags.

Although the actors understood ahead of time the general nature of what they were in for, they had no advance warning of specifics. Instead, they moved through the forest reacting on the spot to stimuli while filming it. The GPS allowed the crew to maneuver the actors to exactly where the story required.

"The greatest challenge was staying on top of everything," said co-director Sanchez. "It was just about a 24-hour-a-day shoot. So once we started, there was this timeline that we had to maintain. The end of the shoot was going to happen on that hour of that day. We had to continue to build and plan stuff ahead of time and direct and write directing notes and watch footage and get up at two o'clock in the morning to go scare the actors. So it was [a matter] of always trying to keep ahead of the actors."

To heighten the realism, the actors were required to move farther each day on less and less food, so that by the time they reached the location of the film's climax, they were truly exhausted, both physically and emotionally.

In one of the most intense scenes in Blair Witch, Heather Donahue turns the camera on herself to say a final goodbye to her loved ones, as menacing sounds are heard outside her tent. She appears to be absolutely terrified and convinced of her imminent death. Some audience members have questioned whether Heather was acting or truly scared out of her wits. Was this a matter of psychological abuse or great acting?

"Heather was definitely doing her job," responded Myrick. "She was saying what she was supposed to say in the context of the scene and the story. But she was also pushing herself to a place that I don't think you would normally be able to get to in a traditional film. You were looking at the result of six days of shooting up to that point and she was tired and hungry and cold, and she turned all that stimuli into a performance.

"We've had several people say, "It's almost not acting.' It's so good that it doesn't seem like acting. But it's not less of a talent and that's why the casting process took so long, because we had to find someone like Heather, who came through with having the right instincts."

To which Sanchez added, "And she wasn't afraid to go there."

Learn and Listen

As for advice to aspiring filmmakers, Myrick said, "Make a really good short film before you make a feature. Learn how to edit. Editing teaches you how to write. It teaches you how to direct. And just do it on video. Video is so inexpensive."

In fact, Myrick and Sanchez were able to get The Blair Witch Project off the ground by assembling a very low-budget trailer for the film. It eventually got into the hands of producer John Pierson, a godfather in the independent film world who has been responsible for furthering the careers of such filmmakers as Spike Lee, Richard Linklater, Kevin Smith, and Michael Moore. Excited by what he saw in the trailer, Pierson aired the short film on his Independent Film Channel program, Split Screen, for the final episode of the 1997 season. The audience response was so positive that Pierson invited Myrick and Sanchez to shoot another Blair segment for the next season's opening.

"The money John paid for those segments financed a big portion of our feature," said Myrick, who would not reveal the exact budget of Blair Witch, only saying that the budget was about the cost of a new Ford automobile.

Myrick, whose film was eventually picked up for distribution by Artisan Entertainment when it premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival, also advised filmmakers to particularly pay attention to others' opinions.

"Listen to people," he said. "So many filmmakers don't listen to the advice they're getting from people who could save their ass. Listen to the people who are watching what you're doing or reading what you're writing. Listen to your audience. Just try to be honest with yourself about what your strengths and weaknesses are. Market yourself and push yourself in that direction to find a niche for yourself."

Indeed, Myrick and Sanchez have not only created a niche for themselves, but a partnership that will continue with their upcoming second feature, Heart of Love, a comedy that will be shot on location in Florida. Once again, both will write and direct together. BSW