How a Hollywood director tricked his actors into starring in the Blair Witch sequel without knowing it

Shooting under a fake title and given fake scripts, none of the actors in the movie Blair Witch knew they were starring in the sequel to the surprise horror hit of 1999

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 September, 2016, 8:15am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 September, 2016, 8:15am

Fittingly for a shock horror film, the new Blair Witch perfected the cloak-and-dagger dark art of movie secrecy.

The film was kept so hush-hush during its three-and-a-half year creation that even some crew members thought they were working on a horror flick called The Woods, not knowing it was a sequel to The Blair Witch Project.

The news was kept fully under wraps until director Adam Wingard and collaborator/screenwriter Simon Barrett unveiled Blair Witch at Comic-Con, stealing the San Diego fan convention and generating lots of pre-release excitement. Barrett says the surprise was necessary to minimise expectations and cynicism.

“We didn’t want it to be, ‘We’re making a Blair Witch movie, is that a good or bad idea?’ We wanted the conversation to be, ‘We made a new Blair Witch movie. And we just showed it to you,’ ” Barrett says. “People’s minds were blown.”

It was an appropriate surprise for the terrifyingly realistic Blair Witch Project, which sneaked up and spooked the US and other countries in 1999. The “found-footage” approach, shot on hand-held video cameras by unknown actors seemingly terrorised in the Maryland woods, seemed all too real. With internet hype, directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s US$60,000 film turned into a US$248.6 million cultural monster at the worldwide box office.

But Blair Witch as a franchise got lost in the woods. A traditionally shot, critically panned 2000 sequel Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, helmed by Joe Berlinger, maxed out at US$47.7 million globally. Then there were years of silence as inexpensive found-footage franchises dominated horror, from Paranormal Activity to Wingard and Barrett’s V/H/S.

Plot twist: horror film ‘The Woods’ is unveiled at Comic-Con as secret ‘Blair Witch’ sequel

Lionsgate, which owned the Blair Witch rights, approached the duo in 2013 with a top secret found-footage sequel concept involving the younger brother leading friends to find his missing sister Heather Donahue in the cursed woods. The filmmakers, devoted fans of the original, jumped. “It was weird keeping it a secret,” Barrett says. “I was writing a film called The Woods, my contract even said The Woods, and not telling anyone what I was really doing.”

Actors were kept in the dark during auditions with faux scripts. The real script came, on eerie blood-red paper to prevent copying, just before boarding for the location. Even the set had “a double-secret name” to throw people off, says Barrett – a fake vampire movie, Stakes.

Two weeks into production, James Allen McCune, cast as Heather’s younger brother, uttered the movie’s true title while shooting.

“The camera operator puts the camera down, looks at [Wingard] and asks, ‘Is this a Blair Witch movie?’ He had no idea,” McCune recalls. “People worked the entire shoot not knowing. That’s pretty special.”

If you want blood ... 10 gruesome cinematic slashers to get you in the mood for Halloween

Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for comScore, says he believes Blair Witch will appeal to both young horror fans and moviegoers who loved the original “now that there’s enough distance from the crushing disappointment of Blair Witch 2, which had a stink on it”.

Myrick, who didn’t work on Blair Witch but earned executive producer status and “gave his blessing”, was pleasantly surprised after “cringing” through the first sequel.

“This new film has some genuinely scary moments, which is all I ask for a film purporting to be a scary film,” Myrick says. “The fans will embrace it. And people are talking about Blair Witch again, which is cool.”

Blair Witch opens in Hong Kong on September 22