Interview with Eduardo Sanchez, the director of “Altered” and “The Blair Witch Project”

by Vittorio Carli

 

“Terror in the Aisles 3” is coming to Portage Theater at 4050 N. Milwaukee Ave this Saturday. Tickets are $12 and they are available at brownpapertickets.com. Doors open at 7, and "Night of the Creeps"   is showing at 8 pm then “The Blair Witch Project” will be screened at 10 pm.  In addition “Black Christmas” will be also be shown and the Goth a capella group. My Damn Butterfly will perform.

Fred Dekker, the director of "Night of the Creeps” will be there, and Eduardo Sanchez, the co-director of “The Blair Witch Project” will appear in person to answer questions (call 1.773.736.4050 for more info.)

I got a chance to do the following phone interview with Sanchez on Saturday, November 28, and it was highly rewarding. It was done just in time for the 10th anniversary rerelease of "The Blair Witch Project."

What were some of the films that had a big impact on you when you were growing up?
 
Well “Star Wars” completely blew my mind. When I was around nine years old I became aware of the film making process and I began to pick up the sci-fi magazine “Starlog (I would read or watch anything with star in the title.)”  I also watched many James Bond films. After my family emigrated from Cuba to America, my dad would take us to films that didn't have that much dialogue because he didn't understand English that well yet. "2001: A Space Odyssey" had a tremendous influence on me especially the open ended ending and the amazing cinematography. I saw it during its rerelease.
Were you always a fan of horror films and pseudo documentaries?
 
I didn't see that many in the beginning. “The Exorcist” showed on TV, and I was scared for many months. Years later I turned down a chance to make a sequel to "The Exorcist."
 
 
 
 How did you get started in film making?
 
In high school I got into the whole story writing process and I wrote scripts. My dad had a super 8 camera, but I didn’t know how to use it well. I was raised in a suburb near Washington DC, and to my knowledge there was not much film making activity there.  I wasn't thinking about film as a career yet.  Then in the 11th grade I found a mentor who thought I belonged in the film industry.  Around '85 he took me under his wing and taught me all about editing. This was all before the digital revolution. It was all about discovery. I almost did not graduate high school because I put so much time and effort into film. There was a TV production class, but that was only a year long. The teacher saw something in me and we are still friends to this day. I did an internship with him and his name was Gary Dorr.  Because of him by the time I got to college I already knew how to do film lighting, editing, and shooting.
 
“The Blair Witch Project” had an extremely impressive website with pseudo historical documents and it fascinated me.  (See http://www.blairwitch.com.) It was the first case I can recall of the Internet helping to sell a film. Who was responsible for it?   
Well, I was the one with the most web experience so I got that up. The Bravo segment about Blair Witch (called “split screen”), and the web site definitely helped the film blow up. The Internet was one of the main ways that the film was marketed.  
 
 
Do you still keep in contact with your collaborators?
Josh Leonard never quit the business. We still hang out. Heather Donahue is not in the film business anymore, and I don't see her anymore. She lives in Northern California.  I also still see Daniel.
 
Can you discuss how “The Blair Witch Project” came about?
It all began in around 91 when we came up with the basic concept. Dan I were in film school, and we noticed that there was not much that was going on in the horror genre. The Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th cycles seemed like it they were already played out.  Horror was at an all time low point.  We would do some work on Blair Witch then work on other films and come back to it. In '96 we began to develop it more, and we found a found a producer and started casting.
Is it true that in order to cast the film you put out an ad asking for actors that could improvise well?
Yes the ad was in "Back Stage."  There were many actors in New York at the time (which is where I ended up), that have lots of improvisational talent, and that's what we needed.
 
Did you shoot the film without a script?
 
Well, we did have a thirty page outline that included all the major events in the story. The basic scenes were there but there was no ending.
 
Is it true that the actors didn't eat towards the end to make their plight more convincing?
On the last day I think they each had a power bar and a banana. Originally the scenes in the woods were supposed to be a small part of the film, but the footage was much better than we thought, so we just went with that footage.
 
Are you a fan of pseudo documentaries or mockumentaries?
Both Josh and I had an interest in them.  I mean I saw "Jaws" and "The Shining,” but what freaked me out more were the documentaries dealing with monsters and the supernatural. I loved the In Search of series hosted by Leonard Nimoy as well as films like "In Search of Bigfoot." After I saw the Bigfoot film I was afraid to close my eyes when I was washing my face because I was afraid that when I opened my eyes Bigfoot would be there.  I was even scared by stuff like "In Search of Noah's Ark."  What scared me about stuff like that was that there was no irrefutable evidence that the stuff existed, but it was possible it was true. If they found a real Bigfoot it would probably be less scary because the mystery and lingering uncertainty would be gone. It would probably be some type of more evolved gorilla, although I admit gorillas are somewhat scary. But the mystery made it scary.
 
Did you see "Legend of Boggy Creek?"
Yes and that was an influence on "The Blair Witch Project."  Dan referenced the howl from that movie which took place in the swamp in our film.  We did not have the money to do a big, expensive movie and since us both liked films that blended documentary and horror we decided to make "The Blair Witch Project."
 
Many critics have commented on similarities between "The Blair Witch Project" and "Cannibal Holocaust."  Were you aware of the film when you did The Blair Witch Project?"
 
Somebody brought it to my attention after "The Blair Witch Project" was out. If I had known about it, I probably would have done it differently.
 
 
 
 
 
"The Blair Witch Project" inspired many spoofs (such as "The Tony Blair Witch Project" and ”The Bare Witch Project)."  Were you flattered or irritated by them?
 
Oh I have seen many of them and I loved them.
 
 
 
 
 
 
Do you read reviews of your projects and are you affected by them one way or another?
 
Well I read the reviews, and at first we were spoiled by the almost unanimous praise.  Everyone seemed to be digging  Blair Witch until it hit a big mainstream audience. It made 140 million money, and once it went wide the typical mainstream viewers just didn't get it. There was a big backlash. A similar thing happened with the recent "Paranormal Activity,” which I admired very much. At this point I don't read reviews because I don't want them to affect the way I make films.
 
Could you discuss your follow-ups to Blair Witch?
We shot a film called "Probe," and it was the first film that we did that had a bigger budget. We shot it in 2005.
 
You had a few films that went directly to DVD. Who or what determines whether a film will play at theatres?
 
The distributor decides all that. At one point we did a movie, and there was a huge corporate shakeup at the company before it was released. No one pushed for the movie "Altered," and it was tested haphazardly.  The company wanted another "Hostel" which had made a big profit.  When they saw that "Altered" was different they didn’t market it at all. The film did do respectively well on DVD, but it never went to theaters.
 
What did you think of the Joe Berlinger's Blair Witch sequel "Blair Witch Project 2: Book of Shadows?"
Well I was disappointed with it because it had nothing to do with the original. It should have just been called "The Book of Shadows."
 
What are you working on now?
 
I am working on a script called "Possession" with Jamie Nash who did altered.  I am also working on the "Blackbeard King of the Pirates," a comic series for Dynamite. My film, "Seventh Moon" is coming out on video starring Amy Smart. It is about a couple that is honeymooning in Hong Kong.

 

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