Behind the Blair Witch – Simon Barrett (The VH Interview)

If you’re an avid film fan, chances are you’ve heard of ‘mumblecore’; the subgenre of indie films known for their naturalistic acting and often improvised dialogue. Some fans, however, have taken this a step further, mixing these traits into horror films to create the term ‘mumblegore’.

Along with his frequent collaborator Adam Wingard, Simon Barrett is a filmmaker often associated with the ‘mumblegore’ genre, and has written, directed, produced and starred in several films under it’s banner. Along with Wingard, his latest film used this distinctive style to bring an old classic into the modern era with Blair Witch.

We got a chance to speak to Simon about horror and reviving this seminal franchise.

[There are some minor spoilers in this interview]

What do you think constitutes a good horror film?

To me a good horror film isn’t one that’s necessarily scary; it’s just one that’s doing something that’s different and original, and in some ways subversive.

I also personally think good horror films play on anxieties that are innate to the human condition and also maybe cultural or societal anxieties, and can provide catharsis for things that otherwise we might struggle to deal with. Some of the most classic horror films do that exclusively.

But I think to any extent, if you’re making a good horror movie you need to be asking ‘What am I doing here that hasn’t been done before?’ and furthermore ‘What about this is going to scare people in an engaging and intelligent way?’

A staple of the genre is that characters always tend to do things that are nonsensical and go against our basic instincts; inevitably getting into deadly situations.

Do you think this trait makes characters in horror films harder to write?

I think the challenge of writing good horror is just to try and avoid that pitfall. And I agree that it’s extremely common in horror films that you see characters doing stupid things for no reason other than to further the narrative, which is often the narrative of those characters being put in peril or being killed.

So you can see how that evolves for writers and directors fairly organically, they are kind of like ‘Okay, well, I need this character to be put into this situation- the easiest way to do that is to have them do something stupid’. But again, I feel like the best horror films don’t do that. In the best horror films, characters are always acting in a relateable way, and making understandable choices.

In other words I don’t think that it’s an inherent trap to the horror genre. I feel like it’s just one that you see a lot because a lot of people making horror films aren’t very good at it. And I do feel that way quite strongly- that most of our horror films are terrible. I still watch all of them; I’m always hopeful going into each one, but I don’t enjoy a ton of them, because they’re very bad.

So again that’s the challenge. If you’re making a horror movie- and by the way, this is not just the job of the writer- it’s also the job of the director and to a certain extent the actors, to figure out: is the character motivation in this scene going to be jarringly hard for viewers to track? But if you are writing a scene and you really are just kind of like ‘Okay, well, I need my characters to do this thing, and I can’t think of a reason why they’d do it, so I’ll just have them do it’, then you really, honestly, need to start over. You need to approach the scene and the project in an entirely different way.

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Because you should never ask an actor to do that- if you have any respect for their craft- the answer to ‘why is my character doing this?’ should never be ‘because it’s in the script; because we need you to do this to move the story forward’. Some actors can actually get argumentative about things like that, as well they should. It’s hard for them to do their job properly if that’s all you’re giving them.

And that translates to the viewers not being able to understand why they should be invested in a character making poor choices. So, yeah, I think that’s probably the worst thing about horror films in general- what you flagged- characters that are unrelatable making poor choices in service of the narrative. Again, it’s not inherent to the genre- it’s a crutch that people use because they’re lazy.

One character we see in this film that I want to talk about is the witch.

To what extent were you involved in bringing her into this; her look, her whole mythology; or was it mostly the director and the designers?

Well first let me address something. Adam and I weren’t really expecting people to think that we were showing the witch- and we never really thought we were showing the witch.

But what happened with this film, not just in the editing room as is often the case, but also during production, we discovered the long version of scenes weren’t really working well and the first half of the movie was going to drag if we let these scenes play out the way I’d written them and with the actors doing the occasional bit of improvisation to give the scenes more of a spontaneous found-footage feel. We originally had more of more of a debate between some of the characters about who the witch really was, and the Elly Kedward (one of the witch’s proposed identities) story was just one of them.

Eduardo Sánchez (one of the directors of The Blair Witch Project), by the way, has always said that Elly Kedward is a patsy, and is not the real Blair Witch. And if you read the Blair Witch Dossier, there are certain indications that the Blair Witch was active in the woods centuries prior to Elly Kedward and even the founding of Blair. So I put all that information in the film, then we cut it out because the scenes weren’t working particularly well. We wanted the film to have a faster pace. And then we kind of didn’t realize that we hadn’t really given people enough information to challenge what they were seeing. Which we assumed they would do. But then you call your movie Blair Witch, and you show something, and everyone assumes you’re showing the Blair Witch.

So that was possibly an error on our end. But I don’t really know what the solution would have been.

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Secondly, I don’t think Lionsgate even knew what we were doing. So you can actually see in the credits it says things like ‘Blair Witch arm’ which we didn’t see until it was too late to change it. Our producers didn’t flag it and because everything was done in such secrecy, Adam and I didn’t actually get eyes on the end credits until the movie was coming out in theatres.

And then we were like ‘Oh, who wrote that? Why did they do that? There’s no Blair Witch in our movie’.

So that’s been educational. But yeah, we don’t show the Blair Witch in our film. Or at least we didn’t intend for audiences to have that interpretation of what they’re seeing, which I suppose is the best way to phrase it when you talk about a Blair Witch movie, which is all about people interpreting things in different ways. But that was not our intended interpretation of what you see in the woods.

In fact, we were kind of going out of our way to imply you were seeing one of the witch’s original victims, and now, maybe you’re witnessing Ashley (Corbin Reid’s character) going through a similar transformation.

Now, to answer your actual question after that explanation- I was very heavily involved in the design of that creature. I wrote it into the original draft of the script. We’re implying the torture that Elly Kedward went through might have some influence on the look of that creature. But also, we’re implying other things with Ashley and the way she gets infected with a tree root. So there were a lot of clues at what we were trying to say with the look of that creature that were kind of built into the mythology of the film.

So not only was that creature heavily described in my original script, but I do hang out with Adam- I was there during pre-production and at all the special effects meetings and discussions of how we were going to achieve that look. We didn’t want to use any CGI in the film at all, because that’s the kind of thing that doesn’t hold up to very much scrutiny and the found-footage style of film-making can be especially unforgiving to things like bad special effects and bad performances. Everything has to feel realer than real. And we didn’t, other than a couple of paint-outs, but I’m not sure people got that because we show it so briefly.

I saw a couple of reviews that said our movie has bad CGI and it’s just like ‘Well, I don’t even know where to start with that one’, that’s not a criticism that I can find any use for, I’m afraid.

Because the first film was portrayed as real-life found footage, and with this one there are no such pretenses, did that give you more freedom to have more fun with it?

Well, it goes without saying that if we were doing an entirely improvisational, experimental film like The Blair Witch Project– something unprecedented- then you can’t have special effects scenes, because those require a great deal of planning- in fact, a fun bit of trivia that I’ve always enjoyed is that in The Blair Witch Project, they intended to show something; a figure all wrapped up, running in the woods with the actors, who you were supposed to glimpse. Again, I don’t think they intended for that to be the Blair Witch, but they were trying to show you something. But it didn’t show up in the film. So the scene in the original movie where Heather’s shouting ‘What the fuck is that?!’ they intended for you to see something there. But it didn’t show up on camera. And so it’s not in the movie!

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For various reasons we didn’t think that trying to recreate the experiment of the original Blair Witch Project was the right approach. Not the least of which was that the original film already did that, and they did it kind of sublimely. And I didn’t think there was anything to be gained from us approaching the idea of a sequel by totally trying to recreate what the original did; not just in an experimental approach to film-making and improvisational dialogue, but also its extreme subtlety. Once you have the first film do those things, you want to explore them further. So we just had a very different approach.

Even though we’ve done some improvisation in films like V/H/S and You’re Next and so on, because it’s fun and we’re working with actors like Joe Swanberg and Amy Seimetz who are really good at it, and Ti West who’s really funny- people who come from that background, there was always a script with dialogue. But if the improv was good, great, and if it wasn’t, let’s just do it as written. That’s just generally how I work. I like having a script and I think Adam likes having a script.

So yeah, we were kind of just embracing the idea of doing a fast-paced thrill ride.

As Adam said, the first film’s about being lost in the woods, but we wanted to make a film about being chased through the woods. And we really did. The whole idea of this was that the entire movie would build up to this non-stop thirty minute third act, which we designed to be pretty relentless.

So I was heavily involved in that and I wouldn’t say that was more fun, because with the original: giving a bunch of actors cameras and sending them off into the woods and shouting at them and terrifying them sounds really fun to me, I mean, it certainly took lots of time, but it sounds like a blast. I don’t know how much fun the actors would have, but it sounds delightful.

So I doubt we had much more fun- because we were trying to do something much more technical. It was very difficult and work intensive. But at the same time it was what we wanted to do. It wasn’t necessarily what we thought people wanted, but it was what we wanted, as The Blair Witch Project super-fans, it was the next step that we wanted to see the series take, which was something that felt crowd pleasing enough to make the studio happy.

So that was our creative approach from the start. And we followed it through pretty much every stage of the process.

Blair Witch is out on Blu-Ray, DVD and Digital Download now.