Exclusive: The makers of the film formerly known as ‘The Woods’ explain how they kept their franchise reboot a secret
Are you ready for a trip back to one of the horror genre’s most feared woods? EW can reveal that Lionsgate’s upcoming film The Woods is actually a new, and previously secret, sequel to horror classic The Blair Witch Project, arriving in theaters on Sept. 16. Titled, simply, Blair Witch, the found footage movie stars James Allen McCune (Showtime’s Shameless) as the brother of Heather Donahue’s character from the original 1999 horror film, who sets out to discover what happened to his long-missing sister.
Blair Witch is directed by Adam Wingard and written by Simon Barrett, whose previous collaborations include 2013’s home invasion horror-comedy You’re Next and the following year’s Dan Stevens-starring action-thriller The Guest. The film was shot secretly in Vancouver last year but has actually been hiding in plain sight under the name of The Woods. In May, Lionsgate released a trailer for “The Woods,” which featured footage from the film accompanied by a creepy cover of The Police’s “Every Breath You Take.” Blair Witch is being publicly shown Friday for the first time at Comic-Con in San Diego at an event which has been billed as a screening for The Woods.
“The Woods was our working title,” says director Wingard. “When we signed on to it, we knew that [the name] was eventually going to be changed. To us, it wasn’t even going to be part of the marketing. But I think Lionsgate made a really smart decision, using that.”
This marketing slight-of-hand has a precedent in the franchise. Directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, The Blair Witch Project tracked the increasingly terrifying travails of three student filmmakers (played by Donahue, Michael C. Williams, and Joshua Leonard) making a documentary near Burkittsville, Maryland, about the titular local legend. The film cost a mere $60,000 but grossed $140 million in America alone, in part thanks to a marketing campaign which led many to believe that the footage which comprised the movie really had been “found” and that the events depicted were real.
In time, Myrick and Sánchez’s film would prove hugely influential, helping to usher in the found footage craze which reached its commercial zenith with the Paranormal Activity movies. “It’s still the golden standard for found footage, in a way” says writer Barrett about the original Blair Witch Project. “It’s pretty much unparalleled in terms of its commitment towards reality, to the point where characters [are] filming their feet while they’re yelling at each other.”
Blair Witch is the third in the franchise but the first since 2000’s Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, which abandoned the found footage format and performed modestly at the box office, earning $26 million. Remarkably, although Blair Witch was shot in May and June of 2015, there has been almost no chatter on the internet about the film’s connection to The Blair Witch Project.
“It really has been fascinating, all the CIA-level security that we have put around this project, from the very beginning,” says Jason Constantine, President, Acquisitions and Co-Productions, Lionsgate Motion Picture Group, who played a lead role in developing the film. “I’ve been at Lionsgate for 16 years, and I’ve had the privilege of working on a lot of movies that I love, and are a lot of fun: horror movies, and action movies, and Oscar movies. But never have we ever set out to make a reboot movie, and keep it in total secrecy, with a brand that’s as well known to the public as this one. It’s incredible to think about how many people needed to know about it to bring this movie to life — and yet we ended up not having any leaks in that regard.”
The release of Blair Witch in September will be the culmination of a long-held dream for Constantine, who says he feels a personal connection with the original film, having been present in the audience when the movie played the Sundance Film Festival in 1999. “I was at that first Sundance screening, when the movie world-premiered at the Egyptian Theater,” he recalls. “I thought it was incredible, and terrifying, and really innovative.”
In 2003, Lionsgate purchased Artisan Entertainment, the company which distributed The Blair Witch Project and held the rights to the franchise. “I always felt this was a brand that, if done correctly, would be a great horror movie to bring back to audiences,” says Constantine. “However, you had to do it right or not at all. We explored a couple different avenues but I always felt it really came down to having the right creative take. It had to be the right filmmaking team.”
Constantine started to believe he had found that team after seeing You’re Next, which Lionsgate announced in September 2011 that it had acquired for distribution. Wingard and Barrett’s tale of family reunion which goes violently awry would not ultimately set the box office alight, a victim, arguably, of its own genre-bending inventiveness. But the pair’s darkly humorous, if still memorably brutal, film caught the attention of both horror aficionados and studio development executives. And their profile was further raised by the duo’s involvement with the found footage horror anthology V/H/S, which screened at the 2012 Sundance Festival, and its sequel, V/H/S2, whose creators also included Sánchez and Blair Witch Project producer Gregg Hale.
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“As soon as you have any kind of success whatsoever, you suddenly get all these meetings where they want you to remake whatever film resembles the one that you just made as much as possible,” says Barrett. “Because Adam and I, our first visible successes were the first V/H/S and You’re Next, we got offered a lot of found footage home invasion films. Additionally, we got offered remakes of every kind of horror movie you could possibly think of. We turned them all down.”
In February 2013, Constantine invited the pair to a secret meeting at Lionsgate where he personally pitched them on the idea of writing and directing a new Blair Witch movie. “We were blown away by Adam Wingard’s complete mastery of the genre in You’re Next and felt that Adam, and Simon, and Keith (Calder), and Jessica (Wu), the producers, were an extraordinary filmmaking unit,” says Constantine. “When we saw You’re Next and saw [V/H/S], it was like, ‘You know what? Adam Wingard and his writing partner are the guys that we should go to, to [make] a reboot of Blair Witch.’ And so, we arranged a secret meeting with them, we pitched them the idea.”
It was an offer the duo felt they couldn’t refuse. “This was different for several reasons,” says Barrett. “One of which was, we had a friendship with Eduardo Sánchez and Gregg Hale, from working on V/H/S2 with them. Beyond that, we were just such fans of the original film and its mythology. It was like, ‘We can’t let anyone else do this.’ We were refusing to let another filmmaker mess with it, because it was something that we really loved.”
“We were already doing The Guest when we were first contacted,” recalls Wingard. “But, for me, as soon as the idea of doing a Blair Witch movie was brought up, I instantly jumped on it. I still remembered all the old mythology that went online when the first film came out.”
Constantine’s offer also dovetailed nicely with Wingard and Barrett’s desire to make a full-on, no-nonsense fright flick. “The funny thing is, I’ve always been considered a horror filmmaker and I don’t feel like I’ve made a real horror movie,” says the director. “I mean, You’re Next is basically a horror-comedy, The Guest is more a meta-breakdown of horror films mixed with a thriller. One of the interesting things for me was, actually saying, ‘I’m going to try to make the scariest film that’s ever been made.'”
In March 2013, Lionsgate closed deals with Wingard and Barrett, while also informing Sánchez, Hale, and Myrick in whose hands they had placed the future of their creation. Instead of publicizing the fact that Lionsgate now had a plan in place to reboot one of the most famous horror brands of all-time, Constantine asked that all concerned keep the matter a secret.
“We live in an age where it’s harder and harder for a movie to be a genuine surprise for an audience, because of the internet, because of Twitter, because of all the discussions that can happen online,” says the Lionsgate executive. “Sometimes, you want to embrace that for a movie, but we really felt, on this film, that it would be great if audiences could be genuinely surprised.”
Barrett and Wingard embraced the idea of keeping the project off the grid. “Adam and I both thought that was super cool,” says the former. “We were really excited by that. [With] V/H/S, V/H/S 2, and especially You’re Next, we wouldn’t even tell people that those movies existed until their premieres were announced. That was our way to make that a cool thing. In this era of social media, and of everyone hyping everything, we’ve always felt that is the right approach: give people less, don’t tell them exactly what it is, let them be surprised.”
Barrett also had the advantage of some professional experience in the field of keeping secrets. “I was a licensed private investigator for about 10 years before I started making any kind of living in the film industry,” he explains. “So, I’m actually pretty cagey in general. I learned that the key to keeping a secret is, you have to keep it from everyone. In fact, I had a meeting recently with a studio that was trying to hire us to do another secret project. [Laughs] I couldn’t tell them about the first one and so it was a weird conversation. But I was like, ‘You’re just going to have to trust me, I’m good at keeping secrets.'”
Wingard says he and Barrett were mostly allowed to develop the script without excessive input or interference from Lionsgate. “They knew they wanted it to be a continuation of the first film, using Heather’s brother,” says Wingard. “That was what they came to us with. From there, we were left to our own devices to figure it out. There were a lot of things that I could still remember watching the first film, as a mega-fan as a kid, thinking, what I wanted out of a sequel. Whenever I saw Book of Shadows, they just didn’t touch on all these things I wanted to see. My entrance was, How do I do the ultimate version of this? I wanted it to be a haunted house ride where you’re just strapped in and, once it gets going, there’s no turning back and you’re just going full-on into all these intense set pieces.” Not part of the plan? Featuring cast members from the first film. “It would have been cool,” says Wingard. “[But] it was one of those things where, we wanted the movie to stand on its own.”
Barrett handed in his first draft, appropriately enough, on Oct. 31, 2013, and, over the next nine months, the script was developed and refined, with each new version bearing the name “The Woods” on the title page. In the fall of 2014, Calder and Wu were officially brought onto the project, joining Roy Lee (The Strangers) and Steven Schneider (Insidious) as producers. In the spring of last year, the team began the search for actors. Neither the potential cast members nor their representatives were told the real nature of the project during the audition process, during which actors read from fake, Barrett-penned script pages.
“This was a huge process that I am still somewhat embittered about because it required work from me, which I despise,” Barrett half-jokes. “I have to say, I imagine it was a desire to work with Adam that even got them through these bizarre scenes, because they can’t have had much confidence in the actual scenes themselves.”
Finally, the Blair Witch team settled on the film’s cast of McCune, Valorie Curry (The Following), Callie Hernandez (From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series), Brandon Scott (Grey’s Anatomy), Wes Robinson (American Dreams), and Corbin Reid (Words With Girls). “When we made the decision to cast everybody, each role, then we gave them the opportunity to read the script,” says Constantine. “I had a conversation with each one of them personally to explain to them what they were about to read, and the importance of the secrecy, not just today but for the rest of the production.”
“Fortunately, their reaction was, they were very excited,” says Barrett. “They were thrilled. Wes Robinson, he was a huge fan of the original, and, really more than anyone else was very, like, ‘That’s cool.'”
Security remained tight during the shoot itself. While the cast and senior crew members had access to the real script, others were given a fake screenplay, from which all telltale references had been excised. “I think it was the UPM (unit production manager), he was talking to one of the producers,” recalls Wingard. “He said, ‘This script is really cool but it seems like a real knock-off of The Blair Witch.’ It was like, ‘Oh, wait, you haven’t actually gotten the real script? We should get that to you.’”
The secrecy even extended to the corporate corridors of Lionsgate itself. “Only a very small handful of people at Lionsgate knew what the film was,” says Barrett. “We were working with Jason Constantine and Eda Kowan (Executive Vice President, Acquisitions & Co-Productions). This was just their own secret project and basically they kept it a secret even from everyone there. So, because of that, it wasn’t that hard for us to keep it a secret from our crew. If, for example, they were to call someone at Lionsgate and say, ‘What is this film?’ they’d get a very sincere, incorrect, answer, from someone who wasn’t even lying to them, but just wasn’t in the loop.”
While the cast may have been scared to death about divulging the true nature of the shoot, they didn’t look terrified enough for Wingard who set about thinking up ways to help them deliver suitably shocked performances. “I found myself trying out all kinds of tricks,” says the director. “This movie has lot of moments where people have to seem really surprised. I kind of developed my new jump-scare system. I have a collection of these air horns that I would bring on set. I call them my ‘scare horns.’ If you want a real reaction, it’s not good enough to just tell somebody to act surprised, or even to smack two wood blocks together, which is what some people do. You’ve got to really make them jump. There’s nothing like a good air horn right behind an actor’s ear to make them jump and give you an appropriate scream when you need it.”
Having successfully maintained the Woods ruse up to this point, Lionsgate doubled down on it when the time came to release the film’s first trailer. “On You’re Next, we developed a relationship with Tim Palen (Lionsgate Head of Marketing), who is their kind of marketing wizard,” says Barrett. “He was one of the few people that we wanted to make sure was looped in at an early stage, because we knew he would have some sort of creative, outside-of-the-box thinking towards this film. And he certainly does! [Laughs] He had total confidence in this vision of, It’s been amazing that this has been kept secret so far, so let’s take advantage of that.”
Lionsgate also screened a work-in-progress version of the film for the makers of the original Blair Witch Project. “They’ve all seen the movie and have all given us their approval,” says Wingard. “Thank God!”
Wingard and Barrett have some ideas as to where the franchise could go next, if audiences also give the film a collective thumbs-up when the film is released in September. “We know where we would take it if there is a sequel,” the director says. For the moment, however, the pair are still getting accustomed to actually saying the name of the film they have been working on for past three years. “Now that we’re having conversations about it with people at Lionsgate and their marketing department, I still find those terribly unnerving,” says Barrett. “’The movie that comes out in September’ is how I prefer to reference it.”
Watch the filmmakers discuss Blair Witch below.