Mike was in for all kinds of painful deaths, the film's directors tell EW

By Ruth Kinane
April 05, 2017 at 02:00 PM EDT

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The 1999 horror faux-doc about three college students — Heather, Michael, and Joshua — searching for the fabled Blair Witch in the Maryland woods was always supposed to end unexpectedly. The image is iconic now. Michael faces the corner of an abandoned house while Heather screams hysterically and drops the camera.

“When we came up with that ending we had been agonizing over making sure there was a pay-off,” says The Blair Witch Project co-director Dan Myrick. “We didn’t want to lead the audience on this entire build-up and then just cut to black; there needed to be some kind of what-the-f–k moment at the end, but at the same time we didn’t want to see a person in a bad witch costume come out and grab them.”

“Our big struggle with the movie was always how to end it,” agrees co-director Eduardo Sanchez. “We didn’t have any money, so we couldn’t do any special effects so we had to figure out how to end it without ruining the rest of the film. We came up with the idea three days before we shot it. We thought it was great — kind of unexplained, but it gave you the idea that something supernatural was happening.”

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However, that unexplained element caused some problems come test screening time. “When we screened it, people were overwhelmingly confused,” says Myrick. “However, when asked if they were scared, 19 out of 20 hands went up.” But the distributor, Artisan, was spooked in a will-this-movie-flop kind of way. “They wanted us to do something more definitive,” says Sanchez.

And so they sent Myrick and Sanchez back to the trees to film several possible endings, which included Mike hanging from a noose, crucified on a wooden stick man, and with a bloodied chest. “We went back to that house with a skeleton crew and basically just shot all the endings that Ed and I threw out when we were dreaming up the script,” says Myrick.

Illustration by Tim McDonagh for EW

While they were at it, the directors also shot an interview to explain Mike’s wall stare-down. “There was one additional pick up,” says Sanchez. “We shot an interview with a guy where he explains a little bit of the mythology of the killer Rustin Parr; how he would make one kid stand in the corner while he killed the others. We felt that if we stuck it in early in the movie there was going to be some audience members that would connect it to the ending.”

When they took footage back to executives, the directors expressed their preference for the original ending. “What makes us fearful is something that’s out of the ordinary, unexplained,” says Myrick. “The first ending kept the audience off balance; it challenged our real world conventions and that’s what really made it scary.”

Sanchez remembers an exec telling them, “Okay, but it’s going to cost us millions at the box office.’’ The film grossed $248.6 million worldwide, roughly 4,000 times its initial budget.

Myrick’s film Under the Bed premiered on Lifetime in January. Sanchez directs for the series Lucifer (Fox) and Queen of the South (USA).