Telling the Untold Stories of The Blair Witch Project

Heather in The Blair Witch Project

Back in late 1999/early 2000, The Blair Witch Project was at the top of the horror genre, having become the most profitable movie of all time, and was already generating an entire “expanded universe” of novels, comic books, and videogames. Artisan Entertainment, the studio that had purchased the little indie-flick-that-could (along with all of its licensing rights), was already aggressively pursuing a sequel, one that, it said, had to be released by the following Halloween.

Haxan Films, the tiny production company that had formed to create Blair Witch, was angling to do an entirely different project (a comedy called Heart of Love that, sadly, never quite materialized) and had asked for the powers that be to hold off on a follow-up for at least a little while longer. The fact that there was a considerable amount of both hype and backlash to the “scariest film of all time” was also a prime motivator in wanting to wait and let the air clear a little. Artisan refused and opted to make the next installment all on its own, without the original filmmakers’ involvement. The result was Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, which was so atrocious that it pulled a Batman and Robin and single-handedly killed the entire multimedia franchise in one fell swoop.

This may all be common knowledge, but what perhaps isn’t as well known is what the so-called Haxan Five had lined up for the future of the Blair series; had they been left to their own devices, they not only would have delivered Blair Witch 2, but potentially five more installments, ranging from sequels to prequels, each meticulously detailing the twisted mythology of Elly Kedward and her stomping grounds in the Black Hills woods.

Oh – the best part of all these best-laid plans of witches and stick men? They could still become a reality. Read on to find out how.

Back to the beginning: Elly Kedward

Elly Kedward collage Blair Witch Project

Rather than delivering the sequel pitch that Artisan so desperately wanted at the end of 1999, co-directors and -writers Eduardo Sanchez and Dan Myrick, along with the rest of their crew at Haxan, were hard at work brainstorming a prequel. Set in 1785, the year that Irish immigrant Elly Kedward was banished from the colonial town of Blair, Maryland for being a witch, this period piece would be as authentic as possible – Ben Rock, the production designer on the first movie (and the mastermind behind the web series 20 Seconds to Live) recently wrote that Myrick and Sanchez wanted to shoot the prequel with natural lighting, like Stanley Kubrick did with Barry Lyndon – and it would still favor creepy atmospherics over explicit gore. In fact, every single one of the filmmakers interviewed for this piece compared their original vision to Robert Eggers’s surprise success The Witch, which released earlier this year.

Why such a huge departure from the found-footage format of the original? Dan Myrick explained:

"Blair shouldn’t be limited to three or four people going out into the woods with video cameras and disappearing. I mean, that worked great the first time, I think both Adam [Wingard] and Simon [Barrett] did a great job on this current movie, but there’s so much more. There’s so much more to explore – and there’s no reason not to."

The really big twist, however, had more to do with the story itself than with its narrative structure or setting. Mythology maestro Ben Rock revealed that, in the planned prequel:

“Elly Kedward was going to be a character who died right at the beginning [of the movie], and nothing else ever happened as a result of her. She was just a scapegoat. The name got pinned on her – she had nothing to do with it... I don’t know if that idea would’ve made it, but that’s what’s cool about folklore – there’s a folklore, and when you find out the truth of it, it’s never what you thought it was."

The real presence haunting the woods that history would go on to remember as the Blair Witch would be revealed to be an ancient force that, Eduardo Sanchez hints, was existent not only before the arrival of Europeans in the New World (the various Native American tribes who dwelt in the area learned a long time ago to stay clear of the Black Hills Forest – and, yes, they had their own names and explanations for the supernatural entity), but perhaps was present well before the arrival of man two million years ago. What its true origins, the nature of its being, or the rationality behind its actions were would, in classic Lovecraftian style, be left undefined throughout all of the proposed films – it would be literally incomprehensible to human consciousness. Sanchez elaborated:

“For us, the power of the entity that lives in these woods was always about having certain rules and building certain guidelines. But, in the end, there’s no rhyme or reason to what’s happening in those woods. You were never meant to know.”

The Blair Witch Project - Mikey in the corner

All of which, however, isn’t to say that Elly herself was completely innocent – even though not a witch, “there’s some kind of sin” to her, Sanchez confides, noting that she may have had some type of ulterior motive with the town or the children that she was reputed to have bled.

"For me, I think Elly recognized there’s a force in the woods, and I don’t think she was evil, but I definitely think she was aware of it. I still haven’t really made up my mind as far as whether she really did something bad to those kids. Was she planning on doing something? I haven’t gone that far. But the responsibility for triggering the evil [presence] falls on human shoulders eventually, whether it was the townspeople treating her the way they treated her, or it was Elly inviting this thing into her life."

And this is where some of the “expanded universe” of tie-in materials comes into play. In the original Blair Witch Project comic book, released the same month as the first movie, readers get to witness an Elly that always had “the curse” on her, but who tried her hardest to keep it at bay. Finally, when left for dead in the cold, cold woods, tied to a tree, she succumbs to the evil force that has been nibbling at the edges of her consciousness for nearly her entire life, and she returns to the town to enact her vengeance. This may very well have been the ultimate resolution of the prequel film, had the Haxan Five been allowed to continue developing it.

Producer Gregg Hale sums up the film’s scenario as this:

[Elly Kedward] actually wasn’t a witch, but she did a couple of things that kind of made people suspect her. And then, when s*** started happening that really WAS bad, they blamed it on her. But then, when she was out in the woods, she makes a deal – not 'makes a deal' with this entity, but she kind of becomes, just like Rustin Parr in the ‘40s, she kind of became the conduit for this thing. It just looks for a way to affect people and do things, and Elly was what it chose, but only after she had already been banished as a witch and, supposedly, killed.

Alas, the game-changer that would have been the Blair Witch “origin” story has been routinely shot down, first by Artisan, both before and after Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2’s release, and then by new license holder Lionsgate, who purchased the property when the previous studio went belly-up in 2003, and who ultimately wanted to pull a Star Wars: The Force Awakens on Blair Witch, doing a simultaneous sequel and reboot.

Rustin Parr

While the Witch-style Elly Kedward story was the one the most beloved by the crew – and, therefore, the most fleshed out of all the prequel ideas – the concept that easily came in at second place is yet another period piece, this time focusing on child serial killer Rustin Parr. Just as the 1785 picture was envisioned as an authentic production, Rustin’s turn in the spotlight would have been just as true to its time period: it would have been shot in black and white and very much modeled after a 1940s noir piece (making for a hypothetical film series that is comprised of amazingly unique styles and structures).

What, exactly, its narrative would have entailed, the filmmakers never fully fleshed out, though – just as with Elly – there is more than enough material in the expanded universe to provide for a very strong springboard of ideas. (One of the three mockumentaries that were created as tie-in marketing for The Blair Witch Project, called The Burkittsville 7, even seeks to undermine the commonly accepted role of Parr in the Blair mythology, saying that it wasn’t the reclusive old man who abducted and killed all those children but, rather, one of the other boys.)

Even without an outline (or other narrative prep work), the passion in the filmmakers’ voices when speaking of this follow-up is undeniable, and the sheer amount of “fun” to be had in its execution makes for a very intoxicating possible film.

The other (prequel) possibilities

The first two definites in the Haxan Five’s overarching Blair Witch plans are, without a doubt, the Elly Kedward and Rustin Parr stories. After that, the crew wanted to take a wait-and-see approach to the rest of the premises that were floating around in their collective heads, both to ensure that the market wouldn’t be glutted with Blair products (considering the massive wave of tie-in materials that would accompany each movie) and to uphold the creative standards on the filmmakers’ end; as co-director Dan Myrick put it, “We would want to maintain the high quality and the high production values for whatever movie we attempted.”

Should the horror stars align, however, and should good stories be able to be mined out of the concepts, Myrick and his directing/writing partner, Eduardo Sanchez, had at least two more concepts lined up, once again borrowing from the considerable mythology they had spearheaded during the development of the first film: the story of Eileen Treacle, a girl who, in 1825, was snatched into inches-deep water by a “ghostly white hand,” never to be seen again; and then the tale of Coffin Rock, where, in 1886, a search party was ritualistically murdered as it sought out a missing girl (another incident fleshed out in the original Blair Witch Project comic). “I think the events at Coffin Rock would be really horrific,” Myrick said, insisting that there is “a great horror movie there.”

"The big-picture intent [is to have] several films, all with the Blair Witch lineage, but they’re [also] stand-alone experiences – they’re stand-alone movies, all making up the whole of the Blair Witch myth. I just prefer, creatively, that these films stand on their own, and if you drill down a little bit, you realize it’s all part of the same universe. I love that and think it would be pretty cool."

The sequel (circa 1999)

Aliens poster - Ripley and Newt

It wasn’t just prequels that Haxan Films had on its mind – it also wanted to explore the post-1995 future (1995 being the year, if you’ll recall, that Heather [Heather Donahue], Josh [Josh Leonard], and Mike’s [Michael Williams] footage was discovered). As Eduardo Sanchez put it:

"Our plan – at least, in our 30-something minds, back in the day, feeling the glow of success, which is very different years later, when it’s faded out and you don’t have quite as much power as you thought you did – our thing was, if Artisan let us, to do a movie about each of the pieces of mythology. We wanted to start with Elly Kedward and then jump around; we wanted to do a Rustin Parr kind of noir, black-and-white film. We wanted to go backwards, and then, once we had kind of satiated ourselves with the mythology, then it would have been great to do a sequel to the original movie."

Just what form this follow-up story would take was never nailed down, as the filmmakers believed that they would ultimately have several years – if not longer – to figure everything out. Still, conversations amongst themselves were had, even brief flights of fancy where they asked themselves one simple question: what if we did do the sequel for the year 2000, before all of our other plans?

We did entertain it,” producer Gregg Hale confessed. “We threw around some ideas for a sequel that were definitely more like traditional sequels.” He and co-director/co-writer Sanchez seemed to fancy one approach in particular:

"Our original sequel idea, if I remember it correctly from that long ago, was more of an Alien-to-Aliens thing, where Alien is, like, this kind of contained, claustrophobic, moody, creepy horror film with a couple of jump scares and a little bit of action, but mostly kind of a creepy horror movie, and Aliens is a f***ing action movie with some scary aliens – two very different movies in the same universe. And that’s kinda what we were talking about: a team goes in that’s got some guys with guns and s*** like that, and they go in to try to figure out what the hell’s going on, and s*** happens to them, but it’s more violent, more action-y, and it’s just exactly like what Aliens is to Alien.'"

Dan Myrick, the other half of the directing and writing team, meanwhile, was toying around with his own sequel idea, one that would also rely heavily on the pre-established mythology – in this instance, focusing on Michael DeCoto, the film professor at Montgomery College who greenlit Heather’s Blair Witch Project proposal (and who was portrayed by Michael Hoover in the Curse of the Blair Witch mockumentary).

"It revolved around the film professor and his life, and I thought that was a really cool concept. It was sort of picking up the pieces after the kids [Heather, Josh, and Mike] had disappeared, and what was his role in all of this? Because there was some speculation that maybe he had something to do with it, or whatever, but I have always thought it would be interesting to explore what the hell happened with his whole side of the story and his life."

While Myrick went on to outline his take on the story (off the record, unfortunately, but it was a fascinating idea), it never proceeded further down the development path.

The sequel (circa 2009)

After acquiring the property in 2003, Lionsgate Entertainment knew almost immediately that it was going to resuscitate Blair Witch, but it took it some time in order to figure out exactly how to do so. During this somewhat meandering process, the studio decided that the best path forward might be with the original creators themselves – and, as such, a full decade after The Blair Witch Project had turned horror cinema upside down, Eduardo Sanchez and Dan Myrick, along with producer Gregg Hale, were commissioned to write the third Blair Witch installment.

This scripting assignment came with two important requirements: (1) it had to be a sequel, and (2) it had to be contemporary, setting it in the present day (two objectives which obviously went on to shape the ultimate Blair Witch 3, Adam Wingard’s Blair Witch, as well). Oh, yeah – there was also an ancillary demand, which was that the film would have to be shot in 3D, given all the excitement at the time regarding Avatar's release. Still, even within this framework, the filmmakers were able to weave in their concepts from their previous, well-since-defunct films, as Hale makes clear:

"The script that we wrote was a sequel with all completely-new characters and some connection to what happened to the kids – y'know, Heather, Mike, and Josh from the original movie – some connection to what happened to them, but that was definitely not front and center. It was more like, okay, The Blair Witch is not about Heather, Mike, and Josh; The Blair Witch is about this entity in the woods. We wrote a movie that was more about that entity and what it does."

While the writers and producer were hesitant to give up the exact plot of the film – partially out of fear of stepping on Lionsgate’s toes, and partially out of the hope that they’ll still be able to shoot what they call a “really good” script – they did provide the general premise. Dan Myrick summarized it this way:

"It centered around a mother and her son that moved out to the area, to get out of the city, and they are unwittingly kind of sucked into that Blair Witch thing. It's a traditional narrative approach, but it still plays into the mythology – the locals are aware of the three filmmakers years before that disappeared, and whatnot. We stuck to the mythology; it wasn't like Blair 2, which became sort of self-referential. We carried on that mythology, and this would have been just another event that happened out there that was pretty horrific."

Sticking to the more familiar, found-footage approach was something that the Haxan mavericks never even considered; “Simon and Adam have done an awesome job with” this month’s Blair Witch, Hale says, “but that was never a movie that we were going to make. […] If there’s an opportunity to make another Blair Witch movie, we wanna take it somewhere else. We wanna go somewhere else with it.”

The future…?

Blair Witch (2016) trailers and posters

We still hope to this day that Lionsgate will come around” to these various film proposals, Dan Myrick says. It’s a sentiment not only mentioned by him several times throughout our hours of interviews, but by every single person involved in the production of The Blair Witch Project, even down to the author, Dave Stern, who worked on the various tie-in novels.

It’s obvious that everyone who participated in that inaugural Blair Witch outing remains overwhelmingly committed to his child (now a whopping 17 years old), and that these various bits and pieces of narrative information remain ready to be transformed into fully realized movies at a moment’s notice; “We have loose outlines, loose ideas, and a loose backstory of these different episodes that could come together very quickly, I think, if we got some real interest from Lionsgate,” Myrick went on to say.

It’s equally obvious that what did ultimately manifest as Blair Witch 3 represents a real opportunity at opening the franchise’s doors wide for a second time, possibly ushering in a new period of multiple film, book, comics, and videogame releases, all working together to tell one unified story once again. As Sanchez posited:

"Look how well The Witch did. I think there’s a desire for that sort of thing, and it could just be really cool. And it doesn’t have to stop there; you can explore other stuff, as well. But we still have sort of a fantasy of being able to do that. Who knows? I mean, if the movie being released on the 16th does super well, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that they would throw a little money at something like that. We’ll see."

We shall indeed.

Blair Witch opens in US theaters on September 16, 2016.

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