These days phrases like “found footage” and “viral marketing” are ubiquitous in cinema, but back in 1999 — the year The Blair Witch Project was released — they had yet to be officially coined, let alone popularised. To budding filmmakers Edward Sanchez and Daniel Myrick they weren’t groundbreaking concepts but merely means to an end; in order to do justice to their idea for a faux-documentary horror film in the vein of The Legend of Boggy Creek they would have to get creative.
Filming on handheld VHS cameras would save the production thousands of dollars and help facilitate an illusion of authenticity, while releasing materials relating to the film’s mythology online would allow them to create a rich, comprehensive and uniquely immersive experience for audiences. The Blair Witch Project was ahead of its time in another sense, too; Sanchez and Myrick didn’t just end up with an overabundance of footage to work with in the editing suite, but an excess of behind-the-scenes recordings destined to spend the next decade in half-forgotten boxes.
The Woods came about after one of the filmmakers responded to a MySpace message from superfan and aspiring filmmaker Russ Gomm, leading to a longstanding friendship and mutual respect that would see Gomm invited out to the US to work as videographer on 2011’s Lovely Molly, which Sanchez was directing. Impressed by his editing skills, Sanchez entrusted Gomm with the recently recovered archive from The Blair Witch Project, encouraging him to work the hours and hours of special features into some sort of shape, whether for a web series or even a stand-alone documentary film.
One of the results was The Woods, a never-before-seen chronicle of the production process comprising the actors’ audition tapes, interviews with the crew and audience reactions at Sundance Film Festival, where it played to a packed auditorium and earned rave reviews. Gomm also draws from Phase Two, essentially second unit photography intended to flesh out the mythology, but which was first abandoned after muted test screenings and then incorporated into a special programme broadcast prior to the film’s release to build interest in the titular witch. The Woods, then, contains everything except scenes from the feature film itself.
The making of The Blair Witch Project is the stuff of legend, and The Woods sets the record straight while also shining a light on the reasons it caught audiences’ imaginations the way it did. It’s a fascinating insight into independent filmmaking, the festival circuit and cinema in the pre-Internet age — back before film websites and fan forums inundated readers with information about upcoming movies — it might be unimaginable now, but the actors were listed as missing, presumed dead on IMDb.
The documentary astutely conveys the sense of how The Blair Witch Project grew from a novel idea conceived by students at The University of Central Florida into a worldwide phenomenon playing to screaming audiences everywhere. The film follows the two writer-directors from early story-building discussions and the recruitment of the film’s tight, multi-tasking crew to the casting and eventual filming of the movie itself. Through the footage you get not just a sense of Gomm’s own passion for the project — even if he does assumes a level of familiarity with the film that is frankly unlikely — but also of the original crew’s bemusement at what happened after the film’s release.
Shown at Sundance, the film was soon bought for over a million dollars — an absurd amount of money given that earlier in the film a member of the crew was being reprimanded for wasting a handful of dollars on twine.
That said, with its limited focus (there is no recent footage to provide historical context) and positive spin (this is very much a passion project) there is not a lot to distinguish The Woods from a well-edited featurette or DVD extra.
The Woods ignores the ill-fated sequel, the long-forgotten cast, the much-maligned found-footage format that it proliferated, while failing to ask a single original question of its own about The Blair Witch Project. In many ways, the FrightFest Q&A with Gomm at Glasgow Film Festival — where the film had its world premiere — was more informative than the film itself.