Eduardo Sánchez – The Blair Witch Director Takes On Bigfoot
by Jay S. Jacobs
Fifteen years ago, a little mega-low-budget film called The Blair Witch Project became one of the biggest surprise hits in independent film history. The movie was created by unknown co-writer/directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, two former film students who decided that the best way to get noticed was to create a calling-card project about three filmmakers who bit off more than they could chew when they decided to make a documentary about the legend of a mysterious Maryland witch.
What a calling card it became. The Blair Witch Product was filmed for about $35,000 and ended up grossing over $248 million. The film also popularized the “found footage” technique of filmmaking, in which a movie appeared to have been filmed by the characters. In fact, in Blair Witch, there was no giveaway that this footage was not completely real. A scroll at the beginning claimed it was a true story. There was no cast listing, and the characters shared names with the actors who played them.
In the years since The Blair Witch Project, Eduardo Sánchez has segued into slightly more traditional horror films, including the low-budget cult favorites Seventh Moon and Lovely Molly.
However, in his latest film, Sánchez has returned to the woods and his found-footage roots. Exists takes on a mysterious creature that has long fascinated Sánchez: the mysterious forest-dweller known as Bigfoot. Sánchez lets the huge creature loose on five extreme athletes with GoPros and hand-held cams looking for viral fame on YouTube. They have no idea how much spectacular footage lay in the mysterious woods.
A few days before Exists had it’s New York premiere, we caught up with Sánchez to find out about his career and his return to found footage.
You were born in Cuba. How old were you when you moved to the US? How did you first get interested in filmmaking?
I left Cuba when I was two and then we went to Spain. We ended up here when I was four or five. Film was always something that I love. My dad is a big film fan. He would take me to just about every movie that he could take me to when I was little. Some movies that he probably shouldn’t have taken me to. But he definitely had this enthusiasm for movies. We would watch all the James Bond movies. Anything action. He just loved those movies. I guess it just kind of bled over on me.
Then Star Wars came out in ’77. That was the first time that I got interested in how movies were made. It was just such an unique vision and I wanted to know everything about it. About how they made it. How they wrote it. How they came up with the ideas. Everything. Then Steven Spielberg kind of took over my life, made these incredible films. I was just hooked. I grew up in Maryland, pretty far away from any film work. Making movies was just a dream to me. I took a television production class in high school and I realized: Hey, people are actually making a living doing this. From then on it was just trying to get my foot in the door in the film business.
You’ve mostly worked in horror as a filmmaker. Were you always particularly fond of the genre as a fan, or did it just happen that way?
A little bit of both. Definitely, when Dan [Myrick] and I came up with the idea for Blair Witch, it was just that we were reacting to the absence of good horror movies at that time. There was not that much out that scared us. So we came up with this really cool idea for a horror film, but neither of us were really horror filmmakers. Then once Blair Witch blew up, we realized that people actually would let us make another horror movie. (Chuckles) We just kind of went down that road.
I’ve definitely become a fan. [I’m] much more of a fan of the genre now than I was as a kid. When I was a kid, it mostly just scared the crap out of me. There are definite different milestones in my life as a kid, these movies that just terrified me. Now, I’m definitely a fan. I appreciate good horror. I think I’m getting better with each film, at least in the fundamentals of horror filmmaking. It’s a good place to be. If I’m stuck in any genre, it’s a good place to be stuck in. There is definitely a variety of films that you can make under the horror label. You don’t get that kind of flexibility in other genres.
The Blair Witch Project was essentially filmed for nothing, had an unknown cast and yet became a huge, huge hit. When did you first realize that this film was not going to just disappear in some little film festivals but was going to have a big audience?
I guess it had to be Sundance. We definitely had a lot of indications before Sundance that the film was striking a chord with the few people who had seen the website and seen the clips we had up there. Once we went to Sundance… it really is one of the premiere exhibition arenas in the world for films. Our film was right up there with any film hype-wise. People were really clamoring to see it. All our screenings were sold out. At that point, it became clear that we were definitely onto something that was a lot bigger than we thought it was going to be.
What was the filming like? It was just a little DIY project. What was it like to just go out to the wood with cameras and just start filming?
It was scary, you know? There’s very few things that are worthwhile doing that aren’t scary, at least when you’re trying to break new ground or trying to build a career in a very competitive marketplace. We were doing our best. We thought we had a good idea. A lot of people agreed with us. We built this group of people around us that believed in the idea as much as we did. Really loved it. We couldn’t have done it without those people.
It was fun. We had never done anything like that and we will never ever do anything like that again. At the same time, you’re scared. You have no idea. You’re spending all your money. At that time, I was in my late 20s, so it was definitely not a good time to be completely broke. But, that’s what you do as a filmmaker; roll the dice and put it all on the line and hope it works.
With Blair Witch, you basically created an entire subgenre of horror films – the “found footage” films. Were you surprised that the style took off like it did? What are some of the found-footage movies that came in its wake that particularly intrigued you?
Yeah. We knew that this genre – this technique – could be used in other films. We were like: Man, you could do a comedy. You could do an action movie. There are so many ways you could do this. And, obviously, you can make horror movies that way. But we never really thought of making another found-footage movie. At least right away. Because we developed the technique based on the story of Blair Witch. For us it was the story. If the story lends itself to doing handheld, shot by the characters, that’s fine. But until we find a story like that…. We were just conventional filmmakers, like everybody else.
I was surprised by how rampant it got. Still there are still a lot of found-footage movies coming out every year. I was surprised by that, by the fact that so many people were doing it. I think found footage is just like every other genre, every other technique. You still have to have a good story, good visuals, good characters. You have to tell a good story. There were definitely a lot of great ones. I liked Cloverfield. I liked the first Paranormal Activity. I liked Rec. a lot. I think there are a lot of really great ones, you just have to find them.
I also enjoyed Lovely Molly, which was similar in some ways but very different in others. It was a more traditional horror film. What was the filming of that movie like?
That movie was very much an experiment. We had designed the movie as a found-footage movie. Then as I wrote it, it became less and less of a found-footage movie. I didn’t want to fall on the technique of found footage for the whole movie, so I mixed it up a little bit. There are definitely some found footage elements in the movie, but there is also this kind of omnipresent movie camera. Just like most movies are shot, that style.
It was very much an experiment. That was the main thing for that movie. First of all, going into a very dark place, psychologically, for me. I wrote the movie, I directed the movie and I edited the movie. It became very incestuous. It was kind of a difficult movie to get out, but I’m very proud of it. It’s a very dark movie. That’s why I think I had so much fun doing Exists, because it was just kind of a complete 180 from the darkness of Molly.
You return to a lot of the touchstones of Blair Witch with Exists. The whole shaky cam, running through the woods, unknown cast dynamic is a bit similar. Were you trying to revisit old territory and make it even better, or how did that idea come around?
Yeah, it was a little bit of that. Again, it’s looking for the idea that lends itself to the found footage technique. Even though this started off as a normal film, we soon realized that it would work much better as a found-footage movie. The idea that everything we’ve seen about Bigfoot, about Sasquatch, is basically found footage. It’s just people videotaping it and bringing it back and showing it to their friends. Putting it up on YouTube. So I was able to capture a lot of the classic Bigfoot moments in the movie, because the technique was exactly the same as those moments which were captured in real life.
The transition from conventional film to the found footage style was very easy. For me, it was a good time to go back to found footage. The genre had exploded. Dan and I were known as the Blair Witch guys. The guys that popularized the technique. I thought even though it is fifteen years later after Blair Witch – or actually thirteen years later when we shot it – it was just a good time. Time had passed and I thought that we could create something unique and new, but still playing with the old technique that we came up with during Blair Witch.
What was it about the legend of Bigfoot that intrigued you?
I’ve been addicted to Bigfoot ever since I was a little kid. I talk about the horror movies that really affected me, Legend of Boggy Creek really just changed my world. And that famous Patterson-Gimlin film of the creature walking to the creek bed. That had such an effect on me, because they were all presented as reality. Somebody says this is shaky, this is just like home video. This is just like news.
As a seven or eight year old kid you’re like: Wow! There’s really a creature out there. I also related to the whole idea of Bigfoot. The mythology. The idea that he or she is the last of its kind. Basically, they survive by staying away from humanity. And humanity takes over more of their space every year. So it has a very natural connection to nature and the consequences of human development. It was a creature that scared the crap out of me, but also I related to it very much.
Why do you feel that the idea of being lost in the woods is such a universal fear, particularly in this day and age when the world is so overdeveloped?
There is something primal about that fear. It’s something that our ancestors faced on a daily basis. Don’t wander too far away from the cave, or from the cabin, or from the shelter. It’s not our element. We’re just not in our element out there. We build these shelters around ourselves to protect ourselves from these elements. When we’re out there, basically naked, without any tools and without the comforts of civilization, it’s just us against this power that is out there. We are pretty innocent when compared to the power of nature. It’s something that has to do with just going back to that place that we shared. To me, I love camping, but part of it is still very scary. You’re just completely out of your element.
In the Blair Witch Project, you never see the witch until the very end. In Exists you see Bigfoot several times, but rarely closely until the end. They often said about Steven Spielberg’s Jaws what you don’t see is scarier than what you do see. He waited until the end to really show the shark. Do you agree?
Yes. Oh yes. Absolutely. Blair Witch wasn’t because of the budget, but it was just the kind of film it was, it was a very psychological exercise. Blair Witch was an experiment. For me, Jaws is, I think, the greatest monster movie of all time. To me that formula is the kind of classic. The idea that you show the impact of what the creature can do and the death and the human tragedy behind it, and then you just slowly start ramping it up. For me the great thing about Jaws was that it let you imagine what the shark was doing. What it was doing under the water. What it looked like. In the end, he gave you the shark. You saw the shark eating people. It was very dramatic.
One of the pet peeves I’ve had with Bigfoot movies is that they never show the creature enough. They never give me a satisfactory look at that creature. So from the very beginning of the conception of this movie, we were definitely following the Jaws model. Tease the creature. Show its impact. Start seeing it, slowly revealing little bits of evidence of its existence. Then at the end, you’ve got to give the audience the creature. It’s a monster movie. To me, that was the fun of the movie. Building this incredible creature, this guy in a suit, and somehow making it work as reality.
As much as I do love found footage, the genre always leaves you with one nagging question. If you had a sasquatch chasing after you, would you continue filming?
No. (laughs) No. It’s the basic fantasy of found footage movies. Even with Blair Witch. That was the main thing that we addressed. Okay, when the hell are they going to run out of batteries? Why would they keep filming? This and that. But the problem is that if you don’t make that leap, you don’t have a movie. (laughs again)
For Exists it wasn’t that much of a problem. The audience is so used to the basic elements of found footage. The basic element of found footage is that one character at least never puts that damned camera down. You know, it’s a movie. So basically you have to come up with reasons and excuses for the camera to be rolling and certain angles to exist. At the end of the day, if the audience is worried about that, then you’ve got bigger problems. For us it was like, keep the reality as much as we could, but at the same time, you are making a movie. It’s got music. It has great sound. It has everything that normal movies have, so you just have to hope that the audience accepts it as a movie.
Some of the shots in the cabin appeared to be filmed on a regular steady camera. Was it all done on handheld cameras or did you mix that up?
Yeah, there was definitely a variety of cameras. We used GoPros very limitedly, because the video quality wasn’t as great as we wanted. We used a lot of smaller SLR cameras. Then a few hand-held Prosumer model cameras. For me, it was like, this is a first. The first time I used found footage was Blair Witch, and in Blair Witch the actors ran the cameras 99.9% of the time.
This movie, I definitely wanted the actors to be involved, but I let the DP (director of photography) John Rutland, who also shot Lovely Molly, do most of the camera work. We developed a system where the actor who played Brian, Chris Osborn, is the guy who is supposed to be shooting. Chris would just stand behind John, holding his shoulders, and walk around with him while John, being the professional cameraman, took the shots and made them… not completely pretty, but at least not as shaky as somebody that is not as skilled at doing camera work. John has done a lot of reality television shows, so he’s used to that quality. There are definitely some shaky moments that exist, because you kind of have to have that, but at the same time it is a much steadier movie than Blair Witch was, for sure.
Your films are still indie, but I’m assuming compared to the Blair Witch budget, Exists was like a walk in the park. How does the higher budget change the filmmaking process?
It definitely changes it. We’ll never make a movie as cheaply as Blair Witch. Even though our segment in VHS was close. But it was only like 11 or 12 minutes long. It’s very difficult to make a movie at the level of Blair Witch. We did that because we had really no other choice. At the same time, all of our films, including Blair Witch, have all been privately financed. We go out to investors and we make our pitch. It’s important for us to make the money back for the investors.
Part of that is keeping the budgets low. Just being able to make the movie, put the movie that I have in my head on film or on video. There is nothing extravagant about the way we shoot these films. We pay ourselves the very bottom of the barrel rate that we can. We never pay – unfortunately – the people around us really what they deserve. It is definitely a family atmosphere while we are shooting. It’s a lot of fun. I think people appreciate the true collaboration that we bring to each film.
But yeah, we made a Bigfoot movie for the budget that we had, which was definitely a lot higher than Blair Witch. A little bit higher than Lovely Molly. But definitely not what normal Hollywood films spend. Our budget was what Hollywood films spend in a couple of days. So it was definitely low budget, but that creates challenges. The whole thing is just allocating the resources to where you need them.
We spent a pretty good amount of money on the suit, because we knew we were going to have to spend that money. We knew we wanted somebody that knew what they were doing and was experienced. Even though Spectral Motion, they are our partners and they do favors for us while we’re making these movies, they have to hire people and pay artists. There is a certain amount of money, obviously, you have to spend to bring that quality of creature to life. That was pretty much the biggest chunk of money that we spent in one place. It’s basically figuring out how to make a movie look more expensive than it really is. There’s definitely some stuff that looks like a higher budget movie, while it actually is a very reasonably priced movie to make.
Was the creature done all with a man in a suit or did you also use CGI?
The creature was 100% man in a suit. This actor named Brian Steele, who is famous for that, known as “creature boy,” he brought this character to life. The company called Spectral Motion built the suit. That was the main priority for us as filmmakers, to bring this man in a suit to life. We talked about earlier that I was always disappointed by the way Bigfoot looked in most movies. I had this vision in my head that I think I can do a better version of it. I can do better than that. This movie was like: all right, put your money where your mouth is and deliver.
The main priority for me as a filmmaker was making this creature [look real]. [He] is a guy in a suit. You can’t ignore that. You can’t pretend that this is really Bigfoot. Obviously you can’t pretend that this magically is going to look good on film. You have to definitely plan around it, and find the angles and editing. Then you build a beautiful suit, like they did for us. You put a very talented actor in the suit. That combination of editing, camera work, the suit and then the acting really brought the creature to life.
The only thing we used for CG was… there’s a stunt where we had to have him on cables, so erasing cables and stuff like that. But the creature in the movie is 100% Brian Steele in the suit. I’m very proud of that, because there is a certain kind of aesthetic to a guy in a suit that is very different than CG, no matter what you do. This movie, since it was found footage and it was supposed to live in reality, it was very important to me to make it real. To make it physically in front of the camera and in front of the actors, so that they could react to it. Also [so] the camera could pick it up in a very natural way.
Copyright ©2014 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: October 24, 2014.
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