With the release of Blair Witch on September 16--the sequel to the hallowed Blair Witch Project franchise--America, once again, is heading back into the woods, arms and legs akimbo, under the menacing shroud of twilight and wind and whispers.
The original Blair Witch Project, which came out in 1999, was made on an astounding budget of $60,000, and became the biggest movie of the summer, and one of the biggest of the year--grossing almost $250 million worldwide.
The plot was simple: three film students, Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Mike Williams, disappeared in the Black Hills forest, near Burkettsville, Maryland (formerly Blair, Maryland) in October of 1994, filming a documentary about the local myth of the Blair Witch.
A year later, the footage of their terrifying final days was found.
The film's directors Eduardo Sanchez and David Myrick, pioneered viral marketing in the early days of the internet, with most of the country--and the world--believing that what we were watching, including the legend of the Blair Witch and the strange, violent circumstances surrounding it, were all true; this included the assertion that the three students featured in the footage were, in fact, missing or dead.
Eventually, it was revealed that the whole "project" was a fictional, scripted film, with real actors. Still, the Blair Witch's "found footage" element--that's so dominant in horror films today--was enough to stoke the continued buzz, with tales of theater goers running out of showings, sick to their stomachs; theaters actually issued motion sickness warnings about the hand-held cinematography.
In short, it was a perfect storm of rubber neck marketing, and a true pop cultural moment.
The most iconic moments of the movie--and one of the most copied and spoofed for years to come--was a gut-wrenching monologue given by Donahue, the documentary's "director," as she tapes her own last will and testament to her family, knowing she and her counterparts won't make it out of the woods alive.
Donahue, and her costars--completely unknown before this--quickly achieved worldwide fame, appearing on the late night talk show circuit, and magazine covers.
The three enjoyed mild success after the film, but Donahue and Williams have since left the industry entirely. (Leonard, now married to actress Allison Pill, continues to act and direct.)
Following some film and TV roles, Donahue relocated to Northern California, where she now grows marijuana; in 2011, she wrote a well-received memoir called GROWGIRL, about her life as a weed-grower, post-Blair Witch.
Her firsthand pot-endeavors have been translated into a comedy pilot called "The High Country," that she created and stars in with comedians Beth Stelling, Brent Weinbach, Ryan Singer, Andrew Bancroft, and Grace Fae.
We caught up with Donahue to talk about the legacy of the Blair Witch, the difficulties of being a woman in Hollywood, and her life now.
How did you initially find out about the movie?
I found an ad for it in Backstage. I was doing a lot of improv comedy at the time, and an ad in Backstage was talking about improvising an entire feature and that it should be someone who is really comfortable with improv, camping; it also said that you should be prepared to be very uncomfortable. And all of those things very much described me at the time.
So you went ahead and applied for it?
I was living in New York City then. I went to the University of the Arts in Philadelphia to get my theater degree. And then I worked in Philly for about a year in theater, and then decided I had worked with everyone that I really wanted to there and moved to New York. Just gigging and temping in New York, so I wasn't union yet, which definitely came back to bite me in the ass [when TBWP blew up].
But yes, I applied for the movie off of Backstage, and auditioned for it over the course of a year, I would say. I think they saw like 2,000 people for the female role.
What was your audition?
They set up an improv scene where they told me that I was in prison for killing my baby and asked why should they let me out on parole.
What did you do differently?
I think I was the only woman who said, "I don't think you should let me out."
I think they thought, "Oh shit. This is the girl who will keep the camera running when things get crazy."
Was the whole movie filmed in Burkettsville, Maryland?
Yes, we had a beautiful journey via Peter Pan bus from New York; Josh, Mike, and I were all living in the city.
Did you meet before and get to know each other?
No. We met for the first time at the Peter Pan bus stop. I had read with Josh once before, but we got to know each other for the first time on the bus. It's no joke how low budget this really was.
Did you have any idea of what was ahead of you while you were riding that bus?
I mean it was exactly the kind of gig I was accustomed to doing in New York. It was no different than working on an NYU set film or any of the other stuff I was doing while I was living there, like off-off Broadway feminist mind theater.
It was kind of on the same par with all the other projects I was doing on the Lower East Side in the late 90s in New York. They sent us this brochure for Blair County, Maryland, where they talked about the zucchini festival going on that fall. It was supposed to flesh out the mythology a little bit.
And they told me to start writing the stuff I was going to be doing as my character in the movie. So, naturally, I delved really deeply into witchcraft.
What important supplies did you bring?
I brought a giant knife because everybody who loved me was telling me, "You should not do this. This sounds like a snuff film. Why are you going into the woods with a bunch of guys you don't know?"
My mom was like, "Please get their social security numbers. We really don't want you to do this." Nobody wanted me to do this.
Did you just have a good feeling about it?
My feeling then and today is that if there is something you are afraid of that doesn't involve prison or hospitals, you should probably do it. My thought was, "Well, when else am I going to get the chance to improvise an entire feature? " And I love improv, so it was a win-win for me. The possibility of failure and humiliating failure was so enormous that I couldn't say no.
When did they tell you about the myth of the Blair Witch?
They started ahead of time, when they were sending us those brochures. They were sending me more stuff about witchcraft and the stuff they had sort of come up with about the legend of the Blair Witch. So, I got to expand on that stuff a lot; while researching witchcraft, I also started a journal that ended up getting published. I did that before we even got there so that ended up being included in the Blair Witch dossier book.
I started writing that and started pulling together my version of what I thought my documentary would look like—the structure, etc. Where we wanted to go. What we wanted to do. What the goals were.
So a lot of the movie was your vision.
I didn't realize how collaborative it was.
Yeah. I guess that explains what made it kind of hard when it became a huge thing. That's what ended up being sort of hurtful and disappointing to me.
Because it's like "where's my credit?"
Right. It was very, very collaborative. Originally, we were supposed to only be 20 minutes of the film.
It was supposed to be more like that Sci Fi Channel documentary they did to promote the movie. It was 20 minutes of footage of us and interviews from family and townspeople. It was supposed to be more of an "In Search Of" kind of thing. Once they started pursuing that original vision for it, they realized that what people were enjoying was the story of these three students.
Were the three of you really in the woods alone?
Yes, we had a GPS system. We had walkie-talkies. The park that we were in is actually a day-use park. There's no camping in that park, and it's fairly small. Sometimes, we would have to stop shooting because a family would come by on bikes. We would be in the middle of a scene and some family comes by with a stroller, and we would say, "Okay, cut."
The movie does a great job showing the vastness of their situation--almost like they're in some hellish time loop.
Yeah, I think my character says, "It's very hard to get lost in America these days," but then they do.
That's such a great line, and that was supposed to be in 1994. Today, if you get lost, you should be lost.
Right. That's why I live in California now where you still can legitimately get lost.
Did the directors/production team "mess" with you guys to evoke authentic reactions on camera? Especially with the creepy sounds, some of the objects your characters come across.
Yeah. A lot of the stuff, the impetuous came from us. But in terms of the plot point, they would be delivered to old film canisters from cameras where they would have those plastic things that held your 35 millimeter film. We each got one of this from a basket with a bicycle flag on it, and our GPS system would lead us to those milk crates, and inside would be a few power bars and each of our instructions for the next scene for what they needed.
In each of those instructions would be a conflict. They would set up a conflict, and then we would shoot it. Sometimes would be a set piece around the conflict. It would the stickman or a pile of rocks or Joshua's backpack with KY Jelly squirted all over it, something like that.
What was a scene you had to film the most takes for?
The tent scene, where they hear the children's voices outside of it: that's really the only scene that we did multiple takes of because we had an old ARRI camera, 16 millimeter ARRI. And it kept losing registration as we were running with it. We kept having to go back and fix the camera and do it again. And we were wet, and it was like 6 o'clock in the morning. We were all sort of like, "You guys. All three of us are trained actors. We could do this. We don't have to do this this way."
Did you actually have kids or was it recording?
It was a recording from a boom box. Our reactions were pretty real, though. You don't really want to hear little kids playing at three o'clock in the morning in the middle of the woods. That's…not fun.
With reality TV being so dominant today, It feels in a way, you guys were ahead of your time, with reality TV and found footage film.
Well I think that's because people realized how profitable that genre could be.
Because it's cheap to make and can make so much money.
And a lot of people really want to be famous. That's not where we were at that time, and that was the success of the movie, I think. I mean I think we all wanted to be actors. That's the key difference between what we did back then and what reality television actually became. We gave it 100 percent.
Tell me about what it was like when the movie came out and became the phenomenon it did. Was it weird to suddenly be so famous?
Well you have to understand, we were supposed to be dead. And that was really hard.
Did you have friends or family that were contacting you asking if everything was okay?
My mom got sympathy cards.
Yeah. It was definitely effective. It was very hard as a young actress where you did something where you were really proud of your work and you feel like you did a really good job, and then you're kind of in this really stuck situation where you're an overnight success, but you're dead. It even said on my IMBD page that I was dead. It said Heather Donahue: Deceased.
I thought, "No! I thought this was going to be an opportunity." It was crazy.
You guys truly had the ability to see what it would be like after you died.
I got to see what it would be like to be world famous and dead, at the same time, which is a weird thing, especially when you are 24. I remember I bought this $1,000 1984 Toyota Celica GT when I first moved to L.A. I was still driving that when the movie came out, and it had a blown head deck, so it would overheat all the time. One time, the engine overheated under a billboard with my face on it. So I pulled over on the street on La Cienega Blvd under a billboard with my face on it, while my shitty car is giving out. Who gets to have an experience like that? It was surreal. So in that way, I'm very grateful.
I can't even imagine.
And it also gave me as a 24 year old actress the knowledge that I was going to have to insist on my value. I was widely devalued in this scenario. And also, being a woman in Hollywood has changed a lot over the last 16 years.
Were you typecast?
Are you kidding me? My real first and last names were used; I was seen by casting directors, and everyone, as me.
It's such an amazing performance, though.
Well, I won the Razzie that year for Worst Actress. And that was my first big movie. It was such a Catch 22.
The Razzies are ridiculous and sexist.
Try explaining that to a 24-year-old young actress in Hollywood who thought she had a break, but it actually turned out that it was a break in a really different way than she ever wanted.
It was a good lesson in being careful what you wish for, because it ended up pushing me in a direction that has made my life much happier. But at the time, I had a really hard time letting go of what I had trained for up until that point.
Did you stay in touch with Mike and Josh after the initial success?
No. We're all friends now, but it had the opposite effect, at the time. You know how some people can become an overnight success, but it takes ten years for that overnight success to happen? Well, we were truly overnight successes, and if you don't have a real foundation to cope with that, it can tear you apart. I had never been more grateful for my upbringing and family than during that period of my life; it was so confusing.
Are you involved in the new one at all?
It looks really scary, but it's going to be hard to top the first one.
Adam Wingard is a fabulous director; Lionsgate is amazing. I'm sure it will be awesome.
Are you acting now?
No I left acting. I left L.A. in '07 and moved to the foothills. I started doing pot and wrote a memoire about that that came out in 2012. And now I just produced an independent pilot up here called The High Country which is a comedy about a quartet of growers that is sort of a little informed by, but not based on my book. So we just finished that up and are pitching it.
Sort of like High Maintenance?
Our show is more about the underworld of growers, which is one that definitely hasn't been seen before. I love High Maintenance, though; it's such a New York story.
Do you ever look back on the Blair Witch Project and think, "That was fucking terrifying"?
People always ask if I was scared. People never ask, "Was that one of the most fun things you have ever done?" The answer is always yes, and that is totally true. It was such a sweet ride.