Back in the woods: 17 years after original, the Blair Witch has risen again

The Blair Witch is back, in a sequel that continues the story from the original and relaunches the franches. We talk to director Adam Wingard.

Adam Wingard, left, with James Allen McCune and Callie Hernandez on the set of Blair Witch. Chris Helcermanas-Benge
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For three years, Adam ­Wingard worked diligently on a film called The Woods. Except, he didn't.

“We were never allowed to write the words ‘Blair Witch’ on anything,” he says, with a smile. “So there were some challenges. I got so used to saying ‘The Woods’ and not saying ‘Blair Witch’ in public. It actually feels weird to say it out loud now. I still constantly check myself and go: ‘Oh my God, did I just give something away?’”

A closely guarded secret no more, like all good horror-movie characters, the Blair Witch has risen again. Based on The Blair Witch Project, the innovative 1999 "no-budget", found-footage film by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, Wingard's Blair Witch is … what? A sequel? A reboot?

“It’s a direct continuation of the stories from the first film,” he says. “It’s also restarting the whole franchise and putting it in a new context. I think it’s accurate to call it a sequel, a reboot or both. It is both of those things.”

The reason for not referring to it simply as a sequel is that a year after Myrick and Sánchez's horror movie became the biggest indie hit of all time – it cost just US$25,000 (Dh91,800) to make and grossed $248 million – a reviled cash-in sequel, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, was released.

“The reason we’re not calling it ‘Blair Witch 3’ is because we want to come at this thing with a fresh new perspective,” says Wingard. “[It’s] saying, ‘We’re restarting it. We’re sorry about Number 2. Let’s pretend like that didn’t happen.’”

Wingard, who is now 33 years old, was 17 and living in Alabama when he saw the original for the first time, on home video. He watched it three times in two days.

“You felt there were all these clues and hidden messages,” he says. “It kept you coming back for more. That’s where my obsession began, really.”

The first film to really exploit the potential of viral internet marketing, the producers managed to convince many people that this “found-footage” shot by teenagers before they went missing in haunted Maryland woods was real.

“You could really get lost in it,” says Wingard. “Even when you know the actors were just actors and weren’t really dead, that stuff was so compelling online, you started thinking to yourself: ‘Wait a minute – what if it’s just a cover-up? What if they are dead?’”

Disparaging of the sequel ("I just don't like that movie at all"), he immediately felt protective when asked to follow his own hit horror movies You're Next and The Guest with Blair Witch.

Working with his usual writer, Simon Barratt, he came up with a story in which James Donahue (James Allen McCune) – brother to the original film’s Heather – ventures into the Black Hills woods in search of his sister, many years after she went missing. Joined by a group of companions, they are being filmed by his friend Lisa (Callie Hernandez) – a ruse that allows the film to recreate the original’s “found footage” style, albeit with some modern tricks to lessen the original’s nausea-inducing shaky-cam style.

"I tried to approach it as basically a technological update to the original film," says Wingard, who got the actors to wear earpiece cameras to capture the footage. "We were trying to find a way to get you back into that Blair Witch world, but doing it in a new way. Hopefully, if you have a problem with [nausea] from watching movies that move the camera around too much, we can circumvent that."

Wingard even had the blessing of Sánchez and The Blair Witch ­Project producer Gregg Hale.

"It was a very nice sending off to the races," says Wingard, who reveals that Hale and Sánchez had initially been pushing backers Lionsgate to make their own new Blair Witch film, a prequel.

“I definitely want to see that prequel idea … as a matter of fact, I hope to try to push that into reality,” says Wingard. “[But] you’ve got to get the series back on track first.”

Blair Witch is in cinemas now