Something wicked

"Blair Witch Project" co-star Joshua Leonard on method filmmaking and other terrifying games of conscience.

By Brett Mannes

Published July 13, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Joshua Leonard was pronounced dead. The first-time actor, along with Heather Donahue and Mike Williams, went into the woods surrounding Burkittsville, Md., to film a documentary on the legend of the Blair Witch. He never came out -- on camera. His disappearance, or actually the ambiguity surrounding his disappearance, helped "The Blair Witch Project" take on a life of its own.

The movie uses an innovative technique that its directors call "extreme realism." Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez wrote a back story about three documentarians making a film about a legendary witch. The directors taught the actors how to use cameras and sent them into the woods, prompting them with occasional instructions, props and character plants. The movie, then, compiles the footage that they shot along their route and supposedly left in a cabin before disappearing for good.

The completed film benefits from a blurry line between fiction and reality. It's an edge that the film's publicists have tried to use to their advantage. Of course, no one really died, but Internet Movie Database and some others have wrongly pronounced the actors deceased. (IMDb has since removed the designation from its Web site.) Artisan, the company that owns the film, is attempting to keep Leonard and his friends -- who are supposed to be dead, after all -- out of the press. Instead, the directors have filled all interview requests.

Laid-back cameraman Joshua Leonard, however, talked to Salon Arts and Entertainment recently over the phone from his apartment in Los Angeles.

What was the audition process like?

The directors did a very off-the-cuff, improv audition. You walk into the room and two seconds into the room they say, "You've been in jail for the last nine years. We're the parole board. Why should we let you go?" Anyone who paused for more than a beat was out the door.

What was your experience with Heather and Mike before filming?

We -- Mike and Heather and I -- rapped once or twice in New York and then we all wound up on a train together on the way out to Maryland. I think it was about a month and a half from the time we got cast until the time we shot the thing, so the directors would send us out these little packages, like "Fly Fishing in Blair County" -- these totally fabricated things to get us into character -- "The Zucchini Festival," shit like that, and then little character descriptions.

We headed out there on a train together. That was the first time we actually got to hang out, and we're all saying to each other, "Do you have any clue what we're about to do here?" And I'm like, "No, I got no clue, how about you?" The amount of ambiguity the directors hung over our head was really good for the film. They were going to fuck with us, but we didn't know how.

So, you were left in the dark about plot developments until they actually happened?

Basically what happened is that it was kind of like one of those "Choose Your Own Adventure" books. Before we got out into the woods, we'd go into a restaurant. Now, we knew we were supposed to go into a restaurant, and we knew that we were supposed to stay in character. Now, this is a regular restaurant with regular people in it, but invariably inside there are one or two people who are plants. So what we've got to do is walk into the situation and, by process of elimination, figure out who's gonna give us our next plot point to get to the next person who we're gonna interview to continue the story. So we walk in and we start interviewing people about this bullshit myth, about the Blair Witch, who doesn't exist in the first place, and funnily enough, by power of suggestion, some people [who had nothing to do with the film] are like, "Oh yeah, I have heard of that."

But everything worked. There's nothing that we could have filmed that wouldn't have worked in one way or another because it was all real, because it was all really happening. Now the fact that we ended up with 19 hours of footage and had to narrow it down to an hour and a half was -- that was Dan's job. Our instructions were to film everything that came up, including the more mundane moments.

And the exposition?

Exactly. Setting up characters, because the film doesn't work if it's all, you know, high moments. Heather and I started tussling the first day, just little personality tussles. One of our instructions was to kind of bring that back, to not blow our wad all at once.

So anyway, we'd go into a restaurant and we'd start interviewing people and the plants that they had in there would say, "Oh, you gotta go check out old Miss Mary Brown who lives down in the trailer shed." So then we'd go interview Mary Brown. And we had seeds, we had seeds to work from, that's what they gave us was always ... just enough to initiate a conversation and then the rest of it was completely on our backs to improv and roll with the situation at hand -- make it seem as real as possible because we were these kids making a documentary.

Do you think that the effectiveness of the final product was because of that filmmaking process?

Absolutely. Sony could have $50 million and a sound stage and A-list actors and never make the same film. The constraints on this film became the essence of this film, became the power of this film.

So what's going through your mind after the food diminished and the exhaustion increased? I know they put you in the woods with limited supplies and a lot of unexpected disturbances. Did they really put you in that much anguish to add to the realism?

When we signed on to do the project, one of the first things they told us was, "Your safety is our concern. Your comfort is not." And they made that blatantly clear from the very beginning. You understand that intellectually, but still there's no way to really prepare. When you're on your third PowerBar day, when your cigarettes are gone, when you haven't showered, when you've been kept awake, when you've got a sleep deprivation thing going, when you're exhausted, when there's two inches of rain in the bottom of your tent -- you've got to act. You're wiping your ass with leaves and you're with two total strangers 24 hours a day and there are babies crying outside your tents at 4 in the morning. There's only so much that you can intellectually prepare for, and then you go out and that's where you get the method, that's where you get the reality.

What good did you get out of the process of method filmmaking?

I think what worked on this film is that we hit a stride where all self-consciousness disappeared and we stopped thinking, "Oh my God, I look like shit." I think what worked was the surrender to the process. Even in the realest American cinema that I see, there's still not that sense that this is reality. There's still that sense that you are watching a movie. And hopefully, if we did get our jobs right, that sense disappears when you watch this movie.

I think that comes out in the emotion. The emotions of fear when you're watching "The Blair Witch Project" and when you're watching "Scream" are completely different. How would you describe the unique brand of fear that comes from your movie?

It's hard because I was in "Blair Witch," because I had that experience. But I think the difference between the two is that you're not expecting the convention when you're watching "Blair Witch." When you're watching one of these thrill-ride horror films you're expecting to be -- but you're not -- scared in any kind of visceral manner: You're waiting for the splatter shot or the guy popping out from behind the bed. Whereas with this film, it's such a film of the gut and the imagination that you're allowed to take your own journey with that. We didn't play into the blood and guts
or the "big surprise from behind the bushes" thing. It plays on a much more individual level and it doesn't use gags as much to elicit fear as it does the boogeymen of your own conscience.

Brett Mannes

Brett Mannes is a staff writer at the University Reporter in Washington.

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