Method madness

The "The Blair Witch Project" directors wanted to create a film that was "100 percent real." Why did they bother making a movie?

Published July 14, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Ignore the inevitable "It's not that scary" backlash that's coming in a few weeks. Forget the dumb jokes already being made in the press (Premiere: "Will do for camping what 'Jaws' did for going to [the] beach"). "The Blair Witch Project" is one of the most genuinely terrifying movies ever made. It belongs to a small group of pictures, "Night of the Living Dead" and "The Vanishing" among them, that are both astonishingly scary and no fun.

There's no use denying that, as a piece of filmmaking, "The Blair Witch Project" is a very clever solution to the problem of how to make a movie on next to no money. For this story of three student filmmakers who vanish while investigating the legend of a witch that haunts the Maryland woods, young directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez sent their three actors on an eight-day camping trip, armed with cameras. Notes were left for the cast at various places in the woods outlining the plot points to be covered by them in improvised scenes that day. The finished movie, supposedly the footage discovered a year after the characters' disappearance, is made up of the video and film shot by the actors and edited by Myrick and Sánchez.

As the stories about the movie's production circulate, it's impossible not to see the insanity of the characters reflected in their creators. "The Blair Witch Project" shows some pretensions to being an investigation into the ethics of filmmaking, but itself presents several ethical problems. Heather (Heather Donahue), the director of the trio, is almost umbilically attached to her video camera. We see her preparing for her trip, picking up the other two crew members, shopping for groceries, even getting drunk in a hotel room the night before they hike into the woods. During a dispute early in their hike, the soundman, Mike (Michael Williams), asks Heather why they have to have every discussion on video. The answer comes a little later when the cameraman, Josh (Joshua Leonard), looks through Heather's camera and tells her he can see why she likes it so much: It makes everything sort of unreal. Refusing to put the camera down even as things spin horribly out of control, Heather becomes the embodiment of young filmmakers willing to do anything for effect because the distinction between life and movies has become blurred to them.

You can't take that strand of the movie seriously, though, when you read the interviews that Myrick and Sánchez have given to Spin or the New York Times or other outlets. There's nothing new about directors who depend on their actors to make up their characters as they go along -- both Mike Leigh and Jacques Rivette have long worked that way. But on some basic level, Myrick and Sánchez seem averse to the very idea of moviemaking itself. Here's Sánchez in the Spin interview: "We wanted this thing to be 100 percent real. Real people talking, not movie-dialogue talking. Film dialogue is a fantasy. We didn't want any of that movie shit."

This is the same sort of woozy thinking that led to the madness of Francis Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" and Werner Herzog's "Fitzcarraldo." In the documentaries about the making of those films, "Hearts of Darkness" and "Burden of Dreams," the filmmakers seem to be laboring under the delusion that a movie that wasn't "real" was somehow cheap or impure. Accordingly, they went to insane lengths to create "reality." The most famous example in "Apocalypse Now" is the scene where Coppola allowed Martin Sheen to get drunk and then stood off camera, telling him he was filled with evil (not a great thing to do to a Catholic), and keeping the camera rolling as Sheen smashed his hand into a mirror and wiped the blood over himself. In "Fitzcarraldo," Herzog hired a tribe of Indians to hoist a steamer over the mountains, filling the screen with images of their real back-breaking labor (and in the process echoing the sort of callous colonialism he was making the film about).

You can sense that aversion to "movie shit" from the sign-in sheet Myrick and Sánchez used for the auditions. "You are about to read for the most demanding and unpleasant project of your career," it began. "If you are cast, we are going to drag you into the woods for seven days of hell. 168 hours of real-time improvisational torment. We're not kidding." Be all you can be: Join the indies.

Acting can be a kind of torment. But even when a director is pushing an actor to go deeper, to give more of himself, he essentially has to act as a signpost out of that torment to guide the actor to the pleasure of acting. Even when asking an actor to do difficult things, the director's job is to make it easier for the actor to do those things. But Myrick and Sánchez seem to see acting as a boot camp. The New York Times reported that the pair used the experience of one of their producers, who had been a sergeant in the Army Special Forces, to help them elude being captured by their actors in the dark. Eluding capture might be on your mind if you're pulling the kind of stunts this pair did, which included waking the actors up in the middle of the night by playing tape recordings of children screaming.

The actors weren't entirely unaware of what was coming. In an interview in the current Premiere, Donahue admitted, "We always knew we were going to get scared. We just never knew what they were going to do to scare us each night." But letting the actors know what was coming doesn't change its essentially abusive nature, or its implied lack of faith in their abilities. Why were they cast if their acting alone wasn't good enough? It's nice that the young cast of "The Blair Witch Project" now seems to be reaping the rewards of the movie's buzz. But it's hard to get any idea of their abilities as actors when they're involved in a project whose very conception seems so opposed to the idea of acting.

Myrick admitted to Spin that the directors were "fucking with [the actors] a lot." He and Sánchez seem particularly proud that Michael Williams was so "freaked" by being awakened by tapes of children screaming that "he really didn't have to act there." And also proud of their solution to getting Donahue to stand still for the final scene: Crew members dressed in black and leapt out of the darkness and grabbed her to get her to stop running. Here's Sánchez: "For a moment there, just a moment, I thought we might have lost her. We had to spend a few minutes calming her down."

Of course, Myrick and Sánchez couldn't have relied on anything as mundane as editing to end the scene where they wanted. That would be movie shit. Given their MO, the last line of the audition-sheet warning was a bad joke: "If you're not serious about your craft, then you're wasting our time and yours." But if you keep your actors cold and hungry and scared for a week because that's the only way you can envision for them to keep it "100 percent real," you obviously don't know the first thing about their craft and don't trust them to practice it. Myrick and Sánchez have called their approach "method filmmaking," which suggests that they have fallen prey to the most common misconception made about "method acting," that it is, somehow "becoming your character." Why should actors have to be hungry and cold to play hungry and cold. As a friend of mine once said, by this definition of method acting, Marlon Brando would have had to have himself plugged in the spine to play a paraplegic in "The Men."

Of course, the film's minuscule budget (reportedly around $25,000) required the hiring of unknowns. But so did the filmmakers' method: Experienced actors wouldn't have put up with that shit. It doesn't matter that the actors were warned that the experience of making the movie would be unpleasant and that they agreed to it. They weren't in charge. Anyone who has spent any time with actors knows that most of them are eager to please their directors, willing to put themselves in the directors' hands. That's what makes a director's ethical responsibility to his or her actors so strong. Sure, no one was injured or killed making "The Blair Witch Project" (as actors were on, respectively, "Apocalypse Now" and "Fitzcarraldo"), but physical safety is only one component of that obligation and Myrick and Sánchez's abdication of that responsibility is offensively cavalier. "Dan and I had it easy," Sánchez, laughing, told the Times. "We hung out at Chi-Chi's while they were out there in the rain, in the woods."

The overarching question raised by Myrick and Sánchez's methods is if they're so preoccupied with keeping it real, then why are they making movies in the first place? "How tall is King Kong?" asks the megalomaniacal director played by Peter O'Toole in "The Stunt Man," and the answer -- an 18-inch rubber-and-fur model -- is his delighted metaphor for the artifice and fakery that is the movies. There's no real pleasure in "The Blair Witch Project" because there's no pleasure in seeing people worked into states of fear and hysteria.

Horror movies, perhaps more than any other genre, need the mediation of artifice. There may be some works of art that aren't a pleasure, but they're a special case, and that lack of pleasure leaves a hole in them, denies audiences the essence of art's power to engage. What's the fun of just being scared? The scares in "The Blair Witch Project" have none of the comedy or visceral pleasure you get from the scares in "Jaws" or "Carrie" or "Dressed to Kill" or "The Stepfather," and none of the transcendent lyricism you get in "The Night of the Hunter" or "Vampyr." Everything has been expunged except a grinding dedication to screwing with the audience's head. It's ingenious, it's effective as hell and, as Richard Pryor once said of the people who claimed they could have sex for eight hours straight, anyone who says they weren't scared by it "is a lying motherfucker." But has anyone gotten any pleasure from this movie -- other than the filmmakers, that is? In interviews, they're eager to flaunt their self-satisfied tone:

Sánchez: "We just set up this massive, five-mile playground for them and let them play. Then we moved them into hell." Myrick: [Laughing]: "Yeah. It worked pretty good, didn't it?"

Welcome to the acclaimed new face of indie cinema: filmmaking as frat prank.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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