By CHRIS MILLER and ALEX MANN
Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS, Maryland — Twenty years ago this month, two intrepid young directors—including a Maryland native—and three little-known actors descended upon the state to film what they thought would be a small, low-budget film.
It was low-budget, but anything but small.
Though “The Blair Witch Project” took only eight days to film and had a shooting budget of about $25,000, the film was a historic success, grossing almost $250 million when it was released in 1999.
The movie features actors Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams and Joshua Leonard playing student filmmakers who venture into the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland, in search of the fabled Blair Witch, which supposedly haunted the small town for centuries. The students disappear in the woods and the only remnants of their quest is film footage discovered by University of Maryland anthropology students.
One of the film’s co-directors, Eduardo Sanchez, grew up in the Takoma Park area in Maryland, and studied television production at Montgomery College.
“It was always going to be filmed in Maryland,” he said. “It was a legend that had to live in this area.”
The movie was filmed in 1997 primarily in two locations: the small town of Burkittsville, and Seneca Creek State Park in Gaithersburg.
Growing up in Maryland inspired Sanchez, who now lives in Frederick, to film the movie in the state.
Sanchez attended film school at the University of Central Florida, where he met “Blair Witch” co-director Daniel Myrick. They bonded over mysterious and creepy documentaries like the “In Search of…” TV series hosted by Leonard Nimoy, which “used to scare the crap out of us on a regular basis,” Sanchez said.
The television series helped inspire Sanchez and Myrick to create this “documentary” of their own about students getting lost in the woods.
They also created their own film company, Haxan Films, which later produced “The Blair Witch Project.”
He was especially inspired by Long Branch Creek behind his apartment, in Silver Spring, Maryland. “My wildlife was that creek,” he said. “A lot of my early memories of adventure and fear and horror were all in that creek.”
He said the creek was “this forbidden thing” because his mother didn’t want him to get wet or dirty playing in it. “Basic mom stuff,” he said.
His family also went camping in the Shenandoah National Park and he said that helped inspire the decision to have the student filmmakers camp in the woods.
A lot of the scary moments the students in the film experience in the woods—like noises outsides of tents and the idea that “something is hanging around”—came from Sanchez being scared as a kid, he said.
“There’s this dark, natural world that’s out there,” Sanchez said.
Sanchez’s girlfriend at the time (now his wife), Stefanie De Cassan, lived a few miles from Seneca Creek State Park, so it was a “totally pragmatic decision” to shoot the majority of the film there, he said. Sanchez and De Cassan also used to hike and picnic in the park.
“It had creeks, it had buried terrain. It had everything we were looking for,” said Sanchez.
Seneca Creek has grown to embrace the film’s popularity.
Park Ranger Erik Ledbetter led a Blair Witch Heritage Hike Oct. 8 at Seneca Creek leading fans to some of the film’s iconic locations and explaining their significance.
The hike included a visit to the famous “Coffin Rock.” In the film, the filmmakers travel to the massive rock formation after hearing stories of fur trappers who were supposedly mutilated there.
One of the hikers, Kelsey Stanford, 27, from Upper Marlboro, Maryland, said that after seeing the filming locations, he wanted to watch the movie again.
“When I first saw the movie (10 years ago) it was pretty scary,” he said.
“I was pleasantly surprised by the inside scoop we learned on the hike,” Debbie Kaplan, 54, of Germantown, Maryland, wrote in an email.“The hike was well led, well attended, and a great way to spend a dreary Sunday afternoon.”
Actor Michael C. Williams remembered that although they were supposed to be isolated in the woods, “some mornings we would wake up and there would be a jogger running by or a family.”
Williams, 44, who lives in Hawthorne, New York, and is now a school guidance counselor, has only been back to Maryland sporadically since the film, but he remembered the “slow pace” lifestyle in the smaller, rural towns he visited.
He also appreciated how so many Marylanders were kind and considerate to the actors. “We were young so they didn’t necessarily have to be kind,” he said.
As an avid fisherman, Williams said he is dying to return to Seneca Creek to fish for trout.
One of the other main actors, Joshua Leonard, recalled how wonderful it was waking up each day in Seneca Creek. “I remember loving the woods,” he said.
“I have overwhelming positive memories of my experience filming” in Maryland, Leonard said.
Leonard, 42, who lives in Los Angeles, spent several summers in Maryland as a kid, sailing the Chesapeake Bay. He said since the film, he has been back to Maryland about four times.
Burkittsville was chosen as the town where the legend of the witch originated simply because with its rolling hills and churches, it was “an idyllic, small town,” said Sanchez.
“It looked like the legend could live there,” he said, adding that the town could be a place that has some “creepy history.”
In the film’s mythology, Elly Kedward was banished from the fictitious town of Blair (Burkittsville) in 1785 for being a witch after children accused her of luring them into her house to draw their blood. According to the film’s premise, many children reportedly went missing over the years, were later found dead and were supposedly buried in the Burkittsville cemetery.
The students in the film travel to Burkittsville to connect the Blair Witch myth to reality, said Sanchez.
They filmed at the Burkittsville cemetery, the only scene actually shot in the town.
The movie has since put the small town of just over 200 people on the map, with many fans of the film having flocked to the town in search of the witch.
“There was a lot of traffic and curiosity-seekers” since the film was released, said Rene Grossnickle, 71, a farmer who has lived in the area since 1950.
Once, Grossnickle said, a group of young people came to the town from Texas in search of the witch.The group asked him where the witch was.
“I hate to tell you, but there’s no such thing,” he told them.
“The glee fell from their faces,” Grossnickle told the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service.
He has the film on DVD and video cassette. “I collect junk,” he said. “I couldn’t stand to watch it.” He has only seen the first 10 minutes of the film.
Since the movie was released, Grossnickle said he has been robbed three times. He had never been robbed before the film.
“We brought a little unwanted fandom to that town,” said Leonard. “I always felt a little guilty about that.”
After Burkittsville, the students ventured off into Seneca Creek Park — known as the Black Hills Forest in the film.
When filming in Seneca Creek, Sanchez and the crew left the actors alone in the woods for long periods of time. Each day, the actors would receive individual instructions from inside tiny film cylinders, telling them what their motivations would be for the day. Often the actors had competing motivations.
“It became a lot of fun,” said Sanchez. “We would constantly play them against each other.”
The crew used GPS—which at that time was only used by certain hunters and the military—to guide the actors through the woods. They would use GPS coordinates to pinpoint specific locations that the actors needed to go to.
“Their odyssey following the (GPS) waypoints…would take them on a week-long journey all up and down this park,” said Ledbetter.
The actors and the crew had a safe word, ‘bulldozer,’ that when said, would temporarily halt filming.
“’Bulldozer’ meant there’s trouble and the filming had to stop,” said Sanchez.
The filming did stop one rainy night when the actors’ tents and sleeping bags were soaked. The actors radioed “bulldozer” to the crew, but the crew didn’t respond because the batteries were dead in their radio.
“They (the actors) couldn’t deal with it,” said Sanchez. So the three actors walked out of the woods and eventually found a house where they were able to contact the crew.
The marketing strategy for the movie was groundbreaking: It was one of the first films that primarily used the Internet as a marketing tool, said Ledbetter.
Sanchez and the crew built an official website that included a fictitious timeline of the history of the Blair Witch, background information about the three student filmmakers and the aftermath after the students disappeared.
“We were Web savvy,” said Sanchez.
A section of the website included a missing persons flyer that showed pictures of the three filmmakers and their basic contact information.
“Last seen camping in the Black Hills Forest area, near Burkittsville,” the flyer said. “Please Call Frederick County Sheriff’s Office With Any Information You May Have!”
The film had a polarizing effect upon release because so many people believed the story to be true.
“They did such a brilliant job of marketing the movie because they really created a buzz and a mystique around the movie before it was even released,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at comScore.com, a global media data and analytics company.
Pam Blazi, 36, from Hershey, Pennsylvania, who attended the anniversary hike, said that she bought into the deception.
“I really thought it was a documentary about three kids who went missing in the woods,” she said. “The marketing worked on me.”
“I loved it from the very first time I saw it,” said Ledbetter. He actually saw the film on a date with the woman he would later marry at a theater in Friendship Heights in Washington, D.C. He said he knew it wasn’t real.
Kaplan believed the film was “more fiction than truth,” but still enjoyed it.
“It was beyond anything else of its kind,” she emailed. “I took off work that day and drove into D.C. to see an early release of the film. I loved it.”
The actors — who were asked to keep a low profile during the marketing campaign — couldn’t fully enjoy the film’s release because so many people thought they were dead. Heather Donahue’s mother even received sympathy cards, Sanchez said.
“It was very surreal that we weren’t able to really celebrate it (the film) until a month after it came out,” said Williams. “It was exciting and fun, but at the same time it was confusing.”
Myrick once got a call from a detective who was looking for the three filmmakers, said Sanchez.
“Dan told him, ‘Well dude, it’s not real,’” said Sanchez.
Most people were aware that the film wasn’t real, he said, but “they played along for fun.”
The film, which ultimately cost $60,000, ended up making $248 million and was the 14th-highest grossing film in 1999, according to Box Office Mojo.
”It’s ranked as one of the most profitable films of all time,” said Dergarabedian. He also called it the “poster-child” for cost-effective filmmaking.
The film was also a critical success, boasting an 86 percent approval rating from the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.
“We knew the idea was special,” said Sanchez. “But we didn’t know it would do anything.” He said he was just hoping the film would do well enough to allow him to make more films.
Sanchez and Myrick sold the film rights to Artisan Entertainment for $1.1 million.
After the film, Sanchez took some time off. For the first time since he was 16, film was not his top priority, he said.
The film is still a source of pride for many Marylanders.
“As a Marylander, I take great pride in the film,” said Ledbetter. “Like TV shows “Homicide: Life on the Street” and “The Wire,” it’s another great example of world-class film and TV being made in our state.”
Sanchez still comes back to Seneca Creek at least once a year in October for the annual Blair Witch Experience, which brings together fans of the film who travel to many of the filming locations throughout Maryland. This year’s event took place Oct. 20-22.
“He enjoys coming out and loves talking to the fans,” said Matthew Blazi, 36, a bank manager from Hershey, Pennsylvania, who created the event five years ago. Blazi said he has seen the film close to 1,000 times and even has tattoos of the three main characters.