Filmmakers brew up cult hit with 'Blair'

Standing in the halo of a breezy industry-town afternoon, two stars from a cult-film-in-the-making, "The Blair Witch Project," appear cool and unflappable, a far cry from their final state of mind in the film.

At first glance, they give few hints of the emotional intensity that is the key to the film's popularity. Indeed, Heather Donahue seems too graceful to lose her composure, and Michael Williams gives the sweet impression of a college freshman in search of a classroom.

But when they dig into the heart of the movie's appeal, its departure from standard film techniques, and the promise it holds for forging new filmmaking frontiers, the raw passion - the film's secret weapon - finally spills out. They are pioneers on a new frontier, "Blair" territory to the initiated.

"We knew we had something unique when we were making the film," Ms. Donahue says, "so we're not surprised. Now everyone else gets to see just how far the boundaries can be pushed."

Internet buzz drives success

As fans of the film already know, the movie is full of firsts, starting with the method of publicizing it, the Web site www.blairwitch.com. Set up nearly a year before the film was released, the interactive site, which provides information far beyond the scope of the film, has turned the movie into a summer sleeper hit with lines to rival the "Star Wars" prequel in some cities.

This after it was the surprise hit of the 1999 Sundance Film Festival and the only English language film to win an award at Cannes. Not bad for a film that cost, according to its creators, about as much as a Ford Taurus loaded with options. This past weekend it earned $2 million, only a little less than "Muppets From Space."

The biggest break with filmmaking traditions involved the making of the film. There was no script, and the actors actually taped the footage that became the basis of the final film.

The actors were given a 16-mm camera as well as a Hi8 video camera to record spontaneous interactions with some "civilians" as well as preplanted actors. The only guidelines the actors used involved an overarching story line and specific geographical spots they had to find. The producers supplied them with global-positioning satellite devices for that task.

'An incredibly detailed fantasy land'

For those who haven't been scared silly by "Blair" yet, the fictional story the actors were creating is as follows: On Oct. 21, 1994, three would-be filmmakers hiked into Maryland's Black Hills Forest to shoot a documentary about a local legend, "The Blair Witch." They were never heard from again. One year later, their footage was found. The film, shot in the spring of 1998, purports to be an edited version of their final five days, capturing the events leading up to their disappearance.

Filmmakers Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick "created such an incredibly detailed fantasy land that we had all we needed," Donahue says. She views the film as a breakthrough opportunity to show filmmakers what actors can do. "It sends a message that says actors can be co-creators," she says. "They can do so much more than just what's on the page."

In fact, points out fellow faux documentarian Williams, the words are just the barest beginning. "It's all about what's between those words," he says. "And this film gave us the opportunity to show what actors actually contribute." Once inside the woods, for instance, "there were 14 different ways we could take a scene and show just how much we've got inside as creative people," he says.

Both the young artists (who were paid $500 per week for the two-week shoot) relish the opportunity to show off the craft beneath their pretty faces, an opportunity they see vanishing in an increasingly technology- and star-driven Hollywood. Actors show what it means to create a life, the most essential function of an artist. "We are what we do, not what we say," Donahue says. When you see actors take what's handed them and fill in what's in between, "that's the truth of life," Williams adds. "That's when you're watching truth," he says.

'Blair' breaks all the rules

Both actors point to risk-taking ideas such as "Blair" as key to the film industry's survival. "Movies need someone to come along and break all the rules every so often, to bring new blood, new ideas," Donahue says. "That's what we're doing all ways around."

Critics are already calling it a redefinition of the horror film genre, with no gore and only the imagination to scare audiences silly. But beyond that, movies that redefine the genre are the sorts of films that build careers, Williams says.

"Look at the kinds of risk-taking scripts that [Robert] De Niro and [Al] Pacino were doing at the beginning of their careers," he says. "That's what made them who they are. That's what this film will do for us."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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