Director emerges from the 'Shadows'

As a self-described true-crime junkie and documentary filmmaker, Joe Berlinger seems an odd choice to direct the sequel to last summer's cult hit, "The Blair Witch Project."

After all, the Cinderella hit (made for $30,000) was the ultimate con, a faux documentary marketed from the start on the Internet as reality.

But with true fin de siecle irony, Mr. Berlinger was attracted by the opportunity to comment on that very publicity phenomenon in what he calls the first post-modern sequel.

What he came up with is what he calls more of "an antisequel." "Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2" features none of the original cast and does not continue the film's story line.

Instead, Berlinger who wrote the script in five weeks (after rejecting three more traditional sequel versions commissioned by Artisan Entertainment), chose to comment on the events that followed the release of the original "Blair Witch Project."

Filmed in elegant 35 mm, not shaky hand-held video, the sequel takes the position that the cultural response to the first film is more interesting than asking audiences to once again suspend their disbelief and enter the fictional world of the Blair Witch.

"I try to infuse it with a social commentary," says the director, here for a three-day Webcast festival designed to build an audience in much the same way that Internet chatter set the stage for the first film. "It's a more honest way of connecting to my roots than the faux documentary of the original," he adds.

That said, Berlinger concedes he didn't see the opportunity immediately. He was in talks with Artisan pitching a film based on a true Los Angeles crime story when they offered him the sequel.

"I was talking about the vicissitudes of human behavior. I saw a light go off," he says. Executives handed him three scripts. The creator of such serious documentaries as "Brother's Keeper" and "Paradise Lost," Berlinger took on the project with the caveat that he be able to push it in his direction.

"I was also fascinated by the fact that according to Artisan, 40 percent of the people came out of 'The Blair Witch Project' thinking it was real," he says.

The new story unfolds over a few days. Inspired by the real-life town of Burkittsville, Md. (pop. 200), which was visited by thousands of "Blair Witch" fans, Berlinger follows five individuals as they pursue their obsession to an ambiguous and gory conclusion.

"I like to know what makes people tick," Berlinger says.

He says he was interested in the opportunity to examine the relationship between media images and human behavior. Does media violence lead to violent behavior? he asks.

The film is his effort to answer that question. He suggests that both sides of the argument in the wake of the Federal Trade Commission's recent report on media violence miss the point.

"I don't believe that violence begets violence, per se," he says. But the blurring of lines between reality and fiction, as embodied in the first "Blair Witch" film, is part of the problem, he says.

"As a storyteller, I loved it," he says, in particular the "found footage" conceit at its heart. "But as a documentary filmmaker, I found it troubling because it was sold as real."

Aware of the obvious irony of using a mainstream horror franchise as a vehicle for his ideas, Berlinger suggests that in some ways, it's a perfect fit.

"This is a parable saying we are heading for dangerous territory. We live in empty spiritual times; blaming things on the supernatural is an excuse to not accept human responsibility."

The marketing campaign for "Book of Shadows" targets the hard-core horror-film fan. This concerns Berlinger, but he says the film had to work first on a commercial level or it wouldn't get made.

The best Berlinger says he can hope for is that word of mouth will pull in a broader audience.

After years in the independent film world, he's grateful for a shot at a mainstream feature. "Opportunities come in funny shapes and sizes," he adds.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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