Fred Dekker and Eduardo Sanchez Create ‘Terror in the Aisles’
by Matt Fagerholm
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On December 5th, horror fans across Chicagoland will flock to “Terror in the Aisles 3,” a shriek-worthy marathon of spooky flicks, live music and various surprises, presented by Movieside and co-sponsored by The Grindhouse. Doors open at 7pm at the Portage Theater, 4050 N Milwaukee Ave., where audiences will be treated to a triple feature of Fred Dekker’s 1986 cult classic Night of the Creeps (in its unrated director’s cut), Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez’s 1999 micro budget experiment-turned-box office phenomenon The Blair Witch Project and Bob Clark’s 1974 holiday slasher pic Black Christmas. Both Dekker and Sanchez are scheduled to appear at the screening. Music will be provided by My Damn Butterfly and Modern Day Rippers. Tickets are $12, and
Film Monthly recently spoke with Dekker and Sanchez, and the following is a complete two-part conversation with each filmmaker.
At age 27, this UCLA grad made his feature film debut, a tongue-in-cheek pastiche of the B-movies he adored as a child. It followed the adventures of a rogue cop, Ray Cameron (Tom Atkins), and a group of frat kids as they battle mysterious alien parasites (which burrow their way into victims’ brains, and turn them into zombies). Though Night of the Creeps (as well as Dekker’s follow-up, The Monster Squad) were initially box office failures, they have gradually acquired large cult followings. Dekker also served as writer/director for RoboCop 3, and has written for TV shows such as “Tales From the Crypt” and “Enterprise.” He also wrote the stories for films like House (1986) and Ricochet (1991). The Director’s Cut of Creeps was recently released on DVD and Blu-Ray.
Film Monthly spoke with Dekker about his filmmaking influences, his innovative use of cultural references, and how he never set out to make a cult film.
QUESTION: What films or filmmakers left a particularly big impression on you as a kid?
FRED DEKKER: Well I was never a particularly athletic kid. I was kind of intimidated by sports and I just gravitated towards the TV. For some reason, the stuff that appealed to me most was the stuff that involved the fantastic—science fiction and horror and cartoons. My dad was a big film buff and had introduced me to a lot of old black and white movies. So old movies were not intimidating to me, I actually quite enjoyed the period quality of a lot of them. At some point, I was just drawn to monster movies and science fiction and particularly the Universal monster series. It was my escape from my wayward youth. It was my wayward youth.
QUESTION: How did you go about picking and choosing the parts of your movie memories that you wanted to use for Night of the Creeps?
FRED DEKKER: I had seen Night of the Living Dead on “Creature Features” up in the San Francisco Bay area at a pretty young age and that left a huge impact on me. I continued to catch the new Dead pictures that George Romero would make, and I sought them out in theaters despite the fact that they didn’t have ratings. He was a huge influence. I had seen so many of these kinds of films that I picked up on certain cliches that were appealing to me when trying to concoct a story. The meteorite that bears the nastiness—I can’t even remember if I had taken that specifically from It Came From Outer Space, or wherever, but it was a trope. It was one of the nuggets that you find in those kinds of movies. So when I started to think about making this “hells-a-poppin’” pastiche of all those movies that I loved, it was really about taking those things that were sitting in my head, waiting to be mined. The “ax man” at the beginning of Night of the Creeps was more of a tip of the hat to the slasher films of the ‘80s than a 1950s movie, so it just goes to show that I was taking all these different disparate things and just jamming them altogether.
QUESTION: Was it a conscious decision to name your characters after directors who had inspired you, such as John Carpenter, James Cameron, etc.?
FRED DEKKER: Yeah, strangely enough, more recently I’ve gotten some flack about that because a lot of the fans, and film critics in particular, feel like that’s kind of cheesy. The truth of the matter is, I don’t know who did it before me. I think I was one of the first to do it, so I’m taking the hit for everyone else who has done it since then. I know John Carpenter had a character named “Romero” in Escape from New York. He was naming characters after his friends and things like that. In fact, in the first draft of Night of the Creeps, the detective was named Shane Black. Obviously this is before anyone knew who [Lethal Weapon screenwriter] Shane Black was; he was just my college friend. I always felt like that name was so iconic, and in fact I think that it accounts for some of his success. He sounds like a western gunslinger. I realized that there were all these directors that I admired who all started by making low-budget genre pictures. Jim Cameron’s first movie was Piranha 2. So that’s really why I did that. It was a passing of the baton in a way and an acknowledgment of the guys who came before me.
QUESTION: Those cultural references in Night of the Creeps were ahead of their time, and you see filmmakers doing similar things all the time today, such as Tarantino and Rodriguez in Grindhouse.
FRED DEKKER: It’s funny you should say that because I think Planet Terror is the movie that I would’ve made Night of the Creeps as, if I’d made it now. My picture came out and basically tanked back in 1986, and now you have something like Zombieland, which is at the top of the box office on the weekend it comes out. I think it just speaks to the fact that the culture needs to be educated sometimes into this kind of craziness. You can’t be crazy right up front, you have to have a lot of precedent. Then people are much more comfortable with it.
QUESTION: Your films also seem to be influenced by “The Little Rascals”…
FRED DEKKER: I absolutely adored “The Little Rascals” as a kid. When I was talking about looking into those old monster movies, I was also a huge fan of the Abbott and Costello series.
QUESTION: Such as Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein?
FRED DEKKER: Yeah, that movie was the inspiration for The Monster Squad. I said, “Lets have The Little Rascals meet the Universal monsters.”
QUESTION: You attended UCLA as an English major because you couldn’t make it into the film school. How did you become educated in filmmaking?
FRED DEKKER: My teachers were Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick and Robert Wise and Martin Scorsese and Francis Coppola. I was a huge movie buff as a kid and Jaws was the pivot point for me where I realized that there was the brains of the operation. I saw a personality in the filmmaking in that movie, which remains my favorite movie, and that’s what sent me on the path to becoming a filmmaker. I’ve been making films since I was 12 years old; super 8 millimeter with my friends. So I did what anyone would do, which is apply to the best film schools, in my case California, which were USC and UCLA. I suppose I could’ve gone to CalArts, but I applied to those two schools, and I was lucky enough to get into both schools, but the film programs were not welcoming me. So I thought, ‘what the hell, since you don’t really gravitate towards your film program until you get a couple years down the line anyway,’ I thought I’d do my general ed and see if I could break in later. What ended up happening was I started making my films and meeting a lot of friends who had similar interests, and the curriculum of school became secondary. I was doing as much film work as an English major as a lot of people who were in the film school.
It was a really fertile time for people who went on to great success and acclaim. Tim Robbins was there in the theater department and he was starting his actors gang which eventually became Kyle Gass and Jack Black, and those kinds of people. Shane Black was obviously there; David Silverman, who directed Monsters, Inc. and The Simpsons Movie was in the animation department. He was a dear friend of mine. Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon were doing stand up comedy and creating Bill and Ted. All of this was happening at the same time. Ed was an econ major; my pal Ethan Wiley, who wrote House and directed House II, was in the film department; Shane was in the theater department, and I was an English major. We were all friends making films and doing plays, so it didn’t matter what your major was.
QUESTION: Had you consciously cast actors in Night of the Creeps who were evocative of the genres you were referencing?
FRED DEKKER: No, except in the the instance of Kenneth Tobey [star of The Thing]. I was recently reminded by a fan that I had shot a short scene with him which is not in the finished picture. In fact, the fan who reminded me of this had actually met Tobey before he died and showed him a lobby card from Night of the Creeps, which shows Tobey in costume in the movie. He didn’t remember being in the movie. But Tobey was the only [casting choice] that I wanted to be a tip of the hat to the movies that inspired this. The cast was based on their appropriateness for the roles, and even though I’ve been a fan of Tom Atkins from The Fog and Halloween 3 and Escape From New York, I didn’t think of him as genre guy. We had a great casting director named Ilene Starger. She brought these people in, I looked at them and decided to what degree they fit the characters that I had written.
QUESTION: How had the films of John Hughes influenced your approach to the human story in Creeps?
FRED DEKKER: Hughes and I were practically contemporaries. He was a little older than I was by about ten years, and he was making his films just as I was breaking in. They were necessary touchstones for anybody in the movie business if you were young, and I don’t think I appreciated his influence on the movie until years later. The other big influence on Creeps was John Landis and Animal House. The Hughes films and Animal House, while they have a reputation for being over the top and gross, are really grounded in likable characters. I’ve always found that the movies I respond to most ultimately are the ones where I actually give a crap about the people in them. So I don’t know that the influence of Hughes or Animal House was conscious, but I did know that I wanted to like these people, and I was in kind of the same groove as those guys.
QUESTION: There are some scenes between [young protagonists] Chris and J.C. that ground the film in reality, such as when they have a frank discussion about their friendship in between the chaos.
FRED DEKKER: That’s a nice little scene. I think they play that quite well, and in retrospect, it’s one of a couple surprisingly serious scenes in an otherwise wackball movie, and I like that. I think it grounds it and makes all the craziness more resonant.
QUESTION: When you wrote lines [for Ray Cameron] such as “It’s Miller time!” or “Thrill me,” were you aware of their quotability?
FRED DEKKER: I think this is where “Saturday Night Live” really took a bad left turn when they realized that they could come up with these catchphrases. Ricky Gervais made fun of this quite a bit. I think that if you set out to write a line or a character that’s specifically engineered for everybody to take under their wing as some kind of cultural thing, I think that’s just disastrous. It has to be true to the character. “Thrill me” and the “good news/bad news” line are coming from a deeply disturbed man, and he’s not saying these things so people will repeat them after they see the movie. He’s saying these things because he’s a very strange and haunted guy who doesn’t really care how he is perceived. He’s wearing his attitude on his sleeve, and when a character has attitude, they tend to be memorable. But I didn’t write him like that in order to be [quotable]. I wrote him to be true to himself.
QUESTION: Were there particular films from your youth that you wanted to evoke through the film’s stop-motion and animatronic special effects?
FRED DEKKER: This was pre-CGI, so there really wasn’t any other way to do it except by hand. So if it was a shot where we needed a head to explode and creeps to spill out, there obviously weren’t very many actors who could do that, so we had to build a puppet head. If it was a shot of one of the creeps slithering across the lawn, we put a motorized car underneath one of our rubber creeps, or we had one that wiggled that we’d pull that on a monofilament. It all depended on what the shot called for, and there was only one stop-motion sequence, which is the basement at the end of the film. That was really the only way that we could think to create a wall of creeps. We actually did build a live action wall of creeps, and it just didn’t work. It looked fake because it was essentially a big rubber mass that didn’t move convincingly.
QUESTION: If you made the film now, would you still choose to utilize old-fashioned effects?
FRED DEKKER: That’s a good question, I don’t know. In retrospect [the effects] turned out to be a wink to the films I grew up with. If I did it now, I’m sure the producers and everybody around me would encourage me to use state of the art [effects], but I’m not a big proponent of CG unless it’s the right way to render an individual shot. So I think my approach would be the same as far as what’s the best way to render a shot.
QUESTION: How did you go about choosing the classic songs on the soundtrack, such as “The Stroll” by the Diamonds?
FRED DEKKER: Songs are very expensive. There was a song by The Doors that I wrote into the script for a current project, and subsequently realized that the song would cost about a million dollars to actually use in the movie. You can make Paranormal Activity dozens of times for the same amount that it would cost for one song. We had a wonderful music supervisor who gave me tapes of 50s songs. “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” is obviously a little sly reference to the end of the movie. I knew I wanted to use that and it’s also very romantic. I was a huge Go-Gos fan, and I loved Jane Wiedlin’s solo album, so I was lucky enough to use her song, “Blue Kiss.”
QUESTION: Richard Curtis [director of Pirate Radio] recently told me that he was asked to pay $1.5 million for a Doors song, and declined.
FRED DEKKER: I was actually listening to “Cinemagic,” and heard about that. There was the Doors song that was going to cost Richard $1.5 million, and then there was another one by the Stones that would’ve also cost about a million dollars. We were lucky to get the songs [in Creeps]. We had some Stan Ridgway songs that I doubt we could afford today.
QUESTION: Had you made Night of the Creeps with a particular audience in mind, or did you make it for yourself?
FRED DEKKER: I couldn’t have put it better. Absolutely for myself, and I think that’s the only way you can make a movie. As soon as you start thinking of demographics, I think you’re compromising. The Monster Squad is even an better example than Creeps. A lot of people say it’s too scary for a kids movie, or it’s too juvenile for a teen movie or for grown ups. My response is, I made it for anyone who wants to like it. You make a movie for yourself, and as soon as you start worrying about offending one group or catering to another group, you’re no longer organically making it. You’re becoming a salesperson.
QUESTION: What is the age range of your fans?
FRED DEKKER: That’s a good question. I think the people who really love these films saw them at an early age, so most of them are in their thirties. But I’m finding people who are discovering them fresh and becoming fans. I think that there really isn’t a target audience for them. The [fans] tend to be male, pretty hip and relatively young, but I would love to think that the [films] work up and down the line.
QUESTION: Do you ever tire of attending screenings of the same films?
FRED DEKKER: Never, it’s always a thrill to connect with fans.
FRED DEKKER: Yeah, exactly. There’s really only two picture cuts in the Director’s Cut. Sony came to me and said they wanted to do a DVD release, and the first thing I said to them was, ‘Can I put the original ending back on?’ The ending that was released in theaters and subsequently seen on cable was a real compromise for me. It arose out of a fight I had with the studio. I’ve always hated it, and the real ending of the film was added to the TV version. So for those who grew up with the movie on TV, that’s probably the ending that they know. But for myself and the people who saw it in theaters and on cable, that’s not the ending they’re familiar with. So what I was able to do was take the ending I prefer and put it onto the body of the theatrical version.
QUESTION: So you were able to shoot an alternate ending, and it’s absence from the theatrical print wasn’t due to budgetary costs?
FRED DEKKER: We did shoot it, it wasn’t budgetary. The studio and I saw the end of the film slightly differently, but we had a real bonus in that we had to deliver the television version of the movie at the same time as the theatrical. Normally the TV version is done separately and by other people, but in this instance our contract stipulated that we had to deliver it. That was great for me because I had to remove the swearing from the TV version, and I could do it with the real actors on the loop stage and make it sound like they’re really talking, unlike that terrible GoodFellas TV version. Also, the TV version had to contractually be much longer than the theatrical version. I think probably fifteen minutes or something like that.
QUESTION: Do you have any future projects planned in film or television?
FRED DEKKER: Television has not been terribly welcoming to me, but I am working on a couple things. There was a pilot that my writing partner Alex Madero and I sold to TNT with DreamWorks. I really like the guys at DreamWorks, so I’m hoping to come up with something for them. I just turned in a script to the sequel of Cliffhanger, and we’re currently waiting on Mr. Stallone’s involvement. I’m most excited about this little independent film that I’ve written and I’m going to direct. It’s based on a documentary called The Loss of Nameless Things. It’s a film by Bill Rose and it’s the true story of a playwright in New York in the ‘70s who started this little theater company, and he was this very charismatic, really cool, avant-garde playwright. It’s something that I’m really passionate about. He suffered a brain injury, and the movie is about his rise and fall and rise again dealing with head trauma. I’m really excited about that. Curtis Burch is the producer. No zombies, no creepy crawlies…
QUESTION: Is it refreshing to work in a totally different genre?
FRED DEKKER: I don’t know if I would’ve started in the genre that I did. It was something I was comfortable with at that time, but the truth is that I would’ve loved to have made more films since Monster Squad and Creeps, and had they been more successful I would have. I now want to gravitate towards whatever material is good material. I’d never want to exclusively be known as a genre guy because I love all kinds of movies—I love musicals, westerns, [etc]. Actually my favorite filmmakers are the ones like Robert Wise who got to do one of everything, and that to me is a great thing to aim for.
QUESTION: Would you like to write your own scripts again?
FRED DEKKER: I’ve been lucky in that I’ve always been writing. For every film you see, there’s thousands of screenplays that somebody’s written—not for that particular film, but in general. There’s a lot of scripts written and a lot of scripts sold and paid for that never see the screen. I’ve had quite a few of those under my belt. I’d love to not have to write, but it’s how I make my living.
QUESTION: As the creator of “Corman University” [in Creeps], what is your reaction to Roger Corman’s recent honorary Oscar?
FRED DEKKER: For me, it was less about the films he made than the fact that he gave opportunities to a whole bunch of guys from Bogdanovich and Coppola to Scorsese and Jim Cameron. “Corman University” reflects the school where he educated all these great filmmakers. His output was amazing, and he made all kinds of films over the years, but if he hadn’t had that little workshop, imagine what films we wouldn’t have. All those guys—Bogdanovich, Scorsese, Cameron, Jonathan Demme—owe him for their first films. So what would the landscape of movies be without Roger Corman?
The Cuban-born filmmaker was only a couple years shy of thirty when he teamed up with his close friend Daniel Myrick to create The Blair Witch Project. With a budget estimated around $20,000, the film went on to gross over $248 million worldwide. It consisted of handheld footage filmed by the actors (Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael C. Williams), who played three student filmmakers who become lost in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland, while shooting a documentary on the mythological Blair Witch. For six days, the actors used GPS systems to navigate their way through the woods, locating clues and supplies left for them by Myrick and Sanchez (who followed them at a distance). The resulting film inspired an entire genre of micro budget, first-person horror films, most recently Paranormal Activity. Sanchez has directed two other features, Altered and Seventh Moon, and has worked in other mediums as well, writing the comic “Blackbeard: Legend of the Pyrate King” and creating the satirical web series “ParaAbnormal.” He’s currently working on a new film project, Possession, and has expressed interest in making another Blair Witch installment.
Film Monthly spoke with Sanchez about his experience making Blair Witch, creating its innovative website, and his thoughts about the similar success of Paranormal Activity.
QUESTION: What attracts you to telling stories about characters facing the unknown?
EDUARDO SANCHEZ: The key to good horror is having an unknown threat that you slowly learn about, and having an ending that doesn’t quite give everything up. I think part of what people loved about the ending of Blair Witch was that we gave you some kind of clue as to what was going on, but we didn’t give you all of the answers. So to me, horror is all about facing the unknown. Once you know what you’re dealing with—it loses the fear factor. Horror films tap into our own mortality. We’re all going to have to face the ultimate unknown one day, and horror films have a little fun with that by watching other people go through it.
QUESTION: Blair Witch was one of the first films to utilize the Internet as a storytelling tool. How did you go about creating the website?
EDUARDO SANCHEZ: It was all a marketing thing. Back in ’98, when we were diligently editing the film, we put together a ten minute piece for a show that John Peterson used to do on Bravo called “Split Screen.” It didn’t have many viewers, but we opened up his third season, and there was a huge reaction on his website. People were asking, “What the hell is Blair Witch? Is it real, are people doing their own investigations near Burkittsville?” In the little clip, we totally sold it as real: ‘There were these three film students who went to Montgomery College in Maryland and disappeared. Our company Haxan films has been hired to go through this footage that was found.’ This generated a lot of interest, so in the spring of 1998, we decided to put up a website. We didn’t have any money so we had to build it ourselves. I had a little bit of website training from a previous job, and I was also one of the five main guys that didn’t have a girlfriend, so I had a lot of time on my hands, and I built it. Dan and I would take turns editing the film, and whenever it was his turn, I’d be working on the website. I decided there had to be some facts about the legend, and the mythology we gave Heather to use as her investigative research. I put the mythology on the web and filled in the gaps because it wasn’t completely thought out. That’s when I came up with the ideas for Rustin Parr and Elly Kedward. I filled in the details of the dates, and made it so it was something that could stand a little scrutiny.
QUESTION: Was the mythology based on any real-life folklore?
EDUARDO SANCHEZ: No; our production designer Ben Rock and our producer Gregg Hale filled out the skeleton of the mythology, while Dan and I would chime in whenever we could. Ben, who just made a film called Alien Raiders, remembered a magazine from his youth called “The Freudian Times” that dealt with weird phenomena, and he brought a lot of authenticity to the material. The symbols he used in the house were taken from an actual dead language. Once [the material] came into my hands, I already had the skeleton, so for me it was basically about filling in the story—giving it a beginning, middle and end. By that time, we had already shot the film, so I had to stay within whatever information was in the film, so I didn’t have a lot of flexibility. I needed to walk the line between making it sound explainable and unexplainable, true and unbelievable.
QUESTION: How did you find three actors with such extraordinary improvisational skills?
EDUARDO SANCHEZ: I’m glad that you say that, because when the film came out, both Dan and I felt that the actors didn’t get enough credit. We always knew that the shoot was going to be completely improvised, and we put out a little sheet that basically said, ‘This is going to be a rough shoot, you’re going to be in the woods, there’s not going to be any trailers. You’re going to be sleeping in the woods, you’re going to be very uncomfortable, so if you’re not into camping you shouldn’t even try out for this movie. If you do try out, the audition begins as soon as you step into the room.’ So as soon as the people stepped into the room, either Dan or I would be sitting behind a desk and we would run through scenarios like, ‘Mrs. Donahue, you’ve served five years of a ten year sentence for murder, and this is your first visit to the parole board. I want you to tell us why you think we should release you.’ The really good actors would go right into it and start talking. The problem with a lot of the actors was they immediately turned into these characters that they thought we wanted them to be. We explained in the audition, ‘We don’t want you to play a character, we want you to play yourself; don’t come in with a fake accent.’ But some people just couldn’t come out of that. We would do a couple minutes of the prison scenario and then we would switch to, “Heather, that was a perfect dive! You just won the gold medal for diving, how do you feel?” And so we went through all these scenarios, and we could tell within about five or six minutes whether we wanted to call them back or not.
Dan and I would go to New York for a weekend whenever we could afford it, put an ad in “Backstage” and rent out a little audition space. We started auditioning in ’96, and Josh was the first guy we cast. He loved the ad, so he started calling me every two or three months. He wasn’t able to audition in ’96, but he finally got the chance in ’97. I was keeping my fingers crossed, hoping that he would be good, since we had already become friends. He came in and immediately knocked our socks off. And when Heather came in, she took her emotions and persona to a completely different level than any of the other actresses. She would kind of lose her mind. Heather has this incredible ability, like a lot of great actors, to lose herself in a role, and she’d show that kind of craziness and unpredictability in the audition space. There was a lot of people who’d go in there and really overact, but she was always natural. Then when it came to casting Mike, we needed someone to contrast with Josh. Mike didn’t have the same tone as Josh at all, so we got our three leads. We were obviously rolling the dice with everything because we had no idea what exactly was going to come out of this movie. We got lucky with so many things, but especially the actors, because I think they are the main reason that the film did what it did.
QUESTION: Directing your actors from a distance must have been challenging. Did you ever have to intervene?
EDUARDO SANCHEZ: Yeah, at times we had to intervene because it just wasn’t going right. We had to make changes right away or else we weren’t getting what we wanted. Dan and I built these beats—we had a script that was more like a long treatment. It didn’t have any dialogue. Our belief was that if we got even half of these scripted moments, we were going to be golden. The original idea for the project was that it was going to be a documentary, so this footage was going to be half of the film. But early on, one of the biggest directing challenges was the fact that we didn’t see the filming as it occurred. It was like having dailies without being able to be on the set. So we’d bring the footage home and Dan and I would review it as much as we could. Early on in the film, there’s the scene where they first start hearing noises at night. Heather’s character was just a pain in the ass. She was very hostile towards the guys. We still used the footage, but we had to cut around her hostility. The next day, I had to go in and talk to the cast. Mike and Josh were like, ‘I can’t stand her character, I’m about to friggin’ strangle her.’ She was just trying to be a ‘dominating director,’ and it was good that these strong emotions were being built, but we didn’t want that to happen at the beginning of the movie. There was going to be nowhere to go from there. So I pulled Heather aside and said, ‘These guys are your crew, you don’t even know them that well, They’re from your school, and you can’t be like this because you’re going to lose them.’ She took direction really well, and toned it down.
For the scene where they hear the kids outside the tent and run out, I tried as much as I could to detail what was going to happen in the notes. In the end, it just didn’t work out because the take-up reel on one of the cameras came off, and we had to stop. Neal Fredericks, the DP, came out and fixed the camera. We had to re-roll and reshoot it again to redo that run. It was kind of weird because that was the third night, and the actors were all really desperate to talk to people other than themselves. It was 2 in the morning, and we brought a bunch of our crew out there because they wanted to see what we were doing, It was a really cold night. Dan and I were hoping to capture a ghostly image on film, so we had our art director Rick Moreno dress up as a ghost. I was in charge that night, and I wanted to make sure that the crew separated themselves from the actors, because I didn’t want to give them the relief of talking to other people, and hearing news from the outside world. I wanted them to continue to dig themselves deeper into this hole that we were building for them.
QUESTION: How were the sounds of the children created?
EDUARDO SANCHEZ: Our sound designer [and composer Tony Cora] recorded some kids that my mom was babysitting at the time. He recorded them playing for an hour and mixed all these different tracks of them giggling and talking to each other, so you couldn’t make out what they were saying. We went out there that night with a couple of boom boxes and waited until the actors were sleeping. We snuck up on them and pressed play. Tony had created a slow build up where you heard a little giggle, then nothing, then another little giggle, until it was three or four kids talking to each other. We did the same trick at the end when Josh’s voice leads Mike and Heather to the house. Josh had to leave for New York, so we went to the recording studio and recorded him yelling, ‘Hey Heather, I’m down here!’ I went out again with the boom box, and led Heather and Mike through a little path I built to the house. I told the crew to hide a tape player in the attic which would have Josh saying, ‘I’m up here!’ and direct Heather and Mike upstairs. Then we had another tape player downstairs that would direct them back down.
But when we first got them into the house, we lost the battery on the camera. The light died about halfway through the scene, and it was stupid because we didn’t have a back-up. So we had to go home and come back the next night, which ended up being Halloween. We couldn’t make Heather and Mike sleep in the woods again, so we got them a hotel room. Dan and I were worried that Heather wasn’t going to be able to get back into the mode that she was in that night because she was so tense. When she came down the stairs, Gregg and Dan were in the basement in black leotards and grabbed her. On the first take, Heather was so stiff, they couldn’t even move her. The actors were really freaked out because they had no idea what we were going to do to them. Luckily, they came in the next night and did a great job. I edited most of the house sequence, and honestly can’t remember where the change comes between the first and second shooting days—it’s that seamless. I just remember being scared out of my wits while editing that scene. It was the middle of the night, I was alone in the office and I just started getting really freaked out. I had to turn off the computer and go home. I made sure that when I finished the scene, it was during the day.
QUESTION: Was there always a conscious effort to keep the actors in the dark about what was in store for them?
EDUARDO SANCHEZ: Yeah, when you hear Mike take a breath and say, ‘It’s a house,’ it was the first time he had seen the house. In the directing notes, I had to prepare them for entering something, but I couldn’t tell them that it was a house. I told them to follow Josh’s voice wherever it led them. We built a lot of trust with the actors, because they didn’t know us. It wasn’t like we were all friends at the time. It was especially challenging for Heather since she was the only woman in the middle of this state park working with two guys and surrounded by an all-male crew. It was a shame when they weren’t recognized for their phenomenal acting. It was totally immersive. To me, the film was made in the acting and the editing room. Dan and I had this twenty hour journey through the footage, and there was a lot of great scenes that had to get cut.
QUESTION: How long did the rough cut run?
EDUARDO SANCHEZ: The test cut was two and a half hours. We knew it was too long, and we were testing it to see if it worked in any way. This was before we decided to leave all the documentary stuff out of it. Some people were annoyed by it, but most were freaked out and amazed. At that point we realized that just having the film consist of the ‘found footage’ was a possibility. We kept cutting, and knew that we couldn’t make the audience sit through more than eighty five minutes of this.
QUESTION: So the documentary footage was later put into the website and the mock-documentary, “Curse of the Blair Witch”?
EDUARDO SANCHEZ: Yeah, pretty much all the other stuff we shot was used in “Curse of the Blair Witch.” That was a great thing for us because we had this deal with the Sci-Fi Channel. They wanted us to do a special, and we wanted to do a documentary on the legend. We had all this footage that we didn’t use in the movie, and then Artisan paid us to do it, which was great because we hadn’t gotten paid for the film yet. At the same time, they asked us to shoot alternate endings, such as one where Mike is found crucified on a stick figure. We were really against it, but they were literally going to give us $60,000 to reshoot these endings, which was a bigger budget than we had for the film. And like I said, we hadn’t gotten our advance yet. The delivery of a film is a f—-ing nightmare. It’s a three month process, if not more. So we flew to Maryland, assembled the crew, and went back to the house. We came up with five or six alternate endings, like where Mike’s hanging himself, and hanging on a stick figure with his shirt ripped open. I think there was one where he’s in a grave. The studio wanted something bigger, and that’s exactly what they did with Paranormal Activity. We were open to the idea, but it didn’t work and betrayed the rest of the movie.
QUESTION: How did you come up with the film’s unforgettable final image of Mike standing in the corner?
EDUARDO SANCHEZ: When Dan and I came up with the idea of Mike standing in the corner, we didn’t know what it meant. When I was writing the Rustin Parr story for the website, I came up with the idea that he had one of the kids face the corner while he killed the other kid. And then when we went to Maryland to take advantage of the reshoots for the ending, we shot a couple interviews with guys basically saying the same thing. If the viewers are listening, then the ending is really going to pay off. Fortunately for us, Artisan was like, ‘We’re going to be cool, go do your ending. We think it’s going to cost us at the box office, but we’ll go with your ending.’
QUESTION: You’ve collaborated with composer Tony Cora on all your pictures. What’s your working relationship like?
EDUARDO SANCHEZ: Dan and I wanted the end of Blair Witch to sound like a descent into hell. Tony is really experimental, and comes up with these strange instruments that he custom-builds for each movie. He’s very unpredictable, and sometimes a little frustrating when it takes him a while to complete the music. He gives me these bursts of creativity, and always comes up with something that’s unlike anything I’ve heard before. I asked my sound mixer on Altered, Kent Sparling, to collaborate with Tony on Seventh Moon, and the resulting soundtrack was worthy of a CD. We actually just came out with a soundtrack to the film on ERM records. I’m a huge soundtrack geek. I know all the composers, and there’s really no one doing stuff like these guys, at least for movies. I’m not sure what film I’m doing next, but if it’s the one I think it’s going to be, I’ll want a full-on orchestral score. I’m not sure if I’m going to go with Tony on the next one, but we will eventually work together again.
QUESTION: Your recent interview for the Toronto Star generated a lot of Internet buzz about whether Paranormal Activity has inspired you to make a third Blair Witch film. Care to elaborate?
EDUARDO SANCHEZ: Dan and I have been talking about doing another Blair Witch movie for quite a while, and right now we’re just working on the idea. It’s been ten years since we did the first one, and Dan and I have been itching to work together again. I’m very happy for the filmmakers of Paranormal Activity, and I think they’ve made a really good film. I’m happy for their success, but I’m a little bit jealous of what they’re going through because that’s what we went through ten years ago. It made me miss those Blair Witch days, and it reinvigorated my idea to go back and reuse that first-person technique that Dan and I used for the first film, but not in the way it’s been used in Blair Witch or Paranormal Activity or REC or Cloverfield. I liked Cloverfield. It was cool to see filmmakers spend tens of millions of dollars on doing the exact same thing that we did for $20,000.
QUESTION: Cloverfield took the concept to laughable lengths by making the characters continue to film even as they’re being chased by a towering monster.
EDUARDO SANCHEZ: That’s the problem with all first-person movies, and to a certain extent, Blair Witch. Dan and I were constantly trying to come up with reasons for why they were still trying to videotape each other. We told Heather that she was obsessed with videotaping because it was her escape mechanism. For Josh and Mike, we told them that they were annoyed with video cameras, and should find a moment to force Heather to turn the camera off. We wanted them to have a confrontation. The limitation of first-person is that you constantly need a reason for having the camera on. I’m trying to find a way around it on my next movie, Possession. I’m writing the script with Jamie Nash, who helped me with Seventh Moon and Altered. We have a bunch of things that he’s written in the pipeline right now, and we’re excited about what we’ve written so far for Possession. It’s going to take what we did in Blair Witch to a new and different level. That’s why there’s no jealousy between me and the Paranormal Activity filmmakers. In fact, we have the same publicist, so I was getting the inside scoop on everything that was happening. I’m very happy for them and glad they’ve had all the success that they’ve had. Just like how Blair Witch inspired the Paranormal Activity filmmakers, they have inspired me.
QUESTION: Was there an effort on Seventh Moon to recapture the atmosphere of Blair Witch through handheld photography?
EDUARDO SANCHEZ: Seventh Moon was like a one night journey into hell. I had a lot of fun with it because I was one of the cameramen, so I got to infuse the film with a claustrophobic, shaky feeling. I hope to run camera on Possession as well, though it will look completely different than Seventh Moon. I enjoyed the film school feeling of operating at least one of the cameras on my own film again. I think that’s really fun.
QUESTION: You told the Toronto Star that you planned to use a technique on Possession known as “mixed first-person.” What does that technique entail?
EDUARDO SANCHEZ: I haven’t really figured it out yet. The first-person technique creates a very real feeling because it tricks the mind into thinking that it’s looking at raw footage. It sounds and looks like a home video, instead of a Hollywood film. I’m trying to figure out a way to keep the sensibilities of a first-person movie, and not be limited by motivating the characters to turn the camera on and off. There’s just certain questions you want to avoid like, “Come on man, why would they have the camera on? How do they keep their batteries charged?” Those ridiculous details get in the way every time I see a first-person movie. My goal is to transpose the feeling of a first-person movie into a seemingly normal narrative, and I think I have the formula. We’re writing Possession right now and we’re hoping to shoot it early next year. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun. It has some of the creepiest stuff I’ve ever written.
Matt Fagerholm Matt Fagerholm is a freelance writer, film enthusiast and critic in Chicago.
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