FUTURE 3: Haxan Films, a.k.a. Myrick, Sanchez, Hale, Monello & Cowie
by Eugene Hernandez and Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE/ 01.10.01) — Say what you will about the aesthetic merits of
“The Blair Witch Project,” but Haxan Films, the collective that came up with the original fact-or-fiction thriller, forever changed the future of independent film.
Like it or not, you can rank “Blair Witch” up there with “sex, lies, and
videotape” and “Reservoir Dogs” among the landmark historical moments of
recent American independent cinema. Never again would a film forget to
include a clever web site to go along with it.
Since “Blair Witch” broke box office records back in 1999, the Orlando-based
Haxan gang — Daniel Myrick, Ed Sanchez, Gregg Hale, Mike Monello and Robin Cowie — have taken some time to decompress and reevaluate their goals, while they continue to work on their next feature, “Heart of Love,” “one of the most politically incorrect films imaginable,” claims the film’s web
site: http://www.holthemovie.com/ . Commenting on other upcoming projects in an email, Mike Monello added:
“Haxan Films has spent the last year or so swimming with sharks, as well as
developing several projects for film, TV, and Internet, including the
website for Fox television’s “Freakylinks” (http://www.freakylinks.com).
The Haxan team remains down to earth, energetic, and yet also realistic
about the future, for themselves and the rest of us. indieWIRE’s Eugene
Hernandez and Anthony Kaufman spoke with 4 out 5 of the Haxan crew (Sanchez
was unavailable, no doubt working studiously on “Heart of Love” in some
remote mountain retreat), focusing on new ways to use the Internet,
interactivity, creative cross-collateralization, the iMovie next-generation,
and staying independent.
Concluding his email message, Monello added: “The five Haxan guys have also
recently started a latin-flavored boy-band, in a feeble attempt to cash in
on the whole Ricky Martin, Backstreet Boys, Blink-182 phenomena.”
indieWIRE: My first thought is obviously about the Internet. When I think about “Blair Witch,” I don’t necessarily think about the web site or the Internet as only a marketing element of “The Blair Witch Project.” I think about it as a way that you guys not only created awareness, but it was also an extension of creating this myth or this story. I want to hear what you guys think about how you hope and how you expect the Internet will be a tool for you guys on the creative side of what you do in the future?
Daniel Myrick: I think the Internet is it’s own medium, and it has it’s own strengths and weaknesses, and I think a lot of our think tank sessions here at Haxan, which used to be about creating premises for films, premises for television shows and things like that, now incorporate coming up with premises that are specific to the Web. And certain kinds of ideas that lend themselves to the interactivity of the Web. So in that sense, it’s expanded the creative horizons from a creative standpoint, because we can come up with ideas that are specific to the Web and utilize the strengths of the Web. So we’ve got several projects that are that, and then they ultimately spin off into traditional forms of media, but they’re starting off as Web-based creative ideas, and that’s what’s exciting for me personally, that there’s just a lot of things that we can incorporate into the Web, a lot of different approaches, whether it be content or marketing or what have you, that capitalize on the Web’s strengths.
Robin Cowie: I think the Web is a great place for genesis of ideas, where at a relatively low cost, you can really reach a small audience to start with, that will then grow with you as you develop your project.
Myrick: A lot of things that the press doesn’t mention too much with regards to the original “Blair Witch” was not so much what we were telling the audience, but what the audience was telling us — the interactivity, the immediate feedback that we were getting from the fan base in those early days helped dictate a lot of what were doing, and some stuff that we threw on the wall stuck and some stuff didn’t stick, but it was just immediate feedback from our fan base that the Web provided for us that no other form of media does. You don’t get that immediate gratification or non-gratification from any other form of media on such a mass scale, and the Web was instrumental in steering us in a lot of creative directions because our fan base was telling us what they liked and didn’t like.
Gregg Hale: I think the challenge that we’re looking at in terms of being storytellers is adapting storytelling to the Web in a way that’s not dependent on bandwidth. Right now, so much of the discussion about the Internet is technologically based in how much bandwidth and how much data you’re going to be able to move downstream. And I personally at least am of the opinion that it’s not really about bandwidth. I don’t think that the Internet is ever, ever going to replace television. I don’t think it’s ever going to replace film. I think it’s its own thing. I think that in terms of being a storytelling device for filmmakers, the thing to concentrate on is how to play with the Web’s strength in terms of interactivity, and how do you take traditional linear storytelling and adapt it in such a way that there’s a level of interactivity that is going to be able to compete with more traditional forms of media, like television and film. And that’s a lot of what we’re putting our limited brainpower to, is figuring out how do we tell these interactive stories without relying on downloading basically little mini-movies or mini-TV shows. How do you do it smarter? I think that’s a lot of what we’re going to be concentrating on in the next couple of years.
Mike Monello: For me, I kind of agree very strongly with what Dan has said in terms of getting feedback from the audience. For me, what I love most about working on the Internet or with the Internet for creative projects is, it really cuts the fat. You don’t have a bunch of creative executives telling you what the American public wants and how to accomplish that — because they don’t know what the American public wants, the American public doesn’t know what it wants — and it just enables me personally with my projects to go directly to the audience that I’m looking for and to find out if what I’m doing is resonating with them. And if not, I can change it or I cannot change it, depending on how I feel. And that’s just on one level that it cuts the fat. On another level, it’s easier to get projects going on the Net; it costs less than television or film, so you don’t have to go to money guys and talk to them and deal with them. So in a way, as far as a moving visual media like film or television, it’s the most inexpensive way to get your ideas across, and it’s the purest way as well, because you don’t have it getting diluted through all that fat.
iW: Do you think the interactivity that we’ve learned to use on the Internet could affect the actual telling of a traditional medium like the movies?
Hale: I think that the inherent strength of film as seen in movie theaters is this idea of submitting totally to this story, sitting in this dark room with this huge screen, and you submit yourself to that story and you watch the film. And the whole idea is to absorb this idea coming from the artist, from the director, from the filmmaker. And that’s the inherent strength of film. And I think that, obviously, the inherent strength of the Internet is twofold. One is interactivity, the ability of having the communication be two-way. But then there’s also the aspect of the Internet which is that it is constantly changeable, it’s always there, and I think this comes back to the feedback thing, you can always respond to what people are digging and what they’re not digging, and change it accordingly.
Myrick: And interestingly enough, you learn things about the project that you yourself didn’t even know, as a creator, based on how other people are perceiving it. But I don’t know how the interactivity of the medium of the Internet could affect film storytelling.
Hale: I think you just have a big version of the Internet then.
Myrick: I think storytelling has really been unchanged since we were telling stories. It’s about the storyteller, whether that be writer or director or whatever the creative is behind the story, having control over the process of how that story gets conveyed. So as a creative, you want to be able to highlight and direct attention of the audience where you feel, however subjectively, where you feel they are going to get the most impact in the story. So when you leave it to the audience to decide, then you kind of objectify the storytelling process, which is good and bad in its own sense. That’s what is so exciting about the Internet. But I think the interactivity of the Internet is just a different medium, it’s a different form of how people are going to have stories told and how they are going to interact with them, but I don’t think it’s going to replace the traditional forms of telling a story, like a movie or anything, because that’s inherently been unchanged from since we were yelling from the rooftop.
Cowie: It definitely has its own demands though, that are really difficult. With comedy, for example, when you are trying to effect a surprise in comedy, it’s really difficult to cheat those things on the Internet because somebody else has control of timing. And so I think it has its own specific challenges with regards to a storytelling process that are unique to itself.
Monello: To me the Internet takes storytelling back to the days of the campfire tale. Before there was written language, the storyteller would sit around a campfire and tell the story and somebody in the audience would say something like, but, what about this character? And then the storyteller would spin the story in that direction. And so you kind of had these myths and stories growing out of that interactivity. And then the written word kind of killed that, and the Internet brings it back full circle. I stole that from someone so don’t quote me on that.
iW: Creative people, whether it be with the Internet, but more so with film or television, require the involvement of someone who is going to facilitate the telling of that story, whether that be financially or otherwise, and so that brings a business aspect to the process. Looking ahead, what can be done to, either in your own company or for filmmakers in general, those working on the independent side of things to protect the integrity of stories knowing that there needs to be an element of business or money types that can challenge at least, shall we say, the storytelling process. And how to insulate or insure that the abilities of the storyteller can remain intact?
Hale: I really think it kind of depends on what kind of artist you are. The really amazing thing about the Internet is that there really is the opportunity to, without a traditional form of distribution or exhibition or marketing, that there truly exists the possibility of you putting something out on the Internet completely by yourself that somehow catches on, and you can really have a thousand or hundreds of thousands or possibly even millions of people check it out. So I don’t really know if that necessarily answers the question. I guess the point is that right now, the financial playing field on the Internet seems to be really extremely level. So you kind of have this opportunity. I know we all want to pay our bills, but you do have this opportunity of being a filmmaker or being a storyteller that uses filmmaking-type devices and at least have people see your stuff via the Internet. But that doesn’t necessarily help you pay your bills.
iW: You guys are based in Florida, right? You are not moving to LA, you’re not moving to New York. How do you keep your autonomy? How do you keep your, not respect, but in a business that is driven by money, how do you stay independent?
Myrick: I just think it’s a choice; it’s a personal choice. I think there are lots of independent filmmakers in LA and New York that choose to stay that way. So autonomy is I think a state of mind. If you want to put up your own website, post your own movies that you shoot on a digital camera and cut on your home machine, you can choose to be that way and keep your costs low and you don’t need a big studio backing to keep your head above water.
Monello: And you own it.
Myrick: And you own it.
Monello: You own it, you own the characters, you own the stories and ultimately, that’s how we seem to be, here at least, using the Internet the most, is in the development process. You know, I’ve got a project and I start spinning the story and the characters and what not on the Web, and I can do that on my own cheaper than going into development. It’s the same process as going into development on a feature film, but the difference is, if I’m already out there, I’m already getting in touch with the audience that I want and getting feedback. If what you’re doing is appealing and people are interested in it, the word will spread on its own. And by the time you’ve developed your story online and you’re ready to take it to whatever medium you may want to take it to, which could be film or television or books or whatever, you’ve not only developed your story, but you’ve built an audience for it, which gives you the leg up when you begin to deal with the money people.
Cowie: For me, it’s probably one of the most difficult things that independent filmmakers have been facing since the beginning of independent filmmaking. But for us at least, we now have the Internet as a development tool and, at least financial model wise, you are talking about building other properties to sell that are grouped around a central mythology or a central story. In other words, when you create or when you develop something, you think about it not only within the specific medium that you’re trying to do, but also within other outlets, whether that’s books or games or films. I think you’ve got to think creatively as far as the financial package is concerned as well. And considering that, definitely we live in a multi-medium world where everybody is used to picking up the soundtrack as well as seeing the movie, getting the book, getting everything else. A lot of those “merchandising” things are frivolous, they’re just add-ons. Whereas I think as an artist moving forward, you have an opportunity to, and I hate the word, but to cross-collateralize yourself, look for multiple opportunities to develop one story or one mythology.
The interview continues on page 2.