Twelve years ago, Eduardo Sanchez was in his mid-twenties when he co-directed “The Blair Witch Project” with Daniel Myrick and kickstarted a revolution in first person DIY cinema. Since then, neither Sanchez nor Myrick have seen a significant hit.
Passing on studio offers in the immediate aftermath of their success, the two men continued working on low-budget horror projects. In Sanchez’s case, progress was especially slow. “Altered” and “Seventh Moon,” the two features he directed in 2006 and 2008, went straight to DVD. But now Sanchez is on the brink of a turning point. His latest effort, “Lovely Molly,” premiered Wednesday in the coveted Midnight Madness section at the Toronto International Film Festival to an enthusiastic reception. Sitting down the following afternoon, Sanchez was optimistic that the movie would soon find a theatrical distributor.
As writer, director and editor of “Lovely Molly,” Sanchez has maintained the DIY approach that first put him on the map, but also demonstrates that his filmmaking talent extends beyond the faux-documentary style made famous by “Blair Witch.” Featuring a breakout performance by newcomer Gretchen Lodge, the movie revolves around a recovering drug addict and newlywed living in her deceased parents’ isolated home, struggling with the demons of her past as well as the literal ones of the present: Something ominous is haunting Molly, a strange and possibly supernatural presence with unquestionably evil intentions. Steeped in understated creepiness as Molly slowly becomes aware of an invisible presence in her house, the movie conveys a remarkable amount of atmospheric dread.
Sanchez spoke to indieWIRE about the genesis of the project, and why it took him so long to get to this point.
When you introduced the movie at the premiere, you mentioned that it was different from “The Blair Witch Project.” Do you feel like you always have to bring up that movie when discussing your work?
Yeah, you have to pivot from that success when it’s the only thing people know you from. Look, I’m not tired of “Blair Witch.” I still feel like we did something crazy and sort of new. I feel honored to have been a part of it. People interview me or ask me questions where they’re like, “I know of sick of talking about this,” but you know what? I was sick of it when we were answering the same questions a few times a day, but now I’m proud of it. Some of the headlines for Toronto were: “‘Blair Witch Project’ director and Bobcat Goldthwait premiere their films at midnight.” We were like the two big things. To me, it doesn’t matter as long as it works. It sets me apart from people. Also, this film is different from “Blair Witch.” It’s not the same tired act.
You also said that making “Lovely Molly” was a way of experimenting with some of the techniques you used in “Blair Witch.” What was the experiment?
It started when “Paranormal Activity” came out. I was already writing the script for “Lovely Molly” and was just worried because my movie is also a haunted-house movie. I was worried about the similarities. Also, it kind of inspired me. The guys who did that were talented and I’ve seen a lot of first-person movies–they call them “found footage” movies, but I call them “first person.” So you have this plethora of fucking first-person movies, but they did it right. It’s believable, scary and done with minimal resources. I applaud them for that.
At the same time, I was like, “I could’ve done that.” Maybe not the same way and it might not have been as good, but I can see how it’s done because I’ve done it before. So now I’m writing this script, so do I turn this into a first-person movie? Or just continue with the original idea? I guess “Paranormal Activity” reminded me of the power of the first-person style. “Lovely Molly” became for me the idea of using the strength of that style, so when you’re watching the camcorder footage [which Molly shoots at various points in the movie], it’s almost like a POV of the character, that intimate feeling you have.
There was also this idea of the sound design being very creative and not being crazy Hollywood, as well as limited music. But at the same time, I didn’t want the limitations of the style. For example, why would the camera be on during an argument between Molly and her husband? Why would she tape these mundane things? I wanted to show these things, but the thing about first-person movies is that you have to constantly come up with a reason for why the hell the camera’s on. So my experiment was basically: Can I mix them and still get the strengths of both styles? I’ve brought up “Rear Window,” because if you take all the binocular shots in the movie, it’s really a great mixing of first person and conventional filmmaking.
How do you consider your role in the existence of first-person cinema?
It’s not like it hadn’t been done. Dan and didn’t invent first-person cinema, but we definitely popularized it. People sent us “Cannibal Holocaust” when “Blair Witch” came out. I hadn’t seen it since it had been banned in the U.S. When we saw “Cannibal Holocaust,” we were like, “Damn, this is almost like what the original ‘Blair Witch Project’ was going to be,” a documentary about this footage that was found. Dan and I were talking afterwards and agreed that if we had seen “Cannibal Holocaust” as kids, we probably wouldn’t have done “Blair Witch.” So we got lucky in that we weren’t hip enough to have seen it.
In the YouTube era, first person cinema has taken on an entirely new value.
Also, anything that looks like a documentary, whether it’s home-video footage or off your iPhone, you immediately think it’s real. Obviously, when you watch “Paranormal Activity” or “Blair Witch,” you know it’s not real but it really does take you away. I don’t know if it’s something about the way we’ve been conditioned to react to handheld, shaky documentary footage as reality, but there’s definitely this inherent instinct. But I wonder if that instinct will go away in a society raised on “Blair Witch,” “Paranormal Activity” and YouTube. Are my kids going to look at these movies and say that it looks fake?
Have your kids seen “Blair Witch”?
Yeah, my youngest daughter’s 10 and she saw it. She wasn’t too impressed. There was a screening in my town for a local film festival. My son’s eight now and he didn’t pay any attention to it at all. But all my friends’ kids were teenagers when it came out. They know about it. It’s like a rite of passage for them: “Are you my parents going to let me watch this or do I have to sneak it?” So it still works, but I’m just wondering how long it will work when there’s so much manipulation now.
Whereas “Blair Witch” slowly builds to its creepy atmosphere, “Lovely Molly” gets into scary mode from a very early point. What made you feel the need to dive right in?
I think you can point to a lot of movies that start the slow burn and don’t have anything scary to offer, but I wanted to start immediately. I wanted to immediately say, “The fun of the wedding is over.” This is their reality: An alarm goes off, they don’t know who’s downstairs, there are weird noises. So it’s still a slow burn, but it’s like the lighting of the pilot light. You’ve entered a different phase of Molly’s life at this point.
Did you think about any specific horror movies as reference points?
I talked to my director of photography, John Rutland, a lot about the style. The original plan was to have the movie look not as pretty as it looks now. I’m happy it turned out the way it did, but I really wanted to keep it a lot more raw, almost unfinished. The original idea was to have much more of a first-person feel: Little to no score, sound effects. But as I got more and more into it, I couldn’t fight the instinct of adding more score here, some temp music there. John and I looked at some horror movies, but we also looked at Lance Hammer’s “Ballast.” John recommended that movie to me. It’s very earthy and real. We realized we wouldn’t make it that real, but it was our starting point. I watched a lot of films. It was amazing because I had never seen “Repulsion.” I watched it like two weeks before we started shooting and realized it had so many things in common with my script. I wanted to base this more in drama and sneak the horror in.
Your last two movies weren’t exactly big hits. Did you feel like you were breaking out of that cycle this time around?
You know, since this one’s at Toronto and we’re hoping to get at least a little theatrical distribution, so I’m trying to figure out what the hell I did differently. The main difference between the other films and this one was that I knew the budget level, I knew that we weren’t shooting an extremely low-budget movie, but we weren’t shooting a high-budget movie, either.
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What was the budget?
I can’t say.
Less than “Spider-Man”?
A lot less than “Spider-Man.” Probably less than the “Spider-Man” catering budget. It was low, man. To me, there was already this limitation on it, which brought back the creative process that Dan and I went through with “Blair Witch,” where it was about coming up scary, creepy ideas and then tone them down to make them applicable to a movie that doesn’t have much money. I knew there wasn’t going to be a CGI creature running after Molly. I didn’t want that, anyway. Other than that, the process for each film changes with the material, but the process for me is still about finding what connects personally and then start from there.
So what do you think happened with your last two movies?
I don’t know, man. Obviously, you mature as a filmmaker and you learn new things. It also has to do with maybe the audience not being right for those movies or that they weren’t marketed right. You can come up with all sorts of things. I don’t think the last two films are bad. I don’t think they’re great, but they each have a following now on DVD. So it’s not like I completely missed the mark by making something really esoteric that nobody likes. Each film has fans. They just didn’t strike that chord. As a filmmaker, I don’t know — sometimes you hit and sometimes you don’t.
Did you ever a have a moment of existential crisis? “Blair Witch” was considered this huge historic thing, which probably set everyone’s expectations way too high.
Well, yeah, absolutely. There was this reality check about it. When Dan and I were going through it, we were like, “This is never going to happen again.” We reminded each other, all the time, sitting somewhere in Europe, Australia or Japan and watching people line up for our movie, we realized this was crazy and we had to enjoy it. Also, there are such self-imposed expectations. I can tell you that it was bullshit and I didn’t like all the hype, but it feels good for your movie to be loved by so many people, to have that. At the end of the day, though, no filmmaker has that every single time. There’s no way. For me, it was about how I can make a living with films I believe in and not feel like I’m selling out or wasting my time. Movies take a lot out of you and take time away from your family. If I’m going to do something, it has to be worth it.
Obviously, you treaded lightly since you haven’t been that prolific.
After “Blair Witch,” we had a lot of opportunities to go right into the studio system and make a ton of movies. We chose, for different reasons, not to go down that road. We pissed off our agents.
But you didn’t go into real estate, either.
No, although I semi-retired. I was kind of burned out on everything. To tell you the truth, I was just uninspired. The idea of making “Blair Witch” and having this fucking atomic bomb of a goddamn movie explode on the world–we thought it would be a couple of firecrackers and all of a sudden it just erupts–it took a lot out of me. There was this lack of inspiration. We tried to make a comedy right after “Blair Witch” and almost moved into production on it. We had presold a ton of territories and had a bunch of money in the bank. Because of our inexperience, the company we were with, Artisan, used it for political leverage because they wanted us to make another “Blair Witch” movie. The whole thing fell apart 10 years ago, exactly, right around 9/11. After that, man, I wasn’t ready to make another horror movie, and it seemed like that was the only thing people were ready for me to give me money to do. It took me four or five years to come up with another horror movie idea. “Altered” came out around 2005, and while I enjoyed making it, I didn’t enjoy what happened to it. It was a heartbreaker for me.
Because it never came out in theaters?
Yeah, you come from the ultimate of an indie filmmaker and then you’re humbled by having your movie go straight to DVD with no marketing. The thing about “Altered” is that it still did really well. I never saw an ad for it, but for us, it was a financial success. Even though the distributor says they lost money, it’s impossible to figure that out. There’s not a week that goes by where I don’t get a couple of emails from people who are fans. That feels good. Not that I feel like I’m a better filmmaker, but I did the film I wanted to make. At least somebody else shares in the joy I had with it.
At one point after the success of “Blair Witch,” you and Dan were offered to make a prequel to “The Exorcist.” Do you ever look back and wish you had taken it on?
The script they made for that movie was just a disaster. We weren’t ready for that, man. We would’ve been chewed up. But hindsight being what it is, you always wish you had done things different. But I’m still with the same team after two films that weren’t as successful as “Blair Witch,” which is a testament to the fact that we’re good partners.
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You seem quite happy with the results for “Lovely Molly.” Do you want to make movies with greater frequency now?
Yeah, but again, it’s all about managing expectations. People are very cautious now.
I noticed in the credits for the movie that you had an entire “transmedia unit.” What did they do?
As part of the package of the movie, we have this pretty intricate transmedia game, just a ton of assets that we can deploy and the distributor can exploit. We haven’t used any of it yet. It’s all based around the house, and Molly and the demon. For us, it’s like you get a film that isn’t the basic horror movie but it does deliver; at the same time, we have a creative way to market it that will bring a lot of eyeballs in. So it’s part of the package we can sell a distributor.
Can you elaborate on that package?
The transmedia will basically focus on three different avenues that have to do with the movie, the first one being the strictly forensic study of Molly: What happened to her when she was 16, her records from the institution [where she was admitted], the police report from when her dad died… then we follow the history of the house, as well as the history of the demon — the idea that it existed thousands of years ago and it became concentrated on this house.
So you come down pretty hard on the existence of the demon, even though the movie itself makes it very ambiguous.
Yes, but at the same time, there’s a whole storyline that only deals with Molly’s clinical diagnosis. They intersect in different places, but you kind of have to take one or the other. Gregg Hale and Mike Monello [the producers of “Blair Witch”] started Campfire Media and they do all this stuff. I used to do stuff for them every once in awhile, but to really be effective in that field, you basically have to keep track of everything. There are too many moving parts now.
It’s also a question of whether you want to make movies or engage with this new storytelling format.
Yeah. Gregg really ran the transmedia unit and our other writer, Jamie Nash, wrote it and directed the various pieces. I just supervised it while we were in production. Afterwards, I went through it. There’s a lot of cool stuff in there.
What sort of expectations do you have for the movie’s release?
My goal is get the film out there. If it goes theatrical, if it goes wide, great. My thing is to find the right partner who gives it its proper chance. I think that we can find an audience if it’s nurtured. So that’s my only goal. We want somebody who digs the film as much as we do.
Meanwhile, you’re working on a movie about Bigfoot.
Yeah, we were actually going to shoot it right now, but we were shooting in Austin and the drought there just killed us. Now there are fires there, so it’s kind of a disaster. We’re planning on going back this April, but we’re going to reevaluate it this winter to see if Austin even works or if the fires destroyed everything. But we built a cabin there and we’re still raising money. But you can’t do a Bigfoot movie when it looks like a desert everywhere, unless it was about climate change. It was just hard without any woods.
Will there be a first-person component?
No, it’s going to be similar to “Lovely Molly.” There will be some first-person scenes, but it will be grounded in a multi-camera set-up.
And you’re planning a trilogy?
I’ve written three Bigfoot movies. The idea would be that we do this one for a low budget, and if it hits, we have two more that we can set up with a studio. They each get progressively more expensive. The second is like $25 million and the third one is $70 or $80 million. We can scale them as we go, but I’ve been wanting to make a Bigfoot movie since I was 11 or so. I have a lot in common with the big guy, so I feel like I owe it to my child self to make a Bigfoot movie.
So you really are back in the saddle as a filmmaker.
Even though I go through phases where I fantasize about working at Target, I’ll do this as long as I can. This is really the first time since “Blair Witch” that I’m actively looking to continue making movies. That’s my goal.