Writing the sequel to one of the most historic horror films from the past 20 years might sound like a screenwriter’s dream job, but for Simon Barrett, taking on “Blair Witch” was more scary than fun. Having to satisfy millions of fans of a cult film that earned nearly $250 million at the box office in 1999 is a task that would make any writer sweat. Though Barrett already had eight feature film writing credits prior to signing on for the Lionsgate project, he’d never been tasked with writing a studio movie, not to mention a sequel to a horror franchise.
“It was not a fun experience,” the 37-year-old Barrett told IndieWire in a recent interview. “You want it to be as good as it possibly can, and it never is, because that’s the nature of the process.” The film hit theaters last Friday, a week after its official premiere as a part of the Toronto International Film Festival’s Midnight Madness program, but the first ever screening took place at Comic Con in July, when it was revealed that a horror movie called “The Woods” was actually a surprise sequel to “The Blair Witch Project.” Barrett had to work in extreme secrecy for three years before the big reveal at Comic Con. Clearly, the hype machine went into overdrive right on cue. But was it worth the long wait? For Barrett, that’s harder to assess — and he’s not alone.
“Blair Witch” also marks the first studio film for director Adam Wingard, Barrett’s close friend and collaborator on five previous feature films. The pair met more than a decade ago while working on their first micro-budget feature films in Wingard’s home state of Alabama. Barrett had sold a horror-Western script called “Dead Birds” to a friend’s production company, while Wingard was shooting a slasher film called “Home Sick.”
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“Adam and I started thinking that the two of us as a team could achieve more than we could on our own, in terms of doing these micro-budget movies,” Barrett said. Their first collaboration, 2010’s “A Horrible Way to Die,” follows an escaped murderer in pursuit of his ex-girlfriend, played by “Upstream Color’s” Amy Seimetz. Shot in Barrett’s hometown of Columbia, Missouri, the movie had a production budget of roughly $60,000 and was conceived as a horror film that would incorporate elements of mumblecore, a genre known for strong characters and performances but flimsy stories.
“I told Adam that we should do the mumblecore thing in terms of the approach to acting and character, but make a genre film in terms of subject matter and story, and we’ll get the best of both worlds and make something really unique,” Barrett said. With the project short on resources, Barrett and Wingard divided much of the labor between the two of them, giving Barrett his first experience working on a movie from pre-production all the way through post-production. “That was when we figured out we had a really great creative partnership,” Barrett said.
In 2011, Barrett and Wingard completed three feature films as a writing-directing team: the relationship drama “Autoerotic,” co-directed by Joe Swanberg; a thriller about sexual assault called “What Fun We’re Having,” and “You’re Next,” a horror movie about a gang of mysterious killers. “You’re Next” had the largest budget of the three, but was still very much a low-budget movie, costing around $500,000. Barrett now had several feature writing credits to his name, but was hardly a known entity in Hollywood, as every movie he’d written flew under the studio radar.
“If a studio had offered me the chance to write ‘Children of the Corn 7’ or something like that, I absolutely would have had to take it, because I had crippling credit card debt,” he said, “but at the time that I would have sold out, nobody was interested in me selling out, because no one knew who I was.” After “You’re Next,” Barrett and Wingard were offered “every horror remake and home invasion-type thing you could conceive of,” Barrett said, but by then, the pair were confident enough to turn down movies that didn’t interest them creatively. “We knew things were looking up, but we didn’t want to make a bad decision based on money.”
Their next feature collaboration was 2014’s mystery-thriller “The Guest,” about a soldier who introduces himself to a family, claiming to be a friend of their son who died in battle. Barrett once again worked on set with Wingard, helping re-write dialogue and assist in various other facets of production. After finishing their fifth original movie together, Barrett and Wingard finally took the plunge to make a studio film with “Blair Witch.”
“That really was the first property that we got offered where I said, ‘I love this,'” Barrett said, adding that Lionsgate also granted the same kind of creative control on the script that he’d experienced on his original screenplays. “They said, ‘We have an idea of what the sequel should be,’ but they were completely open to me throwing all that stuff out and changing as much as I wanted to.”
According to Lionsgate executive Jason Constantine, Barrett developed an obsession with the lore of Blair Witch during the writing process. “Adam and Simon were both already experts in Blair Witch mythology on the basis of being fans, but over the course of writing the screenplay I think Simon got a PhD in the mythology and history of Blair Witch,” Constantine said. When it came time to make the film, Barrett became involved with nearly every aspect of production, from casting to shooting to editing the movie.
“It’s like having two directors on set,” said “Blair Witch” production designer Tom Hammock, who also served as production designer on “The Guest” and “You’re Next.” “I can always go to Simon with a question if Adam is off shooting something.” No detail is too small for Barrett to advise on, according to Hammock, who says Barrett would sit down with him and discuss every prop in the entire script, down to the kind of fob a character would have on a set of car keys. “It sounds like such a small thing, and yet actors love to have that [prop] that feels like their character,” Hammock said. “Few writers show up on set, let alone are willing to devote that kind of time to helping actors get their performance.”
For “Blair Witch” producer Keith Calder, Barrett and Wingard have developed an ideal process for collaborating. “It’s something that more filmmakers — both on the writing and directing side — should probably aim to have,” Calder said. “It’s just a smart way to split the duties of writer and director between two people.”
Though “Blair Witch” is Barrett and Wingard’s first studio film, the pair did come close to doing a big-budget summer blockbuster for a studio before the project fell apart do to a rights issue, according to Wingard, though he didn’t reveal the subject. “It was really good [that happened] because I don’t think we would have been ready at the time,” Wingard told IndieWire during an interview at TIFF. “We’re ready to do bigger and bigger projects for sure, but I think we’re always realistic about it and we don’t want to skip steps.”
So was waiting all those years to make a studio film worth it? Early “Blair Witch” box office estimates came in as high as $20 million for its opening weekend, but the film ended up collecting around $9.7 million between Friday and Sunday, not enough to displace Clint Eastwood’s “Sully,” which claimed the number one spot for the second straight week with $22 million. The critical response for “Blair Witch” has also been mixed at best.
“Well, our horror film may have been a disappointment at the box office this weekend, but at least we got overwhelmingly negative reviews,” Barrett tweeted on Sunday. Wingard responded with his own tweet, saying he and Barrett “shoulda made that movie about the boring guy who landed a plane in water instead.”
In an email on Monday, Barrett told IndieWire that he and Wingard felt they might as well joke about their film not meeting expectations, considering people were angrily posting online about it. “Now people are angrily posting at us because we made fun of ‘Sully,'” Barrett wrote. “So, problem solved.”
Why did “Blair Witch” underperform at the box office? One prevalent theory: The lofty projections likely didn’t take into account how flooded the marketplace has been with horror movies recently, and the negative reviews may have had a larger impact than normal thanks to increased scrutiny on the movie from consumers who were fans of the original.
Despite the disappointment, Barrett and Wingard are too busy with other projects to let an underwhelming opening weekend get them down. Wingard recently wrapped shooting a remake of the Japanese manga film “Death Note,” and is soon to shoot the remake of “I Saw the Devil” from Barrett’s script. Barrett is also attached to write an action thriller Wingard will direct called “Dead Spy Running.” He insists he’s not letting all the writing work he’s getting go to his head.
“I’ve been driving the same used Ford Escort for 14 years,” he said. “Joe Swanberg uses us as this success story, just because he was there to witness how rough our beginnings were.” Barrett also says he also has plans to direct an original feature in the near future. “I don’t want to pack my resume with too many sequels and remakes,” he said. “But of course we’re doing ‘I Saw the Devil.’ So what am I talking about.”