Working with a miniscule budget of less than $25,000, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez wrote, directed, and edited one of the most successful independent movies ever made. The Blair Witch Project confused and frightened enough people when it was released in the summer of 1999 to earn more than $248 million in theaters worldwide. Nearly 20 years later, it’s time to find out the truth about the Burkittsville, Maryland legend.
1. THE "SCRIPT" WAS A 35-PAGE OUTLINE.
Myrick and Sánchez wrote their first draft of The Blair Witch Project in 1993, when they were both film students in Orlando, Florida. They wrote the script more as an outline because they had always planned for the dialogue to be improvised by their actors in order to make the story seem real.
2. THE AUDITION PROCESS WAS AN UNUSUAL ONE.
Actress Heather Donahue remembers reading an ad in Backstage that said: “An improvised feature film, shot in wooded location: it is going to be hell and most of you reading this probably shouldn't come." In order to test the improvisational skills of the candidates, as soon as each potential actor entered the room to audition, he or she was immediately told by one of the directors: "You've been in jail for the last nine years. We're the parole board. Why should we let you go?" If the actor hesitated for even a moment, the directors concluded the audition.
3. THE THREE MAIN ACTORS WERE PAID $1000 A DAY.
It was an eight-day shoot. Donahue, Michael C. Williams, and Joshua Leonard made a lot more in the years after The Blair Witch Project was released. Williams claimed he ended up with about $300,000.
4. HEATHER AND JOSH WERE SUPPOSED TO BE FORMER LOVERS.
The idea was scrapped before shooting, though ironically enough, a lot of tension did develop between the two actors/characters. When Heather called Josh “Mr. Punctuality,” it was an acidic in-joke (Leonard was very late that day). It was so “annoying” to the directors that they decided to kill off Josh first instead of Mike. Leonard was rewarded with a meal at Denny’s—the actors were only given rations of Power Bars and bananas while in the woods—and later a Jane’s Addiction concert while the other two remained at Seneca Creek State Park.
5. THE TEETH IN THE TWIGS WERE ACTUAL HUMAN TEETH.
They were supplied by Eduardo Sánchez’s dentist. The hair was Josh’s real hair.
6. THE ACTORS USED GPS TRACKERS TO FIND THEIR INSTRUCTIONS FOR THE DAY.
Production programmed wait points in the GPS unit for the actors to locate milk crates with three little plastic canisters in them. Each plastic canister contained notes on where the story was going for each actor, who would not show the other two their paper. From that point they were free to improvise the dialogue, provided they followed the general instructions given to them.
7. THE SOUNDS OF THE CHILDREN ACTUALLY TERRIFIED MIKE.
Williams said the most terrifying moment was hearing the sounds of the kids that lived across the street from Eduardo Sánchez’s mother on three boomboxes being blared outside of his tent.
8. THE ACTORS HAD A CODE WORD FOR WHEN THEY WANTED TO SPEAK OUT OF CHARACTER.
If one of the actors wanted to break character, he or she would say “taco.”
9. IT WAS TOO EXPENSIVE TO GET THE RIGHTS TO SOME THINGS.
In what would have been some fun foreshadowing, the directors wanted to have The Animals’ “We’ve Gotta Get Out Of This Place” playing on the car radio in the beginning of the film, but that was too pricey for the producers to keep. They did manage to get the rights for Heather to quote the theme to Gilligan’s Island, as well as approval to show their Power Bars.
10. SHOOTING FINISHED ON HALLOWEEN NIGHT.
The local Denny’s also saw some extra business on October 31, 1997, as Heather Donahue and Michael C. Williams were also taken there for their first hearty meal in over a week. Williams described emerging from the woods and seeing people in costumes as “very surreal.”
11. NINETEEN HOURS OF FOOTAGE WAS EDITED DOWN TO 90 MINUTES.
It took Sánchez and Myrick eight months to cut the movie for its Sundance premiere. Their initial cut was two and a half hours, and the scenes taken out of the theatrical version were used for the website and for the faux documentary that ran on Syfy.
12. SÁNCHEZ CREATED THE MOVIE’S WEBSITE HIMSELF.
The co-director was the logical choice to build the website that helped spread the myth of the Blair Witch to anybody wanting the information, as he was the only one involved with the movie who had web-building experience. According to Sánchez, he also had the free time available to work on the site as he didn’t have a girlfriend at the time.
13. A LOT OF PEOPLE REALLY THOUGHT THE THREE ACTORS WERE DEAD.
Artisan, the now-defunct studio that bought the rights to the film, went to great lengths to keep Donahue, Leonard, and Williams away from the press for a time, and didn’t correct websites like IMDb that claimed the actors were deceased. Donahue’s mother even received sympathy cards.
14. SOME MOVIEGOERS GOT PHYSICALLY ILL BECAUSE OF THE SHAKY CAMERAWORK.
The regional director of Loews Cineplex Entertainment estimated that, on average, one person per screening got sick and asked for a refund.
15. ONLY JOSH IS STILL A FULL-TIME ACTOR.
Heather is currently a medical marijuana grower and the author of a memoir. Mike quit his furniture mover job on Late Night with Conan O’Brien soon after The Blair Witch Project was released, only to return to it to supplement his acting income to support his wife and kids.
16. BURKITTSVILLE, MARYLAND HAS DEALT WITH VANDALISM AND CREEPY FANS.
Burkittsville’s wooden welcome signs were stolen, as were their replacements (not exactly among the best ideas for witchy gifts, if you think about it). Artisan Entertainment bought the town four metal signs that have since rusted, or were also somehow stolen. Debby Burgoyne, the mayor of the town—population: 180—once woke up to find a fan of the movie standing in her living room. He had apparently assumed there was a tour. "It was crazy," Burgoyne told the Los Angeles Times. "People with cameras were everywhere. I made sure I had full makeup and a great nightie before I went out to get the morning paper."
17. THERE’S BEEN TALK OF A THIRD MOVIE.
The 2000 sequel, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, was considered a shameless cash grab that had little involvement from Sánchez and Myrick. But the original co-directors have talked about the possibility of a prequel, which would be set in the late 1700s.
A version of this article was originally published in 2017 and has been updated for 2022.