Though his name is not as well known as some of the big names of horror, Eduardo Sánchez is responsible for one of the biggest cinematic phenomenons of our generation, The Blair Witch Project, which he cowrote and codirected with his friend Daniel Myrick. In Edinburgh to celebrate the launch of his new film Lovely Molly, on Thursday 21st June he was kind enough to sit down with us for a long chat about those films, his influences, and the legacy of his work in modern cinema, and his next project, Exists. Beware minor spoilers for the final scenes of Lovely Molly!
Geek Chocolate – The long history of Europe lends itself to ghosts and hauntings much more than America, where horror tends to be more immediate – Carpenter’s Hallowe’en, Romero’s Dead movies, through to Saw and so on, although obviously there are exceptions. Do you feel it’s because America is a relatively young nation, just over two hundred years old, that is a focus of American horror cinema?
Eduardo Sánchez – Yeah, absolutely because there isn’t as much deep mythology as there is in other places, so it’s more immediate, it’s more like a slasher, something out in the woods, and it’s more “frontiersy,” too, especially my films. Somehow I always end up in the woods. There is something about the woods and the untamed wilderness that’s always scared me. We shot Lovely Molly in this house that was built in the 1700’s, and that’s really old for the United States, but here in Europe, every other building is that old. That is a difference, there just isn’t as much history to fall back on as you guys have.
GC – You grounded The Blair Witch Project in folk tales and Americana. Was that a conscious decision to give that feel of history, a greater weight than an unstoppable maniac with a knife?
ES – Absolutely. Also to touch on this kind of, like you asked me before, this European feel of something that’s lived in the woods for hundreds of years, thousands of years, and your parents knew about it, and your grandparents knew about it, and maybe three or four generations ago someone had a run in with this thing, the idea that there is this secret out in the woods.
But yeah, it was kind of tied to the Salem trials, the witch hunt, the idea that there was this time in America’s history where people were burned because they were thought to be witches. So that injustice, to me, and also to Dan, who I created Blair Witch with, was kind of a triggering mechanism for this bad kind of mojo that centred itself in this wooded area in Maryland, and now, because of this sin that our forefathers committed, we’re still paying for it. You know, Heather, Mike and Josh paid for it, hundreds of years later.
GC – You must been aware that you had something very different on your hands, but the movie industry isn’t always ready to embrace that difference. While you must have had hopes for the film, you can’t have been prepared for what followed both in the industry and with the audience.
ES – No, we knew we had something cool, but it was one of these movies that every time we pitched it to somebody they were like “oh my god, I can’t believe I’m putting my money into it,” even though they never put their own money into it. It was one of those things that people’s eyes would light up when you told the story, but once we got into the production, and once we started editing, there were certain glimpses of this thing that we were creating that kind of gave us the idea that, okay, this is going to be big, or it could be big if it’s just done the right way. We had no idea that it was going to do what it did, and the audience reaction, and just the craziness that happened around it, man. It was just… it was like an explosion.
GC – As with many who have found overnight success, has that awareness made it harder for you to progress your career, with the weight of expectation?
ES – Absolutely. Not only that, a major cause of why I didn’t made a film for six years after Blair Witch, but also the idea that you struggle all your life to achieve success, and then you achieve it, and you don’t have time to enjoy it. I was thirty years old when Blair Witch blew up, I had never owned a nice car, I had never owned a house, I was basically poor until the moment that I got the first cheque from the distributor, so there was this certain part of me that just wanted to go out and do some stupid shit, you know what I mean? Have fun.
But there was this immediate pressure to get your next project going, and the problem was, we didn’t have another project, and the horror projects they were sending us were just not appealing to us. So, yeah, it is a difficult thing because you have this huge monkey on your back, I’m going to have it for the rest of my career, but at the same time you have this monkey that everybody knows, and I wouldn’t be here talking to you if it wasn’t for Blair Witch, so it was definitely partly a curse, but mostly a blessing. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
GC – The “found footage” approach was a very indie way to make a film, allowing those with limited budget and resources to tell their stories, but the studios pounced on it. Do you feel that was fair of them to use their power to corner a market that could have given new talent a chance to emerge?
ES – The thing about the found footage thing is that Cloverfield didn’t happen until, was it 2007, 2006, so it took them years to even go back to Blair Witch and say “Hey, why don’t we do a big budget Blair Witch type movie?”, and I think that the thing about found footage is that the studios have definitely taken it over for the most part, but it doesn’t stop people from making Paranormal Activity or other films for low budget. There’s always going to be a market for new ideas, obviously, for expensive ideas, especially, and for the found footage thing, even though it has been, you’re right, it has been kind of co-opted by the studios, I think it’s still possible to do a great found footage movie without the studio at all.
GC – Indeed, within the last year, I’ve actually seen what I would consider a good example of “found footage,” if you managed to catch it, André Øvredal’s Troll Hunter and also one of the worst, the third Paranormal Activity, which was an absolute example of incompetent filmmaking. Whatever the conceit of the film, the director needs to remember he is making a film, and one of the rules of that is narrative; stringing random footage together
does not constitute a story. Has the genre developed, or are we at a point where, because it was a bandwagon for anyone with a camcorder, any concept of originality, any potential, has now been squandered, or is there still life in there?
ES – No, I think there’s still life, I hope there’s still life, because I just shot a found footage movie that we just finished about a month and a half ago. It’s a movie I’ve been wanting to do since I was a kid, and it made a lot of sense to be found footage.
But I think that you’re absolutely right, I think there is obviously room to make found footage movies, and there are good found footage movies and there are terrible found footage movies, but I think when it comes down to it, man, you still have to make a good film, you still have to have a solid story, you have to have solid actors, you have to make a good film still, and it’s about the story and the characters, and just because, like you said, you can string along a bunch of footage, and go, “oh, it’s a found footage movie,” that doesn’t excuse you from making a bad film. You still have to make good decisions.
GC – How far into that are you, and do you ever get the urge to do something wildly different, like an Eduardo Sánchez romcom?
ES – It’s wrapped, it’s a Bigfoot movie, it’s my first found footage movie since Blair Witch and I had a blast doing it, it was a lot of fun, and we spent a lot of money on the suit, and I think it really good. I’m hoping that it’s the Bigfoot movie that I’ve been waiting to see since I was a little kid.
But honestly, I never thought I was going to be making horror movies when I was young and figuring out what I wanted to do, I always wanted to make comedies or action movies, so eventually I’ve got to go out and make the Ed Sánchez romantic comedy for sure, but right now I’m kind of stuck in the horror genre, but I’m enjoying myself, I’m definitely getting better as I go, and I’m happy to be stuck in a genre that gives you flexibility. You can do a super-serious movie like Lovely Molly and you can do an action first-person movie like Exists, and then you can do action, then you can do comedy. It does have a lot of sub-genres, so you can take advantage and stretch out a little bit as a filmmaker
GC – It must have been a great moment for you when Romero, the master himself, did “found footage” in Diary of the Dead.
ES – Yeah, I mean, the idea, to me, of anybody being even half way inspired, whether they’re famous or whether they’re young filmmakers, a lot of people come to me and say “I loved Blair Witch, it’s why I got involved in filmmaking,” or people I really I really admire like George Romero, it’s the same, it’s a really great feeling that people in one way or another have been inspired by my work.
GC – Regardless of how Blair Witch was presented, what actually made it special was the atmosphere and the extraordinary performances. How did you achieve that without being there to coach your actors, and what was the division of labour, if you will, between yourself and Daniel Myrick?
ES – Honestly, what Dan and I did with the actors, we spent a lot of time casting, just like Hitchcock, I think, said, “Directing is 99% casting,” it really was true for Blair Witch. Mostly what then we did, we built the movie in the editing room. We had, like, twenty five hours of footage, and all unique footage, it wasn’t just retakes, like in a normal film you have retakes of certain shots, the same scene over and over again, these were all different, them just wandering through the woods and encountering things. So we really built the movie in the editing room.
On location, the way that Dan and I basically divided the labour was, the film was going to be in two parts, it was going to be the footage in the woods, and there was going to be documentary about the footage in the woods, and I took charge of the stuff in the woods, and he took charge of the documentary stuff, so that’s how we divided stuff and didn’t butt heads too much. But at the same, it was very much a movie that was co-directed, pretty much from the very beginning.
GC – Although Lovely Molly employs the “found footage” motif, you used it quite differently, with Molly herself wielding the camera to her own purpose.
ES – It was a conscious decision of mine to not make a found footage movie with Lovely Molly, it just felt to me that I wanted it to be more honest, because I still think that found footage to a certain extent is still a gimmick, even though it’s very effective, and obviously Dan and I popularised it, but to make a serious movie it’s very difficult to make it found footage, and so I wanted Molly to be a 110% serious, so it was something I didn’t want to cheat. I wanted to use the power of found footage, but I didn’t want to be stuck in found footage, so I came up with this amalgam of found and normal footage that I think worked pretty well.
GC – The premise of a disturbed woman returning to the scene of an unhappy childhood reminds me of some of the themes of Robert Wise’s classic The Haunting, though this obviously goes in a different direction. Was that or Roman Polanski’s Repulsion an influence at all?
ES – Absolutely. The Haunting, it’s got some of the scariest scenes of any film.
GC – And again, it’s about the performance.
ES – Yeah, and it’s about the sound, it’s about what you don’t see, it’s a really important film for the genre. Then Repulsion was a weird story, I didn’t see until two weeks before we started shooting Lovely Molly, the script was written, she was cast, we were actually doing rehearsals, and I was kind of watching any movie that had anything to do with that kind of similar story, and I was kind of amazed by how similar the stories were, and I was just inspired. Following Polanski’s shoes is not a bad thing to do, even though you can live up to them. So I felt that I was in a good place, and I also felt that my vision for the movie was much diffe
rent than what I was seeing with Polanski. And the fact that I had never even heard of Repulsion up until that moment that I found it on Netflix was to me inspiring, because I’m like this guy that is one of the modern masters went down a similar road that I went down, so it gives me hope that maybe one day I can live up to that stature, you know?
GC – In television and in low budget film, rehearsal is a luxury, and a rare one at that. How much time did you actually have?
ES – You know, we had two weeks, but two weeks is basically for all the costuming, everything you have to do with the actors to get them ready to shoot the film, and also I’m doing a ton of things, so I probably had maybe three days with them, full days, with them, and we would rehearse for probably half the day, so it’s a luxury. And I don’t rehearse the whole film, I basically go through and pick out the scenes that I think I really need to, and I’m trying to work out things in my head, too.
The biggest thing I get in rehearsal is that I let the actors bring a lot of their own ideas into it, because once you get on the set, it’s very difficult to improvise, unless you’re doing a completely improv movie, so I give them an opportunity to add their own blocking and to just throw ideas at me. It just makes things better. Filmmaking is the most collaborative art form, and for me it’s like, I never deny anybody an idea, at least to tell me an idea, even when we’re on the set, there are very few times I’m like “I cannot even hear your idea right now, I’ve got to finish this scene,” because there’s a lot of me in the movie, obviously, but there’s also a lot of a lot of talented people who have come in, and you have to build that atmosphere of trust where they can tell you ideas and give you feedback because it always improves the film.
GC – The horse motif in the film is very effective. The shadow figure who appears in the film, was there a planned meaning, what was your feeling towards that?
ES – That kind of horse demon that you barely see at the end when she walks out, that was a late addition to the movie. The actual end of the film, the scene is, basically she just walks off and there’s nothing there, she’s just walking off into the woods and he just disappears from the light, fades out and that’s the end. And then we had a test screening in LA of an early cut, some people who were cold, kind off the streets, a lot of filmmaker friends that we have that we trust their opinions, and a couple of them mentioned that they wanted to see more of a horror movie, because at that point it was a lot more psychological, there wasn’t as much horror stuff, the sound effects were a little less, it wasn’t so ominous, and they said if you’re going to go down that road you have to show us something at the end.
And in the original script I actually had a scene where you see this horse figure in the room with her, and we just couldn’t afford to do it while we were shooting, we were like “we have twenty bucks to do that costume and it’ll look like crap,” so I added that shot at the end, a digital effects company in LA shot this man, and they put that horse head on it, and they added the breath and everything, and it gives you a little bit of something to satisfy the horror aspects of the film, just to kind of at least give a final point to that, that there was something there, whether it’s in her head or whether it’s actually physically there, you don’t know, but definitely this was the thing that she had been seeing the whole time.
GC – In its time, horror is often looked down on upon, yet the early work of John Carpenter is now spoken of with the same regard as the westerns of John Ford, and George Romero is now regarded as a subversive social commentator of our times. Whose work, both within and beyond the genre, inspired you and influenced you?
ES – I wasn’t really inspired by horror filmmakers, I’m more inspired by individual films. I mean, I love John Carpenter films, his early films, The Thing, even Escape from New York and The Fog, and obviously Hallowe’en which started it all, but to me the thing that really influenced me as far as horror was concerned was the pseudo-documentary of the late seventies and eighties, like The Search for Noah’s Ark and Legend of Boggy Creek, and that show In Search Of…
To me, that really shaped the way that I bring horror to the screen. There’s this level of reality, even though obviously the documentaries were fake, but there was this level of reality that always kind of played at you, that always hinted at something that was real, and to me that’s the ultimate form of fear, you’re watching something and then you go outside, and they’re talking about something that actually could be outside.
But there are so many great horror movies that have inspired me, Alien and Jaws and The Exorcist, even The Amityville Horror and The Changeling, such a creepy movie, then that hole in the nineties, when Dan and I were going to film school, a real lull in the horror world, but you’re right, I was talking about this yesterday, that horror is looked down upon, and honestly I think that there’s as good work being done in the horror genre as there is in any other genre, and when you see Lovely Molly and you see Gretchen’s performance, I would put that up against Natalie Portman in Black Swan, just two amazing performances. To me it’s like there’s really great filmmakers making great horror movies, but they’re easy to dismiss as not real movies, but later on they become classics as much as anybody else’s films are classics.
GC – I’ve often felt that while the big studios want the box office returns that the horror fan loyalty brings, for horror to succeed it must constantly push boundaries and explore in order to remain relevant, yet studios are averse to taking risk or alienating audiences, and over the last few years, there has been a focus in American horror on repetitious “torture porn,” whereas first with the Asians with Ringu, Ju-On and The Eye, then European cinema, El Orfanato, Let the Right One In and Julia’s Eyes, have brought back atmosphere and dread. Do you think American horror in a cul-de-sac, or is there a way out?
ES – The thing about horror, I think generally speaking, is that it’s very difficult for the studios to make horror movies. They just… I don’t think they know how to do it, so I think that for horror, the hope of horror is basically people like us, independent filmmakers, the sixteen year old kid that has a camera, shooting his version of Blair
Witch, or his version of Paranormal or his version of Saw. I think that’s where the hope is, man. I think you completely nailed it with the question, you have to risk something. When you see Lovely Molly, there’s serious risk, it’s a balls to the wall movie, there’s no pulling back, it’s shocking but it’s also very provocative, and no studio is going to do that. They’re just not going to do it. So it’s up to the independent filmmakers to make good horror right now, and hopefully more good movies come out of the European system, but I think it’s fairly dead in Hollywood.
GC – Just as we wrap up, I have to ask you – you’re Cuban. Cuba has its first ever horror movie, Juan de los Muertos, did you manage to see it? It’s a lot of fun.
ES – No, I have not seen it, I’ve heard of it. I gotta check it out.
GC – Thank you so much for your time.
ES – Thanks for the great questions.
Lovely Molly is currently on general release
Special thanks to the media team at the Edinburgh Film Festival and Chris Lawrance at Metroodome for arranging the interview