The success of The Blair Witch Project is not lost on its co-director Eduardo Sánchez, and in reigniting the found footage element the horror genre was flooded with pale imitations of either slight variations on the theme or outright rip-offs with none of the invention or understanding of why Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick’s feature debut worked so well.
It’s with a sigh of relief that, despite a dalliance (and an origin) with found footage, Sánchez’s latest film is a genuinely great horror film; as much Martha Marcy May Marlene as it is The Exorcist with a fantastic performance from its lead, our Lovely Molly, Gretchen Lodge.
I sat down with the director last week to talk about his journey with the film, from conception to the serendipity of budget constraints and the discovery of a lead actress able to dive deep into a compelling character, unable to stop herself for a disastrous downward spiral.
We do get into spoiler territory, I’ve marked out the major spoilers, and of course we talk a little about the return to Burkittsville for Blair Witch 3.
The film is out today, and comes highly recommended.
One of the most surprising feelings I had watching Lovely Molly was that I didn’t know where it was going to end up, was a big part of wanting to do the film that you could play with conventions of horror films?
Yeah, it was something that I started writing and I didn’t know if it was working or not and my writing partner, Jamie Nash, came up with the idea of someone videotaping themselves going through a possession and I loved that idea. I knew I didn’t want to make a found footage film and I’m usually a pretty lazy writer, it takes me nine months to write a script, Jamie is a real writer – he writes a script in five days and it’s actually good. Usually he goes off and writes something, I tweak it and we go on from there, this time is was the other way round, I isolated myself and turned it into something and I didn’t know where it was going either. The whole plan was to have a more conventional structure and in the third act we were going to have an exorcist come in but it was going to be this excommunicated nun who was also a lesbian in her sixties – this strong woman who wanted to come in and kick ass. But I got to page 90 and the exorcist hadn’t come in yet. So it was a really surprising process, the original name of the movie was ‘The Possession’ and it really did possess me.
What captivated you, the characters, the situation?
Yeah, for some reason I really understood it, you know, growing up Catholic and losing my faith but still believing that there is probably something out there, probably – I mean we don’t know shit but the idea that it’s not Satan, it’s psychosis, it’s drug use – or bad energy or a demon which has existed for millions of years and hangs out with serial killers… some old remnant of the old that is attracted to bad energy. I was fascinated on all those things coming down on someone who is not completely poor, not trailer trash or uneducated and not someone like in the Exorcist where [Ellen Burstyn's character] was an actress and they were making a movie – that’s so foreign to most people. They made it work, but for this I wanted it to feel like it was your sister, your neighbour and have the question of how you deal with it, when the Pastor tries to do the right thing and she turns against him – how do you deal with that? No-one has the tools to deal with that.
Even she doesn’t, despite having her husband and her sister – it ends up quite quickly as he with her house, her past, her drug use… She almost lets it happen to her, the moment with the Pastor is the tipping point…
Yeah, it’s the first time she’s been dressed up since the wedding.
[SPOILERS] And all of a sudden she’s sure of herself…
Yeah, and it’s a weird thing, but the movie’s about empowerment, it’s evil and malicious empowerment but at the end of the movie she wins. I didn’t want to make the basic haunted house movie where they never leave, and people asked why she didn’t just leave, but there’s unfinished business with this girl and even if it means killing people and doing this heinous stuff to the neighbours – she needs to go through this to fix this. Who knows what happens at the end, when she’s walking out of the house and into the woods, into the arms of that demon but she wins. She becomes the person she needed to become in order to survive this.
But she is much more sure of herself right then, at the end. When we see her at work she’s shuffling along, almost dragged down, and yet here she’s bold and confident.
And coming back to the demon, and also to the moments when she’s sitting on the edge of her bed, staring into space, it’s far more terrifying because of what we don’t see – were you tempted to put more than just suggestion?
Yeah, it’s funny you bring in the looking in the corner because in the original script had that demon standing in front of her as a shadow, and when it came down to it we couldn’t afford it and we had to come up with a costume and all that so we thought if we can we’ll do it in post. And actually when she’s walking out at the end into the arms of the demon we originally shot the scene with her just walking out and its a long shot and the light just dims and she’s gone. We had a test screening with friends and filmmakers and they said they needed to see something, if you’re going to push the possession thing and you see that symbol in the cellar then you have to see something… So, I said we should stick [the demon] in the end and luckily the effects guys did an amazing job, it’s pretty seemless. She blocks it at first and when the shot starts you don’t see it and we slowly faded it in. To me it’s definitely a demon, but it’s still subtle enough that we could be seeing what’s in her head – you never actually she it touch her, we cut it just as he’s going to hold her. Since Blair Witch this is the movie that has changed the most in post. We did so much stuff with the sound, originally there was going to be no music and really sparse sound and once I started editing it and I had temp music in and then we had Tortoise in to do this music and we had these two sound geniuses who did a lot of work with the sound design. It’s a low budget horror movie but we wanted to experiment in lots of ways you couldn’t with a big budget movie.
And you play with the archetype of the female victim of abuse as the main character, Gretchen Lodge gives an incredible performance, can you talk about finding her?
We had the same thing on Blair Witch and had an open casting call – she came in and blew me away. There was interest from a couple of more established actresses but I kept coming back to her, I trusted her. She was amazing and obviously the movie wouldn’t be anything without her. I mostly stayed out of her way, I set up this atmosphere but in the end it’s all her.
Looking beyond Lovely Molly, what can you tell me about Exists?
Exists is the Bigfoot movie, it’s my first totally found footage movie since Blair Witch, we wrapped about a month and a half ago in Austin, Texas and we’re editing it now and it looks pretty good. It’s not like Harry and Hendersons Bigfoot! It’s ferocious and mean, and even at the end of the movie it’s justified. For me Bigfoot has always had this human quality, and what makes it creepy is that it’s kind of our past so I gave it a lot of human characteristics. At the end of the movie, I don’t know if you feel sorry for it but there is this connection with it. It’s not just this hungry character which is eating people.
And finally are you returning to Blair Witch?
It’s all up to Lionsgate at this point. We’ve been talking to them seriously for about three years at this point, we’re going back and forth. I’m going out to LA next month and we have a meeting set up so… We would love to make another Blair Witch movie. We have sequel ideas, we have found footage ideas, we have prequel ideas – it’s just a matter of them letting us do something.