17 years ago, The Blair Witch Project burst into theaters on a massive wave of hype and made instant stars out of its directors, Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick, and its trio of lead actors: Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael C. Williams, who made the cover of Newsweek magazine that same August. It was an unprecedented success that paved the way for the “found footage” genre that would explode over the subsequent decade, with films like Paranormal Activity and Cloverfield successfully exploiting the format's potential. None of these, though, would haunt viewers in quite the same way as Blair Witch, whose grainy, pre-smartphone aesthetic and terrifying denouement would stick with us long after the film's pop-cultural moment had passed.
Of the film's three lead actors, Leonard has undoubtedly enjoyed the greatest run of Hollywood success post-Blair Witch, though it's worth noting that his career didn't really begin to heat up until he turned in an acclaimed lead performance in Lynn Shelton's 2009 comedy Humpday, in which he played one of a duo of straight male friends (the other played by Mark Duplass) who decide to star together in a gay pornography film under the auspices of an “art project.” Following that, he turned in lead performances opposite Vera Farmiga in the actress' directorial debut Higher Ground released in 2011, the same year he put out his own feature directorial debut The Lie, in which he also starred opposite Jess Weixler, Mark Webber, Alia Shawkat and Kelli Garner. And in perhaps the most striking indication that time stops for no one, Leonard played Chloe Grace Moretz's dad in last year's YA weeper If I Stay.
Now, with Adam Wingard's Blair Witch — seen as the first “proper” sequel to the original film after 2000's rushed, fan-loathed Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 — hitting theaters this weekend, I chatted with Leonard, who's currently in post on his second narrative feature Behold My Heart starring Marisa Tomei and Timothy Olyphant and is also developing the Epix TV series Liberty set to be directed by Cary Fukunaga, and got him to reflect on the smash-hit film and phenomenon that jumpstarted his career.
(Note: the below interview has been edited for clarity.)
Can you believe it's been 17 years?
You know, it's pretty impressive. That's a long time. A lot of life has happened personally. A lot of things have happened in the world. I'm married to a woman [actress Alison Pill] who wasn't allowed to see the movie when it came out. It's a little bit embarrassing. Puts things in perspective a bit. Yeah, it's been a long time. As with anything in life, it is both like yesterday and many, many chapters ago.
This was your first movie, and I'm really curious how it felt because I know you were literally just out in the woods, the three of you, and getting some direction — I guess remotely — from the directors. Was there any part of you that thought “This could actually work as a movie” when you were actually filming it?
I think, well I don't want to speak for anybody else, I thought it was a pretty badass way to make a movie. I thought it could potentially work as a movie as a weird, experimental movie that my mother and 23 other people would see. Certainly never considered that it would work on a broad scale and that it would end up finding an audience.
I think one of the reasons the movie worked so well is because there's such a rawness in the way you guys argue with each other, and it feels pretty real. Was there actually a lot of tension happening, given the conditions you guys were placed under?
I mean, look, a little bit Column A, a little bit from Column B. It grants mythologies surrounding the movie, at this point, the stories that have been told about it. …I mean, specifically with Blair Witch, we were staying out in the woods. It did rain a lot of the time. We were hungry because they didn't feed us a lot. I think a lot of that translated to the actual crankiness that you saw onscreen.
Joshua Leonard in The Blair Witch Project Photo Credit: Lionsgate
What do you remember about seeing the movie for the first time?
I saw the movie for the first time at Sundance, at the Egyptian, in the midnight screening. It was pretty magical. It was pretty amazing, and you also have to remember that we made the movie over two years before we actually premiered the movie. A lot of time had passed. I had moved out of New York. I had moved to Los Angeles. In the interim, we kept getting updates on the film coming together…
We showed up at Sundance and all of a sudden, everyone was really excited to see the movie. I don't know how much the directors, Ed, or [producer] Gregg [Hale], or Dan, knew the buzz about the movie going into Sundance, but I certainly was completely in the dark about it. It was really … I got to see it for the first time with the audience, with an audience who weren't totally certain what was real and what wasn't real. It wasn't a big deal yet. There was no press on it. There was no backlashing against it yet. It was really the virgin audience, and that['s how the] movie probably was always intended to be seen until it kind of became a runaway freight train with a life of its own.
To this day, I'll have people find out that I've been involved with the original movie, and very freely they'll tell me how much they didn't like it and how much it looked like shit and they want their nine dollars back, which is always so funny to me because I didn't, I didn't do the marketing on it. I wasn't … I think I'm really proud of the job that we all did in making the movie, but in combination with that, the actual hitting the zeitgeist moment and the lightning in a bottle of how the movie took off, we were not responsible for any of that. A lot of people probably felt that they…never would have gone and see it in the first place if it had lived and died in an art house theater, which at the point we were making it, was kind of our brilliant aspiration for it.
Instead, it went on to make $140 million and became this genuine phenomenon. This was, again, your first movie, so did you feel unprepared for all the attention?
You know, I think the honest answer to that question is I think I would be more unprepared if it was my third movie. Because it was my first, we really didn't know what to expect. I'll just speak for myself, I didn't know what to expect, and I honestly, because I didn't have a career as an actor at that point, I was very, very on the outskirts of any kind of industry, generously speaking, so I also didn't understand how much of an anomaly it was when it was happening. It was this wild, surreal time, but because I was so young and because I was so inexperienced, there was also that part of your brain that's just like, “Oh, this is how it goes. I should adapt to this now,” which is what I did. It was much more traumatic in hindsight when I realized how crazy inexperienced I really was, if that makes sense.
Yeah, it does. How you were you greeted by the industry after the movie came out and it was this huge success? Did it open a lot of doors for you?
Yeah, yeah, it did. I found it … I remember being at Sundance and before the movie had even been screened, having an agent tell me how much he loved my work, to which I just thought, “What work are you talking about?” He'd never seen anything I'd done. Yeah, I think in the very beginning, in the very beginning, I got an agent. I got a manger. I bought a car. I bought a new computer. I had been less than flat broke before the movie came out, and got a couple … I remember the first gig I booked after Sundance was a really embarrassing, straight to late night cable movie with — who was in it — Michael Madsen and Bokeen Woodbine, and I was going down to Alabama to shoot this movie called Sacrifice, and I was getting paid $3,500, and I thought I'd won the fucking lottery. It was just so mindblowing that someone was going to pay me that much money to work for a week doing what I wanted to be doing.
Yeah, I got very fortunate. I worked, I worked a lot for a couple of years directly following the movie, including parts I never should have gotten that I think I got in part because I was considered, in some respects, the young Hollywood crop. The way that — I cast a movie not too long ago — I cast the movie not too long ago. If somebody's in a hit movie, you want to meet them. You want to get them in your movie. The problem was that I didn't really know how to act. A little bit, but I was getting jobs that I probably shouldn't had because the movie had some cache at that point still. I feel very bad for a couple of the filmmakers that I worked with. I really did learn to act on film on the job. [Laughs]
It's worked out pretty well for you. Ultimately, you're a working actor. You have a really great career. I was looking at your Wikipedia page, I'm ashamed to say, and the first line there is that you're best known for acting in the Blair Witch Project, despite the fact that you have this very extensive filmography at this point. Does any part of you sort of, I don't know, lament a little bit that that's something people still associate you with, given everything else that you've done? Or do you just kind of embrace —
No, and I know different people have gone different ways on that, but it is … Here's what I'll say, in daily life, Blair Witch almost never comes up. When I'm doing press for a project, it comes up almost every time. It still, you know, it's still a piece of trivia that occasionally somebody who I knew already finds out and gets excited about it and asks a question. But in terms of my day to day, I feel like I'm very fortunate that I never felt like it was restricting to me. I certainly have had a wildly diverse, generously, a diverse career. I've done all kinds of things. I got to direct. I got to act. I recently moved much more into writing. It's something to talk about. I don't think I would have got … I don't know how or when I would have got my toe in the door without Blair Witch. I think it was a launch pad for me. I get to do what I want to do now, so no, I'm not resentful about it. Maybe if I was cleaning toilets, I would feel differently.
Right. Do you still keep in touch with Heather and Michael and Eduardo and Daniel?
I do. I do. Not with great frequency, but we all catch up from time to time. Mike and I are still very close. Heather and I were not particularly close for years after the movie, but have become closer in our adult lives. Dan, I talk to once or twice a year. I still have — I think I have a little bit, other than the way that — I'm not even gonna go into it. The distributors were another story. I personally don't have any chip on my shoulder about the movie. I have only a warm and pretty genuine affection for both the movie itself and the team of people that I got to make it with.
I'm going to get to the new movie in a second, but there was this sort of rushed sequel that came out the following year. Did you go see that? I'm curious.
I did go see it because I had a dear friend — Tristine Skyler, who was one of the actresses in it, was a good friend of mine. Joe Berlinger, who directed it, was one of my favorite documentary directors of our time. At the studio perspective, it was a little too much too soon, and probably approached with pretty capitalistic intentions. I was excited and rooting for it being good because I liked those people a lot. It wasn't very good. It wasn't very good, and it was half-baked and they did it too soon. But I did go see it. I wanted to like it.
It is disappointing, you're right. When you think of Joe Berlinger, he did Brother's Keeper and is such a great documentarian, and then to sort of —
And Paradise Lost.
And Some Kind of Monster. I mean, those are just some of my favorite, favorite documentaries. I'd put him and [Bruce] Sinofsky next to Errol Morris or the Maysles any day.
As for the new movie, I'm curious what kind of knowledge of the project you had before hand, before it was officially announced as Blair Witch, if any. What was your understanding of it?
I did. I never read a script. I didn't know what it was about. I knew it was deeply under wraps, but I knew it was being made. The team from Lionsgate called me very early on for the process, and swore me to secrecy, kind of told me what was happening to the extent that [they were] starting to reveal at that time. I have to say I think there was some bad blood between the creative team and the original distributors Artisan, and I really feel like Lionsgate knew that and were very respectful with us in terms of terms of being gracious and letting us know that they were trying to do something that was really in the spirit of the first movie that we'd done. You know, again, I was excited about it. People were like, “Are you pissed off that you're not involved?” I'm like, “That was almost two decades ago.” Definitely time to past the baton. Let somebody else approach it fresh. But it was also nice to be included and considered.
Have you seen it?
I did see it. I saw … My very pregnant wife and I went to see a screening last week and we really enjoyed it. …It's probably the follow-up that somebody should have made three years after the first movie. I think it took this long because Book of Shadows, I think, left a bad taste in people's mouths. But no, I thought it was really cool. I thought it was interesting the way they updated it with technology that we didn't have at the time. I thought the actors were great. I thought the scares were really solid. I think Adam Wingard is a wonderful director and does genre as well as anybody out there right now.
Blair Witch is in theaters this weekend.