Filmmakers Eduardo Sanchez and Dan Myrick popularized the found-footage horror film with 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, a movie they created through Haxan Films, the production company they founded while students at the University of Central Florida. (Haxan is also responsible for Sanchez’s 2014 Bigfoot found-footage feature, Exists, as well as his “Ride in the Park” segment for V/H/S/2.) In the time since the massive success of that film, the found-footage approach steadily rose in popularity thanks to movies like REC, the V/H/S series, and, especially, Paranormal Activity.
The “Blair Witch effect” wasn’t immediate. It would take years for major studios to begin investing money in such movies. The first Paranormal Activity film had its festival premiere in 2007 then became a box office hit when Paramount released it in 2009. In 2008, Cloverfield used found footage to take a different approach to the giant monster movie and in 2013 Chronicle borrowed it for a superhero-inspired story, proving its effectiveness for films outside the horror genre. Found footage is still riding the momentum from those earlier films. Three found-footage features — Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension, The Gallows and The Visit — have seen wide releases in 2015, to varying degrees of success. The most recent Paranormal Activity film finished sixth in its opening weekend, and received generally unfavorable reviews.
What does the future hold for found-footage horror? In addition to Myrick and Sanchez, Uproxx spoke with director Adam Wingard and film critic Brian Collins – two men looking for a higher standard in horror cinema. Wingard helmed the razor sharp home-invasion film, You’re Next, the tense thriller The Guest and an entry in each of the V/H/S films. He’s currently working on an adaptation of the Japanese manga, Death Note, as well as the American remake of I Saw the Devil. Collins splits his time writing for Birth.Movies.Death and his Horror Movie a Day site, and is one of the leading voices in horror criticism.
The Blair Witch Project popularized the found footage film when it was released in 1999. While not the first found-footage horror movie — that distinction goes to the 1980 Italian film, Cannibal Holocaust — many films have tried to duplicate Blair Witch‘s formula in the aftermath of its monumental financial and critical success. To understand the gravity of its impact on the industry consider this: Fewer than a dozen films used a similar format before its release, and more than 120 movies have used it since. Few have had the return that Blair Witch has. On an estimated budget of $60,000, the movie raked in almost $250,000,000 — it stands as one of the most profitable independent films of all-time.
Brian Collins (Birth.Movies.Death film critic and writer): Blair Witch gets credit for being a great horror movie and being a big hit, but I don’t think it gets enough credit for really doing that thing right. Maybe like a half-hour in the movie, before they know they’re kind of f*cked, Josh is describing a scary thing that happened to him during the night. [Heather] didn’t get the top of the conversation, and [Josh] didn’t film [what happened during the night], and that’s the way you do it. Even if you only realize it subconsciously, that’s exactly how that would have happened in real life. [You should] always have a reason for the start of a shot in those movies and so many of them don’t, and it just drives me up a wall.
Adam Wingard (Director of You’re Next and The Guest and contributor to V/H/S 1 & V/H/S/2): The Blair Witch Project… it started the whole thing. In some ways it’s the most honest found-footage film, because they didn’t even give a sh*t about how that film looked. It’s the actors filming a lot of it to the point where it so realistic that about 40% of the film is literally shots of people’s feet.
Eduardo Sanchez (Co-writer, co-director of The Blair Witch Project): I think the success was based on… You know it was something new. It was something that people hadn’t seen before. I think it was just a movie, that when we did it, it was very much an experimental film. It was no-name actors, and we shot on a Hi8 — a pretty inferior video format — and we didn’t mic our actors. We didn’t really light anything. I think it was kind of one of these things that people didn’t know what to make of it. The way [distributor] Artisan marketed it — that this was actually real footage that’d been found — I think it intrigued a lot of people even though there was a lot of backlash in the latter part of the release. I think a lot people went in expecting something that the movie wasn’t. These days, who knows what would have happened with Blair Witch? I think it would have gone straight to DVD in this day and age. We never dreamt that it was going to be in the theaters.
Daniel Myrick (Co-writer, co-director of The Blair Witch Project): Our intention behind it was making it genuinely scary. I think part of the problem of films coming out around that time — they were higher budget Hollywood movies that weren’t actually scaring people. At least, they weren’t scaring us. Ed and I just wanted to have an experience like we had when we saw The Exorcist and The Shining, and have a movie that really did kind of get to the base nature of people’s fear and that was a big part of it. And then there’s other factors like the rags to riches story, and the way we marketed the movie, and that had a lot to do with the press. But, ultimately, the movie has to stand on its own merits and I think for a lot people it did.
Sanchez: We had nothing to lose — I think that’s the biggest thing for independent cinema. The biggest difficulty… We’ve heard it a million times: no one takes you seriously. People say they want to invest money, but when it comes time to sign the check, they make some sort of excuse. It’s just the basic sort of problems that all independent filmmakers face. Luckily, we kind of scraped it together, mostly on credit cards. But it was tough for us production-wise, because no one had ever done anything like this. We later found out that there was a movie called Cannibal Holocaust that had a very similar premise. But, Dan and I, none of the guys that we made the movie with had ever seen that movie. Somebody sent it to us after Sundance, and I was amazed by it. I couldn’t finish it because it was a brutal film. If I had seen this as a kid, Blair Witch would have never happened because it would have been like ‘Well, someone’s already done that.’ It’s weird because the original idea for Blair Witch was almost an exact copy of Cannibal Holocaust, because people [in Blair Witch] were going to analyze the footage. That final scene was something that we came up with very late in the creative process. Our big challenge was how do you end Blair Witch without betraying everything you’ve built up to this point. It was a little crazy there for a while.
Myrick: There was certainly a lot of people that didn’t really know what they were watching, or what they were going in for. It was an interesting sort of evolution that we were witnessing as the movie initially broke out of the festival circuit and started getting some awareness outside of just industry people. Critics really responded to it early on, and felt it was fresh, and new, and different. The so-called intelligentsia really appreciated the movie because it was something that was challenging. Then when it broke into the mainstream it had a very polarizing reaction from the audience. You either love it or hated it, especially when it came to the ending which left a lot of people scratching their head. As time went on, as the hype machine really got out of control, a lot of the audience was going in expecting some big movie when inherently, the film is small; it’s a small home video. So their expectations were unreasonably calibrated going into the movie during its wide release later on. I think a lot of people had a bad reaction to the movie because it just was so overhyped, and it sort of took on a life of its own.
Definitions and Difficulties
Since Blair Witch, filmmakers have attempted to create variants of the found-footage film. Most take different approaches when it comes to placing the camera in the narrative, but each has its own inherent problems — the primary one being the justification for the filming within the story. To confront that issue, filmmakers need to define their version of found footage, and determine what has to happen to make the device’s use flow seamlessly in the movie.
Wingard: I would define [found footage] as a stylistic conceit where the filmmaking is told from the POV of the recording devices that the characters, themselves, are using. It’s kind of an interesting thing as a filmmaker because most of the time you get a script and you decide the kind of style you want to give the film based on the screenplay. Whereas, with found footage, the style is already a part of the story itself, so that becomes an interesting challenge and possibly something that can lead to more interesting decisions.
Collins: Found footage movies are horror movies that are told almost exclusively from the point-of-view of a video camera. The character in the movie will usually, in the first scene, get his camera or turn it on and somebody will be like, ‘Are you going to film everything?’ And there’s some sort of explanation for why he’s filming, and if they’re doing the job right, after a while you kind of forget — at least on a subconscious level — that you’re not thinking about things like, ‘Why isn’t he running out of tape? Why isn’t he running out of battery?’ Hopefully, that stuff falls by the wayside if they’re doing it right — most of them aren’t doing it right. But, it’s an interesting sort of sub-genre — it’s a sub-genre that should not exist — because it’s not a genre, it’s a technique. It’d be like saying 3D is a genre, and it’s not that. It’s something else.
Myrick: I tend to skew towards the technique. I think it’s a style. It’s like Steadicam or if someone wants to go black-and-white. I always get frustrated when I hear people say, especially executives, ‘I don’t want to see any more found footage films.’ Well, that’s like saying you don’t want to see any more films with women leads in them. To me, it’s a stylistic choice, a technique used to convey a narrative. It’s still beholden to all the same fundamentals in storytelling devices, but what makes it interesting is that you’re creating a first-person perspective that presumably is a character in the movie. So, you have to follow the rules of establishing that — if the camera is in the room, it’s got to have a reason to be there. It’s still a stylistic choice. It’s a story choice, and I don’t categorize it as a genre like I do comedy, or horror or sci-fi.
Wingard: I think it’s just as much a sub-genre as anything else, because even though that within found footage itself, it has its own sub-sub-genres. It’s the kind of thing where, you know, you go onto iTunes and they have a found footage selection. I think it’s perceived as much as a genre as much as a slasher is. Certain people like those movies and certain don’t. But at the same time, it is a technique; it’s a technique that’s defined within the script phase. I think it’s just open to interpretation. I think everybody’s going to have a different thought on that. I’ve kind of always thought of it as a genre, personally, but I can see how people can isolate it as a tool or technique.
Sanchez: The timing of [Cloverfield] was weird, because after Blair Witch, we went back to the office and we were having discussions about ‘If this works for a horror movie, you can do all kinds of movies with this.’ But for us, it was never really an option to continue going down the found-footage route, because for us, it was a gimmick. We did Blair Witch because of the story — it was a story of these kids who get lost and their footage is found. We didn’t understand that you can just use another mythology where the footage is found in a different place. For us, we didn’t want to be known as one-trick ponies. Even the Blair sequel, when they came to us and said ‘We want to do a sequel,’ we never went down the road of found footage. For us, it was just a one-time thing. And it took me a lot of years — actually the first found-footage [feature] I did was my Bigfoot movie that I did last year, called Exists. That was the first time that I went back to found footage.
Wingard: Found footage is one of these things that you can’t imagine all the issues that can go wrong with it until you’re actually doing it. A lot of producers and filmmakers, they think, ‘Oh, it’s a found-footage movie. This’ll be easier because it’s just people running around with cameras.’ But, in many ways, found footage films are way harder to do than normal movies. You start yourself with all these limitations: you can’t shoot conventional coverage because it doesn’t make sense; you can’t just cut to a cutaway or insert or something like that. That’s the first sign that a found footage movie isn’t working — if it cheats too much. If you start picking up stuff like, ‘Wait a minute. This is not how you would really film something or edit something that somebody shot,’ it bounces back at you, and you start thinking about that and you’re not thinking about the perils of the character.
It’s a really big mixed bag going into it, because on one hand you can use cheaper cameras, but that’s the only real advantage you have. But, then that’s a crutch too because then you have these cheap looking cameras and you have to say, ‘Why is this movie worth watching if it looks so much like sh*t, you know?’ And they don’t have to look like sh*t. That’s another thing. I think filmmakers turn on a little sh*tty camera that they bought at Best Buy and they call it a found footage movie, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
Myrick: It’s like having a doberman in the middle of a living room — what’s it doing there? What’s the point? If it’s part of the story and the narrative then there has to be a reason, and a good reason, just not something that’s half-contrived. You got to find a way to write it in, make it believable — it doesn’t feel contrived. You certainly have more flexibility nowadays then you did 10, 15, 20 years ago because everybody has a camera in their pocket now. So, you have more opportunities or excuses to have things rolling. But, still, you’re beholden to the audience and to the conceit that there has to be a reason why — not only that there’s a camera in the scene — but why it would be rolling, why it would be invading someone’s privacy. It frustrates me to see films that are lazy about that. It takes you right out of the moment. So, for me, it’s incumbent on the filmmaker to have reason why that camera is there, why it’s rolling, just like you would any other character in the film.
The State of Horror And Contemporary Found Footage
Like many genres, horror has had its share of trends over the years and found footage has gone in and out of fashion over the course of its short history. We asked our panel about the current state of horror, and what found-footage films got it right.
Collins: The funny thing is that we’re seeing more horror movie wide releases than the last couple years, but they’re not doing that great. It’s nice that we have all these options, but I don’t know if the audience is getting sick of it or it’s spreading itself too thin.
Wingard: Everyone always wants to proclaim that horror is in a new state, that horror is moving towards a new direction. But, to me, it’s about the same batting average in terms of good-versus-bad as it always was. You know, not every year has a fantastic horror film like The Conjuring, or The Strangers, and things are kind of sprinkled throughout. And there’s sort of a perceived kind of new wave of indie horror, but by and large, its just a bunch of hyperbole in terms of trying to say that horror is breaking new ground. It’s just as sh*tty and classy as it’s ever been.
Collins: I don’t think horror audiences want waves. We don’t want to see 50 vampire movies in a row. Fifty zombie movies. We like those that are unique and different. Then with found footage, that problem was just exacerbated because that’s such a tough sell anyway. Because you always have those know-it-alls in the audience ready to tear it up, like, ‘Why are you still filming?’
Myrick: It always goes in cycles. I think there’s a really cool resurgence of smart horror coming about. I like to go visit really cool, low-key indie festivals like the Mile High Horror Film Fest in Denver — I go there every year. Last year we saw a lot of cool indie horror films. You see films like It Follows or Cheap Thrills. There’s a French horror film called Night Fare that I really love. There’s a lot of really cool, smart, challenging movies out there that are more than just horror films, they’re just good films. Real character-driven films. I think there’s a lot of those going on out there. There’s always going to be the strata of over-the-plate, kids get lost in the woods, or go into a house in the woods and everyone dies one by one. But, I think there’s a lot of good filmmakers out there, and films, that are really smart, and those are the ones that I think are really cool. I’m always encouraged with stuff done outside the Hollywood system reinvigorating the genre.
Sanchez: I like Cloverfield. I like REC. I like the first Paranormal Activity. [Director], Oren [Peli] and I have become friends, and he told me how they did it, and how much he was inspired by Blair, and really, to me, that’s like the ultimate pride. As a filmmaker you look at people [like Steven] Spielberg and George Lucas, so it feels great to inspire other people to make cool stuff. It was really cool meeting Oren and how he did it, and what the process was, you know? I like the V/H/S movies too, which we had the honor of being a part of. I love the idea of these young filmmakers pushing the boundaries of what Dan and I and the rest of the Haxan team originated, or at least popularized.
Collins: There’s one called Home Movie with Adrian Pasdar. That one’s really good. I really like the first Paranormal Activity a lot, and the third one was pretty good. Blair Witch, and Paranormal, and Home Movie, I think, are genuinely really good horror movies — the whole package. The other ones, I think they have problems but I appreciate what they’re trying to do. There are some that really take that [found footage] tool and apply it to a certain type of genre and maybe it doesn’t always work, but I like that they’re making that attempt. There’s one called Evil Things which is basically a sort of Friday the 13th–esque slasher with the POV, and again, it doesn’t fully work because there’s certain things you need to do with a slasher movie that you can’t when you’re doing a whole thing with a video camera from someone’s point-of-view.
For found footage-horror to stay relevant, it’s had to evolve. The V/H/S series attempts to do that, with segments including more aggressive first-person perspectives, such as Eduardo Sanchez’s “Ride in the Park” short for V/H/S/2, and Adam Wingard’s ocular implant short in the same film. Is the future of the sub-genre more concrete POV perspectives, or is it something else?
Wingard: The interesting thing about the future of found footage, in some ways, is that it actually lends itself to being made with bigger budgets than it does with smaller. With the smaller budgets, we’ve seen those versions. Every once in a while, someone gets lucky with a Paranormal Activity, but for every Paranormal Activity, you have 200 unwatchable piles of garbage that look cheap that do nothing for you and do nothing for the genre itself. Going back to Cloverfield, there’s somebody that put in $30- to $50-million — whatever it was. It was big budget enough, and you got some real results out of it, and you weren’t using the found-footage angle as like, “Oh, this is a cheap way to make a movie.” That’s not the correct way to approach it. They were using it as, “This is a device to make our movie better.” That’s what you should be doing whenever you are approaching found footage: Does it make your story better?
Sanchez: I think the idea of doing something where the camera is really completely POV is an interesting idea, and definitely some other people have done it, but I don’t know if that’s the key either. I’m not sure where it can go. I don’t have the answers. The thing about found footage is that it’s a difficult process to go through to make the film, but if you do it right, obviously the popularity is that you can do it for a pretty low budget. I imagine that it’s going to continue to remain popular among indie horror filmmakers, but it’s just a matter of scrambling the elements and doing something original with it. I’m always thinking, ‘Never say never.’ As soon as you say, ‘It can’t be done,’ some young filmmaker’s going to come out and prove you wrong.
Wingard: I don’t think it’s going to go away. I think it’s going to change and evolve as time goes on. There’s going to be people sticking to the Blair Witch format that’s total realism, but I think there’s kind of a dead end there because at a certain point, if you’re going full-on total realism, eventually you’re going to turn people off because you got to put in a lot of boring stuff to make it real. I think the evolution of the genre is going to be finding a nice medium where you’re able to stick to the conceit that you set with the reason the characters are filming, but you’re able to find a cinematic approach that combines the two. Ultimately, if you’re able to ground a movie from the perspective of the characters filming, if you can find a way to make that flow like a normal movie would and give it still that cinematic bump.
Cloverfield is a perfect example. The found footage element itself makes it more immersive. There’s no reason for [found footage] to go away, because we’re getting more technologically [inclined]. Cameras are becoming more convenient to use. There’s just going to be more and more different opportunities and ways to exploit the found footage idea as technology progresses. With the V/H/S series, we tried to explore every facet of found footage that we can, like Skype, to more standard methods, to hidden cameras, to cameras in people’s eyeballs.
I see it using whatever technology is available, like, maybe we all have ocular implants and it’s no big deal and that’s what we’re filming with. It’s just going to reflect whatever the current technology is and it’s where it’s going to go.
Myrick: I think it’s always evolving. Certainly the genre itself, or the style approach itself, is much more accepted now. So I think it’s given filmmakers the opportunity to expand that first-person conceit, which I think is cool. But, again, it all comes down to story and character for me. You could shoot the same movie five different ways, but in the hands of a good storyteller, one will shine and the rest will fall away. It’s all about good writing, good acting, good execution, and that’s always a constantly evolving process. I love the idea of a filmmaker taking the POV camera to places it’s never been before, and using that technique that no one’s thought of before, and that’s what exciting about it. Everyone now has a camera. It’s more and more acceptable to see stuff told from that perspective, because we’re all doing it now on Facebook.
Collins: What I’d like to see more of is stuff like Lovely Molly [directed by Sanchez]. That one was half-and-half — it’s traditional narrative, but when she would go outside, and do weird sh*t, those scenes were found footage. And I wish more films embraced that idea. Just use it for the sequences that would make the most sense, or otherwise just film like a normal movie. That way, you’re avoiding the stupid logic problems, and you’re still giving a unique way to present that scene. I think that can work really well. I really like [Lovely Molly].
Imagining the Future
As Sanchez, Myrick, and Wingard move on in their filmmaking careers, the trio of found-footage explorers imagine what it would be like if they created a big-budget film in that aesthetic today.
Sanchez: I would love to do kind of a bigger version of Exists, kind of like a bigger budget, Bigfoot expedition. To me it’s almost like doing Alien; like a science fiction movie, all in found footage, I think would be cool. I know that there’s been some — I really like Europa Report. I thought that was great. To me it’s like, something that’s not about a haunted house, or kids with camera — almost like a professional expedition thing would be cool. I get sent a lot of found footage scripts. To me, it has to be something with a really unique perspective. To keep my interest it would definitely need some extra element that I have yet to see that in any scripts that people send me. But, I’m very optimistic that somebody will come by and take what we did, and take what everyone has done since us, and kind of make it their own with something really amazing.
Dan Myrick: There’s a couple of ideas that I’ve been tossing around for a while. I thought it would be interesting to see a war movie done in that style, where it’s basically a collection of first-person accounts of being invaded. Imagine all the footage: whether you’re an insurgent, or a refugee, or hiding in bunker under siege in a war zone — from a narrative perspective — but looking like it’s all first-person, chronicling the events as they unfold. I think that would be cool. It would require a big budget. All those gags — the bombs, the planes flying — all have to sell. I’m outlining this very premise that I’m talking to you about right now. It’s effectively Red October but from a documentary, first-person perspective. Everybody would be filming it. Everyone would have cameras.
Wingard: I think I would want to do something that makes best use of the format. Take a story that maybe you’ve seen before, but put it in the found footage context. That’s the good thing about doing all these V/H/S movies — it did teach us a lot of lessons. For instance, on the first V/H/S, I did the wrap-around. A lot of people don’t like the wrap-around; they find it to be obnoxious, I think. It was a little bit of an experiment, because we didn’t want to set up characters. We wanted to stick totally true to the reality of it. So, we were using these real VHS load-in cameras, and it was important to me to make it totally authentic and I think we went too far with that for a lot of audience members. I think a lot of people focus in on the shaky cam and they can’t get past it. In the second film [V/H/S/2], I did the ocular implant one. And with that one, I don’t think I brought it enough into a reality. I think I made too cinematic in terms of my approach to the lighting and the look of it. So, to me, looking to the future, I would definitely try to find a nice medium, because I think that’s where the sweet spot is. You don’t want to go too real, and you don’t want to go too cinematic — there’s got to be something that captures them both. It’s a balancing act.