Central Florida's film industry has been the subject of hype for some time now. But hometown filmmakers may at last be preparing the area's first major independent film success.
When Orlando-based Haxan Films was profiled in April on "Split Screen" -- a half-hour show focusing on indie film and shown locally on the Bravo channel -- the response was overwhelming in two ways. First, a broadcast segment of "The Blair Witch Project," Haxan's genre-busting, documentary-style horror feature, provoked intense debate on the "Split Screen" website about whether the footage was real. Second, the exposure helped secure added funding for the project, which wrapped filming this past summer.
Those twin boosts, plus the response at local screenings, has given Haxan the confidence to submit the finished work to the Sundance Film Festival, where it will be considered for next year's program.
"Blair Witch" was conceived by former University of Central Florida film students Dan Myrick and Ed Sanchez, who would go on to direct it. The two were discussing the downside of modern horror and their appreciation for the grainy, documentary style as used on the '70s television series "In Search Of" when inspiration hit. "We wanted to create something that captured some of those moments," says Sanchez, "to look like someone had just come across some kind of phenomenon, some kind of scary thing, and maybe they were videotaping or shooting it."
Their fictional premise picks up on three students lost in a Maryland forest while making a documentary about a legendary 18th-century witch. Employing a new twist -- extreme realism -- the film itself was to consist of "found footage" from the '70s relating the eerie events that befell those students as they pursued their filming of supernatural phenomena.
It soon became clear that simulating a different time period would strain a non-existent budget.
Myrick and Sanchez formed Haxan with producers Robin Cowie and Greg Hale, all of them taking on commercial work to foot the bill for "Blair Witch." Hale suggested using videotape for the "found" film, which meant that the plot would have to be updated, but the compromise became an aesthetic advantage; most of "Blair Witch" would be shot from the students' perspective on black-and-white video, and later combined with the "actual" footage they shot. "It ended up bringing a whole new dimension to the film," says Myrick.
Nearly every aspect of the production broke convention. The film was shot in real time on location in Maryland as the characters broke down in the woods over an eight-day period. Heather Donahue was cast as the obsessive film student whose compulsive videotaping unnerves the other two students, Joshua Leonard and Michael Williams. Their real names were used in the film, further blurring the boundaries between reality and fiction. The actors were left to create the narrative on their own, guided by the unseen filmmakers who observed from a distance and played the role of the "witch" who terrified them. The breakdown conveyed on screen was real, as the actors succumbed to the genuine effects of isolation, hunger and horror.
The connection that brought Haxan and "Blair Witch" to prominence on the Bravo channel was more traditional. Eventually Myrick was approached to assist "Split Screen" producer John Pierson in filming a segment for the show about the 1998 Florida Film Festival. Myrick passed along a copy of "Blair Witch" to Pierson, resulting in the two-part Haxan profile that included the film excerpt.
While their dedication and determination counts, the filmmakers feel blessed by good fortune. "It's just amazing," says Cowie. "From the times when money landed at the last moment, or whether it's acting or story twists -- even how we got locations together. It's just been a kind of freaky serendipity."