Review first published by Grolsch FilmWorks
“A horror film shot largely in Hi-8, with the protagonist off camera 80% of the time, and eight minutes of trees – that’s our movie!”
Producer Gregg Hale’s description may not exactly sound promising, but with 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, he and writer/directors Edward Sánchez and Daniel Myrick found a way to turn all the problems that typically assail low-budget indie productions into positive assets. This was accomplished through a self-authenticating vérité style: the film, shot by its own cast, purported to be footage from a documentary that these three students were shooting before they mysteriously disappeared in the woods. History was made as their movie, shot for under US$25,000, would go on to gross over 10,000 (!) times that worldwide, becoming one of the most profitable films of all time. Though certainly not the first ‘found footage’ film, The Blair Witch Project was the first to lend veridicality to its own mythology by exploiting the resources of television and the internet, and kickstarted a low-cost way of making horror that is still prevalent today.
Russell Gomm was among those who, when The Blair Witch Project was first released, genuinely believed that what he was seeing was real found footage. Now, a decade and a half later, his documentary The Woods Movie comes with its own found footage: 20 hours of archival material shot before, during and after the production, which Gomm has painstakingly edited down, interspersing the odd outtake and all-new interviews with key members of the crew. Here we get to see at first hand early meetings conceptualising The Blair Witch Project (inspired by 1972’s The Legend of Boggy Creek and cryptozoological documentaries for television), the elaborate auditions and preparations, the shoot itself (with the crew always at a considerable distance from the process that they had set in motion), the post-production editing, several test screenings, and finally the queue-around-the-block première at Sundance.
Much as the original film never shows the witch supposedly at its centre, Gomm’s documentary is also marked by certain significant absences. On the one hand, although the cast were famously terrorised by the crew during their nights in the Maryland woods, for entirely practical reasons no behind-the-scenes footage exists showing this. On the other hand, while actors Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams and Joshua Leonard feature prominently in the production footage, they notably fail to appear in any of the material that Gomm has himself shot, and would seem now to have distanced themselves from the original film.
Even in its reduced state, the footage that Gomm has unearthed often amounts to little more than the crew goofing around, and is diverting less for any insights into the production (most of which come instead from the interviews) than for the sheer amiability of the filmmakers. What’s more, all this never-before-seen material is of decidedly poor quality (shot on Hi-8). Outside of specialist genre showcases like the Glasgow FrightFest – where The Woods Movie enjoyed its own world première and was well-received – perhaps the only proper home for this ancillary feature is on a DVD or Blu-ray as a making-of extra. Still, it is a good one.