Interview: Simon Barrett

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Originally published on The National Student on 30/01/17. 

We spoke to one of the filmmakers behind last year’s controversial Blair Witch sequel to figure out just what went on with the film’s wobbly fan reception. 

Originally titled The Woods and keeping its real identity hidden all the way up to the very first fan screenings just a few months before release, it’s fair to say that Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett’s Blair Witch follow-up came as quite a shock to horror fans. And not totally in a good way. “I think it did take some people by surprise,” suggests Barrett, “and they were just so surprised that they forgot to see our movie!”

Whilst the film itself was scary enough (check out our full review here), the direction the duo took things in seemed to not only fail to round up enough in box office returns to appease studio heads (despite making its tiny budget back several times over), but also managed to anger a few devotees of the series too. Not to mention the recent filmmakers’ commentary (published with the home entertainment release this week) which seemed to ruffle even more feathers. “We thought we had made a fairly crowd-pleasing Blair Witch sequel, and we only really discovered afterwards that literally no one but us wanted a crowd-pleasing Blair Witch sequel”.

Barrett openly speaks about he and Wingard both being “huge fans” of the original, and big supporters of the franchise, explaining that when they signed on the dotted line way back in early 2013, before their previous hit The Guest had even started production, they intended to “recreate” the feel of the original, but as even more of a “technical thrill-ride”, based more around “VR and video-games” than traditional found-footage.

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Originally titled The Woods and keeping its real identity hidden all the way up to the very first fan screenings just a few months before release, it’s fair to say that Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett’s Blair Witch follow-up came as quite a shock to horror fans. And not totally in a good way. “I think it did take some people by surprise,” suggests Barrett, “and they were just so surprised that they forgot to see our movie!”

Whilst the film itself was scary enough (check out our full review here), the direction the duo took things in seemed to not only fail to round up enough in box office returns to appease studio heads (despite making its tiny budget back several times over), but also managed to anger a few devotees of the series too. Not to mention the recent filmmakers’ commentary (published with the home entertainment release this week) which seemed to ruffle even more feathers. “We thought we had made a fairly crowd-pleasing Blair Witch sequel, and we only really discovered afterwards that literally no one but us wanted a crowd-pleasing Blair Witch sequel”.

Barrett openly speaks about he and Wingard both being “huge fans” of the original, and big supporters of the franchise, explaining that when they signed on the dotted line way back in early 2013, before their previous hit The Guest had even started production, they intended to “recreate” the feel of the original, but as even more of a “technical thrill-ride”, based more around “VR and video-games” than traditional found-footage.

“Our film, after screening at a few festivals, had extremely good reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. We had like 100%!” explains Barrett, about the film’s fallout, “and going into the weekend we were able to watch that number plummet”. Which, as you can probably guess, was fairly disheartening for both he and Wingard. “Because we didn’t test the movie, because of course it was such a secret, there were reviews that just flat out didn’t understand things we had intended to be quite clear.”

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And if they didn’t pick up on even the most obvious of clues, you can bet that a great deal of the subtext of the original Blair Witch legend was lost too. “It was this kind of wake-up call to how used to having information spoon-fed to them a lot of modern horror fans have become, because I think most studio horror films are so stupid and are designed for viewers who are very dim… People are furious at us for not answering questions and it was like, since when did Blair Witch fans want things spelled out to them? Since when was that the legacy of a film, that there should be no mystery?” 

Interestingly Barrett does add though that there is a way to correctly ‘read’ the film: “There are answers to all of the questions in our films; we do interpret them, the clues are actually in there.” But of course, it’s not particularly straight-forward. For example, the creature at the end of the film? That’s not the Blair Witch. 

“It wasn’t really until we screened the movie in Austin, and it was the first chance Adam and I had to see our end credits. The credits of the film said ‘Blair Witch arm’, and we were like “Blair Witch arm? Who approved that? There’s no Blair Witch on-screen in our film – we made it quite clear that it was the witch’s victim!” and it was like jeez, the person who did our credits doesn’t even get this.”

So whilst what he and Wingard had been attempting to imply only eventually got picked up by what he sees as “roughly half” the audience, Barrett doesn’t necessarily see this as a bad thing. “We set out to make what we thought was a weird ambiguous film that had a lot of cool history to it, that we thought people would enjoy dissecting.” And to be fair to the pair, on that front, they more than succeeded, even if the whole audience don’t entirely agree. 

Blair Witch is available in the UK on DVD and Blu-ray from today. 

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