Interview of Heather and Josh found on the Mr. Showbiz site
Did you have any idea this movie would become such a phenomenon?
Joshua Leonard: Absolutely.
Heather Donahue: Oh yeah.
Joshua Leonard: Part of the master plan. To a tee, everything's worked out.
Heather Donahue: It's â¦ you know, a lot of chanting, a lot of intoning. Letting the spirits guide you to mass market success and commercial glory.
Joshua Leonard: Seriously, the guys [directors Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick] had an idea and we all responded to it. Everyone went into the project sheerly as an experiment. Because it was exciting, because no had ever done anything like it before, and it was the opportunity to go out and create something with the resources that we had. And we did that and the results have just been blessed. But we had no control over that.
Going into the film, did you know it was going to be a treacherous experience?
Heather Donahue: There was a little letter on the wall at the audition that said it was going to be very rigorous emotionally and physically, and if you weren't prepared to do that, then you shouldn't even [interview]. You should just go home. Which just got me all the more excited. Because then you know you're getting yourself into something that you've never gotten yourself into before. And it's either going to fail miserably or work really well. And luckily it worked really well.
What was your background prior to Blair Witch?
Heather Donahue: Mostly theater. A lot of improvisation. Films that never got finished. I'm from Philadelphia originally. Worked there. Then I moved to New York.
Joshua Leonard: I did theater as a kid and some independent film in New York. A lot of production work and a lot of experimental film work so Blair was right up my alley.
How did you hear about the film?
Heather Donahue: In Back Stage. In my Thursday evening Back Stage ritual that I did every week.
How many times did you have to audition?
Heather Donahue: Well, Josh was the first person cast. He kind of floated through the last couple of callbacks. But as far as I was concerned, they were bringing in new batches of girls every single time I went in. Every single callback I was at, there were, like, 250 brand new Back Stage-fresh girls waiting to be seen. So that was incredibly unnerving because as the callbacks progressed, I just wanted the part more and more.
And they couldn't really give you a script to audition with.
Joshua Leonard: Yeah, it was all improv. I had heard about the project about a year before they cast it. So I called the directors and harassed them, about once a month, for a year. They called me in for one audition and called me up after and said, "You've got the role." So I went into all the callbacks and was the stable character for everyone to read off of. I did one call that was about four hours long where I was just in character the whole time and they would bring different actresses in. So finally they cast Heather. She and I worked together really well. We had very different dynamics that worked. And off of that we found Mike, who was the third piece of the machinery.
How long did that whole process take?
Heather Donahue: A few months.
And did they pay you guys anything up front to do this? Scale?
Joshua Leonard: Oh no, not scale.
Heather Donahue: Not scale, no. Enough to cover the temp hours I would have been missing. [Laughs.]
Joshua Leonard: They paid my rent for a month.
And this was two years ago?
Heather Donahue: Yeah, they finished casting in September of 1997 and then we started filming in October.
Now the whole filming process itself sounded like it was bizarre.
Joshua Leonard: Yeah, it all went downhill from there. [Laughs.]
Heather Donahue: You don't realize just how different it's going to be from other things until you actually show up. But I was prepared for a lot worse than it actually was. [Laughs.] I got myself all freaked out by buying all these survival books and witchcraft books and cinematography books. I was prepared to trap and skin and roast my own squirrel. I was prepared for absolute horror.
Joshua Leonard: Squirrel's actually pretty good. I don't know if you've ever tried 'em. Not quite as good as rabbit
Heather Donahue: And I learned that beaver tail is actually very rich in fat if you're living primarily off a diet of fish that you've caught. So if you can get some beaver tail, it will really help sustain you for a longer period of time. So I knew all of this information. It proved to be useless but I was totally prepared.
But they provided you with food, right?
Heather Donahue: But I didn't know. I was, like you know what? I'm not going to die out there, goddammit! [Laughs.] You know what I mean? That was my main objective.
So how many days were you out there? And were you in a trailer or an RV?
[Both break into helpless laughter.]
Heather Donahue: It was a canvas trailer. It was held up by poles. And we actually had a gym that came in the form of a 60-pound pack that we would put on our backs and hike along. Oh yeah, we had all the amenities. It was beautiful.
Joshua Leonard: Craft services was amazing.
Heather Donahue: Yeah, craft services! Oh my god! Everything came in these Blair Witch-themed little tin cups.
Joshua Leonard: Fresh oven roasted Vienna Sausages.
Heather Donahue: Oh nice! Right out of the can.
Joshua Leonard: When we went to do the film, they took us to the supermarket, and because the characters only presupposed that they'd be going into the woods for two days, they said buy two days worth of food. [Heather shudders.] So we did that and we knew we were going to be out in the woods longer, so after the first two days, they supplied us with very rationed amounts of foods.
Heather Donahue: They told us we'd be out there 7 to10 days.
Joshua Leonard: Yeah, and they said we were going to be hungry.
Heather Donahue: They said, "Your safety is our issue. Your comfort is not." Those were the words of [producer] Gregg Hale.
And did they ever say, "We're going to scare the shit out of you?"
Heather Donahue: Yeah. We knew that harassment would be a big part of the experience.
So you'd really wake up in the morning and see these weird piles of sticks and hear strange sounds at night. What was that like?
Joshua Leonard: Annoying as hell.
Joshua Leonard: What they had going for them was just the element of surprise. We essentially knew that the whole point of the film was that it was supposed to be scary. So they were going to do things to draw reactions of fear from us. But we didn't know what those things were going to be or when they were going to happen.
Heather Donahue: But we knew we'd have to roll wholeheartedly with whatever they threw at us. No matter what it was, it had to be the scariest goddamn thing you've ever seen. Even if it's just like you can see the little red lights in the woods and you're like, "Damn, it's three o'clock in the morning." You still have to be like, "Oh my god! Oh my god!" Because it's not going to work unless you commit to it.
How long did you have to remain in character, day and night?
Joshua Leonard: All the time, unless it was absolutely necessary to break character. Just because the whole point of the film was to film it as it was happening. So the down moments were as important as the up moments. General frustration was as important as the visceral fear. So in order to make the film realistic, we had to be in character even when nothing was happening. When we were just cold and tired and hungry and didn't know what was going to happen next. You just have to see these characters as just kids, kids who wind up in a situation that's way over their heads.
Did you have contact with the filmmakers every day?
Heather Donahue: No, I mean there was a radio if we really needed them for something. They just sort of tracked us and trailed us and were always relatively nearby. We just never knew exactly where.
Joshua Leonard: They would take the dailies home everyday and watch them. And then we would have checkpoints we knew we had to hit. So when we got to the checkpoints, there would be baskets of character motivational notes for each of us. So that's how they would gauge and steer the performances.
Heather Donahue: They worked to keep track of everything very closely. But they were able to look at what we did every day and decided if they wanted a relationship to go in another way or what the character should do next. And then a lot of things just came out of nowhere like Mike and his map scene. That was just Mike's own improvisation.
Heather, did it bother you that, as it turned out, your character is much to blame for everyone's predicament?
Heather Donahue: It's so funny because I've heard people say it's a feminist movie because there's a woman in charge and I've heard it called a completely anti-feminist movie because this woman screws everything up. It's just who cares really? It's just a movie. But I think you can look at it as a feminist film. I mean, well, hell, if the Blair Witch is a woman, she's really ultimately control of everyone in the film.
So you start filming in October 1997, you wrap a week later, and then two years later the film comes out. What were you doing in the interim?
Heather Donahue: I was doing theater, improv comedy, running in a marathon, moving to L.A. It's been sort of an action-packed two years in a way.
Joshua Leonard: A lot of life.
Heather Donahue: Yeah, exactly.
Being a part of the indie film world, were you guys at all worried during that time that Blair Witch would never see the light of day?
Joshua Leonard: No, because as a part of the independent film community, you never count on anything you do to be a big break. It's the same with anything you do. You do a project, you do it as best as possible, you move on and once again, you know the results are out of your hands.
Heather Donahue: And it's interesting when you do things because you really like them. You're not really thinking about the scope of your career or your public image. You're just doing it because it's pretty cool and it sounds appealing and it sounds like fun.
Joshua Leonard: I think that's one of the things about the film. I mean, the hype is what it is. We never did the film to do the hype; we did the film to do the film.
Heather Donahue: [Laughs.] Who the hell knew there'd be any?
Joshua Leonard: And if we hadn't had the hype, it still would've been the same damn film. And we all would have done it again in a heartbeat.
Heather Donahue: But actually, if it hadn't gotten all this hype and I had put this on my reel and shown it to casting directors, they would've been like, "What the hell is that?" And now they're like, [assumes falsetto tone] "Oh my god! It's the girl from The Blair Witch Project! Such a pleasure to meet you! So enjoyed the movie!" I'm like, "Oh OK. When I showed you this footage six months ago, you were like, 'Oh? Well OK? Give us a call. We'll be in touch!'"
Joshua Leonard: None of us dreamed this would happen.
Heather Donahue: Yeah, no way! This is so off the wall.
In the Mr. Showbiz Summer Movie Preview, interest in Blair Witch outweighed interest in movies such as The Wild Wild West and Big Daddy. The Internet community is really buzzing about the movie.
Heather Donahue: That's because it has the support of the Web site [www.blairwitch.com]. And it's interesting because the Web site is so integral to watching the movie in a way. You can go in and watch the movie and get it completely, and you're not going to miss anything. But it's a lot richer if you know the backstory, and know what the documentary is about to begin with.
Joshua Leonard: There was a whole mythology that was specifically created to make our characters and situation more believable. It never winds up in the film, but we had the backstory, which gave us a springboard to work off of.
How do you feel about the way the film's being marketed as a documentary?
Joshua Leonard: You just got to let the people do their jobs, you know?
But there have been some very emotional reactions from audiences who believe you guys are actually dead.
Joshua Leonard: We got a lot of reactions because they used our real names in the film, which was great in character because it was very easy to respond. But, yeah, I had three people call me after the John Pierson Split Screen [a series on the Independent Film Channel] episode aired. They were like, "Josh, dude! Are you OK? We saw this thing on TV. You're not dead, are you?"
Heather Donahue: In a way, though, it's very flattering. It says you did your job so well that we didn't realize you were even actors. That's very nice. However at the same time, it's also a little bit creepy.
Warning for those who hate SPOILERS. Read no further. We've got to talk about the ending. First of all, what was it like when you woke up and saw the house?
Joshua Leonard: I was dead.
Heather Donahue: Josh was back in New York by then. [Laughs.]
But Josh, wasn't that your groaning we heard at the end?
Joshua Leonard: That was me via Ed's boom box. I had to get back to work in production, so I split.
Did you always know that day that your gig was up?
Joshua Leonard: They left me a character note that said after Heather and Mike go to bed, get up, leave the tent, if anyone asks say you're taking a piss. And I walked out of the tent and they said, "You're done."
And Heather, what was that like for you to find him gone?
Heather Donahue: It was funny when I woke up the next morning, it was this mixed thing of "That lucky bastard!" and you have to kind of pull back for a second, get your bearings, and get back in character again. Because at first I was like, "He's had a shower, and a meal, and I hate him!" [Laughs.]
By the way, what were they giving you for food?
Heather Donahue: Oh my god, I will never eat another Power Bar again. Nothing against Power Bars, God bless them. But when you have a steady diet of them for four days, the chewy texture is no longer so appealing.
So it was the second to last night when you saw the house?
Heather Donahue: Yeah, and the last night too. The house was scary as hell. To not know what you're getting, to just know that your instruction card says to follow Josh's voice and you just go and it's really late. And the next thing you know there's like this big old house that you wouldn't go in if somebody dared you in broad daylight. But of course, you're going to go in there. Of course, there's going to be creepy things in there. Of course, this is the end so something's gonna happen.
Were you terrified?
Heather Donahue: Yeah, I was genuinely scared, I have to say.
What did the filmmakers do to you to let you know you were killed?
Heather Donahue: I don't know. I have no recollection. [Teasingly.] But I was naked, as all ingenues should be. A little netting here and there. A little thong, a little Latex.
Well, if your body didn't work out, I'm sure they'd just do a little airbrushing.
Heather Donahue: Exactly. For the G-rated magazines, they just airbrush the little nip out of there and you're good to go.
Heather, did you actually have to get naked for any press?
Heather Donahue: I've done one so far in a bra and a skirt. That's comfortable. It was for Interview. I went to a seedy motel room in Santa Monica for the photo shoot. They were like, "Can you wear this?" I was like, "Yeah, OK." A true ingenue knows how to get progressively naked.
Joshua Leonard: I'm actually looking for a career as a stunt dick. Because that's where I channel most of my energy.
Do you have the goods?
[Heather bursts out laughing.]
Joshua Leonard: Well, you can be the judge of that. Ask Heather after we get back from the beach.
Back to the ending: When they came up to you and tapped you on the shoulder, Gregg and Ed said you were still screaming?
Heather Donahue: Oh yeah! Because you have this crazy mix of emotions. You're scared. You're dirty. You're hungry. You're really, really, really glad it's over. I would do it again in a heartbeat, but let me tell you in that moment I was glad it was done. And it's just this giant release of so many things that I was just like [starts breathing fast] and I just couldn't stop. And they were like, "Taco, taco, taco!" That was our code word to break out of the scenario. Which, when you're starting to get really hungry, is not really the best choice of words but we didn't discover that until the week progressed.
Have you guys had nightmares since the filming?
Heather Donahue: Not really. I've actually become a more avid camper since the film.
You know how to survive now.
Heather Donahue: Yeah. [Laughs.] Now I know how to skin a squirrel.
Did you guys bond over this? Are you close friends now?
Heather Donahue: Oh yeah, we hang out all the time.
Joshua Leonard: 4 a.m. phone calls.
Heather Donahue: Always, you know. We're going to the beach later today, actually. Just like most people do with their co-workers.
Joshua Leonard: Seriously, we've got a great respect for each other as actors. And part of casting the three of us is that we're such drastically â¦
Heather Donahue: Drastically different people!
Joshua Leonard: We're not the kind of people who would wind up in that situation under any other circumstances. But we're mutually proud together of this project. It took a while after we wrapped, I think it was at Sundance, before we were able to shake all that off and relate to each other as people.
Heather Donahue: Because we didn't really get to know each other on that shoot, as crazy as that sounds. Because you're involved with the process so much, and that's what you do all day and all night. So I didn't get to know Josh as Josh, I got to know Josh, the trusty cameraman. And they didn't get to know Heather Donahue, they got to know Heather, really amateurish documentary filmmaker and paranoid camper. [Laughs.]
Are you guys going to work with Haxan films again?
Heather Donahue: If they ask. [Laughs.]
Joshua Leonard: Yeah, they're amazing directors.
Heather Donahue: And just really good people too.
What are you guys working on next?
Joshua Leonard: I just finished a short film with some friends I met at Sundance.
Heather Donahue: Right now, I have a film coming out called Under the Hammock. It's a black comedy.
Is it an independent film?
Heather Donahue: Yeah, that's mostly what I like. It's interesting all of a sudden to read stuff that's available versus when you're doing stuff out of Back Stage. You can actually be a lot more selective. Because when you're working for free, you're only gonna do it cause you love it. And it's an interesting new chapter.
Joshua Leonard: There's a lot of humor involved when you've just done this film and next you're reading for the new Mel Gibson movie.
Heather Donahue: Yeah, exactly. It's like being on a completely different planet.