10 Cool The Blair Witch Project Behind-The-Scenes Facts

Heather Donahue in The Blair Witch Project
(Image credit: Artisan Entertainment)

In the summer of 1999, a low-budget found-footage horror movie by the name of The Blair Witch Project was released into the wild and became a massive success and helped usher in a new era for the genre. Centering on three film school students wandering into the woods to get to the bottom of a local urban legend, the trio quickly found out they were in way over their heads. 

As part of CinemaBlend’s ongoing partnership with Plex, where The Blair Witch Project is streaming for free (opens in new tab), we have compiled a list of 10 cool behind-the-scenes facts from the planning, shooting, and release of the horror movie that first terrified audiences and was a massive success more than two decades ago… 

Michael Williams sitting in the leaves in The Blair Witch Project

(Image credit: Artisan Entertainment)

Prior To Shooting, The Directors Had To Teach The Cast How To Use The Cameras And Set Up Survival Tools

Heather, Mike, and Josh filming themselves making a student documentary about the legend of a witch in rural Maryland in The Blair Witch Project wasn’t too far from how the actual movie was shot, as the actors — Heather Donahue, Michael Williams, and Joshua Leonard — were largely by themselves when filming in the woods. To prevent the actors from suffering a similar fate as their on-screen versions, the film’s producers gave the cast a bit of a crash course on survival tools, camera operation, and other skills while out on their own.

When celebrating the film’s 20th anniversary in 2019, co-director Eduardo Sanchez told Vice that before shooting even began, he and the film’s producers walked the cast through camping basics, how to use a GPS, and “basic safety things” to keep in mind during production. Sanchez previously told EW (opens in new tab) in 2009 that when filming began, they would leave notes and other info in old film canisters for the actors to find.

Joshua Leonard and Michael Williams in The Blair Witch Project

(Image credit: Artisan Entertainment)

The Actors Got Lost Immediately After Leaving Their Car

However, despite the training and detailed notes given to them by the production crew, the actors got lost immediately upon entering the woods in The Blair Witch Project. During the commentary track that accompanies the film’s home release, co-writer/director Daniel Myrick recalled freaking out when the actors went in the wrong direction after parking the car saying:

I just figured at that time we were so boned. They got lost off of a road. There’s no way we’re going to be able to move these guys through the woods for six days and ever find them again.

The actors ended up being lost in the woods for about an hour or so before the problem was rectified.

Woman and child telling a story in The Blair Witch Project

(Image credit: Artisan Entertainment)

The Woman Telling The Story About The Hunters In The Woods Made Up Her Lines On The Spot

Early in The Blair Witch Project, before three film school students head off into the woods, they explore the town of Burkittsville and interview local residents about the legend. Though some of the residents were plants sent in by the directors, others were not. This was the case for Susie, the woman holding a young girl who tells the story about the hunters encountering the witch outside of town.

In the directors’ commentary, it is revealed that this was just some random lady on the street who made up the story on the spot. The woman was later identified as Susan Gooch, but the producers had the hardest time tracking her down at first because they couldn’t find anyone who knew her in town. They even went as far as to contact a local veterans group whose logo was on her father’s hat the day of filming.

Michael Williams holding a power bar in The Blair Witch Project

(Image credit: Artisan Entertainment)

The Actors’ Food Rations Were Decreased Throughout The Shoot, Eventually Being A Power Bar And An Apple A Day

As The Blair Witch Project goes on, Heather, Josh, and Mike become more and more agitated with one another and begin to lash out in response to the stress. The realness of these scenes could have very well been a result of the food situation during production, which got progressively worse as shooting went on.

During the directors’ commentary track, it is revealed that at one point near the end of the shoot (after Josh disappears) that Heather and Mike were each given a Power Bar and an apple each day for the final two days of production. At one point, the filmmakers point out in a scene where Heather says she’s hungry, the actress was actually really hungry due to the limited rations.

Heather Donahue in The Blair Witch Project

(Image credit: Artisan Entertainment)

The Actors Had A Safe Word They Would Use To Break Character When Things Got Too Intense

Considering the stress of not having access to food, having to sleep in a tent in the woods, technical difficulties, and all other sorts of problems, it would come as no surprise that the actors might let their emotions get the best of them during the shoot. In a 2018 interview with The Guardian (opens in new tab), Joshua Leonard explained that he and his co-stars developed a safe word to use when they wanted to get back to reality:

Tensions got high, we got hungry, we got uncomfortable and we hurt each other’s feelings. So we came up with a safe word for whenever we had to break character and remind ourselves this was just a job: taco.

However, Leonard added that this plan backfired and only made things worse because it reminded them how hungry they were (remember, the limited supplies).

Michael Williams in The Blair Witch Project

(Image credit: Artisan Entertainment)

The Other Two Actors Didn’t Know Mike Actually Kicked The Map Into The River Until The Reveal

The actors were only given notes and basic instructions for each of the scenes in The Blair Witch Project, which gave the cast a lot of room for improv during each day of shooting. There was so much freedom during production that Michael Williams decided to take it upon himself to create one of the most memorable scenes: Mike kicking the map into the river, as he told ComicBook.com (opens in new tab) in 2019:

That was the freedom that they built for us, because that was not in any notes, that was not something they wanted, they didn't direct me to do that through their notes, that was just sheerly out of the moment, and out of the belief in the circumstances, and out of being free to make choices as an actor.

The best part about it is the fact that Williams’ co-stars didn’t see him kick it into the water, as they were too busy arguing. And since no one saw, Willams decided to see how far he could take it.

Joshua Leonard in The Blair Witch Project

(Image credit: Artisan Entertainment)

The Tent Attack Scene Was Pulled Off With Boomboxes, Neighborhood Kids And The Element Of Surprise

The Blair Witch Project has some terrifying moments (especially for those seeing the movie in theaters for the first time), with one in particular being the iconic tent scene where the three student filmmakers hear the sounds of kids playing just outside before the shelter begins to shake violently.

In order to bring the scene to life, the producers recorded kids playing and put those recordings on three cassette tapes that they then played on three boomboxes the night of filming. And to finish it all off, they began to physically shake the tent to terrify the actors and send them running.

Heather Donahue in The Blair Witch Project

(Image credit: Artisan Entertainment)

The Iconic Shot Of Heather Saying ‘I’m So, So Sorry’ Was A Happy Accident

The scene near the end of The Blair Witch Project where Heather cries into the zoomed-in camera saying “I’m so, so Sorry” has not only become one of the most iconic moments from the movie but also in the history of horror movies. However, the extremely close-up image was not what Heather Donahue intended to do when framing the shot.

In the directors’ commentary, it is revealed that Donahue thought she was framing her entire face and not just her eyes and nostrils. But it was one of those happy accidents during the shoot, and led to a moment that has been plastered on posters, DVD covers, and shirts for more than 20 years and parodied countless times.

Michael Williams standing in a corner in The Blair Witch Project

(Image credit: Artisan Entertainment)

The Actors Didn’t Know How The Blair Witch Project Was Going To End Until They Entered The House

The Blair Witch Project ends with Mike and Heather being separated in an abandoned house that is filled with the handprints of young children and the cries from Josh, who had been missing for a couple days at this point. In addition to the characters not knowing how the final sequence would end or what was around each corner, the actors were also left in the dark until their characters met their respective fates.

In a 2019 interview with Buzzfeed News (opens in new tab), Michael Williams explained that when he was running through the basement in the final moments, he felt someone throw him to the ground and tell him to go stand in the corner. This in turn, created yet another iconic shot of Mike standing with his face in the corner just before Heather drops the camera and the movie comes to an end.

Heather Donahue in The Blair Witch Project

(Image credit: Artisan Entertainment)

How A Website And Word-Of-Mouth Contributed To The Blair Witch Project’s Massive Success

According to Box Office Mojo (opens in new tab), The Blair Witch Project made $248.6 million worldwide during its theatrical run, and a large part of that was because of the movie’s rudimentary website, viral marketing, and a crazy word-of-mouth phenomenon that helped make it the tenth most successful movie of the year in 1999.

Following the release of The Blair Witch Project, EW (opens in new tab) profiled the grassroots campaign that turned the movie from a small indie project into an international sensation that took the world, and internet by storm. More than a year before the film’s release, the filmmakers launched a website that provided information on the movie and the lore surrounding its story. By July 1999, the site had two million visits a day, which further spread the word of mouth craze about the movie and curiosity about if its events were real or not.

The Blair Witch Project is one of those movies that continues to be popular nearly a quarter-century after its release thanks to its creepy premise, terrifying execution, and the way it blurred the line between reality and fantasy. If you want to revisit the horror classic after reading all these behind-the-scenes facts, you can do so as The Blair Witch Project is streaming for free on Plex (opens in new tab).

Philip Sledge
Content Producer

Philip grew up in Louisiana (not New Orleans) before moving to St. Louis after graduating from Louisiana State University-Shreveport. When he's not writing about movies or television, Philip can be found being chased by his three kids, telling his dogs to stop yelling at the mailman, or yelling about professional wrestling to his wife. If the stars properly align, he will talk about For Love Of The Game being the best baseball movie of all time.