In 1999, the found footage genre of horror was still a relatively new way for filmmakers to tell stories. Eight years prior to The Blair Witch Project capturing the attention of film festivals and audiences, co-writers and directors Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick set out to make a movie that scared them. They decided on the concept of a lost documentary shot by student filmmakers concerning a mythological figure in a small town called Burkittsville, MD, being discovered and released to a wide audience. On a budget of about $60,000, the indie project made an astounding $240+ million during its theatrical run and put Myrick, Sánchez, and found footage horror on the map.
The road to producing such a record-breaking and innovative feature film involved a lot of improvisation, luck, and uncomfortable circumstances for the actors involved. Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael C. Williams endured eight straight days of constant filming, very little food, and sleepless nights filled with strange noises to make what ended up on screen. Needless to say, things got a little crazy during the making of The Blair Witch Project.
After Donahue won the part of Heather, her family feared the premise of a low-budget horror movie was just a ruse to get her into the woods alone. According to Donahue's co-star Joshua Leonard:
Heather’s parents were worried Ed and Dan might be taking her out into the woods to make a snuff movie.
Donahue herself added:
The initial reaction of my loved ones was that I definitely should not go into the woods with a bunch of guys I didn't know. My mom wanted to know if she could have all of their Social Security numbers. All of my friends pitched in to make sure that I bought a knife.
The Actors Families Received Sympathy Cards From People That Thought They Were No Longer Alive
Prior to Artisan Entertainment purchasing the distribution rights to The Blair Witch Project, Myrick and Sánchez created a website featuring a missing poster with the names and pictures of the cast members. Set up as a real event in a time where this type of marketing was unheard of, people believed the movie to be a real documentary. After Artisan came aboard, they updated and improved the site for continued use as a marketing tool, causing many people to think Donahue, Leonard, and Williams actually went missing and possibly perished in 1994.
Our parents were getting condolence calls. Then, when the cat was finally out of the bag and we started press, some people still didn’t believe us. They thought we were actors, hired to play Josh, Mike and Heather in order to keep the whole thing from seeming like a snuff film. To this day, there are still conspirac[y] theories about this stuff.
The Actors Were So Uncomfortable One Night They Fled To A Hotel
The filming of The Blair Witch Project did not involve a sound stage but an actual forest in rural Maryland where the actors slept in tents. Over the course of the finished movie, it becomes clear the weather is chilly and some scenes even have rain. Donahue, Leonard, and Williams actually had to sleep in the elements, leading to a night where they refused to spend another night miserable. According to Donahue:
We left the woods and found the first house that we went to and knocked on the door. The guys were like, "You have to go, you have to go, because if a guy knocks on the door at a house in the woods at night, nobody is going to let them in!" So I knocked on the door, and I'm like, "I'm sorry, we're supposed to be lost in the woods, but we're not, and we have to call these guys!" They were weirdly nice enough and trusting enough to let us in, and they gave us hot cocoa. We ended up staying in a hotel that night.
The Actors Invented A Safe Word For When They Got Too Deep In Character
Since the film included near-constant filming and staying in the roles of characters increasingly losing their collective sanity, the three actors decided to create a safe word. Leonard recalled:
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. We regretted that by about day three. It just kept reminding us how hungry we were.