So you're one of the millions (each of you undoubtedly very special) looking for more, more, more about The Blair Witch Project. Even here at the Grainy Pictures/Split Screen website we're getting 300,000 hits a day - and that's not because word is out that we'll soon have Christopher Walken cooking exploding shrimp on a future episode. So here's the Split Screen backstory to the Blair Witch Legend. And we promise we will not exploit your uncontrollable urge to buy something/anything relating to The Blair Witch Project until the very end.
Split Screen is a weekly magazine format show about film created and hosted by John Pierson on the Independent Film Channel (and sometimes Bravo.) It's been on for three years, starting in 1997. Before then hundreds of American indie directors sent Pierson their films hoping that he would help get them finished and distributed. Coincidentally one of these directors was Eduardo Sanchez who submitted his heartfelt early 90's feature "Gabriel's Dream."
On August 15, 1997, in the tenth and last episode of Split Screen's inaugural season and at the very moment when South Park debuted, Pierson introduced a Blair Witch Project cliffhanger consisting of the so-called "investor's trailer" and delectable deadpan interviews with Dan Myrick, Ed Sanchez, and Gregg Hale. This is ground zero, the first-ever public exposure of the movie!
It resulted from a very happy accident. Pierson went to Orlando in June '97 to shoot a segment at the Enzian Theater's Florida Film Festival. He needed a local DP and the Enzian's Mike Monello (a Haxan partner) recommended a guy named Dan Myrick. Dan was a terrific shooter from the air in a helicopter, skimming the water in an airboat, and on the ground at Gatorland. Even better, he was a great person. When saying goodbye, he asked Pierson if he could send "a little something" he'd been working on. Of course that turned out to be the Haxan Films/Blair Witch story/Black Hills disappearances 8-minute backstory trailer. Pierson, a Maryland native who should have known better, fell for it hook, line and sinker. (For you latecomers, this demo is the prototype for the Sci-Fi Channel Curse of the Blair Witch special -- with some startling discrepancies. More about that later.)
After Dan explained how Team Haxan had convincingly made the whole story up as a prelude to their feature, John and Janet Pierson invited Myrick and Sanchez to Cold Spring, NY for a strategy session. They brought the Blair County Tourism Bureau Trout Fishing Guide. Over an early summer lunch, the master plan was set. Split Screen would show the Haxan demo in its entirety with an after-commentary from Dan, Ed, and Gregg Hale about what they hoped (or feared) they'd find on the film and tapes in the "muddy duffel bag." (Ed supervised the completion of this segment for a total budget of $93.22.) At the very end of the show, a cliffhanger title card would promise Split Screen viewers a first look at the missing filmmakers' footage in the March/April '98 season premiere. There was only one problem. There was no footage because Haxan hadn't shot Phase 1 of the feature.
Grainy Pictures put up $10,000 figuring that even if the whole production didn't come off, we'd still have enough for the second Split Screen segment. Obviously the rest is history as Dan, Ed, Gregg, and their actors pulled off the Fall '97 shoot with aplomb, later crediting Pierson and Split Screen producer Howard Bernstein as Phase 1 instigators. Now back to those discrepancies. The names and faces of the three students changed i.e. Jane Steiner turned into Heather Donohue. Nonexistent Blair County turned into the all too real Burkittsville. And there was no duffel bag -- muddy or not.
Myrick brought about twenty minutes of key takes to a meeting of about fifteen Split Screen producers in early December '97. Our core staff was in the know, but everyone else, savvy filmmakers all, got pretty creeped out - a very good sign. Back in Florida, Myrick and Sanchez continued to edit their feature and complete our segment. Interspersed with the very first look at the students' footage from the woods, Dan, Ed and Gregg once again did on-camera interviews wondering about their fate. Haxan did not let us see any material from the final scene at Hellhouse; there was nothing after Heather's terrified, tearful confession.
When introducing this 8-minute Split Screen segment which appeared on Bravo on the night of April 6, 1998 (10 months before Sundance), Pierson expressed an element of skepticism and encouraged viewers to visit this site and weigh in with their opinions on the "Is it real?" question. The response was instantaneous and passionate, and is still available for inspection on our board. Obviously the story made for compelling television that struck a nerve. But who knew that The Blair Witch Project would become the ultimate watershed in independent film history?
During the next month, there were hundreds of very opinionated postings, many of which called Split Screen irresponsible or unethical for presenting fiction as fact. We were also contacted by disgruntled actors who had auditioned unsuccessfully for the movie, and an Albany detective who had already spent weeks looking for the missing kids. John finally tried to put a stop to the confusion with an aggressive posting on May 7, 1998. But with the arrival of the Haxan website in June (after a few technical delays) and multiple repeats of Split Screen Episode 11, the mythology started growing again.
By the time the finished film went to Sundance in January, 1999, the Haxanites were consistently acknowledging and fully disclosing that The Blair Witch Project was invented fiction. Of course the Artisan-sponsored site continues to play with the reality question to this day. One thing that's particularly entertaining about both Split Screen segments is the excellent acting of Myrick, Hale, and, especially, Sanchez as they pretend the story is real.
© 1997 Grainy Pictures, Inc.