Something Evil in the Woods

The Blair Witch Project Turns 25 Next Year. We Talked to Writer and Director Dan Myrick About Its Legacy.

Myrick, a Sarasota native who graduated from Riverview High School, is still in the horror game.

By Clayton Trutor October 26, 2023

Blair Witch Project writers and directors Dan Myrick (right) and Eduardo Sánchez.

Sarasota native Dan Myrick is one of the most successful filmmakers in history. In 1999, he and his University of Central Florida film school classmate, Eduardo Sánchez, co-directed and co-wrote The Blair Witch Project, which is coming up on its 25th anniversary in 2024. Blair Witch cost just $35,000 to create but earned $249 million at the box office, making it one of the most profitable films ever made and one of the highest-grossing independent films ever. Blair Witch blurred the line between reality and fiction with its “found footage” aesthetic, spawning dozens of imitators in the horror and science fiction genres.

Myrick spent his formative years in Sarasota, graduating from Riverview High School before attending film school in Orlando at UCF. He currently resides in Seattle and is still making movies. In 2019, he directed Skyman , a fascinating character study built around the protagonist’s past alien encounter. (The New York Times called it "an empathetic, textured portrait of loneliness and loss.") Myrick also helped to create the horror anthology series Black Veil (2021), and both films relied on Florida shooting locations and settings.

In a recent wide-ranging interview, Myrick discusses his connections to Sarasota, the diverse influences on his filmmaking and his current projects. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Dan Myrick on Siesta Key earlier this year.

First, let's talk about your connections to the area.

"I was born on Longboat Key and went to Anna Maria Elementary for a while. I lived there until I was about 10, then moved to Fort Myers, was there for several years, and eventually went to college for film school at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. I moved out of Florida to Los Angeles in 2001.

"I grew up in Southwest Florida and know the area well. I have family there and it’s one of my favorite places in the country. My son and I just went back there a few weeks ago and zoned out on Siesta Key, where I used to live for a while. It was nice to revisit all those areas."

In your recent work, such as Skyman and Black Veil, you’ve created stories that were set in Florida, and you've filmed here. What makes the state such an advantageous place to film and write about in the horror genre?

"Florida has a geography that is unique and varied, which is beneficial for filmmaking. You’ve got the woods and this distinctive look with Spanish moss coming out of the trees, which can be very creepy. At the same time, from a production standpoint, it’s very attractive to bring in actors and production people, because you can put them on the beach and they have a great time when they’re off—but when they’re working, you can have access to all of those great locations.

"Plus, we have a great network there of people we’ve worked with in the past."

I thought Skyman was fantastic. It’s one of my favorite films you’ve done. What impact did the pandemic have on getting that film out to the public?

"It threw everything into this weird state. Typically, you finish a film, you go to normal distribution channels, you try to set up a limited theatrical release. At the time, theaters were shut down, so that option was no longer on the table for us. Through my producer, Joe Restaino, we managed to secure a drive-in theatrical release for the film throughout the country.

"It was one of those happy accidents, but it worked out really well for that kind of movie. I thought it was pretty awesome that we got to do the old school theatrical release at drive-ins. It wasn’t the ideal wide release that we’d hoped for, but, considering the impact of Covid, we were able to have a pretty good release throughout the country. Ultimately, we got a great write-up in The New York Times and premiered at the Austin Film Festival. It did really well for us and it was one of my favorite films I’ve ever made. It was a fabulous experience all the way around."

A still from The Blair Witch Project.

I’ve read in several interviews about the influence of In Search Of…, Leonard Nimoy's TV show devoted to mysterious phenomena, on your filmmaking. Tell us more about that.

"I remember the old Chanel 44 Creature Feature on Sunday afternoons with Dr. Paul Bearer. I’d watch it religiously. I’d see Godzilla and sci-fi, adventure and horror films. They had a huge influence on me growing up. In the late '70s and early '80s, UFOs and Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster were all in the zeitgeist. I even had a UFO club in Fort Myers. We’d go out and search for UFO evidence in the neighborhood.

"I was an amateur photographer at the time. I shot all these hoax UFO shots and tried to fool my friends with them. Eventually, I got into video. In Search Of… had come out and it was this interesting blend of a documentary-style approach mixed in with the absurdist fact-or-fiction narrative. It had a huge impact on me.

"A film called The Legend of Boggy Creek also came out around that time. It was a pseudo-documentary about Bigfoot. I remember my dad taking me to see it at the old Trail Drive-In across from the Sarasota-Bradenton airport. Either directly or indirectly, those films informed our approach to Blair Witch, along with shaky cam footage from CNN and reality shows like The Real World, which were just coming out."

Was photography your gateway into filmmaking?

"Absolutely. I used to be a very visual person. I liked to draw a lot. My mom got me a single-lens reflex camera, an old Fuji 1000, when I was about 13. I’d go out on these excursions and take lots of pictures and develop them myself. That’s where I learned the fundamentals of lighting and composition, how lenses worked and depth of field. I developed that self-taught, foundational knowledge of photography as a hobbyist and that transitioned into video."

Did your work as an artist, especially drawing, shape your aesthetic as a filmmaker?

"I think so. I’ve always loved telling stories visually. I would create these elaborate drawings for hours at a time and voice the sound effects as I was doing them. If I drew a picture of a battle scene, I saw it as a moving image. I think that’s how my brain has always been wired."

When you attended Riverview High School, did you know that filmmaking would be a part of your life?

"I knew I was attracted to the visual medium. I took radio-television classes there, then went to Edison State Community College and took lots of radio-television classes there. I just had no idea how to make an actual movie movie. Then I saw Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which had a profound effect on me. I remember coming out of the theater wanting to make other people feel the way I felt coming out of that film. That’s when I made it my mission to learn how to make a movie. From there, I got a Super 8 film camera and made movies with my friends. Eventually, it transitioned into a little business where I started shooting real estate commercials. That was the only way I could get my equipment paid for. Then I decided on film as a college major and moved up to Orlando."

Coming of age in the early days of MTV, did music videos have an influence on the way you view filmmaking?

"MTV mainstreamed the shaky cam approach. The camera operators would move cameras around when they did interviews. No one did that before. The camera was always locked on a tripod. MTV made the interviews much more energized with handheld cameras and camera movement during what would normally be a static interview. That was groundbreaking at the time.

"Aside from its own coverage, MTV's music videos were this awesome medium for artists to explore visual languages that you didn’t see in any other format. It was free range to let your imagination go wild as a filmmaker. MTV provided an outlet not only for filmmakers, but also audiences."

What impact did UCF film school have on your life?

"It was pretty big. We were the inaugural film class. We were operating out of a few portables out behind the engineering building, but at the same time we had a lot of freedom. We were 30 kids trying to figure out the program at the same time. It was a magical time. We were able to explore our passions as a group. We were able to create a lot of cool projects. I look back now and they’re pretty bad, but at the time they were cool. The Florida film industry was on the rise, with Universal Studios and Disney having just built stages. It was a good time to be there. I was fortunate to be a part of it."

What do you make of films like Cloverfield that clearly imitated the style of Blair Witch?

"It’s incredibly flattering that so many films have run with the stylistic approach that we took on Blair Witch. Some have clearly done it better than others. I really enjoyed Cloverfield. It certainly had a bigger budget than Blair Witch.

"Films like Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity have had a lot of success using that first-person conceit. I see it as a style of filmmaking; none of the basic rules change. You still have to have good writing and acting and execution for it to work."

How did Maryland end up as the setting for Blair Witch and also your filming location?

"One advantage is that Ed [Sánchez, Blair Witch co-director and co-writer] lived there, and we had a place to stay and base our operations for nothing. Secondly, that area of the country is rife with colonial folklore and has a deep, rich history in early American legend and folklore as well as Native American folklore. It was a good place for us to base the Blair Witch mythology.  Lastly, the woods themselves were visually perfect. Around October, the leaves fall off the trees and it gets so stark and spooky out there. So there were all of those advantages, along with Seneca Creek State Park, which gave us free run to shoot the film. It was the perfect mix of factors that we were able to take advantage of."

Given the blurring of fact and fiction in your filmmaking, I was wondering if Championship Wrestling From Florida with the Grahams and Dusty Rhodes was an influence on your approach, with its blurring of reality in the presentation.

"I’ve never thought of it that way but I wouldn’t be surprised. It was such a huge thing in Florida. They were masters at creating this brand around these almost Broadway-level theatrical productions of wrestling, and creating these narratives that some people believed wholeheartedly. Dusty Rhodes was one of the biggest stars around at the time. I took it all in fun, but I’ve always been fascinated by how and why people believe so deeply in certain things. Blair Witch was certainly reflective of that, and so was Skyman."

What are you working on now?

"I just finished up a documentary with some former [U.S. Navy] SEAL Team Six guys. They were attempting to skydive in seven continents in seven days to create a world record. My team followed them through the process for several months. They just broke the world record. We’re editing that now and hopefully it will be done in December. Our plan is to premiere it in Tampa come February. I’m also working on a couple of scripts and attached to an upcoming television program."

Clayton Trutor holds a Ph.D. in U.S. history and teaches at Norwich University. He is the author of Loserville: How Professional Sports Remade Atlanta—and How Atlanta Remade Professional Sports and the forthcoming Boston Ball: Rick Pitino, Jim Calhoun, Gary Williams, and the Forgotten Cradle of Basketball Coaches. He’d love to hear from you on Twitter: @ClaytonTrutor.

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