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In light of the negative views of our critics, and to offer our readers further insight, here we give director and co-writer Joe Berlinger a chance to discuss his reasons for – and approach to - Book of Shadows in his own words.

The Blair Witch Project was a unique cultural phenomenon. Whether or not they saw the movie, most media-conscious Americans, along with a huge swathe of moviegoers around the globe, heard the Cinderella-story of the little US$30,000 film that became one of the most successful independent movies of all time. To me, The Blair Witch Project represented the confluence of several key ingredients: the use of the internet to market a fictitious story as fact; the public’s active search for alternatives to standard Hollywood entertainment; and the widespread yearning, at the end of the 20th century (and into the 21st), for proof that the paranormal/supernatural exists in our very scientific, unspiritual world. It was a case of the right film at the right time, propelled by a new medium - the Internet. Because of the singular circumstances attending the film and its success, I thought a different kind of sequel - one that defies expectations - could be created.

    "a unique opportunity to break new ground"

The traditional choice for a sequel would have been to continue the story where the first movie left off. Because The Blair Witch Project was presented as a documentary, I thought it would be too much to ask audiences to once again suspend disbelief and accept that Heather, Josh and Mike were real students who actually are missing. After all, we all saw them on the covers of Time and Newsweek and on the David Letterman show. A more interesting approach would be to acknowledge the success of The Blair Witch Project and the worldwide cultural phenomenon that it precipitated - and then turn that idea on its head. By making a sequel about the impact of the first movie through five characters who are obsessed with it, I hoped to create a psychological horror movie that serves a mainstream audience while simultaneously commenting on the media-created event called The Blair Witch Project, thus connecting my first feature with the kind of social analysis I have undertaken in my documentary work.

    "going against expectations"

One key to commenting on how the media shaped and aided the creation of The Blair Witch Project phenomenon was to make a sequel that went against audience and media expectations. In addition to deciding to not continue the story where the first movie left off, I chose to abandon the production techniques that were a key factor in the first movie’s success - an ironic decision, since I am best known for cinéma-vérité explorations of backwoods America in Brother’s Keeper and the two Paradise Lost documentaries. It is my belief that one does not have to rely on production technique to create an emotionally truthful cinematic experience. The faux documentary conceit worked wonderfully in The Blair Witch Project, but to revisit that approach here would have been derivative and creatively unexciting, both for moviegoers and myself. Although I made use of mixed media (digital video, Hi-8 video, 16mm, computer graphics), this is primarily a 35mm film that uses the traditional tools of motion picture production, and reflects a conscious directorial decision to evoke classic horror movies in its look and feel.

In addition, Book of Shadows takes its characters out of the woods; all of the horror unfolds in an urban-style loft building. Finally, Book of Shadows defies expectations with the very central dramatic question that propels the narrative: are the five main characters the latest victims of the evil that resides in the Black Hills, or is it possible that the Blair Witch does not exist at all? Could our five obsessed Blair Witch groupies have gone on a killing spree not because of a "Witch", but because of mass hysteria seeded by the media frenzy surrounding The Blair Witch Project?

In many ways, Book of Shadows is a post-modern sequel. No characters from the first movie appear in the second (other than the unnamed evil - which may be a delusion); it refers to and comments upon the success of its predecessor and, finally, it questions the very existence of the series’ main star - the Blair Witch. This post-modern approach is reflected in the sequel’s title. A Book of Shadows is a witch’s diary of incantations and personal musings. But modern-day witches (Wiccans) will tell you that the movie misrepresented their religion, that theirs is a peaceful, earth-loving faith that has been falsely portrayed and exploited by the media. So the title is both a reference to the misinformation that contributed to the first movie’s success, and a clue that the five main characters lead a shadow existence - that ultimately, they have done something terrible they don’t remember.

While I wanted to depart from the first film, I felt it was important to find ways to honour its conventions.

    "the blurring of the line between fiction
    and reality"

The Blair Witch Project both stylistically and through its marketing, brilliantly blurred the line between fact and fiction. I wanted to find my own way to blur that line, as well as comment on it. As a documentarian, I was fascinated that many moviegoers left The Blair Witch Project convinced that they had seen an actual documentary, or at the very least, that the legend must be true. As a result, the real town of Burkittsville (population: 200) was overrun with thousands of people on a weekly basis. For that reason, I open this movie with a mini-documentary about the first film’s impact on the town. Book of Shadows explores the topical issue of whether violence in the media inspires real-life violence through five characters who are obsessed with an actual movie. Thus, I have attempted to create multiple layers of reality, blurring the line between fiction and reality through narrative themes rather than through production technique (shaky cam) and repeating the "found footage" conceit.

I also thought it was important to examine and comment upon the impact of the general conflation of fiction and reality that has occurred over the last decade or so. As a society, we have come to readily accept video as real - the more amateur the video, the more we accept its credibility; therefore, at the very core of my movies is 10 to 12 minutes of video footage, and the movie is about the search to determine what it depicts. The movie’s ending is open to interpretation and depends largely on your attitude towards video. There’s a line in the campfire scene when Jeff says, "Film lies, Kim. Video tells the truth," that’s a clue to pay attention to. Because ultimately by the end of the movie - and this is my interpretation as the film’s maker and it’s by no means the only interpretation - it’s possible to conclude that all the 35mm sequences have been the subjective delusions of five characters whose obsession with a media-generated event called The Blair Witch Project has led them into a state of mass hysteria.

   "psychological unraveling of the characters"

The Blair Witch Project was extremely effective in portraying the devolving psychological state of three characters in a predicament beyond their control. This psychological unraveling of characters, and the sense of inevitability that surrounded their fate, was to me one of greatest achievements of the first film, and something I wanted to bring to the second film.

As our characters start to unravel, they start having hallucinations - almost cliché horror movie moments that pay homage to classic horror movies and underscore the degree to which The Blair Witch Project and other horror movies have incorporated these clichés. These images, which have so permeated the characters’ consciousness, create a sort of alternate reality. For example, there are the barking dogs, which are an homage to The Omen; the instances of beings moving backwards/playing tapes backwards recall The Exorcist; Erica spinning counter-clockwise is a reference to Evil Dead 2; the sound of children crying echoes the original version of The Haunting; finally, the ghoulish eating of the owl is a reference to Night of the Living Dead.

    "fear of the unknown"

Finally, a tremendous legacy of the first movie was its evocation of the unknown. I wanted to express that idea by exploring a consistent theme from my documentary work - that Evil is human, not supernatural; that it comes from within, not from without. To me, what is truly scary is not some inexplicable supernatural force, but rather human action. Evil is what humans are capable of doing to each other, and then not remembering. I’m very interested in true human evil, so I thought one way to approach the sequel was to tell a story about five kids who don’t remember what they did, and may in fact be responsible for acts of unspeakable evil.

The Blair Witch Project was rightly hailed for being a gore-less experience that provoked fear without showing its source. Since Book of Shadows explores the very topical theme of human evil and whether or not it is inspired by media imagery, I felt it was necessary to portray images of graphic violence. I want viewers to ask: Does media violence alone inspire real life violence, or is that as simplistic and naïve as blaming the Blair Witch? Importantly, I don’t believe Book of Shadows glorifies violence - in the end, the characters experience a tortuous journey. Two of the characters meet horrific deaths; while the remaining three are left defeated, confused and isolated at the end of the movie.

I hope people see Book of Shadows as a meditation on violence in the media, and how the media shapes an event. I hope this film does what I have always endeavored to do in my work: examine complex subjects with the respect and thought they deserve. I like to raise issues and present both sides, and not necessarily answer the question.

Published 18/1/2001

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Director and Co-Writer
Joe Berlinger

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