The Blair Witch Project is a textbook example of how to write a successful script for the independent market. What appears to be sloppy filmmaking by amateurs is really just one element of a strategy that turns weaknesses into strengths.
What were the writers faced with as they approached this project? They had very little money and a lot of trees. That meant their script had to have few characters and would have to be shot on video. Most indie screenwriters tell their story and if money problems mean they have to shoot on video, that’s too bad. The film looks video cheap and maybe the audience will overlook that and maybe it won’t.
In a time-honored tradition, these writers decided to use the horror genre for their first film. But that created another problem. The average horror picture is highly stylized, with a number of precise story beats that are usually presented with gory special effects. But that takes money to do in a believable way.
And even if they had the money, these writers didn’t want to do the standard Hollywood horror pic. All they’d end up with is a film that looks like all the others in a genre that doesn’t have much respect.
But these two writers had an ace up their sleeve. They took their knowledge of the horror genre and figured out how to turn their production weakness into a story strength. Why not make the use of video part of the story? By making the main characters documentary filmmakers, the video look is not a constant reminder of what is missing, but seems totally appropriate for the characters and the situation.
More importantly, video makes this world very undramatic. The characters talk about the shoot, the equipment, the filmmaking process. The camera work is misframed. Not because these filmmakers couldn’t frame correctly but because the “wrong” frame tells the audience these characters are real people in harsh physical and emotional surroundings.
By starting with an undramatic world, the contrast to the super-dramatic at the end of the film is more extreme and more believable. This isn’t some obvious contrived Hollywood world. This is real kids getting lost in the woods and becoming desperate to find a way out as someone hunts them down.
This undramatic world, which dominates at least the first half of the film, would be story suicide for an audience used to fast starts and relentless attack were it not for another smart story technique. The writers use a framing device that tells the audience this is all found footage from three people who disappeared a year before. Again the writers make the video part of the story.
The main function of this framing device is to overcome the audience’s impatience with the slow, non-dramatic opening. The writers are signaling a worthwhile endpoint, in effect saying to the audience, “Go with us on the slow opening because we are going to give you the payoff you want later.”
This use of anti-drama to increase drama is the same technique Francis Coppola and Mario Puzo use many times in the first Godfather film. For example, Clemenza takes a leak on the side of the road while a traitor is assassinated in the car. When it’s over, Clemenza orders the killer to “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.” Murder is part of this man’s everyday world, and he doesn’t think twice about it. That is far more horrifying than a hyper-realized mafia world which the audience can keep at a distance because it’s nothing like the world they live in.
Similarly, in this world, horror is not something you see in a movie theater. It is part of these woods, part of three inexperienced kids getting lost in an indifferent nature, part of a two hundred year witch lore that may be silly superstition but may not.
Of course, none of these anti-dramatic techniques would work if the writers didn’t have the dramatic story beats to play off of. That’s where their knowledge of the horror genre pays off. Horror is one of the most precise of all genres, and virtually every beat of the classic horror story is found here. The writers also know the basic story structure elements that go into building conflict.
These horror and story structure beats aren’t some formula that good writers avoid. They are the ingredients of a good story, the steps human beings take trying to solve a life problem.
Could there be more of these story elements in this film? Sure. For all the smart thinking that went into The Blair Witch Project, it is still missing a number of story techniques, especially in the area of plot. But a $30,000 budget is a severe limitation, as anyone who has tried to make a low-budget film will attest.
What can writers and directors learn from this film? First and foremost, learn the elements of structure and genre well enough that you can twist them in an original way. Second, if you want to make an independent film, figure out how to turn production weaknesses into story elements. Make the audience think you are shooting the picture this way because the story requires it.
Once again, it all comes down to story.