Viewers who are drawn into the clever fictional construct of The Blair Witch Project might be surprised to see a director of photography credited for the film. The distributor, Artisan Entertainment, is presenting this scary mock documentary as if it were the real thing--as if three student filmmakers went off into the Maryland woods in search of the title creature and were never heard from again. What we're seeing, supposedly, is their 16mm black-and-white film and High-8 video footage, found in the forest a year after their disappearance.
So what exactly did DP Neal Fredericks do on The Blair Witch Project? Everything but the actual shooting. "Before the film started, the directors, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, and I planned out where the actors where going to be each day," Fredericks says. The three principals, Heather Donahue, Michael Williams, and Joshua Leonard, were turned loose for eight days in the woods, and instructions (along with film magazines) were left for them at drop-off points every day. For example, "We made sure they photographed some scarecrows in the late afternoon light. That was one way I was able to control the look of the film.
"The second way is that the 16mm footage was shot on Kodak's 7231 200ASA film, which we pushed two stops for grain. The camera light for night shooting was a 750W ENG light; Ed and I did tests to make sure that you could only see 20' (6m) in front of the camera." The video, which makes up about 75% of The Blair Witch Project, is meant to be putative director Donahue's "making of" account; the film, shot by Leonard, represents the actual documentary footage.
"We wanted to convey a different emotional feeling with the 16mm," says Fredericks, who shot student films for the directors at the University of Central Florida. "As for the black and white, when we were students, we all had to shoot it. It also meant we didn't have to worry about color reproduction." When Artisan picked up The Blair Witch Project at the Sundance Film Festival, the entire movie was transferred to 35mm.
During preproduction, Fredericks conducted training classes with the actors, who had no experience shooting film and very little with video. "I explained basic composition to them, but I didn't get too strict, because we wanted them to capture things spontaneously," he says. "If the camera happened to be pointed down at the ground, and they had to tilt it up really fast, we wanted to get that reaction."
If that meant that "almost the whole film's out of focus," then so be it. "I always want to point out that Blair Witch does not represent my cinematography at all," the DP says, adding that an upcoming independent film titled Dreamers does this much better. But for now, The Blair Witch Project, which caused a sensation at Sundance and was released by Artisan in July, is likely to be Fredericks' best-known calling card.
"Part of me wishes it were more of a traditional film where I could flex my cinematography muscles, because it's kind of hard to watch from a DP point of view," he says. "The other side of it is, they tell everybody that the actors shot it. So you get weird reactions when they introduce you as the director of photography."