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Slings and Arrows: An Interview with Joe Berlinger

by Dale Dobson

Director and co-screenwriter Joe Berlinger spent some time recently with dOc discussing his film, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. Berlinger's sequel to The Blair Witch Project met with harsh media criticism and middling box-office business during its theatrical release, largely due to its unconventional approach, which satisfied neither rabid fans nor mainstream moviegoers. Fortunately, Berlinger retains his good humor, and shared some candid thoughts about the project with us. Our conversation has been edited for continuity and clarity.

dOc: You must be pretty sick of doing Book of Shadows interviews by this time...

Berlinger: To be honest, I am pretty sick of it, but, hey!

dOc: I wanted to ask you about the writing process that you and Dick Beebe went through. I'm assuming it was fairly truncated?

Berlinger: It was ridiculous. It was not a normal writing process. I was hired first week of December with a February 15th start date, so we had basically three-and-a-half weeks to deliver the first draft, and then another three-and-a-half weeks before we started shooting. We wrote the script in about seven weeks, with a gun to our head because we had a production start date, which ultimately got pushed back to March 1st, but starting to write a movie from concept.... production in two-and-a-half, three months....

Berlinger:...was an unbelievable amount of pressure, y'know, and... there was not a normal process.

dOc: Did the pre-existing Blair Witch mythos... was that kind of a millstone, or were there times when it was convenient to say, 'let's see, we haven't talked about Rustin Parr, maybe we can work that in here'?

Berlinger: Well, initially, I don't think it was either. The studio gave me carte blanche to do what I had originally pitched them, which was a sort of social satire about the whole Blair Witch phenomenon. It was only later that things started getting shoved in about the mythology. I felt very free to do what I want, because, to me, I was making a sequel to the phenomenon, not a sequel to the movie. Because as a documentarian, I felt the way to be truthful to my documentary roots would be to make a film about a real event called the release of the movie and the cultural hysteria that it precipitated, instead of trying to continue to perpetrate a hoax.

dOc: I loved the comic documentary tone of the opening segment... I was like, 'Oh, this is a neat take on it!' and I was kind of hoping it would continue in that vein...

Berlinger: Oh well. You and eight hundred million others!

dOc: Have you gotten a lot of...

Berlinger: Shit?

dOc: (laughing) Well, that too, but... feedback from people who've seen the film aside from the press?

Berlinger: Actually, a lot of people really liked it. The press was incredibly vicious, I thought. I have gotten calls from people all over the country, people I haven't spoken to in ten or fifteen years, people writing me anonymously, saying that I got a raw deal with the press, that the press was out to get me, that they really enjoyed the movie.

dOc: There seemed to be a backlash against the original Blair Witch Project, which was in some ways oversold. A lot of people went to see it who really weren't going to enjoy it. I saw it with a group of four people, and of the four I was the only one who really liked the first film. And when you've set people up... the first one was kind of a ripoff, and they're kind of gunning for you the second the sequel is announced.

Berlinger: I knew I was stepping into a hornet's nest, but I chose to be somewhat original in how I approached the sequel, it wasn't just a cookie-cutter horror sequel. Which is why I objected to the gore being added in, because that pushed it more into the conventional horror genre. What I was originally intending on doing, I thought, was sort of a unique take. I was trying to be original, I was trying to not be derivative, so I thought people would appreciate it. Some did, some didn't.

dOc: I think the people who like it do appreciate that. I think it is a more watchable film... physically, actually... in fact, my wife thanks you for the abandonment of the "shaky camera" approach! But no matter which way you went, it wasn't going to be what people were expecting. I think that the things that really do work well are the originality, the video-versus-film... and there are some great little creepy moments in it too. You have some really nice visuals from a filmmaking perspective. Was the film improvised at all on-set, or did you have the shooting script ready to go when you started production?

Berlinger: Neither... the script was not totally ready to go, we were rewriting as we were shooting. But because of how I chose to shoot the movie (and I had a relatively small budget, believe it or not, for how I was choosing to shoot it) in a tight number of days, and I had to get through a certain number of scenes each day, there was not a lot of improvisation while we were shooting it. There was a lot of improvisation... I demanded a two-week rehearsal period with the actors, and the actors helped me shape the script through rehearsal exercises. But once we got to set, there was not a lot of improvisation; it was fairly tightly scripted. Which is ironic in the sense of how I normally work.

dOc: It sounds fairly naturalistic for the most part—the dialogue in genre films is often the weakest, weakest point. One thing that the two Blair Witch films have in common, I think, is that they're unique in the horror genre in that the more the viewer puts into it the more one gets out of it. You have to stop and think about what you've seen and give it another viewing to figure out what's going on, to thoroughly enjoy it. Do you think that viewers will have a better shot at "getting" the movie on home video where they can rewatch it or listen to the commentary on DVD?

Berlinger: Well, on DVD, I think if they read my statement that's printed [in the booklet] and they listen to my commentary... I'm very excited about this opportunity to re-present the movie. The problem with all that negative press that came out is that people's minds were poisoned, and I think the theatrical viewing experience, which normally should be the place to watch the movie... People had such a negative impression of the movie based on the reviews that I don't think they gave some of the deeper meanings and the deeper ideas that I was attempting to put on the screen a chance, because the movie was dismissed by so many critics. I think, on DVD—when they see what I was trying to do and they hear my commentary—I think the intelligent viewer will go deeper into it. It's a shame that it has to take me explaining the movie for people to get something out of it... it shouldn't be that way, but there was such a backlash that people just didn't want to deal with... I was damned no matter what. If I had just done a totally commercial horror movie without any thought for something deeper... to me, the movie is a parable about the dangers of blurring the line between fiction and reality.

My reaction to The Blair Witch Project was quite mixed. Creatively, as a storyteller—I consider myself both a storyteller and a journalist—as a storyteller, I loved the movie, for all the reasons that everyone else did. It was great storytelling. But it's one thing to, within the walls of a movie theatre, use a fake documentary approach as just one of many storytelling tools that we have available to us as filmmakers. It's quite another outside the theatre to sell it as real, and to go on the Internet and say, 'This is a real story.' As a documentary... as a real documentary filmmaker, I find that offensive. I find it offensive to tell people something is real when it isn't. It's one more chapter in our decades-long evolution that we've had, in so blurring the line between fiction and reality that one day we'll not know the difference.

And that's what this movie was supposed to be about, and I guess the lesson I learned is that in a commercial horror movie, people don't want to have moralizing about deeper issues. So those issues didn't go over people's heads, people just weren't open to it. I don't mean people can't understand it, I think people don't go into this kind of a movie expecting those kinds of messages. What made it worse was that the critics were so dismissive of the movie that it really didn't give it a shot, so the DVD is a good opportunity for people. I still feel I delivered a psychological horror movie that has some twists and turns, but it also has this subtext of trying to say something of some social value.

Which is what a documentary maker... the great irony of this is, people are critical that I did not run around the woods and shake the camera as "fake documentary." Well, that's not what documentary making is about—documentary making is about storytelling that has a social message. Paradise Lost and Brother's Keeper are really well-crafted, well-shot, non-shaky-cam movies that work both as pieces of drama, in the sense that they have a dramatic arc, but also have some very important things to say about society. So to be true to my documentary roots, I wasn't going to continue to perpetrate a hoax, and wallow in all the clichés of bad documentary making by shaking the camera around. And more importantly, those guys did it, they did a great job. Why would I do the same thing? That's derivative. So as a storyteller it would be derivative, and as a documentarian it would be dishonest. So I chose to tell a story, root it in the real events of the release, and try to make some sort of social commentary while delivering a commercial horror movie. (laughing) Unfortunately, nobody wanted this!

dOc: I didn't get a chance to see it in theaters, and I confess I went into it with kind of distorted expectations based on the press and some of the fan reaction. Listening to your commentary was interesting. I hadn't picked up on some of the symbolism from other horror movies in the delusions the characters were having. What you've essentially done is, you've made a really nice art-house horror movie, and I think a lot of people just didn't get it or weren't willing to get it when they went in. And some of the things that were foisted upon the film in the last stages of production didn't help either. Anyway...

What's next for Joe Berlinger?

Berlinger: I am going back to my roots of doing art-house movies. (laughs) I'm actually doing a bunch of things right now. I have two documentaries that I'm in pre-production on for HBO—one is about these yogurt shop killings in Austin, Texas, and another is about "death metal" music. And I'm in the process of finishing a script that Christine Vachon, who did Boys Don't Cry, is producing, which is the movie that... I went to Artisan long ago, November of '99, pitching them a movie that I was writing about this bizarre true crime case that took place in the 30s in L.A. To me, my first movie was going to be a five-to-eight million dollar picture that hopefully went to Sundance and maybe got released on fifty screens. And then the big release would have been the 300-screen rollout if it was doing really well. And so, I was pitching them this movie, and somehow they decided they would see if I wanted to do Blair Witch 2. Anyway, the movie [for which] I'm now putting the finishing touches on the script is the movie that I was trying to do before I did Blair Witch 2. And I'm doing a bunch of commercials. I'm very busy. I don't consider myself this big studio filmmaker, and I probably am going to go back to being more of an art-house kinda guy.

dOc: I think that Blair Witch 2 ultimately will stand as part of your body of work, that in the long term we'll recognize Joe Berlinger's work in that film, even though it was an entry in this other series. I think it was artistically a smart thing to make the film you wanted to make. Time will pass, and DVD often does provide opportunities for films like this, that were overlooked at the box office and may find their audience more readily on video.

Are any of your other films available on DVD yet?

Berlinger: Well, actually this year, Paradise Lost, Revelations and Brother's Keeper are all coming out on DVD. This will be later in the year. New Video on Paradise Lost, and Winstar for Brother's Keeper.

dOc: We look forward to seeing some of your other work.

Berlinger: Great!