‘Blair Witch’ star James Allen McCune wants you to feel his terror in VR

Lionsgate has revived The Blair Witch franchise after 17 years. Brushing aside any bad memories of Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, the new movie is being marketed as a true sequel to the original film. Blair Witch, in theaters Friday, returns to the found footage genre that the first film introduced back in 1999. The original movie earned over $140 million at the box office on a $60,000 budget, and launched a franchise that would span a traditionally filmed sequel, three video games, and multiple books.

With a reported budget of $5 million, Blair Witch has the potential to revive the franchise to both connect with a new audience that never experienced the original in a theater, and remind older filmgoers why the original haunted their dreams.

“Found footage is actually a creative way to make a movie, if you do it right.”

Actor James Allen McCune, who horror fans will recognize for his recurring role as Jimmy in The Walking Dead season 2, plays James, the younger brother of the lead character in the original film, Heather (like the original actors, he used his real first name). His character is the catalyst behind a camping trip with a group of three friends (and two local Blair Witch “experts”) into the woods of Burkittsville, MD in search of his long lost sister. That sets up another “nightmare in the dark woods” scenario, which both pays homage to the original and sets the foundation for further exploration.

In an exclusive interview with Digital Trends, McCune discusses the role new technology has played in improving the horror experience (the new film features a drone camera), and explains why Blair Witch should get a next generation video game experience.

Digital Trends: What was it like stepping into this franchise?

James Allen McCune: It was wild. There was a lot of pressure to live up to the standards of the first one. But as we got into filming, the excitement was more intense than the fear of disappointing fans of the original. We knew there was no way to recreate what happened in the original, but we tried to do justice to that film.

Did you guys film in Maryland where they shot the original?

No. I wish. We were able to shoot longer in Vancouver (BC). We were in the southern tip of it, on the border of Washington with similar foliage (to Maryland). The funny thing was that we had to find the most boring part of the most beautiful area and shoot in those woods to match the original.

Blair Witch introduced the found footage genre, but a lot of others have copied it. What were the challenges of bringing something fresh to found footage movies after a lot of people are over this style of filmmaking?

I had trepidation about the found footage aspect. In fact, that was my first question when I met with (director) Adam Wingard and (writer) Simon Barrett. I was put off by it because there’s this weird climate around found footage. It’s super cheap to make, so it’s something where people could make their money back easily on pretty mediocre films. It’s actually a creative way to make a movie, if you do it right. It’s not a garbage medium. It doesn’t have to be disappointing because there have been cheap movies done before.

Simon wrote a great script and this is a creative take on some of the tropes surrounding the found-footage medium — like why are they still filming this? I’m happy with how they innovated around these tropes and incorporated everything into the story.

How cognizant was everyone that the second movie, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, just didn’t deliver the scares of the original?

I avoided watching the second one before we filmed because it’s not canon. It’s irrelevant to the story of the first one. I just watched it recently. I do think they tried something daring, but if it weren’t for that film not working out there wouldn’t have been as much motivation to make this one the way it is. They really got fired up about doing a proper sequel.

How did advances in digital camera technology help you guys shoot this film, since the actors are all essentially videographers as well?

“About 80 percent of everything you see of me in the last part of the movie I filmed myself.”

That was super cool. It was interesting to shoot things that are intentionally supposed to look shitty. We had this great camera gear and we had a genius camera team, but you can’t get the connection looking down the barrel of a lens unless the actor is behind the camera. It became easier for me to just wear the camera. About 80 percent of everything you see of me in the last part of the movie I filmed myself. There’s something very special about that … to know I had a huge part in how the movie came out because I filmed it, I lit it, and I acted. It’s really a gorgeous film for a found footage film.

The in-theater experience also has improved over the last 17 years thanks to technology. What do you think of the advances in surround sound like Dolby Atmos?

The sound design is my favorite part of the whole movie. It’s incredible. It could be argued that it shouldn’t be that good because it’s a found footage film. But it’s the most shaking, disturbing thing, and it wraps around you under Adam’s direction. He’s a visionary and he knows what he wants. He spends a lot of time on sound and was particular on what he wanted. I don’t think this movie would be a fifth as good as it is without that amazing sound experience.

Why do even the high-tech LED flashlights always go out when you need them at night in the middle of the woods?

I feel like the witch is fully aware of technology and how it works, and she knows she’s being filmed and followed and looked at. And she’s just screwing with people. She can control the light and power of where things are moving, and even time itself. When she sees these flashlights, she’s manipulating them. The light emitting from the flashlights is going to someplace else. When you think about it, who puts all the footage out for people to find? She has a lot more power than people think.

What are your thoughts on virtual reality and being able to enter these woods through the Blair Witch 360-degree experience?

I tried that experience and it’s super cool. When I watched this movie the first time I was thinking what a shame it was that people don’t understand how it feels to be out there in the woods. The movie is scary, but it’s nothing compared to us being out there at night surrounded by those trees. The VR experience felt like I was going back out to the woods in Vancouver. I hope they keep doing these things and refining them

It sounds like you’re a VR fan.

There’s something about VR. I’m a super dork and love video games. I’ve tried some VR things — some have been good and some aren’t. I wouldn’t be surprised if the next level of entertainment is VR-based and when you go to the theater everyone puts on a VR headset.

It’s tricky to get people to go see a movie in theaters today. Blair Witch is playing in D-Box Theaters with the shaking seats. Just think if they gave you a 360-degree headset. Everyone would want to go to the movie.

When you were reading the script were you glad that your character didn’t have to go crawling through the underground tunnels?

Callie (Hernandez) nailed the hell out of that. That scene is one of my favorite horror movie scenes ever. I’m jealous that I didn’t get to do that. Once people see the movie, that scene will be talked about the most.

How did getting attacked by the Blair Witch compare to being devoured by zombies on The Walking Dead?

They were both pretty disturbing. I remember after filming that last scene in The Walking Dead I had nightmares for weeks about being eaten alive. With Blair Witch I had nightmares as well. But what’s scarier about Blair Witch is thinking about what might have happened instead of death.

Back in 2000 Gathering of Developers released three Blair Witch video games from three different game developers exploring Rustin Parr, the Legend of Coffin Rock, and the Elly Kedward tale. What opportunities do you see today’s video game technology opening up for this franchise?

I’m very familiar with those games, I’m glad the climate is so much better now. It presents a better opportunity to do a better job with games. There’s a humongous missed opportunity if they don’t make an incredible Blair Witch game.

I’ve played (Hideo Kojima and Guillermo del Toro’s game) PT, and when horror is done right it’s scary. I like what they’re doing with Resident Evil 7. There’s simply no excuse not do a game about Blair Witch, which has everything from the time-dimensional shifting to being chased through the woods. Kind of like the VR website experience where the woods shift whenever you turn. I will be very bothered if there’s not a game inspired by this film.

Blair Witch hits theaters Friday, September 16.

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