Nearly ten years ago, director Daniel Myrick unleashed the now legendary low budget horror film The Blair Witch Project. With his handheld, pseudo documentary style, Myrick changed the look of the modern day horror film. This new faux-reality genre has ushered in a number of hit films in its wake, including the very popular Cloverfield and the upcoming The Poughkeepsie Tapes. Now, Myrick is returning to the genre that he helped define with The Objective.
The Objective takes audiences into an unknown, mysterious and remote location of Afghanistan. It is a land shrouded in uncertainty, dominated by spirituality and superstition and inhabited by a population that has only known war and invasion throughout its history. Shot on location in the Middle East, the film takes contemporary America into the heart of its current international uncertainty. As the film's protagonists blindly search remote desert mountains for an unspecified objective, they encounter an enemy they know little about. And one can't help but draw parallels with recent US military operations in the Middle East.
We recently caught up with Myrick to discuss his return to the big screen with this follow-up film to The Blair Witch Project. Here is our conversation:
Can you tell me about the story without giving too much away?
Daniel Myrick: Sure. It revolves around a CIA agent that has been tapped to go on this covert mission in Afghanistan. He recruits a group of Special Forces guys to help him find this cleric in the sacred mountains in a remote area of the country. They suddenly realize that the CIA agent has a different agenda. Spookiness ensues. They find themselves up against something they weren't ready to deal with.
And that brings in the supernatural element, right?
Daniel Myrick: Right.
Do you consider this an allegory for the conflict that is on-going in the Middle East?
Daniel Myrick: It wasn't really intended to be that. But a lot of people have made that connection. It does represent a fighting force that goes headfirst into a situation that it doesn't quite understand. It is arguable if what they are searching for is truly benevolent. In that respect, yeah, it does have a lot of similarities as to what we are up against in both Iraq and Afghanistan. My intention was always to make a cool, thoughtful sci fi thriller. I wasn't trying too hard to make a political statement.
I watched the trailer this morning, and near the end there is this light force that seems to be attacking this group of Special Forces soldiers. Can you tell me more about that aspect of the story? Are these ghost?
Daniel Myrick: Yeah, sort of. It can be argued that there are some sort of entities out there. Ghosts. Some people think that what is out there are extraterrestrials. Maybe UFOs. Other people argue that this is some sort of spiritual thing. What you see in the film is based on folklore that revolves around this sort of mythology. It deals with the Vimanas. It is a triangular UFO that is known in that part of the world. It has a lot of spiritual and mythical connotations. Especially in India. One man's UFO is another man's religious experience. These entities could be considered ghosts or extraterrestrials. It all depends on your perspective.
A lot of war movies have come out in recent months, and audiences haven't been too perceptive to them. Do you think that putting a supernatural spin on this type of current war story allows the audience to accept it easier than something that is a straight up drama?
Daniel Myrick: I hope so. I think domestic audiences are a little fatigued when it comes to War message movies. Which is to be expected. This film uses Afghanistan and our presence there more as a backdrop. Not as a the motivating theme of the film. It is a good old fashion thriller that will hopefully pose some questions about perceptions on what can be considered a UFO. It is housed in a military context. Really, I don't consider it a military film.
What is your own personal perspective on UFOs and ghosts?
Daniel Myrick: I have always been more fascinated by how this stuff affects our social consciousness versus the phenomena itself. When I was growing up, I was a hopeful believer in UFOs and extraterrestrials. I still hold out on the possibility that they exist. As I grow older, and I grow more scrutinizing, I realize that the chances of us being visited by an entity such as that are highly remote. I do like to think that they are out there in some form or fashion. That they are out there in some way. But I am always fascinated by how they affect us as a society and a species. And how we respond to the possibility of these things being out there. I like playing with those themes. I like how we, as people, need to have a connection to something that is bigger and grander than ourselves. Whether it is religion or UFOs, I think there is a need to feel that there is something bigger than us out there. I find all of that very fascinating.
Were you scared of UFOs as a kid, or were they more intriguing to you?
Daniel Myrick: I think they were more intriguing. There are some signature photographs and some signature events that took place when I was growing up. This was in the 70s and the early 80s. UFOs were all the rage. So was Bigfoot. Those things inspired and influenced me. There were certain images that I felt were really creepy. They were really scary. Those things represent the unknown. How could they not be scary? But it was a fear that I wanted to investigate instead of run from. It was a fear that I would categorize as intriguing. I wanted to check it out. I didn't want to destroy or run away from it. I think that is why I responded so heavily to Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It came out around the evolution of my understand of this phenomena. That was the first film that I saw which tried to explain that extraterrestrials weren't malevolent. That they wanted to be our friends. I really found that refreshing. I guess that speaks to why I wanted to hop on their spaceship and fly off to space with them instead of wanting to shoot them.
How old were you when you saw Close Encounters of the Third Kind?
Daniel Myrick: I don't remember what year that came out. I don't know. I was pretty young. I was twelve or thirteen. Somewhere in that neighborhood.
You were old enough that it didn't scare the crap out of you.
Daniel Myrick: I was old enough to understand what was going on, definitely. I had a little UFO club in my room. Me and my friends were so intrigued by UFOs that we would go out on searches. We had all of the UFO magazines. Everything from Men In Black to UFO sightings. We would read everything, because we were so fascinated by that stuff. When you are young and impressionable, you think, "Man, this could happen in my backyard!" If you look hard enough, maybe one of these little men will come down and take you for a ride in their spaceship. But that is a childhood fantasy. It is rooted in who we are as a species. We need that grander intellect watching over us.
Are you one of the people that has gone and signed the petition to get In Search of... released on DVD?
Daniel Myrick: I haven't, but that would be awesome. I loved that show.
There are a lot of people pushing to get that released. Now, with The Objective, was that someone else's script that you rewrote?
Daniel Myrick: No, the script came from my original concept. I came up with the idea a little while ago. A lot of it was based on footage I was seeing online. These images from Afghanistan of guys with night vision goggles shooting at things. I thought that kind of imagery was very creepy. That merged with my need to do a horror film in the desert. I felt that the marriage of that need with what I was seeing on the internet would make a really good basis for a story. So I came up with this idea, I pitched it to the producers, and they really loved it. They are the ones that came up with the money. After that happened, I got together with my good friend Mark Patton. We wrote an outline, and that lead to the script. It is an original idea rooted in the visual language of what I have seen rooted in the internet.
I want to make something clear for the folks at home. I saw a little argument on the internet this morning. Some people think that Mike Patton, the singer, wrote this. But that is not true. It was Mark Patton.
Daniel Myrick: Yes. He likes to go by Mark A. Patton. So, no, Mike Patton didn't have anything to do with this.
With this project, you return to the same style of hand-held, documentary-like shooting that you utilized in The Blair Witch Project.
Daniel Myrick: Yes, but that is not to say it isn't cinematic. It is very cinematic. We shot it all in Morocco, and we shot it all on film. I like shooting in that style. I don't like to sound like a fatalist, because this has become such a cliche. I like the handheld doc style, but I want to avoid comparisons to The Blair Witch Project. Because this is not near the shaky-cam scope of that film. It does have a fluidness to the frame. And a lot of it was handheld. But we tried to keep it cinematic. My hope was to strike a balance. A hybrid between a documentary and a film with a traditional narrative. I wanted to hopefully reap the benefits of both. It enabled us to move ourselves through the production quickly, yet keep it all very cinematic. We had a higher production value than we would have normally gotten with this type of film.
You guys actually shot this in the Middle East. Did shooting it in this style make it easier for you to accomplish that?
Daniel Myrick: Absolutely. When you have a limited budget and a limited amount of time to shoot, you have to look at what you are working with and what is practical. You have to make the most out of it. My initial idea esthetically was to shoot this in a photo-box style. Doing that enabled us to go to foreign places and travel light. We didn't use a lot of equipment, and that allowed us to move fast. We didn't have a huge footprint in whatever location we found ourselves shooting in. It all worked out really well. We covered a lot of ground, and in turn we did not have a huge impact on the locals as a result. We were able to shoot in some nooks and crannies that we wouldn't usually have access to.
It's interesting that you are known as the person who kick started this handheld, pseudo-documentary style. What do you personally think of the projects that have come after The Blair Witch Project? Movies like Cloverfield and The Poughkeepsie Tapes?
Daniel Myrick: I think they are great. This is its own esthetic. What is interesting is that we have a whole new generation that is growing up with this esthetic. From the documentaries that come out, to these films, to reality programming, and the Internet. It certainly has become its own genre. Or sub-genre. I think it has its place just like anything else. It's not going to replace filmmaking. Sure, it's a lot cheaper to shoot that way. And it may be appealing to studios. But it has its own place, it has its own specific purpose and conceit. And that applies well to certain kinds of stories. I think Cloverfield is a good example. That is a very cool take on the typical monster movie. Where the monster comes in and smashes up Tokyo, or what have you. Shooting the film from that perspective is a very cool, ballsy move. I like that they are experimenting in that way. It is a new way to tell an old story. I think that is all good. I think it is fun. As long as it doesn't get too overused. Inevitably, it will. It's fun to see people taking chances with that format. It's fun for me to see that.
What's it like to be known as the Godfather of that genre?
Daniel Myrick: I don't really consider myself that. There were films that played around with that genre before we did it. These were films that we were inspired by. We watched all of the faux-documentaries. In Search of..., as you mentioned. Legend of Boggy Creek. Those kinds of films, which were narratives. So I don't consider myself the originator of that idea. Nor does Adam (his co-director on The Blair Witch Project). But, it is flattering to be associated with it. I have no regrets over the success of The Blair Witch Project. It's a double-edge sword. When you are known for that particular project, people want and expect you to do the same thing over and over again. It can be difficult to break out of that mold. But it is flattering. It was a lot of fun to see how big The Blair Witch Project got. And to see how people responded to it. It serves as a reminder to me that there are no real rules. If another The Blair Witch Project type film comes out, people are going to respond to it. It invigorates a system that gets stale overtime. I think that is a very healthy thing for the industry. I am really proud that I was a part of that. I look at it realistically. I am really hesitant to call myself the Godfather of this type of film.
In casting this film, you used something called the Abazab Playbox, right? What did that process entail?
Daniel Myrick: One of my big frustrations as a filmmaker is how static and uninspiring the casting process can be. It is the worst of both worlds. It is bad for both casting directors and actors. It is hard to assess someone's ability in that environment. If you have a particular day when you are having a casting call, some people can make it and some can't. Sometimes traffic is bad, and the guy that is right for the role is stuck out in that traffic. So, you have to sit in there for a day or two. And you are fried by the end of it. The casting process is just not the best way to access someone's talent. My thought was to use the internet and youtube. Places like that. There are millions of people sending in videos of themselves. So why not put up a script on our own website and have people do the audition from the comfort of their own home? Then they can send us their best work. Not only do we have a global reach that way, it benefits both the actor and the casting director. I can view this stuff when I am fresh over a cup of coffee each morning. We get a handful by the time I get in, and I can watch them first thing. And the actor gets to do his best work, and put up a tape of what they believe to be their best talent. It worked out really well. I got hundreds of different auditions for the many different roles. One of which we cast. Jeff Prewett from Australia. He is our Australian sniper in the movie. So it worked out really well for us, and I'm surprised more filmmakers don't use it.
Do you think it is something that will get more users in the near future?
Daniel Myrick: I don't see why not. It is a really cheap way of seeing a lot of people in the convenience of your own office versus the traditional cattle call. I will certainly use that platform again to look for people. The reality is that it depends on the kind of movie you want to cast. I was looking for unknowns. And for natural people. Preferably former military guys that could plug right into these guys that I had written up. However, if you are doing a movie that requires an A list actor, or some big talent, you are going to go through the normal channels. You will go to casting agents that have a preexisting relationship with that sort of thing. That system will always be in place. It is probably the most efficient way to cast those types of people. But for the low budget films that are looking for a wide variety of different people, this is a great way of doing it.
How many tapes did you get?
Daniel Myrick: Well, we had a system. We got hundreds of audition videos. But we had a couple of people that would screen those videos, and fish out the unwatchable ones. We got a ton of those. They would give me the good ones. It's just like when you get a bunch of scripts. You have a reader that reads through them, and they tell you which ones are unreadable. We had that filter. After they determined which ones were good, I would go through them. I had my top picks. Then my producers would review them. We'd put our heads together and narrow it down to the top two or three. Then we would contact them directly and ask for more. We wanted to see how they took direction. It all came down to the one right guy. And that was Jeff. If we hadn't of done it this way, we probably wouldn't have gotten him.
To wrap this up, you are debuting this film at the Tribeca Film Festival. How has that experience been?
Daniel Myrick: It has been amazing. We are very excited about being a part of Tribeca. Honestly, I think it is the best place to screen this type of film. It is a great festival, and a well respected festival. It is the new, hip place to go. And I love being in New York. I couldn't have asked for a better festival to world premiere the movie. We are very excited about it.
The Objective made its debut at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 24th, 2008. Stay tuned for the film's North American theatrical release date, which should be coming very soon.