The blockbuster season, which began with May's stories of vast crowds and huge profits for the new Star Wars film, has now hit its August peak. And what do we hear? Stories of vast crowds and huge profits--for The Blair Witch Project. Nowadays, when the naked emperor parades, blue jeans are as proper as ermine robes.
On a recent Monday, I scored a rare ticket to The Blair Witch Project and squeezed into a theater that was thrillingly jammed--at 10:30 pm--with the young and multi-hued. All had heard that Blair Witch was scary. The more credulous may also have taken at face value the film's premise, which had been circulated (as if true) on the Internet: We were about to watch the raw footage left behind by three student filmmakers who disappeared in the Maryland woods while shooting a documentary about local legends of witchcraft. Those addicted to entertainment "news" knew that the real filmmakers are named Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez and that they shot this fiction on a reported budget of $60,000.
The picture started. Latecomers stopped pacing the aisles and settled into the neck-ache seats. On the screen three "student filmmakers" wandered about in the woods while in the audience a couple thousand moviegoers echoed the characters' main question: Why did we come here?
It turned out that Blair Witch offered a few laughs, one or two moments of shock and a hell of a lot of point-of-view footage--all of it expressionistically shaky and much of it nocturnal, with the average shot consisting of a floodlight's circle scanning a tangle of tree branches. "What happened? What happened?" the woman behind me kept asking her date. Had she put the question to me, I'd have said we'd been told, at tedious length, never to let a woman head a film crew. I could take away no other thought from Blair Witch, a fable about the disaster that ensued when "Heather Donahue" (impressively played by Heather Donahue) got to boss around her fellow film students. The guys even allowed her to read the map. No wonder they came to grief.
With "girls are trouble" as its sole idea--and the pushing of the audience's buttons its only goal--The Blair Witch Project brings to a new low the current meaning of independence in American film, even as it brings to a new cinematic high the American myth of the Big Score. Yes, George Lucas (an independent producer-director) is making a bundle on his new Star Wars. But Myrick and Sánchez have famously outdone him. Their film grossed more than $55 million in its first weeks in release, yielding a return on investment of 45,833 percent! This isn't a movie--it's an item of business news, about one of those gazillionaire-producing Internet stocks.
Fortunately, the summer has also brought a corrective in the form of Bowfinger, which gives you a more down-to-earth view of movie finance. According to its title character--a would-be filmmaker who's the goyish, West Coast cousin of Mel Brooks's producers--the budget of Blair Witch is nothing special. In fact, after you've accounted for the usual millions in front-end back-end deferred whozimawhatzis, all movies, all of them, are made for $2,184, cash.
It would take Steve Martin to convince you that such a statement might be true. And as it happens, by a lucky coincidence, Martin wrote Bowfinger and plays the lead. His absolute sincerity brings home the moral of the story: that in Hollywood, the improbable (not to mention the totally untrue) often turns out to be fact.
For example: When Bowfinger wants someone to perform a low-budget (and therefore life-threatening) feat for his cameras--dashing across eight lanes of freeway traffic--he assures the poor shnook that the cars are all operated by stunt drivers. This is a double joke. The butt of the first half is Jiff (Eddie Murphy), who lets himself believe Bowfinger's patent lie and then has to flex every part of his body, including the ears, to survive his little assignment. The butt of the second half is you. Once you ask how the director of Bowfinger, Frank Oz, got that shot of Eddie Murphy hopping across the road, you realize he must have used stunt drivers.