Here’s an abbreviated transcript of my conversation with Dan. Check out the audio here for the whole thing.
Dan, your new movie is The Objective. What’s the story in a nutshell?
Well, basically, it revolves around a group of special forces guys that are led into the sacred mountains of Afghanistan by this CIA agent, and they’re supposedly in search of this cleric to get a statement from him to help with their effort with the Northern Alliance, and it ends up being kind of a mystical search for a UFO that this CIA agent is on, and so strange things start to happen to these guys, and towards the end of their mission, you find out that they’re up against something that none of them were really prepared to deal with.
So this is almost kind of like Iraq War meets X Files?
In a way, yeah. At its heart, it’s a good old fashioned kind of psychological thriller.
So it’s more Mulder and Scully in fatigues rather than just being fatiguing.
Yeah, that’s a good way to look at it.
So Scarlett Johansson’s in this movie.
Not Scarlett, no. Her sister, Vanessa. It’s funny how everyone goes, hey, the Johansson’s, as long as there’s a Johansson in there.
Is there really a Vanessa Johansson in this movie?
I was just making that up about Scarlett. I thought I was helping you, and obviously, you don’t need any help.
No, actually her sister has a small little role towards the end of the film as the CIA agent’s wife, so there is – we have one degree of -
One degree of Scarlett.
- of Scarlett there, yeah.
That’s one enough for me. No Baldwins, though, you don’t have any Baldwins.
No Baldwins, sorry.
Now, you guys filmed this in Morocco? I’ve heard that from other people who have shot other things in Morocco that the bugs there are the size of goats.
Well, we didn’t run into a lot of bugs. We did run into a lot of goats though, so the goats are definitely the size of goats. But yeah, we spent most of our time out on the desert, and we didn’t run into too much wildlife out there, except for the occasional camel and there’s a few critters running on the ground, lots of scorpions.
Not to imply anything about this, but Michael Bay would have brought the desert to him.
Yeah, well, I think he has enough access to sand to do that, so he would build that on a stage somewhere.
Now, is it true that the Sex and City movie was filming right down the way from you guys on the desert in Morocco?
Yeah, I’m sure. It was a little glitzier production than ours was, but -
Yeah, well, you know, Carrie’s outfits play off so well against the backdrop of mud huts -
Oh, yeah, I’m sure they coordinated that, the full color scheme.
When can we expect The Objective in theaters around the country?
Well, I hope soon. We are going to Tribeca with the goal of getting a distribution deal that will go domestic and hopefully theatrical, so that’s kind of the holy grail for us and we have high hopes for it. We think it’s a very cool and intriguing movie. It’s a thoughtful genre film that’s a little bit out of the norm that I think Hollywood is used to putting out, and we hope it gets picked up.
You know, post-Blair Witch, there must have been tons of stuff thrown at you.
Yeah, certainly, it was fortunate that Blair offered us a lot of opportunities, and fortunately, there’s – finding good scripts and good projects to get behind are rare. And we certainly had a lot of stuff thrown at us that, you know, I wouldn’t have really considered high on my list of quality films -
I’m going to guess that you had next to nothing to do with that Blair Witch sequel, Book of Shadows.
Yeah, I mean, Ed and I -
Wait, here’s my theory, and you tell me if this is true. You finish the first movie. It’s this huge hit beyond anybody’s expectations, and the suits come to you with a big wad of cash, and a really new, fast, sporty car, and they say, let us use the name “Blair Witch,” and this wad of cash is yours, and you can drive that big, new, sporty, fast car anywhere you want, as fast as you want.
Yeah, I mean, they had the cash, not the car. I should have asked for the car. I mean, it was sort of like that.
You remember all those idiots that made the Blair Witch spoofs?
I was one of those idiots.
Oh cool. I think you owe me a royalty or something.
Uh oh. Maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned this. My idiotic spoof was called the Walt Witch Project, where I went to the wilds of Disneyland and was attacked at the end by Pluto, or as I called him at the time, a big goddamn dog.
Now, that’s scary.
It was scary, and although, you know, the sequel, Walt Witch II, Book of Shadows is off in the distance somewhere for me.
That’s a much bigger budget too, I’m sure.
Back to the original Blair Witch: I think people have completely missed the boat on something. Everyone keeps asking whether there will be another Internet-driven phenomenon like Blair Witch. I think the Internet didn’t drive the movie at all. In fact, it was exactly the opposite. You guys created a magic show. I saw a few minutes of it on TV the other night and the documentary parts are really a hundred percent authentic. It was a magic trick, and while we were watching your hands, you had things up your sleeves, and I think people have underestimated the impact of that.
I agree with you a hundred percent. I think you know, definitely the Internet helped us get the word out and helped drive awareness of the film, but ultimately the movie and the core concept of the film is what really people got their teeth sunk into, I think. That concept of missing footage was very compelling for people, and the movie ultimately had to pay off, and so we were lucky that our execution had really not been done to that degree before, and it was kind of new and it was counter-programming to Hollywood stuff, so there was a lot that went into making Blair successful, but I always like to believe you had to have a good story, good characters, and good execution. Otherwise, it’s just going to fall flat on its face no matter how much hype you have.
Do you have people asking you, “Hey, Dan, The Objective, is this going to be as big as Blair Witch?“
I mean, I don’t think anybody can predict that. I’d be happy if it was a quarter as successful, even remotely successful as Blair Witch, you know? There’s never going to be another Blair Witch again. There may be something like it or similar in its own way and huge and groundbreaking. But Blair came at a certain time, you know, and the genesis was five guys who got together and came up with this concept at a time when the Internet was coming up and reality programming was coming up. So all those things intersected at once to make it what it was, and they’ll be another intersection of something else.
But The Objective, I like to think of as just a good, solid film. Hopefully, it’ll be successful, and add to my body of work that isn’t just about Blair Witch. It’s about Blair and several other things, so that’s my long-term hope.
By the way, has it occurred to you that the entire Iraq War is kind of a rip off of Blair Witch?
Because, after all, what did we go in there for, right? And we never found it, did we?
We never found it, and we didn’t know what we were getting into.
Right, and now we’re not going to get out alive.
It’s much scarier, actually.
In Blair Witch you also tapped into something that defined “scary” in ways people didn’t understand then and still don’t understand now, because, fundamentally, the movie was about an invisible witch you didn’t see who was really good at crafts.
Very good at crafts. That is spooky in its own right.
But here’s my point: The movie was full of stuff that was a little bit odd, you know? It was the odd-ness of the climax that was terrifying, I thought. Just the fact that there’s a guy standing in a corner facing that corner not moving was horrifying, and it was just a guy standing there.
Well, fear is rooted in the unknown, and that’s what a lot of studios and filmmakers don’t get sometimes. It isn’t so much about throwing in some cliché that we think is scary. It’s really rooted in our survival instinct that what we don’t know and understand scares us. So within the limitations of budget, which is what we faced on Blair Witch, we tried to come up with ways to scare people that didn’t require a lot of money to execute, and we just skewed on the side of keeping it unknown, allowing that fear to manifest itself in the audience’s head rather than trying to conjure something up that we just didn’t have the budget to do. Some of my favorite films of the past dealt in that realm of the unknown. What you don’t see is much more terrifying than what you do, and I’ve always thought that that was more powerful.
But isn’t it funny how filmmakers forget that all the time, and what have we learned other than if you go to a refrigerator and open the refrigerator door, and then close the refrigerator door, there’s going to be something “scary” on the other side of that door which wasn’t there before you opened it.
Right. Yeah. I mean, it’s tempting. You get these big budgets, and you know, you’ve got all this cool CGI stuff, all these tools and to play with, and it’s hard to resist.
Well, how did you deal with that on The Objective?
Well, we didn’t have that much more money, so it was pretty easy.
Well, it certainly looks like there’s some money on the screen and the trailers.
Well, there’s certainly more than Blair, which is not saying much, but it depends on the movie and the conceit of the film and how of that you can get away with, because you know there are arcs to film and arcs to the “monster” and you need to have some sort of pay-off in the end, but it depends on how you reveal the “scare,” and I’ve always liked to convey a level of ambiguity about what you’re seeing.
You’re not quite sure how to kind of define it, and that I find is scary, so our scare, our “monster” in this film is something that’s really kind of hard to define, and several people may have different opinions on that, but I like that. I like when films ask you to define what it is and pose those questions when you’re watching them, rather than just giving you, oh here’s the witch, here’s the monster with big fangs, or whatever. I like when films force the audience to work a little bit.
Why don’t we do that more? Why do we take the easy way so often?
Because it’s successful. I mean, you can’t argue with a lot of these films that make a lot of money at the box office, and until they stop making money, they’re going to keep getting made, so it’s a little riskier for studios that are putting millions and millions of dollars behind something to take those kinds of chances. I just personally feel as a filmmaker that they end up making better movies that way, but it’s just kind of hard to push back against films that are much more mainstream that are making a lot of money.
What’s your take on the “CW network version” of Blair Witch, Cloverfield?
I thought it was very cool. You know, it’s interesting how that kind of technique is still being employed, and I always thought that somebody should do it on a big scale like that. I think my only criticism of the movie was that they didn’t go all the way with it. That it felt like the characters and actors felt a little too mainstream and I didn’t find them to be as authentic as they could have been –
Are you trying to say you wish – you’re glad they all got killed, is that it?
I was kind of rooting for them get eaten. I like the monster, but I’m that way on all those monster movies.
The movie is The Objective. It opens at Tribeca and, hopefully, theaters within the next few months. And Scarlett Johansson’s sister is in there and probably a third cousin of Faye Dunaway if we look hard enough.
Somewhere in there, if you dig enough.