I’ve always been excited by the democratization of the film industry, which is why I’ve kept one foot so solidly planted in the independent world for so long.
In 1994, three young filmmakers walked into a wooded area in Burkittsville, Maryland in search of a legendary witch. They were never to be seen again. A year later, their footage was found.
The Blair Witch Project is one of the most successful independent movies ever made. Armed with a barely-there budget of $25K, the mock-documentary went onto earn $248 million at the worldwide box office in 1999. Artisan Entertainment, the now-defunct studio that purchased the rights to the film out of the Sundance Film Festival, went to great lengths to keep its three stars—Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael Williams “playing themselves”—away from the press pack for a time in the lead-up to release, and didn’t correct websites like IMDB when they falsely claimed that the actors were gone for real. Notwithstanding such ingenuity, the film’s greatest feat was catapaulting the found footage sub-genre—after Cannibal Holocaust—for better or for worse.
Two decades on, those fictional witch hunters are not only alive and well, one of them has been working steadily in film, both in front of and behind the camera. This year, Leonard will go to bat with Behold My Heart, his sophomore narrative feature as writer and director, which stars Marisa Tomei, Timothy Olyphant, and star-of-tomorrow Charlie Plummer. But right now, we find him on the other side of the lens in Steven Soderbergh’s entirely unexpected genre romp Unsane.
Shot on the iPhone à la Sean Baker’s Tangerine—the first major title given the “iPhone movie” label—Unsane shadows a businesswoman (Claire Foy) who’s involuntarily committed to a mental institution where the architect of her fears, who may or may not be gaslighting her, roams its halls.
Unsane is now playing in select theaters.
Where are you based nowadays, Joshua?
We live in L.A., but we’ve been in New York since January because my wife is doing a show on Broadway. [Joshua’s wife, Alison Pill, is currently performing in Three Tall Women with Glenda Jackson and Laurie Metcalf.] So we’re New Yorkers for six months.
How are you liking it on the East Coast?
Oh, I love it. I grew up in Pennsylvania and lived in New York for years, and my wife grew up in Toronto and lived in New York for years as well. It’s like a homecoming.
With Unsane, I know Steven Soderbergh wanted to keep the iPhone detail a secret, at least in the beginning. I do think people get fixated on stuff like that. If you remember, every headline for Sean Baker’s Tangerine was about it being shot on the iPhone, which can undermine the work in many ways. Was acting for the iPhone a mostly positive experience?
First and foremost, I’ve always been excited by the democratization of the film industry, which is why I’ve kept one foot so solidly planted in the independent world for so long. I’m an impatient person and I don’t like waiting around for permission to make stuff. This to me is a whole new chapter—a new evolution in bringing technology to the masses. I’m thankful for Sean Baker for really being the first pioneer out there and Steven following up in saying that you have the technology in your pockets to make a film. We’ll see how people respond to Unsane, but I think it’s really exciting that this film is getting the platform that it is. That obviously has a lot to do with Steven and his past body of work, and with Claire [Foy]. I think people really love her as an actress and this is an exciting opportunity for people to see something that she hasn’t done before.
What was so cool about it was that the iPhone is such an omnipresent piece of technology in all of our lives at this point. I’ve got a 16-month-old daughter so everybody’s always pulling out their iPhone to take pictures of her. It’s something that’s so integrated, both consciously and subconsciously, into our lives. It no longer feels like filmmaking with a capital F. I was so much more focused on being in the space—the room—with my collaborators and scene partners. It’s almost as though the recording technology disappeared into the background. I’m going to paraphrase terribly, but Susan Sontag wrote that great essay on photography where she refers to the lens of a camera as the barrel of a gun, and that potency of being on both sides of the lens and the power of that. I think shooting with the iPhone allows you to forget that a little bit, maybe because a) we’re used to it and b) it just physically takes up so much less real estate in the room.
There seems to be a lot of advantages to shooting on the iPhone: efficiency, stealth, and it certainly keeps the budget down considerably. What are some downsides?
Well, I don’t think you want to make Dunkirk on the iPhone. [Laughs]
That would be a different movie.
It would be a very different movie! Hell—I don’t know, maybe it’d be cool. But I think the drawbacks right now are the sensors still being small so even though you’re recording in 4K native and you’ve got a ton of data, you don’t have a ton of control over depth of field, which is part of what Steven worked into the aesthetics of the film itself. You get these big tableau shots where everything’s in focus so you have a little less control as a filmmaker in terms of what you want people to put their eyes on. I also think if someone hasn’t invented the technology already, that’s probably a few years from being fixed. I think we’re only going to see more films made like this over the next five to ten years because why wouldn’t we? If you’re a filmmaker and you’re trying to make a film, there’s no excuse to not make a film anymore because you own the technology.
Steven never seems to shy away from adapting to change, whether it’s format or technology. I mean, look at Mosaic. He’s not a purist in the way that a lot of old school filmmakers can be, especially when it comes to shooting digital versus film, which can hinder you going forward.
I remember that whole discussion going on with certain filmmakers at Cannes this year: They didn’t want films in competition that were made by Netflix. I think we’re living through such a fascinating moment in history in the sense that old paradigms are just being obliterated every day across the board, whether it’s what’s going on with politics about gender dynamics or antiquated notions about audience appetites. I think a classic and traditionalist approach to filmmaking is another one of those things. What’s always been so inspirational to me about Steven is his willingness—his hunger—for challenges. I think there are many filmmakers sitting on the kind of body of work that he’s made who wouldn’t want to experiment and take a risk on something that has a good chance of not working. I don’t think that’s ever been what drives him as an artist, but if you look at his body of work, he’s never stopped experimenting, whether it’s with genre or technique or shooting style or the number of jobs that he’s willing to take on on any given set or with distribution. I think he’s a classic example of what it means to stay curious as an artist. It’s the reason that I’ve always esteemed him as a filmmaker. It’s the reason that I was sitting there on set, whether I was in the scene or not, because I just wanted to watch what he did and learn.
You’ve gone so far beyond The Blair Witch Project at this point, but I do want to bring up that film’s legacy. It not only launched the found footage sub-genre into the mainstream market, it’s one of the greatest examples of a film catching lightening in a bottle. It’s an almost impossible feat. What did you learn through that totally unique experience in film?
When I was hired to do Blair Witch, I was in my early 20s. I was working as a videographer in New York City for an experimental film company called Mystic Fire Video. They were truly outré. We distributed all the Kenneth Anger, Derek Jarman and Maya Deren films, as well as what Paul Morrissey did in collaboration with Andy Warhol. So that was my primary qualification on Blair Witch, since they needed actors who knew how to run a camera. My father was a theater professor who had cast me in plays when I was little kid so I thought I knew how to act. [Laughs] I think that tiny bit of acting experience in combination with some technical prowess got me that job.
Coming into Blair Witch, I already wanted to be involved in making films, but understood nothing about the film business. Whenever I talk about Blair Witch, I really have to parse it out into two separate chapters: one being the film that we made, which I’ve always thought of as like a punk album that a bunch of kids recorded in their mom’s basement in Orange County becoming a seminal album. None of us knew what we were doing. It was absolutely an experiment. There were no stakes whatsoever because no one was paying attention to what we were doing. I’m still very proud of that film. And since the film does work, the second chapter of it was the lightening in a bottle effect you’re talking about. The stars aligned. We did one of the first-ever Internet marketing campaigns. We were at the dawn of reality television and that was something people were becoming interested in. The movie became something that was out of all of our controls. People ask, “Did you ever imagine that it would be as successful as it was when you were making it?” and the answer is, “Of course not!” [Laughs] We had no idea that anybody would ever see the film, much less that I’d still be talking to you about it 20 years later. Again, I was a 20-year-old kid. I had no idea what an anomaly it was! I didn’t have enough context in my own life or career to understand that it was really a once in a lifetime experience. I certainly know that now.
I think there were similar impulses behind making Blair Witch and making Unsane: “Let’s make what we can with the resources we have, and let’s do it today!” Then there are two big differences: With digital video being where it was in 1997 when we made Blair Witch, the aesthetics had to be worked into the actual concept of the film. These are three broke student filmmakers who bought a cheap Hi8 camera at Walmart because that’s what they could afford. That’s why the film’s going to look like shit. When we shot Unsane, I think we all assumed that it was a Steven Soderbergh experiment that was probably going to be released through a streaming service, like a Netflix or an Amazon. It really wasn’t until Steven was doing the color correction and looking at it projected on a 40-foot screen that he realized it was a film that could actually play theatrically. That’s when everybody shifted gears and decided to go theatrical. The other big difference is that, you know, Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick [The Blair Witch Project directors]—who remain two of my favorite directors that I’ve ever worked with, were kids making that movie as opposed to Unsane, which is really a top secret experiment by a guy who’s a true master of his craft.
That you were able to parlay the Blair Witch phenomenon into the career you have now is kind of remarkable and says a lot about your character. Was there a second turning point?
As you said, I had the great fortune of continuing to work fairly steadily since Blair Witch. I do think meeting the Duplass guys and the advent of that highly naturalistic, improvised cinema that they were making at the time, being involved with Humpday, getting to make my film The Lie, and finding other collaborators in that world was a turning point or at least a whole new chapter in my career. It was another exciting talented crop of people who were making cool stuff outside of the system. For better or for worse, those are the people that I’ve always gravitated towards.
Just going back to Unsane, it has a lot to say about our survival instincts. It’s about mental health, which I don’t think we’re great at talking about as a society.
No, I agree.
It’s also about institutions and how quotas are filled. The same things happen in mental hospitals as they do in prisons. I still remember being horrified by the statistics while watching Ava DuVernay’s 13th.
Oh my god—13th broke my heart. It’s such an important documentary. I think it’s true. It’s another conversation we’re not good at having that we need to be having: the side effects of privatization of what were once public institutions with lots of oversight. The reality is, what is good for the board of directors for a mental health institution is often not what is good for the patient. Whereas this story is, you know, a bit hyperbolized for the sake of storytelling, I do think the core issues are based on absolute truth. I have a buddy who just did a massive exposé on this creep who was running a chain of rehabs out in Los Angeles. He was triple, quadruple billing insurance companies and cherry-picking patients and taking them out in his Tesla and having sex with them and getting them drugs. He’s now under federal indictment, but I think the reason that he got to have this whole rehab empire was because of the lack of oversight.
That could be made into a movie… Can I ask you about your next film Behold My Heart?
We just wrapped post-production and it’s going to be coming out this summer. We’ll do both theatrical and day-and-date with it. I’m really excited. It’s with Marisa Tomei and Charlie Plummer, who is extraordinary. He’s in Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete, which is just spectacular. I got so lucky with an incredible cast of actors: Timothy Olyphant, Merielle Enos, Emily Robinson, Nick Dodani, Sakina Jaffrey… It’s a very personal story. It’s about a mother and son, and takes on a bit of a gender dynamic reversal. It’s about a mother who has always been the breadwinner of the family and hasn’t been around to participate in the raising of her son. With her son, who’s now entering manhood, they experience a tragedy when the dad/husband played by Timothy is killed in a bar fight ten minutes into the movie. It’s about them trying to figure out their relationship.
I was going to ask about Charlie. He’s incredibly exciting right now. How did you meet him?
Kerry Barden, my casting director, turned me onto Charlie. Charlie was in New York when I was casting out of Los Angeles so he made a tape. His tape blew me away. When you see real emotional depth, an emotional maturity, in a 17-year-old actor, it’s a pretty rare thing. I say that having seen a ton of auditions. He’s really somebody who can take on dramatic material with a sense of nuance. He’s an old soul. Then I was talking to Cary Fukunaga, who’s a buddy of mine, about Charlie. Cary had originally cast Charlie as one of the leads in It when he was set to direct it.
Yeah, but he wound up not doing that. I feel so lucky to have gotten to work with Charlie because I feel like he’s one of those: the guy of his generation. I think we can expect really extraordinary things to come from him. I feel excited that I got turned onto him in the very first wave.
Lastly, what’s the status on Larry Fessenden’s Depraved? You’re acting in that one.
We just wrapped on Depraved last week. I think that’s going to be a cool one, too.