‘Blair Witch’ Star Finds Life After Fame
Ten years ago, Michael C. Williams was living in the spotlight, thanks to his turn as one of three doomed filmmakers in "The Blair Witch Project," the little horror flick that became one of the movie industry's biggest success stories.
Shot on an initial $25,000 budget, "Blair" went on to gross almost $250 million worldwide - and became a pop culture supernova.
Williams recalls being chased by paparazzi after appearing on "The Tonight Show." He and his co-stars partied with Britney Spears at the MTV Music Awards. None other than Steven Spielberg proclaimed himself a fan. Newsweek and Time simultaneously featured the film on their covers.
The high life, however, was short-lived.
These days, as the movie marks its 10-year anniversary, Williams' life is decidedly more ordinary.
Now 36, he has settled in Hawthorne, N.Y., as a proud father of two: He married his longtime girlfriend, Toni, at the height of the "Blair" hysteria. He's still acting, but over the years, roles have been so small and sporadic (the most recent was a guest spot on "Law & Order: SVU") that he's studying to become a guidance counselor.
Once called Hollywood's Next Big Thing, Williams is moving furniture to pay the bills. It's the same job he quit a decade ago, on "Late Night with Conan O'Brien."
"The money I made from 'Blair' is certainly the most money I've ever made acting, and it hasn't been consistent," says Williams, relaxing on the tiny patio attached to his family's modest three-bedroom home. "So I have to work. I have no problem with that. I'm not scared of work."
"Hopefully," he laughs, "it'll make my lifelong story a little more interesting."
Clearly, Williams isn't living off a massive "Blair Witch" payday.
The three principal actors were paid just $1,000 each for the eight-day shoot, and although they did reap further financial rewards after the film blew up at the box office, it wasn't anything close to the $1 million that was reported.
Williams, whose soundman character wound up in a basement corner in the movie's creepy final scene, says he ended up with about $300,000 over the course of several years.
"From a film you'd never expected to make more than $500 a week, to make that kind of money, you can't shake a stick at it," he says. "The rumors would be nicer, but, oh well."
More surprising is that "Blair" didn't translate into an instant movie career for any of the cast members or filmmakers.
Follow-up films by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, who co-wrote and co-directed "Blair," haven't come close to matching their debut's success. Joshua Leonard, who played the cameraman who disappears in the woods, stars in the well-received indie comedy, "Humpday," but has had mostly supporting roles in films and TV. Heather Donohue, whose terrified, close-up monologue became the movie's most memorable scene, has reportedly quit acting altogether and is living on a northern California farm.
Williams has no idea why the "Blair" team didn't land their choice of gigs after their splashy breakthrough.
One theory is that the movie's no-budget, outside-the-box approach ticked off the major studios. Another is that the brilliant viral marketing campaign overshadowed the actors and directors.
Or maybe the film's realistic premise (that the faux filmmakers' disappearance was a true story) was too realistic: Many people - including show business veterans - thought the actors were just playing themselves.
"I've thought about it so many times," says Williams. "I have no idea what the answer to that question is. I wish I did because then I could go, OK, if that's the answer, then here's what I need to do."
Williams has decided to make one very public pitch to the legendary director who once singled out his performance in "Blair."
DearMrSpielberg.com is Williams' open letter to the three-time Oscar winner. Spielberg told "Blair" co-director Daniel Myrick, during a 2001 visit to the "Minority Report" set, that Williams was a "good actor" who really "stood out."
Williams says the secondhand praise kept him going at times when he was depressed about his future in the business. Back then, he says, he wasn't confident enough to reach out to Spielberg, given that he had only one film to his name.
"I thought I'd just be the guy who hasn't done much and is hoping for a gift," he says. "Now, I feel legitimate. My resume isn't the biggest, but I have clips and there's some diversity there."
He also has nothing to lose.
"I learned a lot from the experience of 'Blair Witch,' and the biggest thing I learned is that I just enjoy working with professionals," he says. "I enjoy the craft of acting. I love being on film sets. But it's not the end of the world if that doesn't happen."