The night before New York was set to be pummeled by snow in the middle of March, I went to the bar with my friends back home in Westchester.
I knew I wasn’t going to make the drive back to New Paltz because if we got as much snow as the forecast said we would, there wasn’t going to be class for a few days.
My friends Jake, Steven and I went to Lucy’s in Pleasantville to grab some drinks before the impending storm, and upon arrival, greeted a friend who was chewing the fat with some people I didn’t recognize.
After talking for awhile, Jake pointed over to a guy in the group with an inquisitive look on his face.
“Nobody else will understand what I’m about to say in this context, but you will,” Jake said. “Blair Witch Project?”
The man, whose name is Mike Williams, laughed and said, “That’s me.”
Williams, an alumnus of SUNY New Paltz, earned his degree in theatre arts with an Advanced Study in the Acting Tract in 1999 — three years after he was slated to graduate.
Williams received an incomplete in a class called Costume Construction after failing twice and left school.
When The Blair Witch Project debuted, then-New Paltz president Roger Bowen asked if Williams would do a Q&A for the students at the school.
“I’ll come up no problem, but you’ve got to change that incomplete to a passing grade,” Williams told Bowen. “They changed it to a ‘D’ and I earned my degree.”
After Williams left New Paltz as an actor without representation, he saw an ad in Backstage Magazine for a paid role in a feature film that would be shot in a wooded location which involved camping and improvisation.
Feeling prepared from his time in the theater department at New Paltz, Williams went to the open call in Manhattan and made it through several weeks down to the last day, witnessing hundreds of other aspiring actors pack their bags and go home.
Williams was the last of the three main characters in The Blair Witch Project to be cast and headed to Burkittsville, Maryland to begin shooting for 10 days — eight of which were in the woods.
The Blair Witch Project focuses heavily on the deterioration of the characters as they realize something has gone awry and are subsequently being preyed upon.
During the filming process, there was no script. All the actors had was a GPS that mapped out waypoints where they would have to improvise a scene.
Near each waypoint there was a milk crate that contained food or fresh batteries for the camera, but most importantly, contained a 35mm film cannister with a note in it for each actor. This would give them direction on how to act for their next scene.
At the end of the day at the last waypoint, the actors would leave the camera on Hi-8 in the crate. The directors would watch the material that night to see how everything was developing and make decisions on what the next step was.
Williams is currently working on a book reflecting on his experiences in The Blair Witch Project. He also holds several other acting credits, including an appearance in Law & Order, a film entitled The Objective and a 2006 sci-fi horror flick called Altered, directed by Eduardo Sanchez, who co-directed The Blair Witch Project.
These days, Williams enjoys spending time with his two children and wife of 18 years, while teaching acting and improvisation to children and working as a guidance counselor in Putnam County.
Occasionally, he will pick up his guitar and play at Lucy’s, like he did the night I met him.
“Listen carefully for the next song — it’s about New Paltz,” Williams said to me. “It’s called ‘Wither Away’ and one of the verses is about P&G’s and the head bartender Marcus pouring beers for the boys.”
The song highlights a friend of his from Long Island and the Mohonk Mountains and contains a line “…Until old blue eyes sings us away,” which is a nickname for Frank Sinatra, whose song “New York, New York” would play at 4 a.m. to signify the end of the evening at P&G’s.
“The whole idea is that time withers away and it goes fast, so enjoy it,” Williams said. “Being young and in New Paltz, you don’t realize how fast time goes, so make sure you hold onto it.”