Aside from making audiences paranoid that they might be filmed with night vision cameras while trying to be scared silly in a theater, one of the best things to come out of the unexpected success of Oren Peli’s micro-budget Paranormal Activity is Blumhouse Productions.
Initially formed as a Paranormal Activity sequel factory, the company really took off after James Wan’s Insidious struck box office gold (or Texas Tea). Suddenly Blumhouse turned into something that has sadly been absent from Hollywood for decades: an independent production company focused on horror. Blumhouse has made it a mandate to give filmmakers as much freedom as possible, which has led to a string of low budget hits like last fall’s Sinister and also the financing of auteur passion projects like Barry Levinson’s The Bay or the soon-to-be-released wacko Rob Zombie effort The Lords Of Salem.
With their latest production—the suburban alien abduction flick Dark Skies—about to hit screens this Friday we got to speak to the Blumhouse founder and namesake Jason Blum about the new release, how the company works with directors, building haunted houses, and suck out details on a few future releases.
Dork Shelf: I was curious how you ended up running a horror production company, since the movies you produced before Blumhouse like The Reader or The Tooth Fairy are quite different. Was it a genre that you always had a sweet tooth for?
Jason Blum: I spent about 15 years trying to figure out what the right thing for me to do in the movie business was. I’m 43 years old, so in my 20s I worked for Bob and Harvey (Weinstein) as an executive, and then I was an independent producer for Warner Brothers for a while. I tried big and small and horror and drama and everything else. Looking back what happened with Paranormal Activity was a perfect storm for me in that it was a movie produced totally independently, but distributed by a major studio. I’ve always loved scary movies. I majored in film at college. I took a seminar on Hitchcock and watched every one of his movies. I’ve always been drawn to the genre, but when I figured out a business model where I could make movies on my own and have studios release them, that’s when I discovered the most fun professional period in my life and that’s how Blumhouse was born.
DS: Do you have anything specific that you look for in a potential horror movie when people come to pitch ideas your way?
JB: Yeah, I definitely do. I think that scares are always scarier if there’s a strong emotional core. There should be a great drama between two friends, between a mother and father, or between children. So we really look for a story first and scares second. I think that ultimately makes the scares more effective. Most people look for the scares first and build the story around it, but that’s something that I’ve been lucky enough to learn while working with these great directors who have spent their lives making these kind of movies. So that’s what we look for: is there great drama? And then we go from there.
DS: What’s you’re philosophy for dealing with the filmmakers? From the outside the company seems very filmmaker focused.
JB: Our company is involved very closely all the way through with all the movies. But that said, the final creative say is really with our directors. Our directors have final say over casting and a lot of them have final cut. They chose the locations and designs. We give them ideas all along the way and sometimes they take them, sometimes they don’t. We’re very involved with the journey through production. But really, the final decision more often than not lays with them.
DS: How did you end up with Dark Skies and what was the appeal for you?
JB: (Director) Scott Stewart brought it to me. I admired his work. So we had a meeting and he pitched me the movie. What I liked about it was really what I was talking about before. I liked that it started with a marriage that was slightly on the rocks. It’s about two parents struggling with kids and then a dark force invades the family. So they relate to that force differently in the same way that they relate to each other differently. It’s really about how the family is upset by the evil force that invades their house. That’s really what drew me in. I felt the same thing about Paranormal Activity, Sinister, and Insidious. Even though they’re all different movies, they all share that quality.
DS: Scott Stewart’s previous movies Legion and Priest were very effects heavy and he came from a background in the effects industry. Did you encourage him to tone that down?
JB: We can’t afford really fancy effects movies and unless you have unlimited resources these days, I don’t think you’re going to wow audiences with effects. So I encourage all of our directors to limit the effects work as much as possible and focus on the storytelling and the emotional journey of the characters, while trying to scare people with suggestion as much as what they show. Scott as a result of his background was really pleased and relieved to hear that. He seemed to respond to that and made something that isn’t an effects heavy movie. It’s a scare heavy movie.
DS: I’ve enjoyed how so many of the movies you’ve made are grounded in a suburban setting, which really reminds me of the Amblin movies from the 80s. Is that something that you consciously look for or just how it’s worked out so far?
JB: What I look for is relatable situations. More often than not that’s been suburban settings so far, but it’s not something we’re specifically going after. We’re just trying to find relatable horror stories. We have movies coming up in urban settings and many different places. I do love setting horror movies in the suburbs though because I feel like it makes it scarier.
DS: The other thing I’ve come to enjoy about your movies is the fact that you’ve been using a lot of actors like Keri Russell and Josh Hamilton in Dark Skies or Ethan Hawke in Sinister who aren’t really known for genre movies. Is that a conscious choice?
JB: Yeah, it is. I produced theater in New York when I first started out. I had a theater company with Ethan Hawke, Steve Zahn, Calista Flockhart, Josh Hamilton, and a lot of other people who you’ve heard of. So, I’ve got a relationship with those people and love working with them. Josh and I have been friends for 20 years. Ethan did Sinister and just did another movie for us called Purge. I really just like using people, especially from New York theatre, who don’t normally do these movies. It’s something that I encourage our directors to do. Again, the decision is up to them, but it’s certainly not the accident.
DS: I caught Lords of Salem back at TIFF and really loved it, so I wanted to ask you what your experience was like working with him? I know he was thrilled with the freedom Blumhouse offered after his experience on the Halloween remakes.
JB: He is super hard working. I loved the experience. He’s very dedicated and I think he created an insane original horror movie. I’m really happy with how it turned out and hopefully we’ll work with him.
DS: Did you specifically go after him?
JB: We did. I really admired his movies. I thought he would enjoy our system and I’d like to think that he did.
DS: Are you pursuing established horror filmmakers like him regularly? Would you consider dragging someone like John Carpenter or Tobe Hooper out of retirement to give them another shot?
JB: Yeah. I’ve flirted on a couple things with Carpenter specifically. We might work on something with William Friedkin soon. So yeah, we’re definitely interested in those guys. We like working with filmmakers who love the genre, have succeeded in it and are passionate about it. They’re the people who are going to give you the best work.
DS: I wanted to ask about your upcoming movie Ghosts because it’s written by Robert Ben Garant from Reno 911 and The State. Is that a horror comedy or is it his first straight horror movie?
JB: That’s straight horror. It’s a really scary movie that we made for Lions Gate. It should come out January next year. That’s directed by Kevin Greutert who was an editor on the Saw movies and ended up directing the last two Saw films. He almost did Paranormal Activity 2 for us. I always wanted to work with him after that and finally got to on this movie. It’s really cool. I’m siked for people to see it. It came out really well.
DS: I’ve got to ask about Oren Peli’s Area 51. From what I recall that got started back when Paranormal Activity was first released, so did that get delayed at some point or is it something that you guys have just been working on since then?
JB: The lifelong postproduction? (Laughs) That definitely got delayed and sidetracked, mostly because Oren shifted his focus to producing the Paranormal movies and Chernobyl Diaries and a TV series. So that all took up a lot of his time. Hopefully he’ll bring his attention back to it soon. I think we may actually get it out this year, although I’ve thought that before (laughs). It’s certainly been a long journey on that one and I hope that Oren will dig back into it soon.
DS: Do you ever see yourself doing any writing or directing?
JB: Nope. Zero interest. I like to think that’s one of my strengths as a producer. I leave the directing to directors and writing to writers. I can safely tell you that I will never write or direct a movie in my life. You can print that (laughs).
DS: But you did design a haunted house through Blumhouse in LA last year.
JB: Yeah, that was great. Halloween has always been one of my favorite holidays since I was a little kid. I always started making my costumes in August. So over the past few years our crew and I started talking about putting on a haunted house. Last year we actually did it and I definitely want to do it again this year. It was a blast, because like I said we did it with most of the same crew from our movies, so it felt like a family project. I want to do more of them. I’m not sure where the next one will be just yet, but we’re exploring venues. It’s not connected to the movies. It’s completely original and just something fun for us to do as a way of celebrating Halloween.