Jason Blum is one of the most prolific producers in Hollywood, having worked on over fifty movies; low budget horror films such as Paranormal Activity, The Purge, and Sinister. He recently edited the anthology The Blumhouse Book of Nightmares: The Haunted City, which includes short fiction by Hollywood figures like Ethan Hawke and Eli Roth.
This interview first appeared on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by David Barr Kirtley and produced by John Joseph Adams. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the interview or other episodes.
First off, just tell us a bit about how you became a horror fan. Were there any particular books or movies that really got you into it?
My mother loved Edgar Allan Poe; she exposed me to him at, possibly, too young of an age. Our favorite holiday was Halloween; I say “our” because she and I used to start my Halloween costume in August, so since I was a kid, I liked scary stuff. Hitchcock is my favorite genre movie director; in college, I took a class on just Hitchcock movies, so every week we saw two movies and talked about them. The movie that scared me the most was Friday the 13th, which I saw alone at home when HBO first started out; I was at my cousin’s house in Los Angeles, and it frightened me too much. Like playing with fire; you want to put your hand in the fire even though it hurts.
I’ve always been into movies in one form or another; in college I was a film major and made a bunch; after college, I worked on more art-house movies. The first movie I ever produced was Kicking and Screaming, which was Noah Baumbach’s first movie, and I worked at a little distribution company in New York called Arrow, and then I worked at Miramax until I was thirty. It wasn’t until after I left Miramax that I figured out what Blumhouse would be, which is our company now.
I’ve heard you say that one of the things in your life that had a big impact on you was that you passed on The Blair Witch Project.
When I was working for Miramax, before Sundance, a videotape of The Blair Witch Project went to a lot of the buyers. I passed; a bunch of people passed. The worst crime was that once it screened at the festival, we still all passed and when it was bought at Sundance it was one of the smaller deals of the festival; the big deal was one I was involved in called Happy Texas, which did not do well after we bought it. And then for six to nine months, from when Sundance ended to when the movie opened, I watched the movie marching towards success and was reminded by my bosses what a dope I was. What was formative about the experience is that people who were older than I was and who knew more than I did also passed on this movie.
When I first saw Paranormal Activity, I had gotten it in the context that it was going straight to DVD and that it wasn’t going to be distributed; then I watched it with an audience to check myself and saw how the audience responded and said, to the filmmaker, “I think there is an audience for this movie and I think it could work in a movie theater.” And even though everyone said “no,” everyone said no to Blair Witch and look what happened to that. That gave me the strength and conviction to hang on when everyone kept saying I was a dope.
What do you think it is about movies like Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity that makes them resonate with audiences when executives will look at them and see nothing special?
When something is really different, I think people are frightened of it; when something is really innovative and new, and you can’t compare it to anything else, it’s hard for those things to find a home. It’s not an accident that Blair Witch and Paranormal had a similar history.
Paranormal Activity did really well; how did you attempt to capitalize on that success?
I’d been on the other side of buying movies from people and turning directors into stars, in a way, when I worked at Miramax; in the ’90s, Miramax was the AAA place to be, so when we would buy a movie it would shine a lot of light on the filmmaker. Sometimes things worked out great, and sometimes they didn’t, but I was lucky enough to have experienced a lot of that by the time Paranormal Activity happened. So rather than saying, “I want to make World War Z,” or something really expensive, or Oscar movies, I really loved the exposure I had to the scary movie community, and I love the notion of a movie being done very low budget and independently and then distributed by a studio. So what I set my sights on was to try and build a business around that idea, and everyone felt we would never be able to do that again but then we did Insidious pretty soon after Paranormal. After Sinister and The Purge, everyone decided we were onto something.
Could you say more about why it’s key to your success to do these lower budget movies?
When you do a movie for a low budget, the pressure to be a financial success goes down exponentially; it’s hard to make a movie that’s very expensive and not be thinking about the results all the time. Generally, the creative process is hurt if you’re thinking about the end as opposed to focusing on day-to-day decisions and also focusing on taking chances; I really encourage the filmmakers we’re working with to try new things and take advantage of the fact that we’re working with a low budget so that they can take creative risks. I’m the first one to say that some of the lower budgeted movies that we work on don’t resonate commercially with a wide audience, but a lot of them do. Once we pick what the script is, the cast and the director, I try and put the filmmakers in a bubble to think about making the coolest, most interesting, different movie or television show without thinking about the amount of money it will or won’t make.
What are some of the movies that you’ve worked on that have been the most “out there” in terms of subject matter that you could have never done if it was a big budget movie?
Almost all of them. Creep, which is out now, could never been done for a big budget. The Purge is one of my favorite examples; just on a purely conceptual basis, no one in their right mind would give you twenty million dollars to make a movie about, “What if crime were legal in America for twelve hours a year?” But for three million, you can experiment and that experiment worked out. Insidious was the same thing; when James Wan pitched Insidious, he would always pitch that the third act of the movie, when they go into the Further, would feel like a David Lynch movie. If you’re making that movie for a million dollars, that’s fine, but if you’re making that movie for twenty-five million dollars, that’s not commercial enough. I don’t think there’s a single movie we’ve made that could’ve been done at a higher level, and almost all of them would’ve suffered with more money.
Are you talking about in terms of CGI? Or what exactly is the downside to having too much money?
Almost all of our affects are practical; what happens on the screen we’ve really done because we can’t afford CGI. Unless you’re making Marvel movies, CGI is usually tougher; especially in our mid-budget range, when you see CGI, at least when I do, I react poorly. But I also mean on a story-telling level; if you had a story where crime was legal for twelve hours, no one would finance that because there’re so many things that could go wrong. Another example from both The Purge and Sinister, the lead of the movie gets killed; that’s something big Hollywood movies don’t like to do. And I understand why they don’t but again, when you have a low budget, you can kill your lead and it’s ok.
I really enjoyed Sinister, and I think a lot of our listeners don’t have a good sense of what a producer does on a movie like that. What was your role?
Scott Derrickson was a filmmaker I admired, and we reached out to each other because of Emily Rose, which I always thought was a terrific movie, and we met and he didn’t have a script but he pitched me Sinister and said he was going to write it with Cargill. I loved the pitch, and he had a lot of other movies happening at the time, and I said I could finance it in six months. And I think he was thinking that it wouldn’t happen that quickly, but he agreed and we started putting the movie together and he said, “The person I always imagined to play the father was Ethan Hawke.” This has never happened to me before or since; it was his first choice. He didn’t know, but Ethan and I have been friends for twenty years—we’ve worked together a lot, but we’re also socially close—and I told Scott, “Don’t keep your hopes up, because I’ve sent Ethan a lot of our scripts and he doesn’t like horror movies.” I sent it to him and he responded to it; to him, Sinister is about a father who’s struggling with where to spend his time, on his career or with his family. He puts his career before his family, and the results are not good. He really liked the script and asked to meet Scott; Scott went to New York and they got along great and Ethan agreed to do the movie. Juliet Rylance was actually cast because Ethan had done a play with her; she’d never been in a movie before.
So I helped cast the movie, to go back to your question, and we shot the movie in New York; some movies I’m on the set a little, some hardly ever, and some a lot. On that movie, I was on the set from beginning to end. We shoot most of our movies in Los Angeles, where I don’t have to go as often, but New York we hadn’t shot in so much. It was a tough shoot; we actually shot for two days and shut the movie down for five days and started up again. And then, once the movie was done, the producer helps with distribution; in that case, it was a company called Summit, which is now part of Lionsgate but at the time it wasn’t. Lionsgate’s the company that does The Hunger Games movies, and Summit is the company that does the Twilight movies. Then we work very hard once the movie’s done on marketing.
You mention the book, and Ethan Hawke; tell us about this Blumhouse Book of Nightmares. How did that come about?
We have an office in a funny part of LA; funny because there’s no other movie or TV companies where we are. We’re in Koreatown, ten minutes west of downtown LA. We edit in the offices and do color correction, all the technical, post-production work. There’s a community of filmmakers in and out of our offices all the time, and there’s a place to eat and I really wanted to create a destination for people who love scary stuff. And as I did more after Paranormal, from James Wan in particular, and Leigh Whannell—who wrote Insidious 1 and 2 and directed Insidious 3; those guys wrote and directed the first two Saw movies—I started learning a lot more about horror movies and the history of horror, and the more I learned about it, the more excited I got about the community of horror filmmakers. I think because, as a genre, horror is sometimes looked at as a second class citizen, it makes fans and people who make horror stick together more than in other genres. I always liked encouraging the idea of a community, and I thought a logical extension of that was to do a book of short stories. One of the things I’m most proud of is that the book is not an anthology of stories that had been published. It’s all original; everyone wrote a very specific story for this collection.
Most of the contributors have a lot of film and TV credits, but how much experience did they have writing short fiction, which can be a much different medium?
Cargill had a lot, and some of them had much less. Not everyone I asked said yes, but most of them did and they were excited to try a new medium. And everyone said, “What are you going to do with the TV and movie rights?” I didn’t do this in order to make television shows and movies from the stories, so I said, to all the contributors, “You retain the movie and TV rights.” I’ve got plenty of other intellectual property to turn into movies and television, but I really didn’t want the contributors to write stories with the idea that eventually there might be a TV show or movie; I thought what might be fun is to write a story that was a great short story and for once not have to worry about a production budget or how to do it; to let their imagination be free of the parameters around filmed content.
The full title of the book is The Blumhouse Book of Nightmares: The Haunted City. Why did you choose that as a theme?
I thought it was important to give one other rule besides “make it scary.” Most scary things—I think it’s true of literature, too, but definitely of movies and television—take place in the country because there’s no one around; or at least in a suburb, where you’re in a house. There’s not a lot of varied tradition in urban environments. I didn’t say it had to take place in a city, all I said was that it had to do with a city. I thought that was counter-intuitive to what a lot of people would do, and I like the idea of mixing it up like that.
If you’re writing about cities at the present moment, you have to deal with the idea of runaway gentrification on one hand and urban decay on the other, and a bunch of the stories in this book deal with those themes: “Hellhole,” “Gentholme,” and “Donations.” Talk about how these stories dealt with gentrification and urban decay.
I don’t want to give away what the stories are, but I think the way to most effectively tell scary stories is to root them in real themes. We have a movie coming out called The Visit that M. Night Shyamalan directed; we were talking about this, and he said every movie he does is a drama and then he drapes it in a genre. I think a lot of the stories in the book are about true to life things that we’re afraid of: That’s really what The Purge was, that’s what Sinister was, and that’s the heart and soul of what makes an effective scary story, television show, or movie.
Some of my favorite stories in the book are the ones by Eli Roth, George Gallo and Steve Faber. People may know Eli Roth as the director of Hostel, and his story here takes a somewhat similar premise but takes it in a different, unexpected direction. I particularly want to point people to that one.
I loved his story. I asked him first, and he was the first person in; I think it’s something he’d been thinking about. He actually had a version of it and he wasn’t sure what he was going to do with it, and he was very generous; when I asked him to do it, he said, “I have something, I’m going to send it to you in a week.” And it was great that he said yes, because it was great to tell everyone else that Eli was going to do one of these. It really helped galvanize the whole thing.
You mentioned Ethan Hawke earlier, and there’s an Ethan Hawke piece in this book. My girlfriend and I were both curious about the story behind that.
Ethan had written a version of that story some time ago; it’s based on something that actually happened to him. He’s written three books now, and he wasn’t sure if he was going to use it in a book of his or what the right place for it was. When I called him and described what we were doing, he said, “I have just the thing.” And he worked on it quite a lot to get it to the shape that it’s in now. I love his story.
That was the sense I had reading it, that it was at least partly autobiographical.
Yeah, but I’m not saying what part.
There’s a story called “Dreamland” by Michael Olson, and one line in that that jumped out at me is, “Sleep research is finally getting the attention it deserves, given that poor sleep kills more people than cancer.” I thought it was funny, because this episode is sponsored by Casper Mattress, so I just wanted to remind our listeners to be sleeping on an affordable, comfortable Casper mattress, or else they’re probably going to die.
That’s great. Do they sponsor all of your episodes?
No; this is the first one.
Well this is perfect for them.
Say more about the horror movies that you’ve worked on. What do you see as the role of horror in society? Is it just good entertainment or do you think these movies help people out in their lives?
It’s hard to generalize; some horror movies are just that, a fun ride for an hour and a half, and some horror movies have a lot to say. The horror movies in the ’70s started the tradition of laying in social messages. The Purge is a cautionary tale; we’ve made two Purge movies, and we’re about to make a third, and in Europe in particular everyone understood them as a cautionary tale of what would happen if we stay on the track that we’re going on: There’s a shooting of some kind or another and then the gun laws get less, not more. Where could that go? And James DeMonaco, who wrote a story in the book, wrote and directed The Purge; it was his idea of where we could be headed.
Sometimes, in the United States, it was misinterpreted; a lot of people who saw it were like, “Yeah, I’m gonna kill someone!” That’s not disappointing to me, though it was to him; you can’t control what people take from what they see, and movies first and foremost need to be entertaining. At least for the movies we make, that’s what we’re focused on. The minute you start making movies that are lessons, no one sees them anymore.
I did hear you say that Barry Levinson originally wanted to make a documentary about pollution in Chesapeake Bay and his agent told him no one would watch that, so he made The Bay as a horror movie instead.
That’s true; John Burnham was his agent. He made a “found footage” movie and we produced it; it was one of the earlier movies we did after Paranormal. It wasn’t a mass appeal movie for a bunch of reasons, but it was an interesting movie. There were some good “jump” scares in it.
Did anyone ever say they got concerned about pollution in Chesapeake Bay after seeing The Bay?
I think the thing that went wrong with The Bay is that we got too much message and not enough entertainment; you could make a movie with a very important message, but if no one sees it, no one hears your message. I’m sure The Bay got people talking about Chesapeake Bay, but in such a small number that it had no effect. Had it been the hit that Insidious was, it could’ve made it a much bigger part of the conversation.
Can you say more about getting involved with the horror community? Have you met some really colorful characters? What sort of things have people said about your movies?
I was more talking about the community of filmmakers as opposed to straight fans, but I’ve met a ton of fans. We’ve done several haunted houses: The Blumhouse of Horrors; a couple based on The Purge and Insidious. The most fun about haunted houses is when you get to talk to people after they go through; with movies, unless you stand outside the theater, which is a little weird, you don’t get to do that. It’s a funny segue, but we have this movie called Jem and the Holograms which comes out in October, and it’s about a movie that not only says it’s ok to be different, but that you should celebrate being different. To me, that’s why I love the fans in horror more than in any other genre, because there’s a real embracing of strange or odd.
People say horror writers are always really cheerful and comedy writers are morose and depressed. You must have met a ton of horror writers, what is your experience?
The set of a comedy, nine times out of ten, is exactly what you just said, and the set of a horror movie is the exact opposite. One of the reasons Ethan didn’t want to do a horror movie is because he always though it would be scary to make; there’s nothing scary about making a horror movie. There’re children and tutors and sixty people and you film the takes in makeup that looks funny because it’s not lit right—the sets of our movies are fun. The horror community, whether they’re writers or directors, get out their moroseness in their work, which makes them cheerier. I can also say it about the people; Leigh Whannell is one of the funniest people I’ve ever met, and James and Scott—all those guys are not what you’d expect, but that’s the rule, not the exception.
I don’t know if you ever saw a documentary called American Movie, but it’s about this guy trying to make a horror movie. And there’s this scary part, to me, where they’re trying to slam somebody’s head through a cabinet, and they don’t know how to do this as an effect, so they’re smashing a guy’s head against the cabinet and not succeeding in breaking through, and they’re doing take after take. It’s always stuck with me as an example of how horror is something a lot of people start with; people see it as an avenue. And I heard you say in an interview that it annoys you when people see horror movies as a stepping stone to get to bigger and better things.
Maybe I said it, but I didn’t mean it—or I was misquoted—of other people; it annoys me when people assume that of me. I’m not judgmental, though I do give James Wan a lot of shit because he said he would never direct another horror movie after The Conjuring; he is directing another one, just like I said he would. But for me, I didn’t make all these scary movies in order to make Whiplash—which we also made—and now I’m going to make other movies like Whiplash. I’m really glad we made it, but it didn’t change the trajectory of the company, which is scary stuff. I’m not doing it in order to do something else. But people do; Roger Corman had tons of actors and directors and writers go through his horror factory who turned out to be better known for other things. And I think that’s awesome; I have nothing against them.
There was this show, The Jinx, that my girlfriend and I were obsessed with when it came out, and it said that you were an executive producer on that. What was your take on that? Your involvement?
I was similarly involved in The Jinx as I was in Paranormal or the movie Unfriended that came out earlier this year. It seems to be a lot of the movies, not so much TV, that we do, we get involved when there’s a rough cut or sometimes a version has been shopped a bit—that wasn’t the case with The Jinx, but was with all the other movies I just mentioned—and the person behind it is like, “I know I made something great; why isn’t the world listening.” And we’ve done a lot of listening; The Jinx is something that I saw early on and no one on the business side of television was paying attention to it. So I got behind it, obviously before HBO was involved, and helped get it out into the world.
That’s pretty shocking, that no one was interested in it given how compelling it is. Why do you think that is?
For the same reason that people didn’t jump on Paranormal Activity and Blair Witch. One reason, though—which makes the comparison unfair—is that only the first episode was together, so people are only judging the series based on seeing that, not the subsequent five, although I thought the first episode was incredibly compelling. People think Andrew’s a filmmaker, so why should he know what television is? I think that’s another one that’s confusing to people. The world doesn’t like to see people switch gears. Durst is an unbelievably complicated character and there have been a ton of stories about him but never the definitive story, but every single person that had a story said that theirs was the definitive one. All those are reasons it didn’t initially resonate.
It sounds like you have a ton of other projects coming up, but do you want to give us a rundown of what you’re working on now and what people should keep an eye out for?
We have this movie that Joel Edgerton directed; it’s his first movie, called The Gift, and it’s with Jason Bateman and Joel stars in it, and Rebecca Hall. It’s super taut and creepy. That comes out August 7th. Then we have Sinister 2, which Scott Derrickson and Cargill wrote; that comes out later in August. For the rest of the year, we have M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit, which comes out in September. Eli Roth, who’s obviously a contributor to the book, also has another movie, Green Inferno, that couldn’t find a home that I saw and really liked, so we’re going to release that. The last two movies of the year are the final chapter of Paranormal Activity, which I’m happy and sad about, and then Jem and the Holograms. And, of course, I’ve been doing a lot of talk about this book, and we hope to do more books; I want to do novels and I have an idea for another anthology so hopefully we’ll be doing more of that. And more haunted houses.
I really enjoyed The Blumhouse Book of Nightmares, so I’m definitely looking forward to more books from you. Jason, thanks for joining us.
Thanks for having me; I really appreciate it.
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