Although Blumhouse Productions was founded as a place where micro-budget films of all types could get made or at least find a home, since its founding in 2000, it's been the home to some of the most profitable and even some of the best horror efforts in the past decade thanks to CEO Jason Blum simply letting the filmmakers and other key creatives do their thing with very little interference.
Say what you want about the PARANORMAL ACITIVTY films (all four of them, so far), but their very existence has kept found-footage films in the mainstream and relevant (for better or worse) since the first one was released in 2007. To say nothing of their sheer parody worthiness. In more recent years, Blumhouse has put out such works as INSIDIOUS, SINISTER, Barry Levinson's THE BAY, DARK SKIES (from earlier this year), and even the bizarre latest work for Rob Zombie, THE LORDS OF SALEM.
But Blum also has production credits ranging from Noah Baumbach's first feature KICKING AND SCREAMING; the Ethan Hawke-starring version of HAMLET (Blum and Hawke are old friends and work together frequently); the Oscar-winning THE READER, starring Kate Winslet; Dwayne Johnson's sidestep into family entertainment, TOOTH FAIRY; and director John Hillcoat's 2012 effort, LAWLESS. So clearly Blum has his hands in many genres and forms of entertainment, but horror has been very good to him, and he has a slate of scare films coming out in the next couple of years to prove it.
His latest effort is a different kind of horror film, one that might qualify more as domestic horror. Part science fiction, part home invasion film, THE PURGE is set in a United States in the not-to-distant future in which one day out of the year for 12 hours overnight, pretty much all laws and law enforcement are suspended and citizens are allowed to run amok and be as violent and cruel as they can be. The proven belief is that as long as this tradition continues, the crime rate stays down for the rest of the year.
Ethan Hawke plays a home security system salesman who is one of the many rich folks who simply push a button, shut themselves off from the world with metal panels on every door and window, and wait for the annual purge to end. But something goes wrong, and suddenly a band of raging lunatics is at Hawke's door ready to kill everyone in side, including his wife (Lena Headey) and two kids. The film plays like a fiction, but I had some other ideas about what writer-director James DeMonaco (writer of THE NEGOTIATOR and the remake of ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13) was going for, and I talked to Blum about this.
Blum and I cover a lot of ground here, including a few upcoming projects, both high profile and not-so. Please enjoy my chat with Jason Blum…
Jason Blum: Thanks for coming to chat with me.
Capone: Of course.
JB: It’s much appreciated.
Capone: I’m very excited.
JB: I am too. What did you think of the movie? Crazy, right?
Capone: It is a little bit crazy.
JB: It’s a little bananas.
Capone: It’s very different than what you guys have been up to lately.
JB: It is. There are no ghosts.
Capone: Let’s dive right into that. There’s a little weird religious fervor thrown into the mix. Ethan Hawke is always so good at playing these characters living in the slightly distant, alternate future of the earth. Tell me what you liked about this story. It is, at its core, a home invasion story ramped up substantially.
JB: Yeah, home invasion on steroids.
Capone: Tell me about what you were drawn to about this story.
JB: In my mind, which I’ll talk about later, it’s the perfect Blumhouse movie. We look for stories that can be told inexpensively, so we have total creative freedom with high concept. You can’t get any higher concept than this, “What if all crime is legal for 12 hours a year.” So really those are our boxes that got checked beautifully.
Specifically, I loved trying to make a scary movie, taking a break from PARANORMAL and INSIDIOUS and SINISTER and just making it very relatable and very real. I love the subversive political messages in the movie, of which there are many, and everyone has a different idea of what they are after they see it, which I love. That’s my favorite thing about the movie, if you want to know the truth. My favorite thing is that James [DeMonaco, writer-director] wrote this movie that I think really delivers and is a great fun scary movie, but then also really works on this other level, with a lot of different things that made people think and made people angry or scared or pissed or thrilled at the end of the movie. That’s been the most fun thing while showing it around, too.
Capone: Is this a cautionary tale? Is that how you see this?
JB: That’s how I see it, yeah. Not everybody sees it that way. That’s how James saw it, who wrote and directed the movie. That’s certainly how I see it 1,000 percent, but a lot of people who see the movie don’t get that and I don’t hold that against them. You have to have people take away from the movie whatever they want, and there’s nothing I can do about that. But if you are asking me personally, yes that’s what it is.
Capone: I think so too. I kept thinking, "They want us to worry about this. They're asking us to think about it, and do what is necessary to make sure this never happens.”
JB: I'm glad to hear you say that. That’s all true.
Capone: One of the things I remember liking about the movie so much is seeing Max [Burkholder, who plays Hawke's son], because I’m a big fan of "Parenthood." It was cool to see him act in a different way than he does on the show.In this family dynamic, the parents are sold on the whole "purge" idea, and as it is in most political movements, it’s the youth that inspire the change of attitude toward the norm. Everyone accepted this as “this is just the way it is,” but it’s the young people that are sort of inspiring a change.
JB: They are supposed to be the moral center of this movie. Kids, they are the only ones with any moral ethics.
Capone: And then you have Rhys Wakefield. Who the hell is he and where did you guys find him? He is terrifying.
JB: He was terrific. Ethan and I are old friends and have worked together a lot, and we were like “That guys is going to steal the movie.”
Capone: He kind of does.
JB: On his first day of work, I called him at home and just said, “Wow, you are amazing.” I hope he gets work as a good guy, because he’s such a good bad guy.
Capone: Talk to me a little bit about your working relationship with Ethan Hawke. I know you guys have known each other for a while and have done a lot of these films together. I really think he does embody something of an every man quality, and that makes it easier to insert him into a lot of different roles?
JB: We are really, really close and have been close friends for a long time. It’s great to work with your friends, not always, but Ethan and I have a great friendship, and as a result our working relationship is really good. On a movie, an actor’s perspective on a movie is very different from a producer’s and very different from a director, so it’s really fun to be able to talk to him at the end of the day without being nervous and he’s not nervous. He's like, “This guy did this and that guy did that,” and not in a gossipy way, but in a way to make the work better, like “Jason, you should think about….” The stupidest thing in the world like getting a better tutor for the kid, or “I noticed this wasn’t right,” and I can do the same thing with him. So that’s really fun.
I produced theater with him 20 years ago, then we did HAMLET together about 12 or 14 years ago. When I started making scary movies--and he doesn’t like horror movies--he was like, “I’m never doing one of those.” I kept trying and trying, then we sent him SINISTER, and he was like “This is interesting. Let me meet the director,” and Scott Derrickson is an impressive guy, so he sat down with Scott, and Scott closed him, which was great, and then he loved it. He was like, “The acting is so different. I’ve never done this type of acting.”
Our environments on the movies are really fun. It really feels like summer camp--no one is getting paid, there are no trailers, the holding is in the house, we’re all in these fun movies on the same ride together. If the movies do well, everyone makes money, and if they don’t, nobody does, and it’s not the end of the world, since they don’t take too long. He really like that model and before SINISTER even came out, he was like, “Let’s do another one.” Independently, we knew James DeMonaco. He knew him from his first movie called STATEN ISLAND, and I developed a movie with him about 10 years ago we never got made. I got to know James and really like his brain. He’s great at having these big ideas for movies and TV shows, too. Anyway, I gave Ethan the script for the movie at the end of the [SINISTER] shoot, and he’s like “Let’s do it.” Six months later, we’re shooting THE PURGE. So we shot THE PURGE before SINISTER even came out actually, which was cool.
Capone: You mentioned that he comes to you sometimes with some ideas, I'm assuming that includes thoughts on the basic structure of the film or the character work.
JB: He’s great. He’s great at story and great at script. I just sent him a script that’s not really working so well and I was like, “I want you to be in it and help us fix it.” He’s like, “No, it’s too much work.” I was like, “Come on, I can’t do it.” He’s not going to do it. [Laughs] But I rely on him creatively when we are developing. In both of these movies, he had a big voice in how the scripts were developed, and it’s great to get his perspective on that too, yeah.
Capone: On SINISTER, too?
JB: He and Scott had a lot of creative conversations about the character and the guy and the wardrobe and how the character would look and what he would do. He was in a lot of those conversations. He’s a smart guy.
Capone: He dared to change the words of my former co-worker Robert Cargill?
JB: [laughs] He definitely did. Robert Cargill was on set every day, and he allowed Ethan to make such changes. He’s a good guy, Cargill.
Capone: I don’t know how many reviews you read of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, the first one, but I physically injured myself watching that movie, because I’m not a guy that covers his eyes, but sometimes I cover my ears or at least one ear, because loud noises scare the shit out of me. So I had my thumb in my ear and my hand like this [just over my left eyebrow], and at some point I jumped and I scratched my forehead. I didn’t know I had done that until I got home that night and saw the big scratch mark right across my forehead. So that’s a first for me.
JB: I love that. We achieved our goal.
Capone: Physical harm, yeah. Where do those films have left to go at this point? Have you started up on the next one, yet?
JB: We’re almost done with five.
Capone: I know you usually shoot them in the spring.
JB: We’re more at the end than the beginning, although that could change. That’s always subject to change.
Capone: That’s something I’ve got to ask you about, because everybody makes comments about that. What we tend to see in the trailers for those films, a ton of that never ends up in the movie, and I think that’s hilarious, because I always wonder “How much did they shoot? Did they shoot three different versions of the movie? How does that keep happening?"
JB: [laughs] The funny thing was, people get pissed off about that, but what I always say is, at the time we made the trailer, everything in the trailer was in the movie,. To answer your question, found footage causes many more problems than in solves. It’s cheaper, but storytelling-wise it’s incredibly complicated. It’s much harder to do.
Capone: I would imagine it’s limiting to a certain degree.
JB: It’s very limiting. When you’re super scared, you don’t hold a camera and when you watch a horror movie, most of what you see are super-scared people. So it’s a very tough thing to marry, and the way that in my opinion that you make them successfully is exactly how Orin [Peli] did the first PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, which is he shot the movie and went back and reshot it 50 times. Now remember, a reshoot would cost 200 bucks. He’d give Katy and Mike 200 bucks, they’d drive from LA to San Diego and shoot for three hours, then they drive home. Then we’d show the movie to 20 people and get everyone’s comments.
It’s tiring, but creatively it’s great, because the movies are inexpensive. Found-footage movies take that. They take working over and over and testing and working, because the performance has to feel like it’s really happening. It has to feel like a documentary, and the only way to get that is to do and redo and redo, and every PARANORMAL ACTIVITY movie is the same. We do it over and over, and certain parts and certain actors are working better than others, and we will lean the story more in their direction. The development of it feels like a TV show. It’s a group of people, and we're all together and we reshoot and reshoot and reshoot.
Capone: Are you using the same directors you’ve been using from the last couple of ones on this new one?
JB: No, we used Orin on the first and then Tod Williams on the second and then Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman on the third and fourth. There’s another director coming up, but I don’t think he’s announced yet.
Capone: With the fifth one? You haven’t announced the director for the movie that’s almost done shooting? Is that what you are saying? Wow. I looked it up yesterday, and I didn’t see it.
JB: You may be right. I don't think we did. [Laughs] I think so. And we are also doing THE OXNARD TAPES, which [PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2-4 writer] Chris Landon directed, which is the Hispanic PARANORMAL ACTIVITY. We’re still shooting that one. We're more on the done side than not, but we'll do more work on it.
Capone: Will that play in this country?
JB: It’s English language. It’s not Spanish, no. It’s American Hispanic. Everyone in it is American. They're all Americans.
Capone: Okay, but at least you have the luxury of a completely different story.
JB: Thank God! And a different setting, different everything. Thank God.
Capone: But with the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY movies, where do you have left to take that?
JB: I have no idea. I know what the plot of the fifth movie is. I don’t know what happens after that.
Capone: At some point, when will it feel like you’re stretching it a little thin?
JB: Two movies ago. [laughs]
Capone: I’ve got to say, I’ve been particularly impressed with how you have managed to kind of keep it all in that same framework.
JB: Even four? Four was the super fancy house, the girl on Skype.
Capone: My bottom line is this: if it’s still scaring the crap out of me, I’m on board. Even if it feels like the story is being stretched a little bit. So at least it scared me, but I will say the stories are becoming a little weirdly disconnected from where you began. When you have two different movies in the last year that parody very directly what you have been doing in those movies, it might be time to move on. I know he saying is “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” but I’m not quite sure if those movies cut it.
JB: I know, SCARY MOVIE 5 and HAUNTED HOUSE. I didn’t them. Was it bad?
Capone: Of course they're bad.
JB: Was it a mockery bad? Which one was worse?
Capone: SCARY MOVIE 5 was way worse. They’re both terrible, but that one is the worst.
JB: They are making a HAUNTED HOUSE sequel. How can they do that?
Capone: If it comes out in theaters, I'll actually go see it.
JB: Sacrilege. Nice
Capone: You said when people are scared, they don’t pick up a camera, so a lot of times you’ve taken the cameras out of their hands in these movies with security cameras, oscillating fans, and the like. What is the key to making those movies work? Why does that scare us more than something with beautiful cinematography?
JB: I guess even though you know it’s not real, it still feels real. With that style, if it’s done well, it’s scarier than traditionally shot movies, because it feels like you’re watching real people. They’re not famous. It’s just super relatable. It feels like you’re watching someone’s movie that they made of this experience. No matter how much you know that that isn’t the case, you suspend disbelief more easily when it’s told in a style of filmmaking that you get from your cousin about his kids. I think that just works on your brain better if you can do it right. There’s a lot of bad found footage too. There’s nothing worse than a bad found footage movie.
Capone: You’re partly to blame for that, you know?
JB: I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.
Capone: I will say though that one of the best, and technically it isn’t found footage, but I will say one of my absolute favorites since found footage has come back to life was THE BAY. I thought that was such a scary, cool movie. I keep arguing with people that it’s not found footage, because it’s supposed to be an edited together news piece.
JB: PARANORMALs are edited.
Capone: Those are more highlight-reel edited.
JB: I don’t mean they're edited by an editor; I mean the lore is someone finds the tapes and edits them.
Capone: They have titles on them, but THE BAY is edited like a news piece almost; it’s supposed to be some raw piece of thing put together by some internet guy. It’s a message movie by the guy in the movie, making this environmental propaganda film--not by Barry Levinson, but by the guy that is playing the director.
JB: Yeah, I liked it too. I think they did a great job with that movie.
Capone: I think people paid attention to that movie, because Barry Levinson’s name was on it.
JB: I know, which is so weird. Alright, which movie is more graphic, THE BAY or THE PURGE? Graphic graphic.
Capone: Blood and guts graphic? To me it’s different, because when you find a dead body that’s been gutted from the inside out, that’s different than actively hacking someone to pieces. So it feels like THE PURGE is, because there’s more of a rage factor. Gore doesn’t bother me, but violence sometimes gets to me.
JB: No, I think it’s totally subjective, like you said.
Capone: Let’s talk about INSIDIOUS a little bit.
JB: Let’s do it.
Capone: Getting James Wan in your camp was a great thing and finally just letting him cut loose again, even in a PG-13 setting, resulted in one of the scariest films that came out that year, without a doubt. I’m very excited that he’s got this sequel coming out. I don’t know anything about it, but I’ve got to go out on a limb and guess it has something to do with the story that we hear about in the first film from Patrick Wilson’s character as a kid?
JB: He touches on that, yes. I just saw the cut a week ago, and I'm seeing it again in a week. But we're all done. It’s great. He’s just like you said, that guy knows what he is doing. I forget who I was talking to before, but they were like “And what about INSIDIOUS?” I might have said it to you, “The guy made SAW, let him do what he wants to do.” Did I just say that to you?
Capone: No. I just said that to you.
JB: Yeah, the guy makes fucking SAW and then he gets jammed on his next couple of films. Someone said, “Why is INSIDIOUS so good?” I said, “Because James Wan is a freaking genius. This is all you can have, but do whatever you want,” and he had final cut and everything. He cast it. Every single creative decision in that movie was James and Leigh [Whannell, writer]’s, and they're just great filmmakers. I learned from them so much, and James came back and did it again. I think it’s very scary and satisfying.
Capone: As long as it’s scary. When I interviewed James and Leigh, we got into a really deep discussion about the end of the film, the sequence in the other realm.
JB: “The further.”
Capone: There’s a little fog on the ground, and he’s floating. Some people just laughed at that sequence, but I said, “No, you don’t understand. They're doing that on purpose. It’s a total nod to what Hammer used to do. That’s a very deliberate look they're going for.”
JB: Did you tell them that?
Capone: Of course. I went into it like, “I know that’s what you were going for.” It was awesome, a great time. I love that he’s got like two movies coming out on top of each other.
JB: THE CONJURING and INSIDIOUS 2.
Capone: They both look scary as hell.
JB: THE CONJURING is going to be great. I wish it was mine. I wish I made it, god damn it.
Capone: All right, let’s talk real quick about a couple of things you’ve got coming up. I’m going to assume most of these are internet rumors.
JB: Most of them are. [laughs]
Capone: THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUN DOWN, that’s with Ryan Murphy producing. Tell me about working with him, because I think what he is doing with "American Horror Story" is fun stuff.
JB: Ryan Murphy and I found each other, because I think we are two of the only people in the world who love horror movies and musicals passionately and equally. But we share that and he came to me and said, “I want to do these movies with you,” and I said, “Great.” We're doing THE NORMAL HEART [which Murphy is directing] together, too and there's something we are cooking up. It’s a great partnership. He brings much more of a creative filmmaking side, and we bring a kind of structure, and hopefully we'll make a lot more. We start THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUN DOWN in a week and a half. It’s the first remake that we’ve done and it’s for MGM. We’ll see how it comes out, but his director, a guy I really like named Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, who has done a ton of "American Horror Story's" is directing it, and it’s been fun. It’s been stressful, because it starts in a week and a half, but fun.
Capone: ANGRY LITTLE GOD, directed Daniel Stamm, who did THE LAST EXORCISM. Tell me a little bit about that one, because I don’t know anything about it.
JB: That’s a remake of a movie called 13: GAME OF DEATH. It’s an Asian movie; I think it’s Thailand. It’s a really weird, great idea--a guy gets a call out of the blue that says, “You’re part of a game show. You could win a $100 million. We're going to give you 12 tasks. The first one is you’ve got to kill the fly that you see in front of you.” He’s like, “How do you know there’s a fly here?” and kills it. “Once you stop, you lose everything. You made $10 doing that, you’ll make $1000 for the next one up to you’re going to make $100 million. The guy is played by Mark Webber, who stars in GHOSTS [aka JESSABELLE], which is the Lionsgate movie that I have. We're in post production on it, and I think Daniel did a good job on the movie, and nothing more than that. We haven’t shown it to distributors or anyone, but it’s cool.
Capone: Did you meet Mark through Ethan? I know they’ve worked together before, yeah.
JB: I did. Mark Webber is from CHELSEA WALLS.
Capone: That’s right, but more importantly, he starred in THE HOTTEST STATE [both films were directed by Ethan Hawke], basically playing Ethan as a young would-be actor.
JB: Yeah, that's right.
Capone: On a phone interview I did with him for some movie a few years ago, at the end just sort of thanked me for the review that I wrote for that movie. I’ve never actually met the guy. He was sitting behind us at the SINISTER screening in Austin.
JB: I was there.
Capone: Were you?
JB: I was right next to him.
Capone: It was SXSW.
JB: Yeah, I was right next to him.
Capone: How funny. Anyway, it was great to meet you, Jason.
JB: Great to meet you, too. I’m glad you got our movie.