REEL REACTIONS EXCLUSIVE: Interview With Producer Jason Blum (“Dark Skies”)

If there’s one thing producer Jasom Blum loves, it’s horror. Though he served as co-executive producer on films such as the Oscar-nomianted The Reader and last summer’s Prohibition-set Lawless, Blum’s main passion has always been horror, and his production company, Blumhouse Prudctions, founded in 2000, has thrived in recent years by making well-made horror films with reasonably low budgets. The first film to truly breakout under Blum’s method was 2007’s Paranormal Activity, which reignited the found footage genre and grossed a gargantuan $193 million opposite a $15,000 budget, making it one of the most profitable films of all time. Blum continued this method with each of the three subsequent Paranormal Activity films as well as other horror films like 2010’s Insidious ($97 million gross opposite a $1.9 million budget) and last year’s Halloween hit, Sinister ($87 million gross opposite a $3 million budget). Clearly, Blum has found an efficient way to make solid horror films without risking the chance for financial loss, and with his latest production, Dark Skies, in theaters tomorrow, we spoke with Blum about his horror-filled career and more:

RR: What compels you to produce these terrifying horror films?

JB: Well, I first kind of got really into horror movies in college, I majored in film, and I took a seminar on Hitchcock and I really loved his movies, so I was probably older than most people. I liked all movies when I was in high school, and I really got focused on genre movies from that class, I really got into it. And then, through my career I’ve worked on all kinds of movies, but I guess as I’ve gotten older I really like hiding family drama, hiding is probably the wrong word, more like tucking family into a scary environment, I find that to be really compelling when you switch up family dynamics with something supernatural happening, it’s something I like to watch and something I like to make.

RR: What movie scared you growing up?

JB: Friday the 13th, that movie terrified me growing up. I saw it when I was too young and I was alone at my cousin’s house in, well I grew up in New York but I was in LA, and it scared me through and through.

RR: A lot of your movies have this element of a tormented, young suburban family. What else attracts you to that theme?

JB: The most important thing to me in these movies is that they’re really scary, and unlike, I think, a lot of people that are involved in scary movies I don’t actually think that comes from the scares themselves. I think that comes from the setup, and the relatability to the situation, so I like to make these movies feel very real and very relatable and put people in situations that are ordinary situations as opposed to putting them in situations where you wouldn’t normally find yourself, you know, like in the middle of the arctic. There are other horror settings, which are very obscure, and I like making them relatable because I think it makes the movie scarier.

RR: There seems to be a scary child element to your films, is there something that draws an audience in about scary children or what is it that you like to implement with scary children?

JB: I don’t think I look for movies in the suburbs or movies with scary children, I think children in scary movies are relatable and, you know, because they’re young and innocent and their brains aren’t fully formed yet, I think the ways that adults relate to them, there’s a lot of room there for scares. So, a lot of my movies have kids in them for that reason, but I don’t specifically go out and look for scary movies with kids. I look for really scary movies and often times they’re set in the suburbs and often times there are kids involved, if that makes sense to you.

File:SinisterMoviePoster2012.jpgRR: Is working with children within the horror genre difficult? They do some pretty horrifying things in your films, particularly in Sinister.

JB: Working with children in movies is difficult, in horror the set is not scary and the kids are never scared, but working with children generally in films is very challenging because there are very strict laws about how long they can work and kids of a certain age can only work nine hours, some can only work six hours, and children under two or three can only work two hours at a time, obviously there’s a lot of people around them, so it takes longer to film children because you’re working with a kid so it easily takes more time. Purely from a physical production point of view, it’s hard to actually make movies with children, any kind of movie, but I always love watching kids on screen.

RR: What is it about your method that seems to click in the horror genre, since horror is kind of a weak genre nowadays?

JB: I can’t speak for what other people do, but I think there’s a certain reverse engineering that we have with our movies and I really learned this from the directors, this is not an idea of mine but I learned it from James Wan and Scott Derrickson and Scott Stewart, that we really start with brave stories and then the scares comes from that, and I think a lot of horror movies start with the scares first and build the story second, and I always think those scares are less effective because you’re less emotionally involved with the characters. I don’t know if that answers your question, but that’s one theory on it.

RR: Correct me if I’m wrong, but Dark Skies appears to be in the vein of an ‘Alien Body Snatcher’-type horror movie, as opposed to the haunted house or found footage-type horror movie subgenre which Insidious and Paranormal Activity fell into, both of which you were the producer on, what attracted you to working on Dark Skies and within this horror subgenre?

JB: Well, we did Insidious and we also did Sinister and Paranormal Activity, and I really love ordinary situations where you throw a dark force of some kind into the mix and chaos ensues, so in that way, you know, I feel like Dark Skies is one of the scariest movies we’ve made. I feel like there are certainly different kinds of scares but the emotional journey of the characters in all the Paranormal movies and in Insidious and in Sinister are similar, which is that it starts out with an ordinary family and scary and dark things happen to them.

RR: From what I saw in the trailer, Dark Skies is a little more subtle approach to alien invasion and to horror films, was that something that interested you?

JB: Dark Skies interested me because I thought it was a new, dark force upsetting traditional family life, and I was very compelled by the relationship between Keri [Russell] and Josh [Hamilton] and how their marriage at the beginning of the movie is struggling a little bit and how that affects how they relate to each other, how they relate to their children and how they relate to something bad that starts to happen to them shortly after the movie begins.

RR: Have you ever had an interest in the sci-fi horror genre before?

JB: Umm, you know I like horror, I like anything scary, so any kind, any other category that might fit into, I like to make, and I really think of this movie definitively as a horror movie or as a scary movie as opposed to a sci-fi movie. To me when I hear sci-fi horror, that feels like big, effects…maybe I’m in the minority, but when I hear sci-fi, to me, that kind of says, an effects driven movie and [Dark Skies] is not an effects driven movie, you know.

RR: What messages do you try to convey with your movies, and what message are you trying to convey with Dark Skies?

JB: I think that’s a great question, I don’t usually try and…I guess I respond more viscerally to either the pitches or the scripts first: Is this a compelling story, is this a scary story? And the message, to me, is really second; I really love that on all the movies I’ve done, everyone has a very different idea of what the message is and I think that’s great. I don’t really have, I’m not trying to say something very specific with these movies, I’m trying to make movies that people have a fun hour and a half in and jump and feel connected to, but with these movies there’s not specific messages that I’m trying to tell. Although I do like hearing the messages that people think I’m trying to tell.

RR: The writer and director, Scott Stewart, I know that he also directed Legion and Priest but you were not a producer on those two films, why did you decide to work with him on Dark Skies.

JB: I saw Legion and I really liked it a lot and I got in touch with his agent and had a meeting with him and I explained kind of our model we, the company, works with a specific model and I asked him if he had any stories that would fit the model and he pitched me the movie actually. Originally, he pitched it as a found footage movie and my feeling generally is that if it doesn’t have to be told with found footage it’s better to tell it more traditionally, and so that was really my only note but what he pitched and what the movie is, is very, very close and that was about a year ago, it took us a year to make the movie. That’s how it came together, the idea originated with Scott.

RR: Is there anything new and different, technically, with this movie because it is different from your other ones, with it’s alien references?

JB: I think the movie has more similarities than differences, which is a family in jeopardy and a dark force comes into their lives and upsets the balance and when Scott first pitched it to me I thought it was obviously very different from Insidious and Paranormal Activity, but in terms of what I respond to in horror movies and in scary movies there was a lot of what is in those other movies in this film.

RR: My next two questions regard the lead, Keri Russell. Describe the production on Dark Skies, I know that she’s heavily involved with the FX series, The Americans, and I was wondering if any of the production for The Americans overlapped with the Dark Skies production or if anything had to be worked out so that she could do both?

JB: No, it’s just a coincidence that they’re both coming out at the same time, but, in fact, we didn’t have any scheduling issues. I’m actually not sure when they shot, but that just tells you that when they shot and we shot were at completely different times because we didn’t have to work out anything. And, I’m really pleased with how she did in the movie, she and Scott got along really well and she really loves the movie and still really likes Scott, which is not always the case so I feel very lucky about that.

RR: What was it like working with Keri Russell and was she the original choice for the lead?

JB: She was the original choice for the lead, and both Scott and I really kind of admired her, I think it was her agent initially who read the script and asked, ‘Have you guys thought of Keri?’ We hadn’t thought of anyone, we were just starting, and we really liked that idea and we sent it to her and Josh Hamilton, who plays her husband, and I were in a theater company in New York twenty years ago, a company called Malaparte, he’s someone I’ve known for a long time. I had never met Keri before, but happily enough they knew each other and so that kind of helped the chemistry between them, and Keri really was our first choice and she read it, she said yes, it was great. After a meeting with Scott, we cast Josh right after, and I‘m really pleased with the chemistry between the two of them and how they work in the movie.

RR: Yea, it looks like they do have a lot of chemistry together. What was it like working with J.K. Simmons, an actor who has a big cult following?

JB: Awesome, I think he did a great job, he had a hard job, his character in the movie is…you need a great actor who makes him really believable, I think he’s totally believable. I’m producing a movie with Jason Reitman called Whiplash and we did a short, that actually won Sundance this year, that J.K. stars in so I worked with him again on that movie and I hope to work with him a lot more, I think he’s a really, really good actor.

RR: Same, I think he’s awesome in everything he’s ever done.

JB: Me too, me too.

RR: How involved are you in casting? Is it just from a budget standpoint, or do you have a say in who you think would fit the role?

JB: I always give directors suggestions of actors that we like and that we’ve worked with before, Ethan Hawke, a friend of mine, he did Sinister and he did this upcoming movie, The Purge, he’s worked in a couple of movies for me and, like I said, Josh Hamilton is a friend of mine. But, ultimately and most often, well in all of the movies that I’ve mentioned, the directors have the final say on who is cast in the movie, so I give them my opinion but the final say I leave up to them.

RR: Do you have any say in the creative part of the film like directing, changing scenes, etc.

JB: Like what I said about casting, I give my point of view about the story, about the actors, about the set, about the wardrobe, I give my point of view about everything, but ultimately this movie is really Scott Stewart’s movie, just like Sinister is Scott Derrickson’s movie, and Insidious is James Wan’s movie, and Paranormal Activity is Oren Peli’s movie, I really believe that the directors are the ones who make these movies and it’s our company’s job to support them. So, I really give my thoughts, have a point of view, but the directors have the final say most of the time.

RR: Now, there seems to be this clash between fanbases, I’ve noticed this from people I’ve talked to and the general public, where a lot of fans enjoy Paranormal Activity, they don’t enjoy Insidious, and vice versa. Can you talk about your fanbase and is there a specific type of demographic you try to reach when you create these different kinds of films?

JB: We really try to reach scary movie fans, whether they’re on the Paranormal side or the Insidious side, or they don’t like found footage or they like found footage, we really try and make great stories that are scary and hope that we find an audience that likes real feeling, authentic scares and that’s the audience we’re going for. That audience is pretty broad, men and women, under twenty-five and over twenty-five, there are horror fans of all shapes and sizes.

RR: How do you feel about these that you’ve produced becoming cult films? As pointed out, many people either love your films or despise them.

JB: [laughs] I think if you’re getting a strong reaction one way or another you’re doing something interesting, and what I strive to do, first and foremost, is to do things that are original and that provoke a reaction from people one way or another, so hopefully there are more people that like it than don’t but a strong reaction either way, I’ll do either one.

RR: What film, maybe it’s one of your own that you’ve made previously or not, has the biggest influence on Dark Skies?

JB: Hmm, we definitely talked a lot about Poltergeist before and while we were developing the movie so maybe it’s a little Poltergeist-esque.

RR: Are you happy with the finished product of Dark Skies?

JB: Yea, I really love the movie, I’m really proud of the movie. I think Scott [Stewart] did a great job, I think Keri and Josh did a great job, and part of the reason why I’m on the phone with you guys is because I said to our partners at Dimension, who are releasing the movie, ‘Have me talk to as many people about the movie as possible, because I really love it and I’m really proud of it.’ I couldn’t be happier with how it turned out.

RR: Excellent! What do you think people will not be expecting to see or something new that they will see in Dark Skies?

JB: There’s a great twist, which is often you don’t have in scary movies, and I think they’re going to see original scares. So I think they’re going to be more scared than they think and I think there’s a twist that they won’t anticipate that I think pays off really well.

RR: Do you think Dark Skies has the potential to be worked into some kind of a continuation or franchise, similar to where Paranormal Activity is?

JB: I haven’t thought much about that, I would not be surprised, never say never, but we kind of work – it’s so hard to make movies and then make them good so we really try to focus as much energy and all of our creative juices into the original movie, so yes I suppose it could continue but I really haven’t given it a lot of thought and there are no plans for that at the moment.

RR: What do you want Dark Skies to accomplish for viewers?

JB: I want them to come out of the movie agreeing with me, I think it’s one of the scariest movies I’ve ever made, and I want them to come out saying the same thing.

RR: Also, what prompts you to produce microbudget films?

JB: By producing low budget movies, we get total creative freedom, we get to do exactly what we want to do, I think the minute the budget goes over a certain level the process of moviemaking becomes a much more collective, group activity, which, for me, is not nearly as compelling; the movies that I do, they’re really the directors’, you know, if you liked Insidious it’s because James Wan did a great job, if you liked Sinister it’s because Scott Derrickson did a great job, and if you like Dark Skies it’s because Scott Stewart did a great job, I just kind of create an environment for the directors to do what they want, the directors have a lot of creative control over these movies, and the only way I can give them that control is if I keep the budgets low.

RR: Is there a particular instance where you can think of something that you wish you could have done with the movie that you could not because of budget reasons, or do you try not to think about that?

JB: There are definitely a lot of movies that I wish we had said yes to and I wish we had made. I love going to see big effects movies, I love going to see Transformers or Avengers or other big movies like that, but I personally don’t have aspirations to make those movies, it’s just a very different business and one that we’re not in don’t anticipate us getting into.

RR: How do you manage to produce low budget films that are so high in quality?

JB: I work, always, with really experienced people who want to do the same thing that I’m doing, so all the directors I just mentioned – James and both Scott’s – have had successes before and, so, they really know what they’re doing, and they, like me, are willing to give up any kind of upfront money to do what they want to do, and if there’s a secret sauce I’m giving away that’s what it is, haha.

RR: Does that make it more stressful, working with a smaller budget, or easier because you can actually work within the director’s original vision?

JB: I think it depends on the person, I think for some people it could be more stressful because you have less tools at your disposal because you have less money, for me it’s much less stressful because there’s really one voice driving the process and that’s the director. That, for me, as a producer, and our company, as a production company, it creates less stress rather than more, but I think everyone would feel differently about that.

RR: Off of that, when people come to you with movies and they have the proposed budget, do you work with them to do it for less, to get it to fit, without taking away too much of their vision?

JB: We do that all the time, but I can tell very quickly if it’s something that just can’t be told inexpensively and I tell the filmmaker they should walk down the street to my friend, Lorenzo di Bonaventura, to make the bigger movie. But there are a lot of movies where the filmmaker might say, they think it’s a $15 million movie and I hear what the story is and I say, you know if you made these three or four small changes it could be a microbudget movie, and that we do all the time.

RR: You’ve definitely hit your stride with horror movies, how does that factor in to your going forward?

JB: What we’re really focused on and what the company’s really focused on is movies that can be made inexpensively that can be released wide. Not always, but 80-90% of the time, horror movies fit that model and I love working in that model, I love having total creative freedom and making material that’s suitable for wide release, as opposed to limited release, and I love scary movies! So as long as those things work in harmony with each other, we’re going to keep doing them. We have a movie, called The Purge, that comes out at the end of May with Universal, then we have Insidious 2 later in the year, and a few more after that, so I wouldn’t say I wouldn’t look at other material, but I really like scary movies and I’m going to keep making them.

RR: A fantastic movie by you is the comedy, The Darwin Awards, what’s the most difficult genre of film for you to produce considering something like, Dark Skies, is so vastly different from The Darwin Awards?

JB: What’s the hardest one for me, personally? I think comedy and horror movies have a lot in common, I’ve gotten it right more with horror than I have with comedy so, for me, comedy is something I haven’t done a lot of but I’d like to do more of it, I find it really tricky to get right.

RR: What skills from other kinds of movies or stage productions can be brought on board for a movie like this, or any other kind of horror movie?

JB: Well, there’s fundamentally every movie that you do you have to go through hiring a director and hiring a cast and hiring a crew and choosing locations, and so there’s a lot of crossover on any movie that somebody makes. All of that is familiar, and recently, as a number of people have pointed out on the call, we’ve been focusing mostly on horror so we’ve been really getting into the specific storytelling, what kind of actors work with that, but I think all the movies that I personally did before our company started doing these movies really kind of helped hone in on making, you know, fun and entertaining scary movies.

RR: How do you feel about Marlon Wayans and spoofing Paranormal [in A Haunted House]?

JB: I heard the movie is super funny, I’m thrilled to have been part of a movie that he would spoof, like we got spoofed at the Oscars a couple years ago, three years ago, for the first Paranormal and I couldn’t be happier to be part of a franchise that’s in the public, in the culture, enough to be spoofed, wherever it’s spoofed. So, I’m very pleased about that in fact. My opinion might change once I’ve seen the movie, I haven’t seen it yet I only know about it, so once I see it maybe I’ll change my mind, but I really thought the Academy Awards one was funny.

RR: Do you, yourself, have a personal belief in the paranormal?

JB: I definitely think there’s something more out there in the world than all of us are aware of, but what it is or what form it takes or anything else I haven’t the faintest idea, but I think there’s more out there than is just explained by science, for sure.

Interview by Mike Murphy

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