The new film Dark Skies is a terrifying glimpse into one family’s continued torment by extraterrestrials. Stars Keri Russell and Josh Hamilton play parents who attempt to protect their family and end the nightmare, even as they are losing control themselves. The film was produced by Jason Blum, whose company, Blumhouse Productions, has made a name for itself by making micro-budget films with wide release, and appeal, dating back to the first Paranormal Activity in 2007. We spoke to Blum about Dark Skies and about the challenges and benefits to making “high-concept, low-budget” chillers.
NERDIST: If you could please, tell us a little about Dark Skies and how you became involved in the project.
JASON BLUM: It started as an idea by Scott Stewart [who wrote and directed] that he told me about. It was really 100% his story, and he took six weeks to write the script and I loved it, and the movie that comes out in two weeks is very close to the original script that he wrote, actually.
N: His first two features as director (Legion and Priest) are very effects-heavy, and that’s not really what you guys are about; was that something you discussed beforehand, to try to minimize the amount of CGI that would need to be done?
JB: Yeah, really, I think effects in expensive movies are so good, and our movies are less expensive, so I don’t really like to compete on that level. I really emphasize in our movies story and characters and the actors and the performances, and Scott really agreed with that. He was really on board. We do have a few effects which he oversaw and made really cool, but, you’re right, the emphasis in this is not on effects.
N: The trailer for Dark Skies looks terrifying, and it seems like with this and other movies you’ve done, like Insidious and Sinister and, of course, the Paranormal Activity films, that the horror films you’ve been making have been all based around suburbia. Was that a conscious decision, and what is it about the ‘burbs that works so well in horror films?
JB: Well, personally, I’m drawn to what I like, and I like scary situations that are relatable, and suburbia is relatable, and by nature an urban setting is less scary because it’s more crowded. But, we’re shooting The Oxnard Tapes for Paramount right now, which is a much more urban setting.
N: What is it about alien abductions that is still so frightening to us?
JB: I think it’s frightening for all of us to contemplate that there’s more to the universe than just us, in whatever form it takes, that there are higher forces at work and, to me, that’s always a scary notion.
N: One of the hallmarks of your movies is that you often have actors, like Keri Russell and Josh Hamilton in this movie, who aren’t known for doing scary movies, in a scary movie. Can you tell us a little about the casting process?
JB: Well, I’ll give you a fun piece of trivia. I started out producing theatre in New York. I had a theatre company called Malaparte, and there were a lot of people you’d recognize, like Ethan Hawke was in it, Calista Flockhart was in it, and Robert Sean Leonard and Frank Whaley and Steve Zahn – a lot of New York actors who I’ve been friends with for a long time, and one of the fun opportunities making these movies has given me is we get to use people who don’t normally do genre movies. And so, Josh Hamilton was in that group with me 20 years ago, and Ethan and he and I are all real good friends, and Ethan has done two of these films for me [Sinister and the upcoming The Purge], and loves doing them, and we were talking to Josh and he said, “I want to try one too!” And that’s why Josh is in the movie; I think he does a great job. He’s really a New York theatre actor, and he’s been in a lot of movies, too, but not that kind of scary movie. I’m really psyched with him and Keri and their performances; I think they do a great job in the movie. It’s a very relatable couple; they feel like a real mom and dad.
N: What can you tell us about the production of your films, and of this film specifically?
JB: We do most of our films in Los Angeles. We’re shooting a film called Mercy for Universal in L.A. and we’re shooting Insidious 2 in L.A., and we shot this movie, Dark Skies, in L.A., and our schedules are shorter than most studio productions, I’ll tell ya that.
N: Do you see yourself, certainly not content-wise, but as far as scale and the speed and way in which your movies get made, sort of in the Roger Corman ilk of producing?
JB: I think there are certain comparisons, though there’s one huge difference, which is that Roger Corman worked only with first and second time directors, and we don’t ever do that. The only time you’ll find us doing that is if we partner with a very, very hands-on producer, but James Wan (Insidious), Scott Derrickson (Sinister), and Scott Stewart all have a long track record behind them. So, you know, that’s a very different model than Roger Corman. I have great admiration for what Corman did and continues to do, but we’re definitely looking at it in a substantially different way than him and the movies we’re making are different as a result, and we don’t have nearly the kind of volume that he has.
N: Blumhouse Productions is making a lot of horror and suspense films, but you have personally produced some other types of movies, like The Reader and The Tooth Fairy, so what do you look for when you go to choose what movies to produce?
JB: Well, it starts with a concept, whether it comes from a director or not, and we look for stories that can be told cost-effectively and which have a wide appeal. The Reader and The Tooth Fairy I did before I started doing this, so what I looked for then and what I look for now are very different. Now, if you ever see us attached to an expensive movie, it’s because someone we worked with on an inexpensive movie has asked us to participate, but those are not films that we’re looking to develop or looking to try to do at all. We’re really trying to stay, and we do stay, in this very specific space of low-budget, high-concept filmmaking.
N: What do you think it says about audiences today that movies like yours and big special effects movies can have resonance?
JB: I think both types of movies coexist very peacefully. I love to go see big movies, I just don’t make them. It’s just a different business. I think there’s room for people to love Transformers and love Insidious. They coexist in a happy way; in other words, my movies wouldn’t exist if Transformers didn’t exist, because they’re an alternative to that. They’re not better or worse, they’re just different.
N: Do you think a lower budget forces creative people to be more creative?
JB: A thousand percent. I think when you have parameters to work inside of, it forces the filmmakers to focus on what really matters, which is performance and story and when you take the bells and whistles away, the movies live or die on those things. When you’re working within parameters, those things get a lot more attention, and when they get more attention, the movies are better. I fundamentally believe that, yeah.
Dark Skies hits theaters on Friday, Feburary 22nd.