From making microbudget found footage horror a box office staple to producing a multiple Academy Award-winning film, Jason Blum is becoming one of the most prolific producers in Hollywood. Through his production shingle Blumhouse, he has put out films like the Paranormal Activity series, Insidious, The Purge, as well as non-horror fare like last year’s excellent Whiplash and the forthcoming Jem and the Holograms. If IMDb is to be believe, Blum served as a producer on a whopping 16 projects in 2014 alone, and he shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
This week at SXSW, the latest Blumhouse film, Unfriended, made its debut to mostly positive reviews. The social media-centric thriller combines visceral scares and a charismatic young cast for a claustrophobic, tense viewing experience set entirely on the desktop of a computer. In celebration of the film’s premiere, I sat down with Blum in an Austin hotel room to chat about Unfriended, Jem and the Holograms, why horror will always be the primary focus for Blumhouse, and more.
N: First of all, congratulations on the film. I really enjoyed it.
Jason Blum: Good! Did you know what it was about beforehand?
N: I did. I was a little nervous when I first heard the conceit, but it really worked, and I think part of that was because as someone who spent most of his day lashed to his laptop, it really made for an uncomfortable, viscerally close-to-home experience.
JB: Oh, good!
N: Was that something that attracted you to this script? That sort of claustrophobia you can get with just staying locked in these tight frames the whole time?
JB: Yes. So we didn’t get involved until these guys had already made it. I never read a script. I just saw the movie over the summer, actually, and loved it. But one of the reasons I did love it, I responded to it, was you felt like you were getting between someone and their computer. To me, sadly, I think kind of one of the most intimate relationships we have right now is with our electronic devices–our computer, our phone, whatever it is.
It’s very private, even though it’s not private, because as we all know, nothing’s private on a device. But you still have the feeling that it’s private, and when you’re Skyping or IM’ing or whatever, and I think you get to insert yourself between yourself, that relationship between this young girl and her computer, is so kind of cool and exciting. You feel like you’re doing something wrong, and that’s one of the things I really loved about it.
N: Yeah, you feel guilty when you see someone leave their Facebook account open on their computer. I want to click, but I know I shouldn’t.
JB: Yeah, yeah. It’s like the old reading someone’s diary. I feel like that’s one of the really kind of fun, delicious things about the movie, is that you’re getting to read someone’s–it’s the modern version of getting to read a diary. It’s fun.
N: You guys have such a massive slate of projects. When you’re looking for a project, do you sometimes like not having to be involved from word one?
JB: Oh, god, yeah! It’s the best way to produce! [laughing] The thrill I get from my job is taking stories and facilitating them either getting made and then getting out there into the world. I’m not a frustrated writer/director. I’ll never direct a movie. I’ll never write a movie. I’d be terrible at doing either one of those things. I really like recognizing people who are good at it, and helping them.
At what stage I’m helping them, I really don’t care. I get no more or less satisfaction starting from scratch or starting from a rough cut, which is interesting. I haven’t–I didn’t–I wouldn’t be able to have said that ten years ago, because I hadn’t had enough experience with doing both. But I’ve really done both, and I’m making a joke about it being–I don’t prefer one or the other. They’re both fun for different reasons.
N: Yeah. It’s just as nice to be able to say, “Oh, this is fully formed,” as it is to say, “Let me help you find the story you’re trying to tell.”
JB: The funnest thing about the second thing is that it’s really fun to have an idea that’s air, and it’s just air. It’s just sound waves. And then two years or five years or ten years later, it’s a thing on a screen. That’s very satisfying.
And then the most fun thing about Unfriended is you take something that people don’t believe in, and then you show them that it works. I think that’s the most satisfying thing about the first thing you were talking about.
N: I have to say one of my favorite things you folks made last year is Whiplash. Hands down, my favorite movie of last year.
JB: Oh, good.
N: With a film like that, it’s not outright horror per se, but it is a sort of a horror story.
JB: It’s a horror drama. If there’s a dramatic version of a horror movie, that’s it. [chuckles]
N: Well, with films like Jem and the Holograms coming out, are you guys looking to branch out more from horror, or is that still the core focus?
JB: I’m not looking to branch out more. The focus of the company, just to use your word, is always going to be–I don’t know always, but still–is scary. TV, movie, I don’t prefer one or the other. But I definitely want and prefer scary stuff. If a great story, script, or book or article or something comes in our door that isn’t that, that enough people in the company think is awesome, we’re in a great–and we’re lucky enough to be in a position where we can get things done that are hard to get done.
So I won’t say “No” to it, I think that would be silly, because we all worked so hard to get to this place. You want to be able to do stuff that you love. But it still–it’ll be the anomaly. It’ll be the one-off, unusual thing not to focus on what we’re doing.
JB: I didn’t spend a lot of time making scary stuff in order to do something else. I love making scary stuff.
N: What attracts you to horror?
JB: Oh, I love the community. I really do. I love the culture around scary movies. I love, like, the press around it. There’s a really community around it. I love that we’re all kind of outcasts, and everyone thinks of our movies as lesser, and I think I’ve always liked being the underdog.
I like all that stuff, and I love the experience of being in a movie and being scared. It doesn’t happen a lot, because I’ve seen so many of them, but when it happens, it’s very exciting!
N: So what does it take to scare you?
JB: I think it takes something different now. It really does. It takes something fresh, and that’s what I think Unfriended is. It happens to be a very different form of storytelling, so it’s super unnerving. I think that’s what it takes.
N: Yeah, I feel like anyone–definitely for anyone born after 2000–this is going to make them lose their mind. They’re going to be like, “I need to delete all my Facebook messages right now.”
JB: Right, right!
N: So one thing I’ve always admired about your company is the sort of ethos of doing more with less. With that sort of production style, you’re able to pull off some really incredible films, and they make their money back and then some at the box office.
N: Well, yeah. No one’s 100%.
JB: That’s right.
N: What about horror do you think in particular is suited to that style of film making, that sort of limitation?
JB: I think horror is scarier without–I think, the less special effects. It’s not only not special effects dependent, I think when people use special effects in horror movies, the movies are usually worse. So that keeps them inexpensive. You don’t need movie stars in horror movies. I think it’s actually better with just great actors who are–a famous person in a horror movie, sometimes makes the movie less scary, because you have this relationship. You’re watching a person you know, even though you don’t really know them, you have this relationship with this person–I think it’s almost better if the person more anonymous, or -someone who’s not a household name.
N: I know what you mean. That was sort of my experience with Cabin in the Woods. Even though they made it before Chris Hemsworth really broke out as Thor; it came out afterwards, and I was like, “No, you’ll be fine. You’re the god of thunder.”
JB: Yeah, yeah–exactly. So I think three reasons: I think special effects, I think movie stars, and I also think, oddly, locations. I think that the most–you feel most vulnerable in your house, and particularly in your bedroom. That’s a cheap thing to shoot! You don’t–an action movie, you need jumping across the Grand Canyon, and this and that–you need scale. I think scale actually works like effects–you want a horror movie, the more claustrophobic it is, the scarier it is. And claustrophobic means production is not expensive.
N: Yeah, thankfully no helicopter shots needed for Unfriended.
JB: [laughing] No helicopter shots!
N: They’d be very out of place.
JB: Although we used drones, but that’s not as expensive.
N: That’s interesting. I heard in your introduction to the film, you guys might still be tweaking the film. Do you have an idea how much you intend to tweak it from what we saw?
JB: Not much.It’s going to be pretty close, but there’s still a few things that we’re talking about changing. And by the way, we may change nothing, but I just didn’t want people to be surprised or upset at us if the SXSW version and the release version were slightly different. That’s why I said that.
N: I think a lot of people are definitely going to be super stoked about Unfriended. But apart from Unfriended, what other projects do you guys have coming down the line that you’re excited about?
JB: Let’s see–I’m really excited about Insidious 3, because the movie is great, and because Leigh [Whannell] directed it. The movie came out so good, so I’m psyched for people to see that.
N: I still can’t listen to Tiny Tim.
JB: HA! [laughing] I’m really excited about–you brought it up–Jem and the Holograms. John Chu was so passionate about it, and I really didn’t understand what Jem and the Holograms was that well, and then I’ve learned what it is now, and I love what Jem and the Holograms stands for. I love everything about the movie and what the movie says, and I think the music is terrific in the movie. It’s very representative of the spirit of the company, in a funny way, so that’s another movie that I’m really psyched about.
N: So is it going to be like day-glo Whiplash?
JB: Day-glo Whiplash? What do you mean when you say that?
N: Like Jem and the Holograms, I picture neon, bright lights, rock and roll music, but you said it’s representative of the spirit of the company, so I’m imagining horror drama. [laughing]
JB: [laughing] No, the spirit of the company in terms of it celebrates being different.
N: Gotcha. OK. I went straight to murder.
JB: [laughing] There are no murders.
N: No supernatural forces going through the band…
JB: There are no deaths in Jem and the Holograms. No one dies. [laughing]
N: Nice. So with Jem, how did that project first come about?
JB: John Chu, who I really admire, was so passionate about it, that he–I just couldn’t say no. It was infectious. He just thought this was the most important movie that anyone could ever make, and I admire that in people. And he–it’s hard to explain, except to say he took–he wrote the script without having the rights, and being told that the movie wouldn’t happen, and he said, “I don’t care. I’m writing this anyway.” And I admire that. So I believed in him, and it paid off, because the movie came out great. But really, he is the reason why we did the movie.