Jason Blum interview: The Purge: Anarchy, Paranormal Activity 5 and more

We talk to producer Jason Blum about The Purge: Anarchy, Parnormal Activity 5, making horror on a budget, and being a Hollywood rebel...

Although he’s been a successful Hollywood movie producer since the mid-90s, it was the gigantic, unexpected popularity of Paranormal Activity which brought Jason Blum and his production company Blumhouse Productions to the world’s attention. Since that film landed in 2007, his company’s been responsible for a range of low-budget yet often very effective genre films, ranging from Insidious in 2010, via Barry Levinson’s The Bay in 2012, to alien invasion flick Dark Skies in 2013.

Last year also saw the release of another surprise hit for Blumhouse: The Purge, a lean, flawed mix of sci-fi, horror and home invasion thriller directed by James DeMonaco. The sequel, The Purge: Anarchy, is out this week, and it’s a successful expansion of the first film’s premise, as its futuristic violence spills out onto the streets of downtown Los Angeles.

Like so many of Blumhouse’s films, The Purge: Anarchy gets an awful lot out of a budget that is tiny by Hollywood standards. So how does Jason Blum manage to attract such talented actors as Ethan Hawke, Frank Grillo and Rose Byrne to his movies, and how does he make them so cheaply when other film studios spend more on their catering than he does on a 90 minute feature? Those were just a few of the questions we had on our minds when we sat down with a laid-back, friendly Jason Blum last month. Here’s what he had to say.

Aside from being a fun action film, The Purge: Anarchy has some really interesting themes, too, I thought. The divide between rich and poor, America’s relationship with guns, and lots of other things. Were those what interested you in getting it made?

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Yeah. I wanted to make it because I loved the concept. But I equally loved the politics. We haven’t really done a movie that has such an overt political message as The Purge, and it’s a good focus. I was really psyched about it, yeah.

It’s received very differently in Europe than in the US, the politics. People in Europe definitely understand that it’s a cautionary tale, while some of the audience in the US is like, “Yeah! Let’s purge!” [Laughs] Which is upsetting, but interesting.

Those ideas were seeded in the first film, weren’t they, but they’re much more overt in this one, I thought.

Much more overt, yeah. This one’s far more political, exactly.

Do you think that’s something that would be more difficult to get done at another studio?

That’s a good question. I think another studio might have been scared of it, definitely. [Laughs]

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With your production company, you can take a lot more risks in that respect.

Yeah, you can take more risk because the movies are cheap. That’s one of the reasons why I like making these movies. The Purge is the best example of that – before the first movie, if you’d said you wanted to make a $30m movie about crime being legal for 12 hours a year, and people killing each other on the streets, you’d have been laughed out of a studio’s office, you know? But it’s realistic for us. If it’s too weird, it’ll be a D-movie, and we won’t make any money, but we won’t lose. It’s a great model for trying new stuff. 

Given that the budget was at the level it was, how precisely did you have to plan everything? What The Purge: Anarchy achieves is quite ambitious for the money.

On the second movie, we had $9m, so we had three times as much money as the first. But still, by Hollywood standards, it’s pretty low-budget for a sequel. Yeah, we had to plan it really carefully – the biggest challenge on the movie was definitely the budget. [The shoot] was 27 days, which was really short. And it was a real slog to get it done, but James [DeMonaco] and the guys did it, and I’m sure they’ll say it was pretty hard.

You’ve had some great actors in your films. Frank Grillo’s in this one. Ethan Hawke was in the last one. So how do you get that kind of talent?

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Well, we have an easier time attracting people now because we have a cycle of movies. Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne made very good money from both Insidious movies. Word travels fast, so as soon as you have a success, and do what you say you’re going to do in a contract, and pay out that money, we had a lot more established actors come to us and say they want to work with us.

We shoot all our movies in LA, which means they get to stay at home. That’s a huge bonus, especially if they have kids. That’s a big deal – you’d be shocked at what a big deal that is. And now that they know that the movie production’s short, and that they can get paid as much if not more than they get at a major studio – it’s a good gig for an actor.

We’re doing movies now with John Travolta [In The Valley Of Violence] and J-Lo [The Boy Next Door]. John Travolta worked for scale and so did J-Lo, so those are two recent people we’ve worked with who are high profile – who are adapting to our crazy ways!

You’ve clearly found a niche with the budget level you’re working at, and the films you’re making. Are you slightly more that there aren’t more production companies like yours in Hollywood?

Our company, it’s, uh, really un-sexy. And I think most people get into Hollywood to be showy. We first of all make horror movies, which people turn their noses up at. Second of all we make cheap movies, and Hollywood’s a lot about ego and money and, “My movie cost $200m!”, you know? And more, more, more.

So I’m not surprised that more people don’t do it. Our offices are in Korea Town – a part of town where no one else is. And we kind of do our own thing. I think those are factors. Anyone who has any kind of success in Hollywood wants to make more expensive movies, and spend more money, be bigger. I think it’s unusual to have success and want to stay small.

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I was lucky enough to have made a tonne of mistakes and be kind of frustrated. I was working in the movies for 15 years before I did Paranormal Activity, so I was lucky enough to have that experience. So instead of trying to make, like, Godzilla after Paranormal Activity, I said, “Let’s keep making inexpensive movies.”

But I think, like I say, it’s not sexy. So it doesn’t surprise me that more people don’t do it – that’s the long answer to your question! 

There’s a line in William Goldman’s book, Adventures In The Screen Trade: “It can’t be a good film. It didn’t cost enough.” Do you think that still pervades, that kind of mentality?

I really do. I really do. And I think there are a few movies – a certain section – that require $100m plus. Marvel movies, Transformers movies, Star Wars, Star Trek. But I think there’s a bunch of movies that are made for way too much money. Movies would be a lot better if they were made for less money.

Everyone says, “What’s the secret to your success?” And the movies are successful because we have great writer-directors. One of the big things we add is discipline, and lowering the budgets. I really do think that makes the movies better. I really do. I think it makes the directors focus on characters and story and performance. They don’t waste time with things like special effects.

All the things that are fun for a director are not necessarily good for movies. It’s really fun to look at pre-viz and CGI and talk to the stunt guy, and talk about explosions, and fire, and pyrotechnics, and the rain, and the car chase, and the car jumping, and the car flipping. Those are fun, I get that, I love to talk about that. But good movies don’t come from that stuff.

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That stuff, woven into a good movie? For sure. But if you don’t have a good movie, none of that matters. If you take all that stuff away, you have nothing left to focus on but that story! [Laughs]

So how did you get started in filmmaking?

I studied filmmaking and economics in college. My dad was an art dealer – he represented artists, so I spent a lot of time around artists. But I had no desire to be a director, and no desire to be a writer. I think that makes me a much better producer, that I’m not a frustrated filmmaker. I’d be terrible at it, and I don’t want to do it.

You are very hands on with your filmmakers. You understand film. That must be important as a producer.

Yeah. I really understand movies, and I really understand, for better or for worse, I understand horror movies well. I’m not film literate, like Quentin Tarantino or James DeMonaco. I don’t have films on the tip of my tongue like that. But right now, I understand what makes things scary, which I really learned from James Wan, and Scott Derrickson who I also worked with. They know much more about horror movies generally than I’ll ever know, but I’ve learned from them, what’s scary and what isn’t – which is helpful.

So what direction do you see horror movies going in?

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I think it’s going to swing back. We’re still in supernatural ghost land, but I think… I don’t know if it’ll start with The Purge, because there are no ghosts in The Purge – it’s all grounded in realism. I don’t know if The Purge will start it, but I think, eventually, it’s going to come back to serial killer movies. Whodunnit movies. Less ghosts. I don’t know if we’re there yet, but it’s going to happen.

There have been a couple of really interesting, independent neo-noir thrillers this year.

Which ones?

Blue Ruin, earlier this year…

Oh right, that was good.

And then over here, just coming out, we have Cold In July.

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I didn’t see that. Is it good?

Yeah, it’s great.

I really liked Out Of The Furnace. Did you see that?

I did.

I thought that was quite good.

I liked the way it was shot. Reminiscent of The Deer Hunter.

Yeah, it was interesting.

I was wondering if that was a genre you might branch out into, because you don’t just do horror.

I’d love to do a noir thriller. We have a western with Ti West, we had another movie in Cannes called Whiplash, which was cool. We had The Normal Heart, which Ryan Murphy directed, with Julia Roberts and Mark Ruffalo.

My feeling about it generally is, I’m not making horror movies to make other movies. Our main focus is horror movies, and I want to continue that, because I love doing it. I love being the underdog. I was just at lunch with someone, and they were like, “Urgh! Horror.” [Laughs]

I think that’s the biggest reason that I do it. It’s such a stupid, so short sighted. Especially when some of the filmmakers we’ve worked with are so amazing. Hitchcock was one of the greatest film directors who ever lived, and he did horror. 

Well, in the 70s and 80s, amazing directors were doing horror. So it’s strange that the stigma has persisted.

It’s still in the ghetto, yeah. But I like being the underdog like that. But if something great comes in our office, that isn’t horror, and I love it, I’m in a place where I can help get it made. So of course I will do that.

But horror’s really interesting when it’s merged with other genres, isn’t it? The Purge: Anarchy still feels very much like a horror film.

It does to you? And it’s a thriller, action satire, yeah.

It’s got that John Carpenter feel to it, and he often blended genres.

That’s who James DeMonaco really thought about. Him and [Walter Hill’s] The Warriors.

I spoke to James DeMonaco a couple of weeks ago…

Isn’t he awesome?

He’s great. So much enthusiasm and knowledge.

He’s got a great film brain.

Yeah. He was going from Fellini to Peter Greenaway.

He can quote everybody!

He said you were the modern Roger Corman – and he meant that as a compliment.

He said that? I love Roger Corman.

Do you think of yourself as a Hollywood rebel?

I love Roger Corman, and I love William Castle. I definitely think of myself that way in terms of Hollywood – both an outsider and an insider. I think I’m on both sides of it, which is fun. I think in Hollywood, people think I’m crazy – but I love that.

The only difference between Roger Corman and what we do is that we almost never work with first-time directors. We work with directors who know what they’re doing, have at least a few movies under their belt, want the opportunity to not be interfered with, are willing to do a movie on a very low budget and basically not get paid, and in return they get artistic freedom. That’s slightly different from what Roger Corman does, but the end results are the same.

What can we expect from Paranormal Activity 5, because that’s been pushed back a bit, hasn’t it?

Yeah. We start shooting that in September. The other movies teased at a lot of the mythology, and with this movie, we’ve made a conscious effort to answer every outstanding question about Paranormal. So the one thing anyone can expect from the next movie is, any questions they have about the mythology of Paranormal will be answered. All of them.

Right. So does that mean it’s the last one?

Well, who knows? But we’re going to go for it.

Jason Blum, thank you very much.

The Purge: Anarchy is out in UK cinemas on the 25th July. You can read our interviews with actor Frank Grillo here, and director James DeMonaco here