Even as Blumhouse Productions releases major cultural conversation pieces like Jordan Peele’s Get Out or classic horror reboots like David Gordon Green’s Halloween — not to mention M. Night Shyamalan’s concluding chapter in his fan-favorite superhero trilogy, Glass — the company still manages to stick to its roots as a purveyor of modestly-budgeted original horror movies, some of which become franchises all on their own terms.
Case in point is Happy Death Day, an effective mash-up of the slasher genre and Groundhog Day that became a sensation at the box office, thanks to its clever blend of horror and comedy and a knockout performance by Jessica Rothe. Having escaped the first film’s time loop — in which she was brutally offed every time by a masked killer — Rothe’s character Tree is now back in Happy Death Day 2U, in which the events of the first film are given an unexpected sci-fi spin that sets the whole series in a new direction.
Going outside the horror box is nothing new for Blumhouse and its president/producer, Jason Blum: after all, the company has produced fare such as The Normal Heart, Whiplash and BlacKkKlansman, the latter two are Oscar nominees for Best Picture. But jumping from genre to genre within the same franchise is a bit more unusual, as Blum himself notes in our interview below.
During our time with Blum, we also spoke about working with directors such as Happy Death Day’s Christopher Landon, Shyamalan and Upgrade‘s Leigh Whannell (who is helming Blum’s The Invisible Man) across multiple projects, how they find the right actors and, of course, the status of upcoming projects like Peele’s highly-anticipated Us, the sequel to Halloween and more.
Den of Geek: I was thinking about something I heard Kevin Feige from Marvel say once. He said that they make superhero movies at the Marvel Universe, but within that universe they get to make a lot of different genres of movies. Do you feel like, especially with something like Happy Death Day 2U, that the Blumhouse brand lends itself to being that kind of big tent as well?
Jason Blum: I do. I actually feel like the Marvel brand is maybe a little broader. Maybe not, actually. Certainly, we’d have trouble making a straight comedy fit. Also, not on the television side, but on the movie side, we are constrained a bit by our budget, so we’re not going to do a big action-heavy, special effects-heavy movie. But I feel like there’s a long way from The Gift to Whiplash, which, in a funny way, is my version of a Sundance horror movie. JK Simmons is as scary as any character I have in any other horror movie.
The first Happy Death Day is kind of like Groundhog Day, and Happy Death Day 2U is more like Back to the Future. Hopefully we’re going to get to make a third one, which we have an idea to make, as actually a third genre. So I do feel like there’s a skin that we have to stay inside, but within that skin there are lots of different kinds of lanes we can choose. For sure, I think that’s accurate.
What made the idea for Happy Death Day 2U so enticing to you?
What made it compelling is the same thing that you touched on before. I’ve never done a franchise where you were experimenting with different genres within one single franchise. We never would have done it if Chris and Jessica hadn’t come back. There was no sequel to Happy Death Day without those two people coming back, but Chris came back with what I thought was a terrific idea. A slightly different genre than the first Happy Death Day that Jessica would star in, so that’s what made me say yes.
You’re a filmmaker but you’re also a businessman, and the modern film world is based on franchises and tentpoles. Do you approach each film as a potential franchise or do you initially look at each as one and done?
It’s totally black and white. On originals, I never think about what a sequel could be. I can’t. It’s too hard to make a great five million dollar movie compete with a 60 million dollar movie at a cineplex, and then also say to the director, “Hey, and you know what else? Besides making a great movie, you have to make the story work so you can make subsequent movies.” On sequels, it’s the opposite. On Purge 2 or Insidious 4, we totally think about the sequel because we know one is coming. When we have an original and the original connects with audiences, then we see if we can make a second one. Sometimes you can’t. I don’t know if there’ll ever be a sequel to Get Out. Some of them work for sequels and some of them just don’t.
We tackle the sequel if the movie’s a big success. But then, once we’re living in the franchise, we do think about not putting ourselves at a dead end story-wise, so we have a place to go to make more. Like we do with Purge and Insidious. We never talked about what the sequel to Happy Death Day would be, ever, until the movie was out and turned into a big hit, and then Chris started thinking. Chris already has a very specific idea what the third movie could be if the second movie resonates in the way that we hope it does.
When you work with a filmmaker on multiple movies, like a Chris or an M. Night or a Jordan Peele —
Or Leigh Whannell, or James DeMonaco.
Do you find that there’s something in common that they all share? And do you develop a shorthand that’s unique to each filmmaker’s sensibilities?
The answer’s yes to both of those questions. There’s definitely a shorthand. I really prefer to work with people we’ve worked with before again, because they know how the company works and we know how they work. I would definitely say that people that we’ve worked with multiple times are visionaries. They’re entrepreneurs because they’re able to think about the movies that we do in an entrepreneurial way, and I think that they’re definitely visionaries. Our budgets are low, and when you have a lower budget the director has, actually in some ways, a lot more to do. They have a lot less help and the people that we’ve worked with over and over again are people that we think are just extraordinarily talented and, like I said before, very entrepreneurial.
There are also a lot of great up-and-coming actors out there, but is it harder than people might think to find someone who can really carry a picture completely the way Jessica does?
Yes. It’s very, very hard. I think we put more emphasis on the importance of actors than some of Hollywood does. The way that we do that is, our casting department is in-house. Terri Taylor runs the department, but she’s got a few people under her. She just won the Artios Award (for excellence in casting). What’s unique about our company is, most producers when they work with a director, the director brings the casting director that they work with. We don’t work like that. When a director comes to us they use our casting department and they use Terri. That’s because we have a real specific idea about actors. We have, obviously, very, very specific deals that we make with the actors on the movie side. When Terri calls, everyone’s very familiar with those actors. We’re able to get very well-known actors to work for scale because we’ve clearly paid out a lot of actors over the years, and it’s important to me that one person is always fronting that, which is Terri.
But none of these movies work without performance. We don’t have special effects and stunts and CGI to lean back on. We have story and performance, so without Jessica Rothe, Happy Death Day does not work and there certainly would be no Happy Death Day 2U.
I’m going to touch on a few upcoming projects. Next up, very soon, is Us. What can you say about what Jordan’s accomplished with this picture as his follow-up to Get Out?
One of the most exciting things to me about Us is that a lot of directors will have a success in horror and then say, “Okay, I’m done with that,” and, quote/unquote, move on. I love that after Get Out, Jordan just went all-in and directed a movie as scary, as upsetting, as unnerving, and also with a very clear message tucked into all that. So I think that’s one of the things I’m most proud of, is Jordan didn’t abandon us horror lovers after Get Out, but he went all-in on it. Which is what people will see with Us.
Is the Halloween sequel in development yet?
I’m trying, I’m trying. I would love to make one. Nothing official yet, but I’m trying.
Something that just got announced recently was The Invisible Man. We saw that the “Dark Universe” idea didn’t quite pan out. What’s your take on how these classic Universal monsters should be handled or presented? Do you have a vision for those?
No. The only one we’re currently doing is Invisible Man, and we should have a movie very soon. Hopefully by the end of the year, then we’ll go from there. We’re doing one at a time.
So you’re not necessarily committed to a Frankenstein or a Wolf Man or anything like that at this point?
No, not right now.
A project that I find interesting is You Should Have Left. I read that book and it’s a very creepy little book. There’s a lot of great published horror coming out at the moment, so I’m wondering if that’s an area you’d like to explore more.
We look at source material everywhere for our movies, and definitely publishing is one place we’re working. We’re working on Firestarter, so we have some things in the pipeline already. We look everywhere for scary stories to turn into movies and TV shows, for sure.
I’m glad you mentioned Firestarter. Where is that at right now?
Moving right along, moving right along. We’re actually in the middle of casting. I have a very specific idea about it, and hopefully this person will say yes and we’ll be off to the races.
Is there a Blumhouse project flying under the radar that you would say to people, watch this space a year from now?
A flying under the radar Blumhouse project. I would say keep an eye at Five Nights at Freddy’s. How’s that?
Happy Death Day 2U is out in theaters now.