In the ten years since Jason Blum founded his production company, Blumhouse has become a powerhouse in genre, putting out everything from the penetrating Purge franchise to the entrancing TV show Sharp Objects. But one of the more fascinating trends in the world of Blumhouse has been its dedication to black-led horror and thriller films like Get Out, Ma, and the upcoming David Oyelowo–starrer Don’t Let Go.
Don’t Let Go centers on Detective Jack Radcliff (Oyelowo), whose family is brutally murdered. Just as grief starts to set in, he gets a phone call from one of the dead, his exuberant niece, Ashley (Storm Reid). What follows is a tangled story with various timelines, supernatural intrigue, and double crossings. Amid the action, the true highlight of the film is the tender familial dynamic between Jack and Ashley, bolstered by the gentle chemistry between the movie’s two lead actors.
As Don’t Let Go prepares to head into theaters on August 30, Blumhouse’s attention is somewhat split: one of the production company’s other films, The Hunt, starring Betty Gilpin in a politically charged take on the The Most Dangerous Game, has sparked a flurry of contentious conversations. Those conversations reached a fever pitch recently when distributor Universal decided to shelve the film indefinitely in the wake of a string of mass shootings. We spoke briefly with Jason Blum in the week after The Hunt’s cancellation about developing Don’t Let Go, utilizing black talent in Hollywood, and what he learned from a movie we might never see.
Can you talk about the genesis of Don’t Let Go?
The script came to us quite some time ago. It’s very unusual, actually, that we develop and then give to a director. Most of the movies we make start with a director or writer-director. This is one of the few times where we developed this script on its own then we attached Jacob [Aaron] Estes. He worked on the script a lot and finally got it to a place where we were pleased. Then we went and made the movie.
That leads me to my next question. One thing I was wondering in watching the film was, Were the characters written as black characters in the script, or was it written from a more color-blind perspective?
That’s a nice way of saying it. It was written from a color-blind perspective. It was probably written white. Terri Taylor casts all of our movies and one of the things she and I really agree on — that I think Hollywood says they do this a lot but they really don’t and we really do; the proof is in the pudding if you look at our body of work — we encourage each other to really cast color-blind. When Terry brought up David [Oyelowo], I’m as guilty of it as anyone else. I was thinking of it as a white actor who would play that part. But then she mentioned David, I thought it was a terrific idea, and we went for it. And that’s happened quite a bit on both our movies and our TV shows.
You’ve produced a lot of black-led horror and thriller films like Don’t Let Go, Get Out, and Ma. Can you talk about your decision to produce such works, and is it a conscious decision in your mind?
My job is to make the best movies we can and I believe that there is a very deep bench — and it’s less deep now because people are waking up to my tricks — but there’s a very deep bench of incredibly talented African-American actors out there who are underutilized. It would be disingenuous to say we’re doing this because it is the right thing. We are doing this because it makes the movies better. And it’s good business for us. That’s kind of one half of your question. The other half of your question — we also, in addition to those movies, make a lot of movies about race.
I don’t believe that because a movie has an African-American actor or actors it needs to be about race or should or shouldn’t be about race. Ma, Don’t Let Go — these are movies not about race. But Get Out and BlacKkKlansman are very much about race. That is also, you know, an issue that is top of mind for me, and troublesome to me, so I’m also drawn to those stories.
So, why do you think horror works so well at exploring the black experience?
I would answer that question the same way. Until recently, I think there were just very few African-Americans in horror movies. If they were, they were cast in I think ways that are kind of quietly prejudiced. So I think there has been a lack in color-blind horror movies cast with African-Americans. So there has been a real demand in those movies.
So, speaking of color-blind casting and writing. I reviewed Ma for Vulture. Was that written with a black actress in mind?
I ask that just because in casting a black actress it ends up bringing up interesting ideas about the mammy archetype. Was that conscious in the making of the film or an inadvertent suggestion imbued in the film because of its casting?
No. Definitely not. This is the first time I heard anyone mention it, but I see why you say it. But clearly it’s not something we thought about. It kind of touches on something I said earlier. I think it’s limiting and I really don’t believe in the notion that if you have African-Americans in a movie it has to be about race in some way. I think Ma is not race. It’s about bullying; it’s about other things. But I don’t think it’s about race. I may be right or I may be wrong, but that’s my thought about it. But listen, I completely hear what you’re saying. But it’s not something I thought about until you mentioned it now.
What are the limits and considerations that go into the kind of Blumhouse movies that are designed to rile audiences? I’m thinking specifically about the fifth Purge film coming out in an election year.
James DeMonaco writes and directs the movies. If you look back at The Purge movies, they’ve been about class, they’ve been about race, and there is a theme to this next movie. But it isn’t as if James says, “I’m going to write a movie about race,” and crafts the story, right? It’s more organic than that. Things happen in the world, they affect him and his thinking, and the movies that come out are what comes out. So, I think if you pick the issue and try to write a movie around it, more often than not you fall on your face because people don’t go to the movies to be lectured to, they go to the movies to be entertained. So I think you may make a good movie but no one will see it, or it will have a tough time attracting an audience if an issue is driving the storytelling. I think the storytelling has to come and you find the issue within it.
When do you know you’ve crossed a line with a movie designed to rile audiences? Has there ever been a point in your career as a producer where you’ve felt something you’ve done has been a step in the wrong direction after it came out?
You know, there hasn’t been. There’ve been definitely a step in the wrong direction in terms of things we’ve made on the movie and TV side that I haven’t felt were good. I don’t think everything we make is brilliant. I’ve had regrets of things we’ve made because of the quality. But I have never regretted anything we’ve made because of the politics.
How has your approach to producing changed over the years? Do you think your model is still predicated upon low-cost horror and thriller flicks, turning them into high-gross releases, while giving filmmakers autonomy along the way?
At its core, it really is. I mean what’s changed in our model is when we started we were just a movie company and now our television business is 50 percent of the company. The TV business doesn’t operate like that. It isn’t a low-cost business. But on the movie side of the company if you’re talking about originals not sequels, that is still exactly the model we adhere to. It’s exactly the model Don’t Let Go sprung out of and fits into. Which is that we make the movies for a very low cost. In exchange for working for scale the director gets final cut.
I always say to the directors and, frankly, to the actors in the movie, “I can’t promise you a hit, but I promise that you’re going to get to make the movie you want to make.” And we have a lot of creative input. I actually find when you give a director creative control, they listen more because they don’t have to take your advice. But in the end the directors have final say and the cost is low. Some of them work and some of them don’t. But when they don’t, we don’t get too badly hurt. And all of them come out in some way or another. Maybe just on streaming or maybe on 1,000 screens or maybe on 2,000 screens. But that model that we started ten years ago we still adhere to. When we started the budgets were a million dollars and now they’re five [million], but it’s still the same model.
I want to switch gears a little bit. You’ve spoken about how your approach to producer has and hasn’t changed. In the wake of the conversation around The Hunt, have you learned any lessons from that experience that will alter your approach as a producer going forward?
I learned a lot of lessons. Wouldn’t alter my … If I was offered the choice to make the movie again, I would say yes. We definitely made marketing mistakes, and we made plenty of mistakes along the way. So I’ve learned a lot. It might change how I would position movies and how I would consult on the marketing of the movies. But actually the making of the movies? No.
Is there any chance of The Hunt being released in the future?
Definitely a chance. I hope so.
Do you have any thoughts on the fact that so many non-Disney wannabe blockbusters — like Men in Black — have flopped this year and whether that might mean more people are coming around to your business model?
I am flattered by the question. I wish I could say I had that big of an effect on the world. We’re in the middle of sea change on what is theatrical and what is streaming. I think the fact that there has been a lot of bigger movies that haven’t connected with audiences has much more to do with the consumers’ taste rapidly changing and the expectations of the consumer to see what they want to see in a theater versus at home — [they’re] elusive to everyone in Hollywood. We’re all trying to figure that out and we haven’t.