Taking terror to Skype: a conversation with Unfriended producer Jason Blum

On cyberbullying, experimentation, and the exciting future of horror in VR

6

If you’ve watched a scary movie over the last 10 years, odds are that you’ve seen a movie from producer Jason Blum. Combining low-budget genre films with studio-level distribution, his company Blumhouse Productions has been responsible for bringing movies like Sinister, Insidious, and the Paranormal Activity series to the big screen — and oh yeah, he’s also had a hand in Oscar winners like Whiplash, as well.

Blum’s latest film is Unfriended, which is screening here at SXSW. An online riff on revenge movies like I Know What You Did Last Summer, it takes place entirely on a high school girl’s laptop screen. During a group Skype call, she and five friends are haunted by what appears to be the ghost of a friend that killed herself one year ago, after a bout of cyberbullying. I chatted with Blum in Austin about the origins of Unfriended, why experimenting with formula and format is key to his films, and how virtual reality might be the best (or worst) medium for horror.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

This seems to be the  year where the concept of something taking place on a computer screen is getting mainstreamed. There’s Unfriended, the Modern Family episode from last month…

It’s an interesting way to tell a story, because it lets the audience kind of direct the movie. Because you can choose where to look. It’s almost like the way you shoot live TV, you have the director looking at all the cameras, and then he’s like, "Cut to this, cut to this, cut to this." You kinda get to be that person, which I think is interesting.

Every movie that we work on, you know, you see it a bunch of times, and frankly after you see it for the fifth time, usually you get bored. And this movie I haven’t gotten to the point where I’m bored when I watch it yet. And I think it’s because you can kind of have a slightly different experience when you see it every time.

So how did you originally get involved?

We saw a cut — I think it was pretty close to the cut that screened at that other festival [the 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival] — and, you know, in the same way that we got involved in Paranormal Activity, I loved it. I thought it was great. We have this really close relationship with Universal where, at the moment, they listen to me. Which may not last. [laughs] … I checked it out. And I said let’s try to release this.

Did the concept of a movie on a computer screen appeal to you in particular?

No, it was the execution of the concept that appealed to me. Because I think the concept could be really boring. And I found myself really, like, very wrapped up into what was happening on that screen. And that’s hard to do, you know? I found myself really involved. I saw the movie, and I was actually going on a vacation. … I went from watching the movie to the airport, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the movie. So I guess that’s when it really grabbed me. Because it made me think.

What about it stuck with you?

The reason people love movies is because you get to be a spy, right? You get to be a voyeur. And I think it’s so fun. And also, I’m 46 years old, so I have no idea what a 22-year-old or 19-year-old does on a computer. And I just remember watching … I was, "Oh, this is what young people do." … That’s the ultimate movie experience, right? When you get to look into someone else’s world that you’re not supposed to look into. And kids have this very intimate relationship with technology. The most intimate, right? Because they put all this personal stuff, their whole life, is there.

What about the cyberbullying aspect of the film? It’s not just a cheap hook; it’s the main thrust of what the movie is about.

Well I think scary movies work best when they’re relatable, and I think one of the scariest things to young people now is bullying. Either doing it, being on the other end of it, being caught doing it. What is bullying, what isn’t bullying, what’s a joke, what’s not a joke; all those things. So I think the reason the movie is scary is because it’s tackling this issue that’s on the front of people’s minds.

"Hollywood looks backwards, and tries to repeat."

At the premiere screening you mentioned that doing these smaller movies let you experiment formally, with style and presentation. How important is that to keeping the horror genre alive and interesting?

I think it’s really important. If you go to business school, and you put a product out there in the world, and it’s working, the logic is to keep putting the same product out there. And I think that really bumps up against the creative process — and moviemaking, generally. And I think that our company really pushes against that. The one thing I try and do, when people say "what kind of movies do you guys look for," the one thing I look for is "different." And I think that’s very antithetical to Hollywood.

Hollywood looks backwards and tries to repeat. And we really try not to do that. We don’t always succeed, but I really think that what we try and do is different. And that’s very against what makes financial sense, right? So the only way to marry those two things is to keep the budgets low. Because if the budgets are low enough, it’s like, "Alright, fuck it, go try your weird new thing." So I think those things are very interconnected.

Jason Blum (GETTY)

(Photograph by Rich Polk/Getty Images)

Are there any particular different storytelling concepts that you’d like to try out in a future film? Like in Unfriended, or the found footage approach in the Paranormal Activity movies?

I think that it’s a mistake to think about [it that way]. Like what I said before, it’s really cool that you’re in the computer of a young girl — but that’s not why I liked the movie. I liked the movie because it’s executed well. Cause it works, cause you believe it. So I think it’s reverse engineering to think, "Oh, you know people talk about having a movie that’s interactive with some kind of screen that you’re holding while you’re watching it in the movie theater." I’m like, "Yeah, great. It depends on what the movie is."

I think the story, always — the story and the characters — are always the most important thing. There’s a really good story in Unfriended. They’re six very believable kids telling that story. And a new framework is really cool, but I would never look for the framework first. If you look for the framework first and then try to tell a story to match the framework, you’re in trouble.

"I'm dying to do a scary thing in virtual reality."

This may sound a little left field, but since you do experiment: have you played with any of the virtual reality gear out there?

Yes! I’ve seen a bunch of virtual reality movies, or shorts. What do you call them?

"Experiences" is what everybody’s going for. Because they’re not movies, but they’re not games…

I guess they’re more than shorts, though. I don’t know what the fuck they are. But yes, I’m dying to do a scary thing in virtual reality. I mean, I think it would be too intense. I think you could honestly make something that would just be too much. I think that that’s going to be the challenge, is how to keep it fun and not just too much. … And we are futzing around with a couple of different things, and hopefully soon we’ll make our own virtual reality experience. But I can’t wait to do it. I think it’s going to be so effective for scary [stuff]. Scary movies and porn, that’s what it’s going to be most effective for, right?

There was a virtual reality version of the game Alien: Isolation last year at E3, and people had a very strong reaction.

Did they? Yeah. People are going to throw up, I think.

But isn’t that great, if you like scary movies?

Are you kidding? I can’t wait to do it. It’s going to be terrific.

The best of Verge Video