Now available on Blu-ray is Mercy, Peter Cornwell‘s feature length adaptation of Stephen King‘s short story Gramma, which follows a single mother (Frances O’Connor) and her two young sons as they relocate to a remote country estate to care for her ailing mother, Mercy (Shirley Knight). Unlike most grandmothers, Mercy isn’t all candies and kisses on the cheek, and as her prognosis worsens the family learns shocking truths about the source of Mercy’s darkness. Mercy also stars Chandler Riggs, Mark Duplass, Dylan McDermott, and Joel Courtney.
Nearly two years ago I joined a handful of journalists on set while they were filming Mercy in Simi Valley. While there, we had an opportunity to sit down for a lengthy chat with producer Jason Blum. This was my first time speaking with Blum (who I’ve interviewed a number of times since), and I was instantly struck by the clarity of his vision and confidence in his low-budget/high-concept business model. Given how much Blumhouse has grown over the last two years, it’s fascinating to look back and see how on point Blum was in his predictions (the success of The Purge despite its summer release date, for example) and how faithful he has remained to the basics of the business model he describes here. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
How did you guys find this location?
BLUM: I didn’t find it, Peter found it. Almost every movie we make is in LA, in the zone, so we have to be thirty miles from the Beverly center, which is the definition of “the zone” – which includes a piece of Catalina, by the way, which we’re thinking about. We try to keep all our movies here. We will be back here, because there’s not a lot of country in that zone, so I’m psyched that we found it. I thought we knew every LA location, but we didn’t. Very hard to find a basement in Los Angeles, by the way. Very hard to find a basement.
I can see why the original title of the short story Gramma, I can see why that wouldn’t be marquee friendly, but did you worry that Mercy would be too close to Misery? How did the title come about?
BLUM: The title came about for exactly the reasons that you’re saying. The movie isn’t camp at all, so we wanted to steer away from that. Is it too close to Misery? Well, I don’t know, that could be good or bad, I suppose. [Laughs] I thought Misery was a great movie. I don’t think so, but I guess we’ll find out.
How did this project come about? Matt Greenberg wrote the script, right?
BLUM: It came about because I had a meeting with McG. I was initially meeting with him to talk about directing one of these movies, and there are a couple things we kicked around him actually directing and we’re still kicking around, but as we talked about it he mentioned he had been working on and developing this for a long time and would I take a look at it. His company developed this script and they gave it to us about a year ago, maybe nine months ago, and it was perfect. It’s exactly what we were looking for. So his company, him and Mary get the credit for finding it, developing it, working out the original King deal, then when we did with Universal that all had to be looked again, but it really originated with their company.
When you say it was exactly what you were looking for, what was it about the story and the script?
BLUM: We look really specifically for low-budget, high-concept movies, which are very different than typical independent movies. Budgets in this range are called independent. This is not really independent filmmaking. It’s really hybrid filmmaking. It’s independent and studio, one foot squarely in each, so what we’re looking for are movies that can be done inexpensively, so not too many locations, not too many speaking parts, not too effects driven, but very high concept. So a head of marketing at the studio would read one of our scripts in theory, and sometimes in practice, and say “Wow, if you guys get this right I know what the poster is, I know what the trailer is, I know what the TV spot is, and this movie could be released wide.” Not all of our movies go wide, but that is the goal. More often than not those are horror movies, but they don’t have to be. We have a thriller coming, a sci-fi thriller horror coming up with Universal. They’re dark genre, but they don’t always have to be horror. This is obviously horror and it hit all those beats for us.
Talk abut the decision to bring Peter on board. Was he someone you always had an eye one?
BLUM: Yeah, I really liked his first movie [The Haunting in Connecticut]. When the project was with McG’s company there was no director attached, so we met with several directors, we talked about a couple directors. We tend to work with more experienced directors for a lot of reasons. One of the reasons is that the schedule is such that you really need someone who knows how to use their time super efficiently, and that’s more often than not the directors who have done movies before. And peter definitely fell into the shallower end of experience, obviously. Most of the directors we’ve worked with have had more experience than him, but he had a great vision about it. That sounds like a cliché, but he was really passionate about it, and he talked about it very articulately, and we went with him. And I’m psyched we did. We worked with him for quite a long time prepping and developing the movie before we actually started shooting and our actual prep period, and it’s been great. He’s got a great, original take on scary stuff, which we look for.
How would you describe that take?
BLUM: It’s quirky. I don’t think I would describe it as he’s not trying to be different, by nature he kind of has an original, different take on things, which is inherent to who he is. There are a lot of way this movie could be more traditionally done and he’s doing it in a kind of offbeat way, which is always attractive to me.
Have you been in contact with King, or is it always King’s people?
BLUM: Not directly, although he saw Sinister. Obviously, I’ve seen a lot of what he’s done. I’m super familiar with him. He’s a tiny bit familiar with us. He really liked Sinister. He really likes Scott Derrickson. We’re doing another Stephen King project called The Breathing Method, which we talked a lot about with him. So the answer is we haven’t spoken directly yet, but I’m looking forward to that. And we did go back and forth a lot about this, because it’s a different model for him than he’s used.
What’s behind the decision to film in LA? Are you trying to bring more jobs to LA?
BLUM: It’s all just trying to provide employment, no [laughs.]. I should have said that with a straight face. That’s a nice thing, that’s an added benefit, but that’s not the reason. That’s a good result. The reason is primarily because all the movies that our company does everybody works for free, including me, the producers, the directors, the actors. When I say free I mean the minimum – me, it’s literally free, because there is no minimum producing guild fee – we do DGA, SAG, whatever the minimums are. In return for experienced people working for no money we get to kind of do what we want to do with commercial material. That’s what our whole company is founded on, that idea. Like I said before, I like to work with people who’ve experienced the system on both sides, worked with the system and outside the system, and because we’re a hybrid, we’re doing both, it really helps to have to have people who’ve worked on both sides of the system. Those people, that means the directors and actors and writers to a certain degree, but obviously a writer can be anywhere when a movie shoots, but a director and actor are much more likely to buy into what we’re doing if they get to say goodnight to their kids, and that’s a big thing for me. It’s one thing to say you have to go to Vancouver for four months if you’re getting paid a lot of money, but if you’re not getting paid any money and you have to go to Vancouver for four months, it’s a huge drag. That’s the biggest reason.
Another really important reason is we do have a great larger group of people, 200 or 300 people, so it’s not the same group on every movie, but there’s a group of people that we pull from that’s worked with us from movie to movie to movie and it’s a big advantage to us because we get – this doesn’t feel like an independent movie. I’m sure you guys have spent time on independent movie sets where there’s a kid who’s an AD, and that kid’s brother is making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and the lights are flying all over the place. All our movies are union, we’re very careful about working with the unions, and we don’t save money in dumb ways like an independent movie does. Even our movies that are super low-budget. If it’s $25,000 to tent a house so everyone can work splits, or days, and not work nights, we’ll spend the $25,000. Independent movies wont do that, so we attract a better level of crew. if you talk to most of the directors we’ve worked with they’ll say it feels like high-end TV or a studio movie, and that’s a great thing for us. And at this budget level we could never get that in rebate states, because those states are so busy that the crews we get are not nearly as good.
So that’s the main reason, secondary reason, and also added benefit reason.
Blumhouse is creating a nice library of supernatural fare from Sinister and Paranormal Activity, how does Mercy set itself apart in terms of either its aesthetic or thematically?
BLUM: I think that there’s a tiny bit more – I don’t know, that’s a good question – I was going to say a tiny bit more fantasy, but there’s a lot of fantasy in Insidious too, you know? So I think it’s easier to answer that question in terms of how it compares to them rather than contrasts. I like to look for real situations gone wrong, or relatable situations gone wrong. That would be Paranormal, that’d be Sinister, that’d be Insidious, and that’d be this movie too. That, to me, is compelling, fun, scary storytelling and we have a lot of those elements in this too.
Paranormal, Insidious, now Mercy, they all have paranormal force, an entity, or spirit – is that something you’re attracted to specifically or is that something you tend to pick up because it works with your budget?
BLUM: That’s a great question, too. Both, they work with the budget because forces you can’t see are inexpensive to film [laughs], and I personally think – and this is just as important as that – it’s scarier. To me, it’s what you can’t see is much scarier than what you can. Your imagination – the best CGI ever – what you can imagine is still scarier than that. So I think those things are very complementary to each other. It’s practical and it also makes for more visceral scares. When you’re home in bed at night asleep in your room and it’s dark, what you imagine might happen to you is a million times worse than what actually could or what actually 99 million times out of a 100 million does, so they complement each other, those two ideas.
The genre’s been doing really well this winter, from your perspective, what’s making things work? I’m sure with Mama and your deal with Universal that only helps, the success of that film.
BLUM: I thought that movie was really good. That movie in particular the fact that it was PG-13 – I think our audience is younger – they’re not allowed to see a lot of horror movies and think there are a lot of younger people who really like horror movies, so PG-13 really helps. That’s something that I’m interested in looking at going forward. Some movies will never – Paranormal I can’t imagine will ever be PG-13, just because of language, but I think that’s a big thing.
January has always been pretty good. Around November horror movies stop for a while and academy takes over and then everyone hasn’t seen a horror movie for a while. That was The Devil Inside and Texas Chainsaw, but it didn’t start with Devil Inside, two or three years went by, there was a big one. It was January and it kind of gets people excited about it again. I don’t think there’s anything unusual, but I was thrilled with how well Mama‘s doing. I just think it shows there’s a pent up demand, a pent up audience to be scared collectively. And I think I guess to speak to that question, not specifically this year, but the time that we live in, I think collective group experiences are getting more and more important, because all of us, and especially kids, but all of us spend so much time in front of computer, or tablet, or phone, whatever, online. We did this haunted house, The Blumhouse of Horrors where I learned a lot of stuff, and there was a lot of excitement around that, which I was glad about, and I think horror movies are still – this can be said of all movies – but being with a group of people scared together is more and more something unusual and fun. Especially for kids who are going out less generally. The trend now is they’re not going to as many movies, but when they pick a movie more people go to it and I think that may be less true of horror. Horror, theatrically is still really working pretty well and my theory about it is this idea of a collective experience, which kids have less of and it provides one for.
Do you think there’s a bad time of year to release a horror movie?
BLUM: It’s a good question. Everyone thinks summer is a bad time of year, and I don’t think it is. We’re trying that with Universal, we’re trying that on May 31st [with The Purge, which ultimately moved to June 7th] and I’m really excited about that date because I think the only bad time to release a horror movie is if there are a bunch all together. If there are three horror movies in March then you shouldn’t release another one. I think there’s a limit. People want to be scared, but not every weekend, maybe every third weekend [laughs].
Are you guys gearing for an R rating or a PG-13 on this one?
BLUM : On this we’re really going to try and get a PG-13. We’ve had conversations with the MPAA about it. They know about it and we have a really good relationship with them. We’re not crazy filmmakers trying to picket them, we’re working with them to try and make this PG-13. There’s not guarantee, but that’s what we’re trying to get.
In those conversations has there been any mention about the two young actors like, “you can’t have children do this”?
BLUM: The way they’ve described it to me is that we as filmmakers always want – it’s very easy with language, you get one non-sexual fuck and that’s it – but you can’t do that with what you show. The way they described that, which I think is very fair on their part, she’s like “You think filmmakers are angry? You should hear mothers.” Every Monday and Tuesday they get thousands of complaints about this and that. I honestly think those people have some of the worst jobs in the world [laughs]. Someone is always pissed at everything they do. Everything. The way it was described to me is there are certain things – obviously you can’t see a knife going into a heart, certain obviously violent things, but it’s more – and this is what drives everyone crazy, but I understood it when she described it to me – it’s a greyer area. If it feels super intense, even if it’s not showing that much, it’s going to get an R because it feels too intense and you can’t put that on a list of things until they watch a movie and get a feeling about it. That makes it very subjective and arbitrary too, which is what drives filmmakers crazy, but I did understand it from their point of view. So my idea is to get as intense as possible while showing as little violence as possible to get that rating.
You guys have been steering towards more towards horror films with younger characters. Paranormal 4 had a larger teen cast, this also has some youngsters in it too. But you guys have straddled that line. You’ve had more mature all adult characters too. Are you trying to steer towards or away from what they call ‘teen horror’ or are you just going with whatever works in the Blumhouse model story wise?
BLUMHOUSE: That, I never think about. I think about low-budget, high-concept. I think about what’s really scary. Maybe we would, I never think about that. The only way I think about kids in production is practically, the younger the kids are the harder it is to shot the movie. But those are all accidents. Those weren’t thought out before.
Mercy is now available on Blu-ray and VOD.