If you're unfamiliar with Platinum Dunes, they're the company behind the remakes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Not too long ago Dunes was making horror movies for under 20 million dollars. At the time, it seemed like a smart business decision. They weren't overly expensive and most of their movies performed well at the box-office.
Then 20 million dollar horror movies became too pricey. The horror genre got changed when low-budget hits started turning out huge profits. Blumhouse Pictures (Insidious, The Purge) had a large hand in that shift, a company Platinum Dunes now collaborates with.
Platinum Dunes -- which, of course, Michael Bay is a part of -- is a much different company compared to what it once was. We spoke to the co-head of the company, the very candid Brad Fuller, about some of those changes, in addition to their latest film, Ouija, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and more.
Here's what he had to say:
I don’t know a single kid who did not like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
That’s nice. That’s awesome, because that’s who we made it for and I’m glad. I keep hearing that it’s more gratifying than saying we scared the crap out of people with Jason Voorhees.
I imagine you are not used to little kids coming up to you talking about Platinum Dune’s films.
[Laughs] Yeah. That wasn’t happening. But also, we really wanted to try and start to do things that were a little bit outside our comfort zone. Obviously Turtles was way outside our comfort zone. So it’s nice that it worked out well.
We talked right before you made Turtles, actually. A lot of the discussion was about how, at Platinum Dunes, you guys hadn’t taken those big swings yet, the ones that end you up in jail or make huge money. What did you glean from the experience?
I would tell you this. You don’t know if you are going to end up in jail until the day the movie opens. If you had talked to me the day before, I was a wreck. There’s no way that you can ever predict the success of any movie. Especially on Turtles, I don’t know that we knew when we went into it how many people felt so….I guess we knew how many people felt passionately about it. But what was hard was as we got in the process of making the movie, so many people had different foundations of the Turtle knowledge. I was a guy who watched the movies. So that was what I used as my basis of understanding for the Turtles. But Drew read the comic books, so he had different things that he saw as Turtle lure. And then there were plenty of people who watched the cartoon. I’m too old for that. Drew and I are too old, so we didn’t watch the cartoon. So what we learned and what was hard to manage is forget the kid, because the kids didn’t really have the background. But the adults, the people who loved this property for so many years, they come to it with so much different knowledge. There’s not a unifying place that they came from. That was challenging.
You mentioned how nervous you were the day beforehand. Is it always that way?
Well, it is a great day to talk because Ouija opens tomorrow. So I have no idea. I believed in the movie. I believe we have a great release date. I think the movie is scary. I think audiences will go and have a great time, especially girls, which is really who kind of, when we initially made the movie, that’s who we were thinking was going to our main audience. I think they’ll go and enjoy it. But I don’t know. I have no idea what’s going to happen. No one will know until Monday morning.
I was just watching you give a presentation at a high school. You gave a tidbit about how when you cast Jessica Biel [for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre] that was a $40,000 job. She wasn’t who she was yet. Looking at Ms. Biel or Olivia Cooke, you guys really land promising actors.
Listen. When you are looking at auditions sometimes, so much talent is undeniable. Olivia's talent….Well, it was a little bit different because [co-head] Drew Form and I were so much younger then. We met with her and then we took Biel to a Laker game. She was the All American girl. And that’s what we were looking for in Texas Chainsaw. Now, 14 years later, Drew and I both have families and children and we can’t just take an actress to a Laker game. So we look at auditions and we look at their work. Her work is really great. And her audition was really just better than the other auditions we had. We didn’t struggle with that role. It was, “This was our girl.” It was just like that. Her talent was undeniable.
You guys really shepherd first time filmmakers and help teach them the ropes. Is it a similar process with young actors?
More often than not, the young actors have had a lot of experience. They just are not household names. Take Ryan Reynolds from Amityville. I didn’t know this, but Ryan had been acting since he was 14 years old. He was a kid actor. Biel had been acting for a long time. Olivia, I’m not sure. I saw some of her work, but she’s not new to it. This is just her first exposure to having a big movie, a studio that’s releasing it to 2,700 screens. Usually it’s not someone just fresh off the boat.
You also got Chloe Grace Moretz pretty young.
That was her first job.
And look what’s happened there.
Well, she’s fantastic. She has a great family around her. She is so committed to the craft. It was obvious when she was six years old that she was going to be a movie star. It just was a matter of time.
When you are working with a first-time filmmaker, like in this case, what kind of advice do you give from the start? Or is it a case by case basis what you say?
There are some similarities. We’ve done this a lot now. I think that a lot of first-time directors feel that they have to do everything themselves. What we try and do is we try and provide them with people…we try to surround them with people who have done it a lot to really help them and guide them. What I found is the success of a director is their ability to either reject or accept what we provide for them. We’ve had varying degrees of success and failure depending on the director. But, at the end of the day, if there’s a first-time director, usually everyone else on the set has tons of experience to offset that.
What about in this case? How was Stiles White as a first-time filmmaker?
He’s very committed. He knew the material very well, obviously, because he wrote it. What we did is we put one of Michael’s favorite cameramen and a guy who we had just made Turtles with as the DP. So we knew that he would make sure that the coverage was good and Stiles had someone who he could turn to and ask questions who had the knowledge and the answers that he needed. We often look to put people who we work with on either Michael’s big movies or our other movies.
A lot of filmmakers say the one thing they wish they did when they were younger was ask questions. I imagine when you see a first-time filmmaker not afraid of asking a question, it must be reassuring.
Yeah. Look. It’s a nice job for anyone to direct their first movie. There’s not a school, necessarily, for how to handle yourself. There’s a technical school for how to do it. You can go to film school and how to balance lenses and how to interact with actors. But there’s a whole other element, and that’s what we try and provide for them. Usually that helps them get through it. We have another movie coming out in January with another first-time director, Dean Israelite and the movie is Project Almanac. Dean, like Stiles, was a very, very bright guy. We put great people around him. In this case, he flourished in that situation. But some of the directors that we’ve used in the past have been more resistant to that assistance.
When you meet a filmmaker that’s resistant, I feel like when they sign up with you guys they should know what to expect. I imagine you're upfront about the [very collaborative] process.
What’s different is Drew and I have spent so much time on set as producers…you know, we’re on set for everything we do. So we have much more knowledge now than we did in the early days. So I feel like we get more respect for what we do. Whereas, in the early days, when we were making Texas Chainsaw, Drew and I had made a couple movies before, but we hadn’t made a theatrical movie. So Drew, Marcus, and myself, we kinda fumbled our way through it, learning as we went. With Stiles, we knew exactly what he needed to accomplish and we were able to guide him that way. So the difference sometimes is us as opposed to the filmmakers. Does that make sense?
Completely. You just did a found footage movie for the first time with Project Almanac. What did you learn from that experience?
I think that found footage can be very jarring. It was a struggle of we wanted it to feel authentic, but we didn’t want it to be so jarring, like Blair Witch or those types of movies, which were great, but that wasn’t the type of story that we were telling. Just the use of the camera and how we tried to make it feel organic. Hopefully, when you see the movie, and this is what I love to hear more than anything else, is that people don’t desert a found footage movie after the first five minutes, because it was a movie with a different type of camerawork. Then the camera work kind of disappears and the storytelling takes over. That’s a very tough thing to get right. So that’s what I learned about that one in terms of always thinking that, like, the actors have to hold the camera. Every time an actor is supposed to be holding the camera, after a week or so I said, “Why are we doing it? Let’s put it in the camera operator’s hands. Let’s make it look a little smoother.” No one notices the difference.
It’s such a funny form, because if it’s pure found footage, if it was shot completely realistically, it wouldn’t be the most cinematic movie.
Listen. There is a tremendous responsibility when you have Michael Bay’s name on a film. I think that Michael stands for a lot of things, but quality and great looking movies is certainly at the top of the list. So we have to find a way to apply that to every film that we’re doing.
Does Project Almanac fit into what you’re doing with Blumhouse? Did that cost under $5 million movie or is it slightly bigger?
No. It’s bigger than that. It’s a studio movie. But it’s not much bigger than that. I’m not going to talk about budget level, but it’s not that low.
Do you ever miss the days of making $10-$15 million horror movies?
It’s been so long and I love to do it. I think the audiences are different now. We’ll see what happens with Ouija, but Annabelle, it was a low budget movie. That seems to be where horror is right now. I think one of the places we as a company were slow to respond was when we were making Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th in the high teens and Jason Blum was making Paranormal for $100,000. We didn’t recognize immediately that that was where movie making was going. That doesn’t answer your question necessarily, but I think that audiences are expecting different things from horror, and maybe expensive locations and big, expansive shots with cranes and things that make movies expensive, maybe horror audiences aren’t looking for that. Sadly, I think even if they were, the studios don’t seem willing to provide that kind of money. Obviously, Dracula Untold is kind of a horror movie and they spent some money on that movie. But what we do, I don’t think studios would look at a $20 million version of Nightmare on Elm Street right now as a smart business move.
Where did that change? Was it when Paranormal Activity and those low-budget films hit it big?
I think so. I think so often sometimes consumers forget that the studio…that is a money making operation and it has to be profitable. If Friday the 13th is a mid-teen costing horror movie, the audiences are seeing movies that cost a million bucks. Why not make 15 of those movies, make 15 movies for a million bucks and spread your bet out as opposed to making one for 15 million bucks? Some of the studios seem to be doing that.
You said earlier when it came to Stiles that there is film school, but it’s a different kind of learning curve when you actually get on set and you are making a movie. Does film school prepare you for producing or is it a different ballgame when you are actually out there doing it?
Well, I guess it really doesn’t. I think all those schools, producing, direct, and whatever, they prepare you for the technical aspects of the job. For a producer, you have to cast the movie. You have to get a script. You have to budget. But there’s nothing to replace the experience of having lived through it before. That’s why I talk to students about producing and I always say that producing is an old person’s business, because the experience necessary to be able to do it and to have the studios trust you with a sizeable amount of money comes from having worked with them before or them seeing your work before. And that comes from being in the trenches for a really, really long time. And so, I went to film school with [Michael] Bay. It taught me many of the semantic and formal trainings about movie making, but it didn’t teach me how to deal with a director that’s not talking to an actress and it’s time for her close-up and they have no communication.
How do you deal with that?
Well, you live through it. In many ways, you’d probably be smart to study phycology, because at the end of the day you are a traffic cop and you’ve got to keep the traffic moving. And a lot of times that requires hearing what people’s issues are and trying to solve those issues. The problem is you don’t have the time. You have to do it quickly.
I imagine on the Blumhouse project in particular.
There’s no time on those movies. It’s just run and gun. It’s crazy.
Ouija is now in theaters.