December 2015 | Couper Samuelson '02

samuelson.jpegCouper Samuelson '02 (President of Feature Production, Blumhouse Productions) 

by Terence O'Toole Murnin

A TALL MAN RISES IN STATURE: The “Harvard Mafia” is alive and well in Hollywood with Couper Samuelson producing a new paradigm for art and commerce to coexist on the silver (really any) screen

William Couper Samuelson is a human dynamo, and with all respects to the late, great James Brown, the very tall (6’6”) producer may have just snatched the title as the “hardest working man in show business” and claimed it for himself.  Known for such hits as the Academy Award-nominated WHIPLASH, WE OWN THE NIGHT, and THE GIFT, the lanky livewire has no less than five films already set for release in 2016, including HUSH, AMITYVILLE: THE WAKENING, DELIRIUM, 6 MIRANDA DRIVE, and THE PURGE 3.

Our interview is a fit of stops and starts. Calls and deadlines — and details — and a dinner to attend this evening. At last, he’s ready and it’s easy to see why the man has charmed his way into the upper echelons of Hollywood with a combination of brains, luck, pluck and networking savvy extraordinaire.

“I am so sorry,” Samuelson interjects as he finally has time to talk. “I have officially become a Hollywood D-Bag! (Laughs)”

It’s this kind of self-deprecating humor, combined with talent, vision and a unique system of producing and distributing films that has made Samuelson a man in demand, especially among a young cadre of Harvard filmmakers. Samuelson works for Jason Blum at Blumhouse Productions, and the company, which made its mark with such micro- and low-budget horror movies as PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, INSIDIOUS and THE PURGE currently has a 10-year first-look deal with the studio Universal Pictures. They’ve thoroughly established that there is more than one way to make a movie.

BlumhouseBanner.jpg“The Blum system is unusual in that we partner with extraordinary filmmakers and let them do what they want,” explains Samuelson. “The films are for the most part shot in LA, with the same crews, and the director becomes very much like a TV auteur, an episodic director with complete freedom. It’s like TV on rails, and talented visionaries are drawn to us because the question of ‘how do I make this’ becomes simplified. The movies are made independently, but then placed into the infrastructure of a giant machine that puts it out to the world.”

Samuelson clearly relishes his role at this unique intersection of artists and entrepreneurs where the old studio system meets the democratization of filmmaking by technology in the new independent film world.

“Once the barriers to being green-lighted are removed, there’s an amazing amount of positive energy that’s created on a crew,” effuses Samuelson. “On my projects, since no one is waiting for permission, everyone works hard and there’s a tremendous sense of purpose.”

This sense of drive and ability to empower others began at Harvard and he continues to network and “pay it forward” today because the notion of karmic enlightenment has been so good to him, and it has also proven to make good business sense. Samuelson’s first internship in town at Warner Brothers was made possible by the television producer Jeff Melvoin, who Samuelson affectionately refers to as the “Fairy Godfather for Harvard Hollywood Wannabees!”

“I recently had the pleasure of helping to honor Melvoin at the WGA awards where he received a lifetime achievement award for showrunners, and I reminded him how insanely comforting it was to be fresh off the boat, and yet welcomed in this community-driven world,” beams Samuelson.

Samuelson laughs when he remembers the first time he heard from a young filmmaker from Harvard named Damien Chazelle who reached out to Samuelson via a cold e-mail from a listing on the OCS/OCL (Office of Career Services) website. Chazelle and WHIPLASH composer Justin Hurwitz had met at Harvard playing in the same band and had just completed a student film entitled GUY AND MADELINE ON A PARK BENCH. Chazelle had really admired James Gray’s TWO LOVERS, which Samuelson co-produced, and reached out to Samuelson on a lark.

“In this business, there really is a sense of randomness and luck, so by having the shared experience of being on the same campus, you really feel like you know someone, and this shared commonality makes the Harvard and Harvardwood community a unique force in this town,” shares Samuelson.

This “cultish outpost of talent,” as Samuelson refers to it, or “the Harvard Mafia,” by other envious onlookers includes the before mentioned Chazelle (WHIPLASH), as well as the directors Nick Weiss (DRUNK WEDDING), Rob Cohen (THE BOY NEXT DOOR), Jesse Peretz (THE EX) and John Stockwell (STRETCH), who have all worked with Samuelson on notable projects.

Samuelson readily admits that he was once the eager guy at many Harvardwood mixers when he first came to Los Angeles, and being referred for an opportunity to work as a boom operator on a CAA training video led to an internship at the agency where he was roommates with another legendary Harvard Hollywood icon, Franklin Leonard.

“I am proud to note that I was there at the ‘Alexander Graham Bell’ moment when Franklin sent around his first PDF of favorite screenplays, which ultimately became the Black List that we know and love today,” recounts a proud Samuelson. “There really is only a finite number of insiders in this business, and what Leonard has done is to actually create a system of organizing the outsiders in a super helpful way.”

From CAA, Samuelson went on to work for the independent financier, 2929, and then eventually went on to work for Paramount and it was there, as a junior executive that he met Nick Weiss. In the wake of the phenomenal success of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, the company created an “insurge” movement, looking to make $100,000 movies, and Samuelson and Weiss pitched DRUNK WEDDING, which was shot in Nicaragua after financing was approved by the Minister of Tourism for the country. The stars definitely aligned to create a great experience for Samuelson and Weiss on this successful project brilliantly utilizing found footage, and the production came off without a hitch.

“Couper is a jumble of contradictions. On the one hand, he's this analytical dork hailing from a family of famous economists who brings hyper-logical supply-and-demand-style thinking to every element of producing,” muses Weiss. “He's also a sneaky prankster who loves messing with you, and still plays elaborate April Fool’s Day pranks on his college roommates. But he's also a sweet, dopey 6 foot 6 teddy bear of a dude who inspires not just loyalty, but genuine affection because he is always really truly trying to help (and smart and strategic enough to be effective in doing so).” 

Weiss reminisces about the Nicaragua shooting as a magical, watershed moment in both his and Samuelson’s careers: “I remember one time looking up at him in awe, a goofy grin plastered on his face, and realizing how hard he had worked and fought to get us down there, to make this movie happen, the number of fires he had been and was continuing to put out that I never even heard about, but dammit, he was still having a blast. It was a great ‘Couper’ moment - and one of my favorite little moments in the movie.”

Jason Blum saw the first cut of DRUNK WEDDING, and Samuelson and Blum have now worked together ever since. Over the past four and a half years, Samuelson has worked on numerous movies and he truly believes that his ever-expanding network is critical to his success.

“You can’t do it alone, and a lack of network is really a barrier to entry in this business,” reflects Samuelson. “Finding enough talented people to follow you into a film is of the utmost importance.”

As for the future, Samuelson notes that while the distribution of movies gets more and more complicated, the “pipes” at times also become more transparent and legible with vehicles like video-on-demand and limited theatrical release as important options.

“I love being a part of this new paradigm where filmmakers know what they’re getting – and so does the distribution system. I’m constantly looking for new ways of distributing innovative content from talented directors.”

And speaking of which, it’s getting late and Samuelson has a dinner to attend – off to his next networking opportunity – and perhaps, his next film adventure….

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