Cheap Scares: A conversation with filmmaker Oren Peli

Jeffrey Aidoo chats with filmmaker Oren Peli, director of Paranormal Activity and writer-producer of Chernobyl Diaries…

Oren Peli’s rise to success has been a meteoric one; the original Paranormal Activity film about a young couple who are haunted by a supernatural presence in their home which was written and directed by Peli has earned approximately $194 million worldwide and spawned three sequels (with a possible fourth in the works), which is pretty impressive considering the original film only cost $15,000 to make. After writing the following two Paranormal Activity movies and producing the fourth – as well as writing Chernobyl Diaries, which follows six tourists on an extreme tour in the abandoned city of Pripyat, the former home to the workers of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor – Oren Peli has certainly established himself as a master of horror amongst a new generation of filmmakers. Not a bad resume for a former computer programmer.

“It wasn’t part of master plan and happened a little really by accident,” states the filmmaker, with regards to his humble beginnings. “I had the idea for Paranormal Activity and decided to go for it and see what happens. I still held on to my day job while making Paranormal Activity and thought if the movie turns out good and I have opportunities to make more movies I will keep doing it. My background in computer programming and computer graphics probably did help me when I was making Paranormal Activity because I ended up having to do the editing, visual effects and sound mixing myself.”

Peli reveals that scaring people is not his primary goal when making films. “I don’t like specifically scaring people, I like watching good horror movies and getting scared myself, there is something really fun about it” states the writer, director and producer. “I don’t really go about making a horror movie thinking it’ll be fun to scare people; any way of evoking some form of reaction or emotion from the audience – there is something really gratifying about that.” He has cited horror movies such as the original The Haunting, The Exorcist, and Rosemary’s Baby as some of his favourite horror movies, which are all your archetypal horrors that really play on psychological terror, elements that you can clearly see in all of Oren Peli’s films.

In discussing the current horror genre the filmmaker gave his thoughts on whether today’s horror genre can really compare with such classic horror films. “The kinds of movies that I find scary are the movies with a slower pace, they take their time to build up the characters and setting and don’t necessarily rely on too much gore, a lot of slasher movies of today I find entertaining in their own way but I don’t find them too scary.” Peli confirms the influence the classic horror movies have had on his own filmmaking by continuing to say, “The kind of stuff that I do find scary is the more psychological stuf , the movies that leave some stuff to your imagination and the Paranormal Activity movies are a good example of that as there is hardly any gore and not much happens in the form of over the top crazy stuff, but it plays on the imagination. We tried to capture that in Chernobyl Diaries where it makes you wonder what would you do if you were in the same situation and stranded in an abandoned town in the middle of nowhere and no one comes to save you and you hear noises in the middle of the night and you think ‘what is going on?’”.

The eerie setting for Chernobyl Diaries was stumbled upon by accident as Peli explains, “I was just browsing the internet one day and I came across some photo blogs and articles about Pripyat, the abandoned town next to Chernobyl. I didn’t know about this town and that it was evacuated and abandoned pretty much overnight and has been left that way since the mid-80s and I thought it was an amazing location and could make a great setting for a really scary horror movie.” However for a man who makes a living creating films that focus primarily on the supernatural and the “unknown” his own personal beliefs are somewhat surprising. “I’m inherently a sceptic, any claim of the supernatural or paranormal I say show me the proof because I’m very logically minded, I tend not to believe that kind of stuff but I’m fascinated by it because of the concept. Whether you believe in it or not, it ties into inherent primal fears.”

The film maker continues to talk about his budgetary requirements when making films. “The budgets that I work with are really tiny in comparison to Hollywood movies budgets and I like working in a very confined space so you have to really concentrate more on your imagination and creativity instead of pouring millions of dollars into a movie. I personally don’t think I’ll ever want to work on an $80 million movie and I don’t understand sometimes why a romantic comedy costs $100 million to make. I’m happy to make movies on the cheap side so I can concentrate on the movie and the story itself.”

Oren Peli has now become somewhat of the Godfather of the “found footage” genre and he explains what appeals to him about this particular style of filmmaking, as well as his future ambitions: “Personally I like the kind of movies that are raw and gritty and whether it is found footage or not it has the feel of a documentary. I like movies that deliberately look raw and gritty because it makes them look more real and credible. I will try and branch out and do other things; I like doing things that are new to me and doing something that I have never done before so there is definitely some appeal in the challenge of doing something different.”

One rule Peli likes to abide by is not to discuss or give details away about any forthcoming projects, so he was tight lipped about potential future films such as the much rumoured Area 51 movie that he is reportedly developing. However, he was more forthcoming when talking about the growing trend of Hollywood film directors and writers venturing into the world of television – a trend he is also a part of having created the TV series The River with Michael R. Perry (The Guardian, The Dead Zone). The show is a sci-fi / action / horror which also uses his trademark “found footage” style and centres on a documentary crew searching the Amazon for a missing television host; it debuted on the ABC channel in the U.S during the 2011–2012 TV winter season and is currently being shown in the UK on the SYFY channel.

Oren discusses the pros and cons to working on television as opposed to feature films and his initial thoughts on working in television. “It’s hard enough to tell a story in an hour and a half, how you can tell a story in less than an hour? But someone pointed out to me that you can have an entire season to tell a story, you can have eight or thirteen hours depending on how many episodes, so you can really develop the characters and plot a lot more than you could in a movie so in that sense that is something that can be an advantage of doing a TV show.” He continues to reflect on the disadvantages, “The problem is when you make an independent movie it’s a relatively simple process compared to TV – you arrange the funding, assemble the crew and shoot the movie. With TV there are so many steps along the way and so many different entities and people involved that to some degree it’s hard to maintain the original vision of the idea that you had and it kind of changes and mutates quite a bit along the way before it becomes the final product.”

As we wrapped up our conversation the filmmaker spoke about his experience collaborating with Hollywood heavyweights such as Stephen Spielberg and Rob Zombie (Oren was a producer on director Rob Zombie’s Lords of Salem). “It’s pretty surreal and I have to think about it and say am I really doing a TV show with Stephen Spielberg. It’s really bizarre for me to think about the strange situation that I find myself in. I feel very lucky to find myself in a position where I find myself being able to work with such visionary filmmakers.” He concludes: “I don’t know how long my Hollywood adventure is going to last for but for now I just consider myself in a lucky situation.”

Many thanks to Oren Peli for taking the time for this interview.

Chernobyl Diaries is released on Blu-ray and DVD in the UK on Monday, October 22nd. Read our review here.

Jeffrey Aidoo

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