INTERVIEW: Oren Peli (Director: Paranormal Activity)


Out of all the big stories in Hollywood in 2009, it would be hard to imagine one larger than the success of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY. An ultra low-budget chiller with a couple of actors nobody had ever heard of and the limited use of special effects that happened to surprise everybody. Whether you liked it or you were bored to tears, you can’t deny the impact that it had in an age of massive blockbusters. Just like THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT before it, it certainly was the sleeper hit of the summer.

The simplicity of the story and really, one director working so closely with a couple of actors could certainly inspire up and coming filmmakers to try something fresh and original, no matter how much money they have. Oren Peli did exactly that and he succeeded at giving my own self some good old-fashioned goosebumps. While some fell victim to the hype, it was nice to see a successful horror movie that didn’t have anybody from the CW in it. And since Paranormal Activity is haunting its way into your local DVD retailer, it was a good time to chat with Oren. Although be aware, we do talk about the many endings the film spawned, so yes, there is a spoiler alert for those of you who have been kept in the dark.

Where did this come about? What made you want to tell this story?

Well it was a combination of several things. First of all, I’ve always been fascinated by filmmaking, especially after seeing movies like THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and OPEN WATER. I thought it would be really cool if I had an idea to make a movie like that on my own. And I was kind of waiting for an idea to come. And then I moved into my house and I started hearing noises, which was mostly just the house settling and creaking. It got me thinking what if someone really did think they were dealing with a haunting phenomena. How would they go about finding out what is going on in this day and age. And I got the idea of them setting up a video camera. Then I was thinking, how scary would it be if you set up a video camera and watched the footage and found out something did happen in the night while you were asleep. This was kind of the beginning of that idea.

It seems like such a simple idea. But how simple was it to put it all together?

It definitely wasn’t easy. It was about a year of preproduction which included research and, you know, self education of filmmaking, editing and getting ready for the movie. The shoot was actually one of the easiest parts. I’m not saying it was “easy”, but compared to everything else, it was only a week and it went really smoothly. And then I had to spend almost another year in post-production with editing, mixing, visual effects and those steps. So it took about two years just to get the movie done. And then another two years to get the movie released.

How did Steven Spielberg get involved? What was his first initial reaction to it?

Well the reason he was involved was because Dreamworks Studios, which is the studio that picked up the movie, and the original thought was to do a remake. We did a test screening, and the test screening went so well for the original movie, they decided to just scrap the idea of a remake and just release the original movie. So that is why we had Steven Spielberg’s approval, because he was the head of the studio. When he watched it the first time, he watched it at home, and I guess he was alone, and he got so scared by the movie that he turned it off halfway and had to finish watching during the daylight. So he thought it was really scary, and he loved it and he gave it the studio’s full support.

As far as the ending is concerned, how many endings did you shoot?


Oh we shot tons of endings… all sorts of different options. Too many to even count. And the few that we actually showed publicly ever, and the one that made it to the theatrical release is the one that Steven Spielberg suggested.

What about you? Which one was your favorite?

The original one with the cops, is the one that I liked logically, because it made sense as far as the plot. But that didn’t get much of an audience reaction. The new ending played very rewardingly, because it’s one of the biggest scares in the movie, it was satisfying to the audiences to end the movie with a big bang like that.

Well the rumor right now, is that the DVD will include the scene where she cuts her own neck. Is that correct or is that just rumor?

I believe that is the case. I actually haven’t seen the DVD yet, but from what I’ve heard, that is correct. That was the one other ending that was shown publicly. But only shown in one public test screening so I think very few people have seen that one. It got good reactions from some, but other people felt it was too brutal and too over the top. That’s why we kept trying different endings, but it definitely took the movie in a different direction.


Now working with these two actors, who weren’t very well known as the time, how did you go about trying to make these two people sympathetic?

Well I had some idea in advance about what the characters were going to be, and how they were going to interact, and what their relationship was going to be. And once I cast Katie [Featherston] and Micah [Sloat], it became a very collaborative process. They had their own ideas and of course, their own personalities. And their chemistry was so great and you could tell them to be more natural, and they were just normal with their natural chemistry, and it just worked wonderfully.

One of the things I liked about the film, as did a friend I took to see it, was the sort of breakdown that Katie goes through, much like the characters in The Blair Witch. Was that something you were going for, sort of following her as she loses her sanity in a sense?

Yeah, one of the things that I learned during my research on demonic haunting, one of the effects is the breakdown of relationships and family. First of all, because there is one person that is experiencing this phenomena more or differently than other people… so, you do not know who to believe and so the people who normally understand them and love them don’t understand what they are going through. They are alone in their situation. And also, because of demonic possession, it can affect the personality of the victim. So that was definitely an important part of the plot.

Now we are hearing a little talk about PARANORMAL ACTIVITY and a sequel. Where would you go with that, and how close are we to seeing it happen?

Actually my policy is to never discuss projects while they may or may not be in progress, so if there is any project that I’m going to be involved in, then once it is done we’ll be happy to show it. Until then, I try to keep my mouth shut about it.

So is there anything you can say about your next official project?

I’ll let you know when it’s done [Laughing].

[Laughing] Alright, fair enough. Now back to Paranormal, I has asked Katie about this, but since this was your baby, what kind of experience was it to watch this little film cross the 100 million dollar mark? And what were your expectations originally?

Originally it was hard to tell, I mean, while making the movie there was no way to tell how it would turn out. We started to show the movie to friends and family, and it was really playing well, but it wasn’t until we started showing it in larger venues, like at festivals. That’s where we saw audience reactions… we didn’t really have any specific expectations, I don’t know if anyone thought it was going to hit a hundred million. But we did have a sense that it would do very well. It wasn’t until the movie started showing in the midnight screenings, then we saw the frenzy around it, and we started believing that anything can happen. I don’t know if one projected any numbers but we all had a lot of confidence in the movie because the fans were really embracing it. And that is really the reason for the success of the movie, the fans spreading the word of mouth and really supporting the movie.

Do you think the success was a matter of timing, as there is a current trend of home invasion type horror films doing well as of late, most likely due to the recent political climate. Why do you think audiences have responded to it the way they have?

I don’t really know. I’m not really sure how much the timing had to do with it. And if the movie was released five years ago, five years from now… I really have no idea. I think what it boils down to is that the movie just ended up for whatever reason, hitting a nerve and scaring people. So you’d hear from the theatre’s people saying that it is one of the scariest movies they have ever seen, and that they were having trouble sleeping at night. They had reports of people having nightmares and not being able to sleep well. I think the movie just ended up being accepted by a large segment of the audience, and that is what really kind of helped spread the word. So I’m not sure how much timing had to do with it. The movie just, for whatever reason, ended up being effective. It’s a good question to theorize on, but I don’t know…

Yeah, pretty soon they’ll have some college course dissecting Paranormal Activity.


For you personally, what are some of your favorite “haunted house” films?

I always said THE EXORCIST, because that is my favorite and it is the one movie that sort of messed me up more than any other movie, when I was a kid. And I also really liked THE OTHERS and THE SIXTH SENSE. As far as haunted house movies, the original Robert Wise film, THE HAUNTING. That film shows how much you can accomplish with subtle sound and building the right atmosphere.


Let me know what you think. Send questions and/or comments to [email protected]


Source: AITH

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