Director of the indie horror film Paranormal Activity
“We did have weird things happening at the house,” confesses writer-director Oren Peli, a new name in horror poised to make a big splash in Hollywood’s blood pool. “I’m not necessarily saying we had a ghost, but there were a lot of unexplained things. That’s how the seed for my first film came about.” Peli, an Israeli native now residing in Southern California, then wondered what he might document if he decided to set up cameras around the house to record what occurs while he sleeps. “I thought it would make a great movie. I think a lot of people can relate to the question of what happens at night when you’re most vulnerable. You have no idea what’s going on. This taps into the most primal fear, if something is lurking in your home there’s not much you can do about it.”
Born from this idea is Peli’s debut entry in horror’s enduring haunted house sub-genre Paranormal Activity, a low-budget spine-tingler for the “Ghost Hunters” generation. It takes The Amityville Horror and thrusts a Blair Witch Project spin on the concept of a spooked-out couple – in this case Katie and Micah – who believe something has moved into their quaint San Diego home. Shot through a home video camera, “Activity” serves as a documented case of their nightly hauntings and the unraveling fabric of their relationship as the supernatural occurrences intensify.
Paranormal Activity, shot on a seven-day schedule, screened to terrified Los Angeles audiences at Screamfest last October; a Slamdance bow followed in January. Since then, Dreamworks snatched up Peli’s opus for distribution and intends to remake it. Peli, again, will be at the helm. Shock spoke to the director well before his studio deal and days before its premiere in Park City, Utah.
ShockTillYouDrop.com: This film concerns itself with demonology, can you talk about the research involved in this?
Oren Peli: The pre-production period involved a lot of research. This was the first film I ever made so I directed, edited, audio mixed and did the casting – basically everything including getting the house ready, which took about a year. So that was a year before we started physical photography. I read a lot of books on the subject. Many interviews, accounts of exorcisms and stories about haunted homes. All accounts on the topic, so now I have a large library about every angle of haunting, possessions and exorcisms. There are even some good TV shows. So, yes, I got my hands on everything. From my research, I learned the more violent entities are demonic. We wanted to be as truthful as we could be.
Shock: Watching the film, your reverence for films like “The Entity” and “Poltergeist” is evident – was the supernatural something you always wanted to explore?
Peli: Yes, the films that scared me as a kid were “The Entity” and especially “The Exorcist.” Those totally screwed with me. I really love movies like “The Others” and “The Sixth Sense,” too. Movies that are subtle, not so over-the-top, or gory. I like atmosphere and slow plot build.
Shock: With the concept in place then, how did you arrive to the decision to shoot the film via a home video camera?
Peli: I knew from the very beginning this was going to be the way I was going to shoot it. No question about it. I wanted to make it look as real and natural as possible, I’ve always been drawn to this storytelling style. It breaks the mental barrier when audiences see a regular film and become aware of the camera movements, they know a crew is there and there are stars. When you strip all of this away, the audience thinks they are seeing something with a higher degree of plausibility. The suspending of disbelief becomes all the easier. You have an audience that’s more invested in the story and the characters.
Shock: True. And now it’s a style filmmakers are leaning towards, why do you think it’s on the rise again?
Peli: Part of it is our exposure to reality TV, seeing things that look real and natural. So, it increases the contrast for traditional filmmaking. I think another part of it is that when “The Blair Witch Project” came out and did so well a lot of people tried to imitate it because they figured, ‘Well, we just set the camera down and let it roll.’ But if you don’t pay attention to the details, and most importantly, you don’t have a cast that can do a convincing job then often it’s not going to work. I didn’t want to go ahead on this production until we locked our two actors Katie and Micah. I needed to see first how well they worked together, what their chemistry was like. Then we decided to make the movie. If you’re making a film like this and you want your audience to believe it, you cannot compromise on the quality of the acting. If the casting isn’t believable, it all falls apart.
Shock: How difficult was it to find two actors who gel so convincingly, then? Did you cast a wide net or had you known the two actors…
Peli: We did a couple of casting calls and went through a few hundred people. Called in a few to meet them in person. Kate and Micah we auditioned individually and instantly they blew us away. We called them back and put them together for another audition. They showed such an amazing chemistry thirty-seconds after meeting each other. We started asking them questions about their characters and they just knocked it out of the park. If you saw the footage, you would’ve thought they had known each other for years. They had to have the guy and girl next door feeling and they got it.
Shock: Scripting a film like this – did you simply jot down dramatic beats for the actors to follow or did you lay out a full screenplay for them?
Peli: There was no dialogue. There was only an outline of the story, the actors never received any script. They didn’t know about anything they were getting into. All they knew is they were going to do something about a haunted house and basically discovered everything as they were shooting. There were no lines for them to follow. Everything was spontaneous.
Shock: The film flaunts a very minimalist attitude it yields a chilling effect. The cast is small, the location is contained to the house – did you feel this level of intimacy would help pull off the realism of the film as well?
Peli: We knew it was going to be risky to have such a small cast in one location, that’s not something you see very often. But we figured the downside of this would work for us because the claustrophobia works to the advantage of the movie. It makes the audience feel trapped in this situation. It turned out to be a good decision.
Shock: You defy expectations. There’s a moment when Katie hints at bringing in a demonologist to investigate the house. As a viewer, you anticipate this upcoming scene like something out of “Poltergeist” where these people come in and there’s equipment being set up all around the house…
Peli: Yes, exactly, we wanted to move away from the regular scenes people are used to.
Shock: The house you shot in was your own. Did that cut production design costs?
Peli: [laughs] No, there was a lot of production design because the year before we shot the film there was no carpet, we didn’t have the stairwell. I spent a lot of money just dressing up the house laying in the hardwood floors, painting the house, dressing it with furniture.
Shock: So, at the end of the day, you had a dream home with a nice big TV.
Peli: [laughs] Definitely. And that TV is something I got from when I was day trading a long time ago.
Shock: Ah, so Micah’s occupation in the film ultimately mirrored your own.
Peli: Yeah, I used to day trade for a while in the late-’90s.
Shock: Take us through a shooting day on a schedule as tight as yours…
Peli: It was crazy. We were shooting at night, shooting at day and as we were shooting, I was constantly reviewing the footage, editing it myself to make sure everything worked fine. And in some cases I had to apply the visual effects while we were shooting for scenes while Katie and Micah were reviewing the footage. So I had to capture the video, do all of the processing, lay in the visual effects so the characters could view it on their laptop. It was an intense week.
Shock: Did you shoot in sequence?
Peli: Yes and no, not a hundred percent.
Shock: Often you’ll hear directors shoot in order to maintain a consistent, organic energy going in their actors – I wasn’t sure if you applied the same thing here.
Peli: From Katie and Micah’s perspective, they didn’t know the story, so they were watching it unfold as we were shooting. So yes, that’s why we did try to shoot in order, but sometimes due to time we had to make some exceptions.
Shock: The bedroom in this film becomes very much a character in and of itself and where most of the supernatural phenomena take place. Did you give Katie and Micah any warning of what you were going to do to them? Or did you just start making noises and get their natural reaction from there…
Peli: There were some things they didn’t know was coming. I’d just tell them, “Good night” and walk away and shoot. But for the more complex scenes, I did have to prepare them.
Shock: How did Kate and Micah take to this production and this journey with you? It must’ve been a rollercoaster ride…
Peli: They were loving every moment of it. Unbelievably professional and smart. Their instincts and intuition were phenomenal, so they could adapt to their characters right away – what was authentic for their role and what wasn’t. They were much more than actors, they became storytellers.
Shock: What did you learn through this experience?
Peli: I learned a lot about the process of filmmaking and that if you’re totally persistent and want to follow through with something, you’ll get it done.