The third film in the hugely successful “found footage” series arriving on DVD and Blu-ray today, ShockTillYouDrop recently attended a special Paranormal Activity event at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood.
Dubbed “Tea with Toby” after the supernatural entity that is finally given a name in the third film, the gathering brought together the series’ creator, Oren Peli and cast members from all three films, including the first film’s stars, Katie Featherston (Katie) and Micah (Micah Sloat) and the third film’s Christopher Nicholas Smith (Dennis), Chloe Csengery (Young Katie) and Jessica Tyler Brown (Young Kristi Rey).
“Don’t bump Toby!” seven-year-old Brown scolds passerbys with mock fury, midway between adorable and terrifying as a small group of journalists assemble alongside the talent.
Though they say they never got scared on set, neither Brown nor Csengery, now 11, have been allowed to see their own film all the way through.
“I’ve seen parts of the movie,” admits the older actress, “But I haven’t seen the last 15 minutes.”
Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman worked closely with the young stars to make sure that nothing ever got too intense during filming. During one of the particuarly involved scenes, the girls were given special permission to call cut if they ever felt overwhelmed.
“We always had our parents nearby,” continues Csengery, “and the directors would tell us exactly what would happen in the scene beforehand.”
Joost and Schulman, the directors behind 2010’s Catfish, were hand-selected for Paranormal Activity 3 by Peli because of how effortlessly he felt they would fit into the genre.
“One of the things that’s always very important to us is the authenticity of the footage,” says Peli. “Does it feel like found footage? We were all big fans of ‘Catfish’. They still all claim it’s real footage and it may be real, but regardless, it just feels real. It feels authentic.”
Though the “found footage” genre is experiencing a definite boom following the tremendous success of the PA franchise, Peli modestly insists that it would have happened with or without his original film and cites 1999’s The Blair Witch Project and the surge in reality TV programming as the forerunner of the genre.
“I was a huge reality fan from the very beginning,” he explains, “I would watch Cops and The Real World. Anything that wasn’t scripted. Then when the high-quality reality started happening after Blair Witch — Survivor and Amazing Race — I would watch these shows. There was a flood of reality…. You definitely get a sense of real people and what they look like and how they talk rather than people reading lines.”
One mistake that he believes The Blair Witch Project made that Peli was keen to avoid was in changing the format for the sequel. Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 was released in 2000 and, rather than continue the faux camcorder route, offered instead a straightforward narrative. That’s not something that fans expect from Paranormal Activity anytime soon.
“I always say ‘Never say never’,” he admits, “but for this franchise, it wouldn’t feel right.”
“I was shocked there was a sequel at all,” laughs Featherston, who remains the only actor to appear in all three films, “I still sit here right now going, ‘Oh my gosh!'”
Turning the surprise hit into a franchise was no small task, but the first sequel ended up spinning out of a bit of on-set improvisation and, from there, the mythology expanded.
“The sister thing we never thought of in the context of being explored in a sequel,” says Peli, “Katie actually has a sister, it became a part of the improv and we were able to build on it in the sequel… Usually, we look at them one at a time but, as we were doing the second one, we saw that there was kind of a mythology emerging and thought we’d plant some seeds that we could build on. Depending on the direction of the direction of the third one — assuming we were lucky enough to get to do a third one — we could either go forward in time or backwards in time.”
While the first film had virtually all of its dialogue improvised, more complete scripts were assembled for Two and Three. Still, though, actors were encouraged to run with any ideas they might have while shooting.
“It was a script that they gave to us and they said, ‘This is probably going to change,'” says Smith, “And it did. Week to week there were new pages. Things were added and things were taken away and, by the end of it, because every time there’s different pages or a new iteration of the script it’s a different color. It was a literal rainbow with every single color.”
Of course, on a Paranormal Activity film, improvisation doesn’t just include dialogue. In each film, the leading character is also the main camera operator. On the first film, Sloat’s experience with cinematography was actually a minor detriment and Peli had to continously insist that he do a sloppier job.
“To be be fair,” Sloat laughs, “afterwards [Oren] did thank me and tell me that [he was] glad we got the stuff that wasn’t too shakey so that we could put together a movie that didn’t make people sick… Or that made people sick for the right reasons.”
Though Three was shot on a modern camera, an artificial VHS camcorder had to be constructed for scenes in which the camera itself appears in mirrors or other reflective surfaces.
“They put a little viewfinder within the eye of the camera,” explains Smith, “that was transmitting the video that was recording in the body of this old VHS tape. I was basically watching a little monitor within the viewfinder… That was like week six that we figured it out. Before that, if we were shooting anything that required me shooting the VHS, I was just shooting blind.”
Both the DVD and Blu-ray of Paranormal Activity 3 include the theatrical cut as well as an unrated version with all-new footage, as well as a “Lost Tapes” special feature. Paranormal Activity 4, meanwhile, is scheduled to arrive in theaters this October 19th.
“I don’t anything about P4,” teases Featherston, “but I am stoked about it.”
Peli, meanwhile, only offers a cryptic grin.
“We have some ideas,” he smiles.