Supernatural Superserious: Oren Peli on Paranormal Activity
As Chernobyl Diaries is coming soon, here’s my interview with director Oren Peli from 2009/2010.
Not many directors see their debut film take over $100 million at the stateside box office. Fewer still do so with a film constructed with no script, set in the director’s own home and on a budget of approximately $15,000.
Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity proved to be the exception. This low-budget psychological horror took the relatively common pseudo-documentary approach and streamlined it to create a scenario terrifying in its convincing portrayal of an everyday couple haunted in their own home by a supernatural presence.
Almost as impressive as the chilling atmosphere was how much could be achieved on a tiny budget and within just a week of filming. Two unknown actors, Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat, were cast in the two lead roles that dominate the running time. Peli’s own home provided the film’s entire location. “On a rational and logical level I don’t actually believe in supernatural stuff,” he explains. “So I don’t feel like I was tempting fate.”
Did Peli have the idea that an intimate, realistic horror could be the ideal way of creating a successful movie on a limited budget? Or did the concept occur first, with the realisation that it could be done relatively affordably a welcome bonus?
“It was a combination of both!” he exclaims. “I thought it would be cool to do a self-contained film with only two main leads, and one location. That would create a feeling of claustrophobia and intimacy. The fact that I had a limited budget and resources made a lot of sense for this approach. But the idea from the very beginning was to keep it simple.”
Unlike many mainstream horrors, Paranormal Activity conveys its sense of fear through psychological terror and a tense, nervy atmosphere. Its style reflects the old school of films like The Omen or The Exorcist rather than more contemporary competitors. “I don’t think Paranormal Activity really falls into the category of a horror film,” he concurs. “It’s probably more of a supernatural thriller, using psychological scares rather than gory jump scares. I’d compare its sense of pacing and the nature of its scares to films such as Rosemary’s Baby, The Others, The Sixth Sense and The Blair Witch Project.”
Since Stefan Avalos and Lance Weiler’s influential shocker The Last Broadcast emerged as supposedly the world’s first desktop feature film (meaning that every stage from filming to projection was conducted digitally), their blueprint of tightly financed reality horror has been adapted numerous times. Yet from the genre, only Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project have rattled the mainstream from their indie movie roots. “I think the main difference is casting. Without the right cast, these kinds of movies cannot work,” is Peli’s succinct reply of what differentiates those two films from the pack. “When we put Katie and Micah together, they were absolutely convincing as a couple that had been together for years. They came up with elaborate back stories for their characters on the spot.”
While the casting is vital to the film’s success, the patronage of Steven Spielberg could only help matters. According to Peli, Spielberg’s suggested alternate ending that was used in the final cut of the film “delivers a big punch at the end that usually causes much of the audience to jump and scream.” Spielberg himself encountered some spooky shenanigans after watching the film. As Peli explains, “The day after he saw the film, the door to his bedroom was somehow locked from the inside. He called a locksmith, and when he couldn’t get it unlocked, he ended up having to cut the door open with a saw.”
Although Peli declines to comment on plans for the film’s sequel, it’s possible that he could build a Spielberg style empire of his own. Not only is he producing Paranormal Activity’s sequel, but his upcoming second film Area 51 has secured presumably lucrative distribution deals all around the world. It seems the return on that $15,000 can only get bigger…