Paranormal Activity - Oren Peli interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
OREN Peli talks to us about his low budget horror phenomenon Paranormal Activity, the differences between ghosts and demons and why getting Steven Spielberg’s blessing also involved giving the acclaimed director his own scare.
He also discusses why the film has been able to strike such a chord with audiences, why he remains sceptical about the supernatural and why he’s reluctant to talk about future projects…
Q. What’s your reaction to the fact that the film has now passed the $100 million benchmark in the US?
Oren Peli: I’m pleased and overwhelmed. The whole thing has been kind of crazy for me, so this is one more crazy thing that’s happened.
Q. Why do you think it’s had such a big audience reaction?
Oren Peli: I think people have really responded to the movie because they’re finding that it’s genuinely scary. From what we’re hearing from people, they’re saying that it’s the first movie that’s really scared them in a long time. If you break it down to why the movie is scary, then a lot of people have different reasons – whether it’s for the realism or the subject matter, which a lot of people relate to. You know, what happens at night when you’re asleep. It’s a primal fear that everyone has in common.
Q. Has it felt like a long journey to get here for you? Were there times when you thought it might never happen?
Oren Peli: It has been a long journey. At the very beginning, the movie was finished fairly quickly but then the toughest time was when Paramount and DreamWorks were splitting up. For a year things were in limbo and we didn’t really know what was going to happen.
Q. Did it change much over that time?
Oren Peli: All of that [the changes] happened before the split. At the very last minute, but before Paramount released the movie, we had the last round of edit changes and gave it some polish and audio clean-ups. Most of the changes, including the Spielberg ending, happened while the movie was still with DreamWorks.
Q. There seem to be quite a few versions of the Spielberg story. Is it a great piece of marketing? What’s the real version according to you?
Oren Peli: The real version is that after we did the test screening for DreamWorks when they changed their mind about distributing it… originally they wanted to do a remake of the movie. But then we did a test screening for the executives and they immediately decided to forget about the remake and release the original, so they gave the DVD to Spielberg to give it his authorisation, as he owns the studio. The story I heard the next day was that he started watching the movie and got so unnerved by it that he turned it off halfway and finished watching it the next day during daylight.
Q. Did he send it back in a plastic bag?
Oren Peli: The other part of the story is that the next day he tried to get back to his bedroom and it was somehow locked from the inside and there was no other way to get into the room. So, he got a locksmith to try to unlock the door, and he couldn’t, so they had to cut the door open. So, he took the movie back to his office because he didn’t want it in his house. I’ve heard the story from him more recently, but back then I heard it from the executives [at DreamWorks]. So, it wasn’t anything that came up at the last minute as a made up story.
Q. Do you believe in ghosts and demons?
Oren Peli: Logically, I do not but I’m still scared by them.
Q. Did you grow up interested in this kind of paranormal phenomenon?
Oren Peli: I think the interest for me came from being exposed to movies. When I watched The Exorcist… I don’t believe in it but it still terrified me and I had nightmares. I couldn’t sleep well for a long time. Even people who are very logical and very sceptical about Paranormal Activity… I think one of the reasons it’s so effective is the concept of there being something around you and possibly attacking you while you’re asleep. That’s a primal fear, so even if you don’t necessarily believe in ghosts or demons it’s something that a lot of people can relate to.
Q. Did you ever feel that you wanted to explain more where the demon came from?
Oren Peli: The point is that we don’t really understand demonization. We know a little bit about what it does, and that’s what demons do… but we don’t really understand why. They’re just evil and like to torment people, which is something that makes the whole thing more scary because it makes them more unpredictable. You don’t know what they’re about to do and how they’re going to do it. I liked the concept that once some sort of entity picks you, then there’s no way you can shake it out. You can’t move, you can’t do anything… it just stays with you for the rest of your life. To me, that’s much scarier than the concept of a haunted house because then you can just move away and it’s problem solved. But if you’re stuck with it there and for whatever reason that you don’t understand it decides to choose you and torment you for your entire life… to me that’s a much scarier concept.
Q. The scene that really got me was when Katie just gets up and stands still for three hours. Where did that idea come from?
Oren Peli: Actually, that’s something I’m really proud is working well. I thought it would be very cool to make the point that you can have something very simple, like someone standing for a long time, and it gets a huge reaction. People are gasping and really unnerved by it. So, I’m pleased that something subtle like that can get a great reaction as opposed to having to show a lot of gore and blood and guts.
Q. Do you think this has driven the final nail into the torture porn sub-genre?
Oren Peli: I have no idea. I think a lot of people still enjoy those kind of movies. So, if there’s still a demand for them, they’re more than welcome to see them. I don’t take any responsibility for anything like that.
Q. There are a lot of off-camera moments that work so well in driving the imagination. Is that something you use as an essential tool?
Oren Peli: Yeah, I think a lot of the scenes that happen in the movie… in some cases you see them because they happen right in front of the camera; but in other cases, such as a noise, you don’t know where it’s come from. It could be inside the room, or down the hallway or from the stairs. You know something is going on, but you can’t tell exactly what it is and you can’t see it. To me, that’s a lot more unnerving than seeing something right in front of you happening. It plays to your imagination, which is often much more effective than what can be shown.
I think, in some cases, if you hear a knock coming from inside the house it doesn’t have to be anything big… it doesn’t even have to be too loud; but just the fact that it’s there and it’s not supposed to be there already gives you the idea that there’s something lurking nearby and you know something is about to happen. So, it already primes you… there’s a sense of anticipation and the anxiety is worse than what actually ends up happening.
Q. Did you do anything with your actors to try and get over that sense of anticipation? Obviously, as actors they know what’s coming from the script, so did you play any tricks on them?
Oren Peli: A few times I did. There were some scenes where they didn’t know anything about what was supposed to happen. We told them ‘goodnight’ and then did something to surprise them. Later on, once we saw how intelligent they were and how good they were, we didn’t really need to do that so much. We could talk about the next scene in advance and they could just perform it amazingly well and so consistently that we didn’t have to keep doing that.
Q. Do you have any examples of a trick you played?
Oren Peli: The very first loud bang, where they go and explore the house and the chandelier is doing something – they didn’t know that was going to happen.
Q. Was a lot of it improvised? What kind of form did the script take?
Oren Peli: There was just an outline that I kept to myself. They never saw it, so they didn’t know how the story was going to go and what was going to happen. So, all the dialogue was improvised by them on the fly. There were no rehearsals.
Q. Will we ever get to see the alternative endings?
Oren Peli: I’m not sure what the plans are but I wouldn’t be surprised if they make their way onto DVD.
Q. The trailer gives away quite a few of the jumps. Do you have any regrets about that as a filmmaker?
Oren Peli: Personally, I prefer trailers that don’t give away too much. So, if there’s any way you can watch the movie without knowing too much about it, and avoid the trailer, then that’s the recommended way. We always find that the less people know about the film, the more they enjoy it. But at the end of the day you do need to show something to people to convince them to go to the cinema, so there’s always the balance between the creative side and the marketing side.
Q. Before choosing a demon did you ever consider some kind of other paranormal concept?
Oren Peli: Actually, when I started doing research on the movie I wasn’t as educated on the differences between ghosts and demons. I knew I wanted it to be some sort of invisible entity that had the potential for violence. But it wasn’t until I started doing research that I learned the differences between demons and ghosts and the differences between them. I thought that a demon would be perfect for this particular story because they’re purely evil, they have no motivation and we don’t really know what they are.
A ghost can be a scary prospect but it’s the spirit of a certain individual. With demons, we don’t know where they came from, what they are, how they operate… so the fact we don’t know these things and they’re much more powerful and have the ability to possess people – they do a lot more damage, they’re tenacious and never give up – to me, that seemed like a natural choice.
Q. Will there be a Paranormal Activity 2?
Oren Peli: I’m not discussing the possibility of any future projects. I won’t comment on anything until it’s done.
Q. How about Area 51… have you completed that yet?
Oren Peli: No comment.
Q. What’s been the most pleasing or surprising reaction to it?
Oren Peli: The first one was hearing that Steven Spielberg liked the movie. That was one of the most amazing moments of my life. Then, every time that we see a screening and we see that the audience is responding well – that they’re reacting and they’re screaming. It’s very rewarding to know that the whole thing pays off.
- Twitter feed
- Buy it on DVD (Amazon)
- Buy it on Blu-ray (Amazon)
- Read our review
- Oren Peli interview
- Paranormal Activity Photo Gallery