Oren Peli on ‘The River’ and ‘Paranormal Activity’ – Exclusive

The director of "Paranormal Activity" tells us about his new horror series on ABC.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

Oren Peli became a mogul off of "Paranormal Activity." Now he produces a sequel every year, and other movies like Insidious. He’s also overseeing a new television series called "The River;" which uses the found footage style to generate scares as a documentary crew goes looking for a lost TV host. Peli told the Television Critics Association that the idea came from an early movie concept. After the TCA panel Peli was still hanging around so I found him in the corner of the hallway for an exclusive one on one.


Crave Online: How are you handling this stage of your career with ongoing productions in the film and television world?

Oren Peli: It’s sort of mind boggling. I don’t really think about it. I just enjoy the opportunity and as long as people allow me to do it and it’s fun, I’ll keep on doing it for as long as I can.

Crave Online: How much of the original movie idea you were developing remains in the pilot of "The River"?

Oren Peli: Not a lot. The original idea was just a grain of the idea, that we’re going on an expedition to find a missing crew. That was sort of it, so it was only the grain that became much more developed.

Crave Online: How are the episodes going to be divided between a manhunt and a standalone monster or myth?

Oren Peli: Just about every episode is going to be both. In every episode they will encounter a new threat which could be a human threat, it could be a supernatural threat, it could be something else. But at the same time, the overall arc and the overall search for Emmet Cole and the overall dynamics of the relationships continue to develop. So the plot does progress every week but we also provide a lot of scary moments of a different nature every week.

Crave Online: So there’s no episode where they take a break and stop looking for Emmet.

Oren Peli: No. I wouldn’t say so though I don’t want to get into reveals, but the show keeps moving forward.

Crave Online: How much fun did you and the producers have creating different creatures?

Oren Peli: In many ways, what we ended up going for is actual folklore, actual stories that local tribesmen and people that have been living in that region have believed in for hundreds and thousands of years. That became the inspiration to a lot of the stuff. We’d be reading the stuff and going, “This is amazing. This is a whole episode right here.” And we would take this local folklore and integrate it into our episode, so it was a great process.

Crave Online: Did it expand your knowledge of the supernatural mythology world?

Oren Peli: To some degree. There are definitely some things that we read about and learned that we didn’t know of before. It’s stuff that people there take very seriously so for them it’s not just fun entertainment. For them it’s very real stuff that we’re messing with.

Crave Online: Were you always interested in the supernatural before "Paranormal Activity"?

Oren Peli: I wouldn’t say I was specifically interested in it but I would say that even though I’m sort of a skeptic and agnostic personally, it’s the kind of stuff that would always scare me, the concept that there might be something unknown and invisible, something you don’t know what it is and it’s trying to harm you and you don’t know how to defend yourself against it. It was something I always thought was very scary.

Crave Online: The documentary crew makes the found footage angle organic. Have you been frustrated with how that genre has evolved?

Oren Peli: It doesn’t frustrate me. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. I’m happy whenever it works and people hit a home run.

Crave Online: Were there pitfalls you learned doing "Paranormal Activity" that you’re now able to avoid on "The River"?

Oren Peli: Actually, with "Paranormal 1," I would say it went pretty smoothly so I’m actually very happy with the experience. I did learn that having the right cast is very important. That’s why we were very careful and took a lot of care into selecting the right cast here, so that they’re not only great actors in a traditional way but they also have this sense of freedom interacting that makes it feel like they’re not really acting.

They’re just going about their business and there happens to be a camera capturing it. So that’s very tricky to find people that can do that. That’s one of the main lessons and then just a lot of stuff about the camerawork, the way the camera has to film a shot organic and it shouldn’t feel too staged. So a lot of that stuff I feel like I know, stuff I learned from "Paranormal Activity" that we brought to "The River."


Crave Online: Even since "Paranormal 1," are there all sorts of new cameras you can use now?

Oren Peli: Well, now you can get a $1000 high definition camera and it’s going to look pretty good even on the big screen. We use really high quality cameras here because we did want to have the show look beautiful, and we can get away with it storywise because we’re saying the show is not being filmed by amateurs. It’s actually being filmed by a real documentary crew. So we did want to make sure that the show looks good on top of feeling natural.

Crave Online: As the producer of the franchise, how do you feel about the way Paramount’s been able to do a "Paranormal Activity" film every year, and they have plans for October again?

Oren Peli: I feel like we’ve been very lucky every year. I think Paramount’s doing a great job in producing the movie every year and in the marketing. It’s really all thanks to the fans that they come back every year, wanting to get scared again every Halloween and they want to learn about the story and the characters. So as long as we’re lucky enough to keep doing it, we’ll keep hopefully providing good scares for the fans.

Crave Online: Is there a point where you’ll decide you don’t want to overdo it or stretch it too thin, maybe we’ll take a break for a year or two?

Oren Peli: I don’t know, I think it all has to do with the [audience.] I mean, we heard people say after the first one, there was no need for a sequel and people came to see the sequel. Then people said, “Oh, well, two is enough. You definitely don’t need a third one.” Then we became the biggest horror movie opening of all time.

People say, “Oh, well, there’s definitely no need for a fourth one” but we’ll see. As long as the fans keep coming back, as long as they like the movies and they find them scary and stay engaged with the mythology, it makes sense to consider making more. When the fans tell us, “Okay, we’ve had enough” then we’ll probably stop.

Crave Online: What was the decision to hire Joost and Schulman again for "Paranormal Activity 4"?

Oren Peli: I’m not making any comments about "Paranormal 4."

Crave Online: What about plans to revisit the Insidious world?

Oren Peli: My personal philosophy is that until we officially announce something, then I keep my mouth shut and don’t mention anything.

Crave Online: So how much of your time is dominated by "The River"?

Oren Peli: These days it’s getting busier, mostly because of the publicity and romotions and getting ready. So quite a bit these days.

Crave Online: How much are postproduction effects versus in camera?

Oren Peli: Not a lot. Most of the stuff is practical effects. Sometimes it’s simple things that we use special effects for like set extensions and birds flying in the background. A few times it’s for the scares but because of the nature of the show, a lot of the scares, you know, we don’t have CGI monsters or anything like that so we don’t need special effects for that kind of stuff. A lot of the time it’s just very simple practical effects and sound.

Crave Online: So the glimpses we saw of creatures in the pilot, were those actual things in the shot?

Oren Peli: In some cases it was, some cases it’s a hybrid.

Crave Online: Is 8 episodes the right number for you?

Oren Peli: For this season it felt like eight worked out pretty well for us. It felt like we created a very nice tight season. We packed a lot of great stuff into it and we feel like we have a very nice arc and so it works very nicely on its own.

Crave Online: What do you consider the successful horror television shows?

Oren Peli: Well, I think "X-Files" and "Lost" are a couple of shows, "Lost" I wouldn’t call necessarily a horror show but it definitely had a lot of supernatural and mysterious elements. I think the tricky balance, the most important thing more than the horror is to have a compelling story, compelling drama, a show about great characters that you care about and you want to come back every week to see what they’re up to.

On top of that you put in the scares and the horror and give them real dangers and put them in risk. When you strike the right balance I think that makes a good show.