In some ways, it’s kind of amazing that Paranormal Activity creator Oren Peli even has time to conduct interviews. The creator of the microbudgeted phenomenon (the fourth instalment of which hits theatres later this year and he has remained extremely tight lipped about) has parlayed his success into becoming quite a sought after producer and writer that has no fewer than six projects on the table with him working in various capacities.
This weekend finds Peli moving away from the found footage concept that his biggest hit was based around (as well as the short lived ABC series The River) to produce and provide the screenplay for director Brad Parker’s debut film Chernobyl Diaries, a more documentary styled tale of several American friends and a pair of Aussies who get more than they bargained for when travelling to the ruins of Pripyat in the Ukraine on an “extreme tourism” excursion to the town abandoned in the 1980s by the meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.
Peli sat down with Dork Shelf while in Toronto about balancing his work load, stepping out from behind the camera to produce, and why you should always make sure you have the rights to any and all potential artwork before you shoot a film.
How did the idea for setting a film at Chernobyl come about?
It happened rather accidentally. I was browsing the web one day and I came across these photo blogs of people who actually went on tours in Pripyat. I had known about the Chernobyl disaster, of course, but I didn’t know that there was this town next to it – which makes sense since this is where the workers for the plant lived – that was abandoned over night and it just became a ghost town. When something like that usually happens, for economical reasons people will normally stop to pick up their things first and then go, but here no one had a chance to pick up anything when they left. It was like everyone vanished. There was definitely this post-Apocalyptic feel to it. In addition, there’s such strange growth of vegetation there that it’s become one of the eeriest places on Earth. That was why I thought this would make such a great setting for a horror movie.
Did you ever get a chance to visit Pripyat or would you want to?
It’s funny because not only did I want to visit it, but we were actually thinking of shooting it there because it could make the production cheaper since we already had the locations there. (laughs) Why not? And the initial research that we had done told us that the levels of radiation there aren’t that bad, actually, and if you’re there long enough and for a certain period of time that you’re going to be okay. Unless, of course, you’re there for days and weeks at a time non-stop. There wasn’t going to be a problem. It’s a real thing that people go there on trips. You can go on YouTube and search for Pripyat.
But the only main reason we didn’t shoot there was because in 2011 and for most of the year the Ukrainian government stopped allowing people to go in because of construction on the reactor. We tried really hard to pull strings, but they just wouldn’t let us in, so we had to find a Plan B. HOWEVER, the one thing that we did find out while we were already shooting on set in Serbia was something really interesting from a nuclear researcher that said it was true that you could hold a Geiger counter in the air and it would show that the radiation in the air was negligible and safe, but if you were walking around and there just so happened to be a patch of dust on the ground that you kick up and one of those particles happens to still be radioactive, you’ll breathe it in and it gets lodged in your lungs and you could get really ill. That’s when it felt good that we skipped the whole idea of a trip. (laughs)
Where did you finally end up shooting to make it look like it could have been this ghost town?
We found this great location in Hungary that was once a military facility in the 70s around the same time that Pripyat was built that had been abandoned by the Soviets in the mid-80s around the same time that Pripyat was abandoned. It had very similar architecture and a very similar level of decay. It was already a great basis point.
But the best part of shooting there was that Brad Parker could look at every location and say that certain spots would work perfect for certain scenes and what spots we could make look right later in post by using visual effects. He could visualize everything perfectly so we could flow from one location to another without telling what scenes have visual effects and which ones are practical. It all looks very similar from Hungary to Serbia where we filmed. No one would suspect the hard work we went through because we wanted to make Pripyat the main character in the movie and we wanted to be as faithful as possible to recreating it as closely as we could.
On one of the walls of one of the buildings, there’s a really amazing mural of a scientist on the side of a building. Was that something that was there originally?
That’s actually a story that was really heartbreaking for us, and I think this is the first time I’m telling it. What we did was that we had our art designers paint this mural on the side of the building that had been there originally. It was really expensive and time consuming to restore, but we loved it and it ended up being in the background of most of the shots. Then, very, very late in the process when we had about a week to deliver the movie, someone said “Are you sure you have clearance for that particular image?” (laughs) And we we’re just, like, “Um… Yeah, we were told that it’s… um, fine.”
Then we actually did look into it and we realized that the artist is alive and someone didn’t double check everything and it was done by this German artist who’s now in his late 70s. We had to then hire an attorney in German to track him down through an art gallery and contact him and ask if we could use his image, and he said NO. We tried to see what we could pay him and he still said no, no, no. He didn’t want it to be used at all. So at the last minute, we had to commission an artist to draw a new image and use CGI to replace it in the background of every shot. So that was one of the biggest near heartattacks during the production because we didn’t think we would be able to release the movie. Luckily we had a fantastic visual effects company, so they did it so seamless that no one would ever expect it. What you saw that looks so good was actually drawn by a friend of Brad Parker in a little more than one day.
This is Brad Parker’s first film as a director coming from a visual effects background, but you still wrote the film. Did you feel it was important to have a different set of eyes with a different set of design skills to bring the film to life?
Well, for many years now Brad has been doing some of the most recognizable commercials that you’ve seen. They were already mini-movies, so we already knew that he was an expert at the top of his game, but it’s true that he’s a first time director. We had to make sure that we were comfortable with him.
My producer Brian Witten and I met with him many, many times, and we just loved him as a person and we thought there was a lot of confidence in his abilities. We just had to make sure that we were all on the same page when it comes to working with the actors more than the visuals because we wanted to do some things that were really unconventional. The fact that he hasn’t been spoiled by “traditional movies” makes him very open minded to the unique ways we wanted to shoot the movie. We found out that he was very much a visionary filmmaker with a strong visual sense, and when we told him the way we wanted to go about making the movie so that it doesn’t feel like a typical horror movie, he came to us with a lot of really great ideas of how to make that possible, so that gave us a lot of confidence in him from the beginning.
The style of the film is quite different structurally from the Paranormal Activity movies. Was it a bit of a leap to making something that has to be a lot more directed and narrative oriented?
It’s true because this one’s not found footage. The best way to describe it would be that it’s halfway between found footage and a traditional movie. There’s a much greater sense of narrative, but at the same time we allow the actors to improvise a lot of the dialogue and we employ a more stealthy style of shooting. Just about every minute of the movie is still handheld, but it’s done this time by professional cameramen. It’s still shaky, but we wanted you to feel like you were actually going on a journey with these people as opposed to just watching actors reading lines. It was important to keep the actions really visceral and real and authentic.
It’s also your first film where the camera doesn’t function as a character in the movie.
True, but it’s not that much of a leap, really. Early on in production we thought for a moment that it was going to be a found footage film, but after a while we realized that it was going to stop making sense if we did it that way. It wouldn’t work and we dropped it immediately and we said that there’s been a lot of movies that have done this kind of style that have worked really well, like if you look at some of the earlier Paul Greengrass films and movies like Traffic, Children of Men, The Wrestler… these films aren’t pretending they’re found footage movies, but there’s something about them that’s really different from traditional movies. They don’t feel very polished. They feel raw and gritty and dirty in a good way that makes them feel a lot more visceral. That was sort of our guideline for how we were going to approach making Chernobyl Diaries. It still makes you feel connected to the characters without having to go in the directions that I had in the past.
The film definitely has this almost documentary and even video game influence to it with this third person floating camera aesthetic, and you used to work in software and game design, so were you ever making these conscious decisions when you were setting up the film?
If I did, it wasn’t really consciously, and I would really give a lot of the credit there to Brad and our cinematographer Morton Soborg, who was also the full time camera operator. He just shot In a Better World, which won the Oscar for best foreign film, before he came to us, so he was amazing. The main thing for us was to make those movements feel very free and unorchestrated. We never wanted to make it look like we planned anything with actors going from Mark X to Mark Y. We wanted it to always be sort of random.
Sound design has always played a huge role in all your work from producing to directing with the sound often coming before the visual payoff.
I heard while I was making the first Paranormal Activity that sound was 70% of what you end up seeing., and I believe that a really collaborative use of sound can be way more effective than anything you see. So you have these moments where you don’t really see anything – it’s darkness – and you hear a noise far away. It’s not even that you really know what the noise is or that you think the noise is even something threatening. Just the fact that you hear something clattering nearby when there’s not supposed to be anyone else there can be really scary.
It’s a really tricky matter to deal with sound and we take it very seriously. Our sound mixer on set was someone who just won an Oscar for The Hurt Locker, and we had another amazing sound designer from ILM who did some great work. Then we had this CRAZY guy, his name was Diego Stocco who did our music, or score if you can even call it that. It’s not really even music in the traditional sense, but he has all of these broken instruments that he takes these violins and pianos and he just bashes them to try to create very weird and discomforting melodies instead of a soundtrack, because we never really wanted people think there was actually music there. We wanted them to think that it was all blending in from the environment and the atmosphere. It becomes a very, very delicate process, and sometimes it’s even accidental, but a huge part of these kinds of movies is making sure everything sounds right.
It seems like a harder concept for a writer to convey than it would be for a director.
There’s no real trick to it. To me, the essence of the movie was people who find themselves way over their heads and trapped in a town in a foreign country where no one’s going to help them and there’s no way of getting out and you can’t stay there for too long sue to the threat of radiation. These people kind of have to wait it out while there’s this whole other thing to worry about that you don’t know what it is or how to defend yourself against it. That was the main thing to convey in the script. From there, you kind of work yourself backwards to creating characters that feel real and we get to know and like them. Then you move forward to figure out how they are going to try and get out of there based on who they are as people. You just keep going after it time after time over a period of months until eventually something that looks like story emerges.
Are there any plans for a sequel or will this be a stand alone film?
You know, I never think beyond one movie at a time, and when I did the first Paranormal Activity I never could have dreamed there was going to be a second, third, or fourth one. So you never know. We should be so lucky that the film should be successful enough on its own, but at this point we’re not thinking at all beyond the first one.
You have quite a bit on your plate right now and you’re starting to become quite a sought after producer with your hands in a lot of things. Did you ever dream that you would get to this point and do you see yourself doing more writing and producing in the future rather than directing?
Like I said before, I never looked past the first Paranormal Activity. I was just hoping that it would get out there and do well. It performed beyond my wildest dreams and everything that’s happened beyond that is just bonus. To think that I could write and still be given the opportunities to make movies like this is awesome and I feel like the luckiest guy.
As far as the future, I really don’t know. I never really thought I would ever get to make something like Chernobyl Diaries, let alone write and produce it. Sometimes it might make more sense for me to direct a movie and other times I may just produce, but I’m just going to take it as it comes and goes.
So you’re not going to talk about what Paranormal Activity 4 is going to be about, are you?
(laughs) I’m really sorry, but I can’t help you. You’re just going to have to wait and see. (laughs)