(This interview was originally posted on Cinematical)
Two years ago a man named Oren Peli decided to make a movie. He didn't know exactly how, but he knew he had a good premise, and he knew he had some helpful friends, so he spent roughly $15,000, hired a few actors and then spent a mere seven days filming in his own home. What came out of that was Paranormal Activity, a haunted-house labor of love that barely made its way around the festival circuit before being purchased by DreamWorks (only after Steven Spielberg reportedly experienced some paranormal activity of his own after watching a DVD of the film by himself).
The studio's initial plan was to buy the film with the intent of having Peli remake it, but reactions to a test screening intended to attract new writing talent were so strong, the producers at DreamWorks decided that trying to bottle lightning twice was pointless. The film was slated for release in 2008, but got delayed due to an internal conflict between DreamWorks and Paramount. But studio politics couldn't hold the film back forever, not when calculated screenings at events like Fantastic Fest yielded monster buzz and sold out midnight showings.
Now after an unprecedented launch campaign in which fans literally got to demand that the film play near them, Paramount is ready to roll out Oren Peli's Paranormal Activity nationwide, a film I feel safe calling the scariest I've seen in years.
Cinematical: What is your background pre-Paranormal Activity? And how did you lead up to it?
Oren Peli: By trade, I am a software programmer, so I never really had any experience with movies before. I started out with Paranormal Activity.
So this was your very first stab at filmmaking?
Yes, pretty much, I never even made shorts or anything like that.
Do you think there is anything inherent to a technical background that lends your abilities to filmmaking? For example, Shane Carruth is another filmmaker who came from being an engineer to make Primer, one of the last great groundswell movies before Paranormal Activity, on a similar budget and scale.
I think there might be, I've always been very comfortable with computers and software, so one thing that's made my life easier is the fact that I was very quickly able to figure out how to edit the movie, how to do the audio mixing, and the CGI that's in the movie. So in that aspect my background definitely helped me with the technical aspects, just being very comfortable working with the camera equipment...it all came very natural to me.
Can you describe the fears that paved the way for Paranormal Activity and why you decided to film it in your own house?
When I moved into my house, it was the first time I lived in a detached family home as opposed to an apartment, and it's in a very quiet, suburban neighborhood. So you become very conscious of every little sound you hear because you don't have any neighbors above the walls, basically you're not supposed to hear anything. When you do hear little creaks and knocks and stuff like that, you wonder what's going on. I'm sure most of it was natural sounds of the house settling, but every once in a while you would hear things that would be weird and you couldn't figure out where they are.
That's kind of what made me think how I would go about trying to figure out what's going on and being the techno-geek that I am, my initial inclination would be to get video cameras and set them up around the house to see what was going on. I didn't actually go ahead and do that, but that's what started making me think how freaky it would be if you had cameras running at home while you sleep and actually did catch something.
When you decided to take that premise and turn it into a movie, did you go all on your own or did you talk to friends or try to bring in producers?
Basically the entire crew for the original shoot of the movie was myself, my best friend Amir that I've known since I was 13 and my girlfriend I was living with at the time, and she became a reluctant helper because we didn't have a set and were shooting the movie at home, but she did help a lot in every aspect of production. The only thing I couldn't figure out how to do on my own was make-up, so I did hire a make-up artist. But that was basically the entire crew.
Did Micah actually operate the camera himself? Was he the impromptu camera man?
He was shooting most of the movie, though in a few scenes Katie was actually operating the camera. Most of the other time the camera is either stationary on the tripod in the bedroom or sitting on the kitchen counter etcetera.
Do you still actually live in the house?
Has anything creepy happened in it?
Nope, not at all.
Your first draft of the movie was done in 2007. As far as your involvement since then has there been much refinement or has the film been mainly just sitting?
There has been some editing after a few test screening results in order to make the film a bit quicker and shorter, as we had some issues with pacing. So we tried to fix them, hopefully we did. That was the main part of it. Also, we shot the ending. That was the only real significant change.
I've heard varying numbers as to how many alternate endings there are. How many did you actually film?
Well I filmed a whole bunch, but most of them no one has ever seen, they were just for my own options. There was one ending that was shown at some festivals, and then another ending that was shown publicly only the one time. And then the current ending, which we've had for more than a year now.
Can you explain what those other two endings were or is that something we'll see find out later? [Possible Spoiler Alert]
The original ending... I'll just say very briefly, the movie ends with cops entering the house to find the scene of the crime. The other one...there's been some talks about it on the internet, but I'd like to keep quiet on it for now. Maybe one day we'll see them all on the special edition DVD.
How much raw footage did you actually film and how long did it take you to edit it all down?
Probably close to 70 hours; it was a lot. There were also some nights we just had the cameras rolling non-stop. It took about 10-months I would say to edit.
What was your approach to maintaining tension and the audience's interest with just 2 people and 1 camera?
It was very difficult to begin with having just two characters and one location, so I knew it would be a challenge. We just had to be sure the nights were progressively creepy and that there are enough interesting things happening during the day that actually contribute and weave threads into the plot that progress it so that the following nights have new meanings, particularly to what happened the previous day. It was very tricky, which is why it took so long to edit the movie.
Once it was picked up for distribution, were there any other reshoots other than the ending?
There were a couple of little things that came up on their own that weren't suggested by DreamWorks and some were a little suggested as areas of improvement, so we shot them and they turned out great and now they're in the movie. The ending was the one thing we had a lot of criticism about from the original version, so we knew we wanted to come up with something a little bit better.
Is it true that the new ending was heavily influenced by Steven Spielberg? One of the rumors going around the Internet is that after having seen it, he had to bring the film back to the studio in a trash bag. Have you heard anything about that?
Yeah, in fact I heard that story immediately after it happened, which was a couple of days after he saw the movie. So the whole story about how the doors to his bedroom got locked from the inside... personally I believe it. It's not something the marketing department just came up with before releasing the movie, I actually heard it a year and a half ago.
And yeah, the ending was suggested by Spielberg.
Have you two talked about other projects. I know when the Paranormal Activity remake was being considered you were on that, but have you guys brainstormed anything else.
I will say that anything that has to do with my future projects, I usually prefer to remain tight lipped, so I like as few people as possible knowing about it and when it's done, we'll show it to the world.
I'm assuming the answer is just great, but how does it feel to have people lining up around the block to volunteer themselves for sleepless nights thanks to Paranormal Activity?
Great! It's very rewarding to see the fans embracing the movie. This is totally a fan driven movie, because if it wasn't for the fans, we wouldn't be talking right now. This movie was launched by Paramount in a way that really allows fans to decide whether or not they want the movie to be released and where.
So if it weren't for the fans demanding the movie and saying "We want it to play in our home town" and if it weren't for the fans spreading the good word online in forums or on Twitter, the movie probably wouldn't have gotten anywhere. But because they've been so supportive and so generous and so flattering to the movie, that's why it's expanding everywhere next weekend.
What's your preferred brand of horror? Paranormal Activity is definitely a slow, restrained burn, and it works so well, do you have any intentions of going the more Hollywood, over-the-top route in the future?
Personally I like the slow burn; I don't think there is anything wrong with it. When I think about the movies that were most effective on me as a viewer I think of the original Haunting and the Exorcist, Rosemary's Baby, the Sixth Sense, the Others. These movies are not over the top at all, they are movies that rely on good story telling, good acting, good premise, good exposition and I want to stay true to that in future projects.
I know you don't want to give away too much about your next film, Area 51, but is there any forewarning you can give someone like me, someone who had childhood nightmare's about alien abductions?
Well I don't want to get into any details about Area 51, but I will say that one of the scenes from a movie that freaked me out the most as a kid – other than the Exorcist, which the whole thing freaks me out – but I remember as a kid watching the abduction scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind and it definitely left an imprint on me.
Paranormal Activity still needs some help in reaching its goal of one million demands before Paramount releases it nationwide, so head on over and demand that this film screen in your neck of the woods today.