Four years ago, Oren Peli’s cheap found-footage horror movie “Paranormal Activity” seemingly came out of nowhere to leave a mark on mainstream American cinema. The Israeli-born filmmaker’s debut put Peli on the map as a new voice in a genre suffering from homogenization due to endless “Saw” sequels. Riding the wave of his movie’s popularity, Peli helped produce two popular “Paranormal Activity” sequels while also making his way through the industry on other projects.
Now he’s managed to crack the TV arena as the creator of “The River,” an ABC drama that centers on missing outdoor explorer-turned-reality-TV-star Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood) whose 20-year silence appears to end when a beacon emerges from the dense Amazon where he disappeared. The show, which premiered last week and airs on Tuesdays at 9pm eastern, follows Cole’s family as they try to track him down.
Borrowing a page from “Paranormal Activity,” the program takes the form of footage created for a new reality show about the adventure, focusing on the family and other crew members on a boat drifting down the Amazon and discovering a trail of supernatural phenomena left in Cole’s wake. Peli spoke to Indiewire about making the transition from film to television and how it impacted his unique storytelling brand.
In 2008, you brought “Paranormal Activity” to Slamdance. Surely you didn’t anticipate that DreamWorks would buy this microbudget horror movie or that it would turn into a major Hollywood franchise. How have your expectations evolved since then?
Back then, all I was really hoping for was hoping to do was get “Paranormal Activity” released. We knew the movie played well, but I was just hoping for any type of limited release. I had faith that the audience word of mouth would spread, but I wasn’t thinking anything beyond that, especially not sequels. I usually just think about one project at a time. Even now, when I’m juggling several projects, I just try to do the best job I can with each project and beyond that, you can’t really plan, anyways, even if you wanted to.
You were a computer programmer before you made “Paranormal Activity.” Do you still feel a connection to that world?
No, not at all. I’m happy to be done with that. I’ve done my share of programming. I never want to program ever again.
When you were coming up with the idea of “The River,” did you think back to your original experience making “Paranormal Activity” or was this an entirely new trip for you?
Actually, the idea originated when we had an idea for a movie with a similar premise about a missing nature show host who vanished in the rainforest, where mysterious and dark things happen. We never went further with that, but when we were approached by Steven Spielberg and DreamWorks to come up with an idea for a TV show, we decided to adapt this. So it was a very different development path.
What was the process of expanding the idea for a single movie into an episodic series?
Originally, we didn’t even have a script; it was just a generic idea. Then, when we had a meeting with Michael Perry, who was writing “Paranormal Activity 2,” we told him the idea. He said that instead of making just one movie, make it the base of a show where each episode finds them discovering something else mysterious on the river. His analogy was that the boat is almost like the Star Trek Enterprise. They travel from place to place and run into a different situation in every episode. Beyond all that, it still has the overall mystery of what happened to the original crew, and what’s going on with all the weird supernatural phenomena. This keeps getting developed each week, but we felt like this particular location and setup allows us to do something crazy and scary each week.
How much of the overall mystery do you have figured out now? Do you know how the show ends?
Yeah, we know what the secrets are and how it will develop. There will be some conclusion and closure at the end of the first season, but if we’re lucky to go beyond that, we have a road map of our end game in future seasons.
Episodic television has embraced mysterious storytelling a lot recent years, as typified by the success of “Lost.” What’s your stance on the art of inviting audience speculation?
Well, we’re trying to walk a fine line where you’re trying to keep the mystery going but you don’t want to torture the audience too much. It’s always about finding the right balance between answering some questions and raising new ones to keep your story going. Hopefully we can find the right balance without frustrating the audience too much.
Given that it’s an American TV show set in South America, do you think it could work for an international audience?
We are following stories of characters from all over the world. We’ve done a lot of research into the mythology of local tribes. Any weird thing that we find that’s stranger than fiction, when it makes sense, we’ll use it for the show. We definitely had a global audience in mind. If you think about people like Steve Irwin–he was popular all over the world, not just in America and Australia. It’s not really an American show. It doesn’t take place in a U.S. city or in a police station. It’s in a place that’s very universally understood by everyone, and we have a very international cast–only one U.S. cast member on the show. So we hope that the show will have universal appeal.
Are you paying any attention to the ratings for the show?
I pay a lot of attention to box office because I understand it. TV ratings? I don’t know how to interpret them, since I’m new to TV, so I’m just going to wait for somebody to tell me.
You didn’t direct any episodes of “The River.” In fact, you haven’t had any directing credits since the original “Paranormal Activity.” Do you prefer now working as a writer-producer?
I’m producing quite a bit and I’m also in the process of setting up my next directing project, but so far I’m enjoying myself, so I can’t complain.
Wikipedia says you have three projects in preproduction.
Generally speaking, I don’t like to make any comments about any productions until they’re done, so I usually just have a blanked “no comment” policy.
Then let’s move beyond projects that might be happening to those we know definitely will. “Paranormal Activity 4” is on the way this year. Do you think that franchise will ever run its course?
Who knows? We go one movie at a time. After I did the first movie, I thought it would be impossible to make a sequel because it was never designed for one. I was as skeptical as everyone else until I heard the idea for “Paranormal Activity 2.” The idea of a prequel about Katie’s sister was really smart. When it did work, we wondered how we could pull it off again, and then we had this idea of revisiting the sisters as kids. That made sense. As long as the fans stick by us, we’ll consider making another one. Right now, we’re just concentrating on the fourth one.
At Sundance this year, there was a horror movie called “V/H/S” that gathered several found-footage horror shorts from different directors. And last weekend, the found-footage superhero movie “Chronicle” came out. Why do you think the found-footage genre is still so popular?
Personally, I like the format. I remember seeing “Blair Witch Project” for the first time and it blew my mind. I didn’t know that a movie could do that so effectively. And “Spinal Tap” worked so well as a comedy. I think it makes any format more accessible if it’s done right. I think it’s cool. For me, in the future, I’m going to try to direct more traditional movies rather than found footage.