Senior HTF Member
- Nov 15, 2001
- Real Name
- Neil Middlemiss
Writer, producer and director Oren Peli’s career has explored the horror genre from several angles. Creator of the Paranormal Activity series, he has embraced the ‘found footage’ approach for his ghostly tales, produced the enormously popular Insidious films, created the short-lived found-footage ABC series, The River, and explored the hidden, horrific alien secrets in 2015’s Area 51. Oren Peli spoke to Home Theater Forum shortly before the holidays to talk about the wrapping up of the Paranormal Activity franchise, and gave his perspective on what can make the ‘found footage’ approach in films succeed and fail.
Paranormal Activity: Ghost Dimension is available on Blu-ray from Paramount Home Entertainment on January 12, 2016, and is available on all major digital retailers now.
HTF: Talk about the challenge of wrapping up the franchise that Paranormal Activity became, and then, tell me, were you surprised that a franchise was born out of the movie that you started back in 2007?
Oren Peli: Let's start with the second part of the question, which is, absolutely. As I was making the first movie, I didn't even know if it was going to be a movie or just a home video that I'm making as an experiment in my house. So having the first movie have a real release from a real studio and becoming a phenomenon was beyond my wildest dreams already. And then to have one sequel, and another and another, it all became really, really crazy and surreal. So it definitely went beyond what anyone, including myself - especially myself -could have possibly imagined.
And as far as how to wrap it up, that's definitely a challenge because as the franchise evolved, it was becoming a challenge. How do you stay true to what the fans were responding to in the first movie and in the second, but also offering something new and continuing to evolve the mythology? So we feel like we did a fairly good job. We had a few maybe [hits and misses]. Some sequels work better than others. And then when it came to do the last one, the challenge was, okay, how do we try to answer as many questions as we can, and also create a movie that would work on its own, will be true to the franchise, but also offer something new? Like a new reason for people to come to the series or to rent it at home, which was the Ghost Dimension, the idea that we're actually going to have a visual component that was never before in any of the other sequels.
HTF: And that is the key difference here. The visual effects work from ILM predominantly really stood out and I think gave it another dimension, if you'll pardon the pun. That I found really interesting for the last film. And they were really interesting visual effects too, as it was more curiously kind of morbid and scary visual effects work, which I think added to the final film. With any franchise there's typically fatigue. I noticed this from the 80s films in particular, that there's a desire of an audience to relive something that they got out of the first film or few films, but then, one other side of the audience starts to feel a little like “you're not giving me enough new”. So, is it hard to bring people back for sequels to give them what they love about the previous movies, but to find that new angle that gives them something fresh and different, a reason for the sequel to be?
Oren Peli: Yeah. You're totally right, and that's something-- the term, franchise fatigue was definitely something we've had to deal with. You're not going to be able to make so many sequels and have the same audience coming back all the time. So you want to, as much as you can, keep the core fans happy and satisfied. And for that, you first of all have to try to make sure that the movie stand on its own, and it's scary, and engaging, and something exciting when it needs to be, but also that it's consistent with the mythology that you've created so far, so people become engaged in the story. And also, once we figured out the theme, which was I think, after Paranormal 2, we said, "Okay, let's try to come up with a more concrete foundation for our mythology." And we were serving it with every sequel until the Ghost Dimension; we said, "Okay, well, this is when we wrap it up." Because definitely it's hard to find the right balance between offering something new and not going too crazy and alienating the core fans. That's something that we always struggle with and modulate as we go.
HTF: Paranormal Activity, in its sequels, they take incredible advantage of the simplicity of the premise. There are scary or bizarre things caught on camera by those living in the house, and it's like a small play, almost. The location's tight. The photography's necessarily tight given the found footage or the filming approach. The scares and jumps come from that lulling sense, where you’re not sure what you are looking for; you're scanning the frame for a movement, and then something can launch at the screen or zip by the screen and that's where the jump or the scare comes from. And there's that very careful audio manipulation as well. But horror films tend to be low-budget, high-return, and when they work, they're terrific. They find originality in the horror genre, but it can be hard to be original in the genre. I think Paranormal Activity managed to that. It managed to take what had largely started with Blair Witch Project and found a new, clever way - with the camera setup and still positions as it monitors the house - a very clever way to scare people. Is that the fun that you had with this premise? With seeing what you could do, how you could bend expectations and surprise people given the limitations, as it were, of that filming approach?
Oren Peli: Absolutely, and you nailed it right on the head when you mentioned the Blair Witch Project, because if it weren't for that film, I can tell you for sure there would be no Paranormal Activity. When I went to see Blair Witch Project, I'd already done my research on the Internet so I knew it wasn't real, and I read all about how they filmed it and everything. But it was still so effective as I was watching it because even though I knew it wasn't real, it felt real. The way they got away with creating such a sense of dread and terror, with low budget, with basically just three characters in the woods with no real set design, no monsters. You don't ever see anything; you just hear things and you let your imagination play tricks with you. It was so effective, and plus the fact that I realized as well so just about anyone can buy a video camera and make a movie. And it never occurred to me that you can make a movie this way.
So it has to go through the studio system; you have to raise millions of dollars. So after I watched the Blair Witch Project, I kind of thought to myself, "This is so awesome, if I ever have any idea for a movie, I might give it a shot." And it wasn't until many years later that I had the idea for Paranormal Activity. And back then, it was stuff like when Saw and all these torture-porn movies were all the rage. I said, "You know what, the movie I'm going to make is going to be the total opposite: there's not going to be any blood, any gore; in fact, you're not even going to see the monster, “the demon”. We're just going to play tricks on your mind with seeing things move and hearing some sounds, but it's all going to be very, very subtle compared to what the audience is used to." Because I thought if Blair Witch worked then, this can work now. And I was very glad to see that much of the audience responding the way that I was hoping they would and embrace the style.
HTF: No, they absolutely did. And I scare very easily [chuckles], but I love horror film. And Blair Witch Project terrified me. I'm surprised I saw that in the theatre. And Paranormal Activity scared me. I don't get scared at the Saw movies; I'm just typically grossed out by them. But the found-footage approach has been somewhat maligned, unfairly, I think. There have been some bad found footage movies, but the batting average, I would say, is no lower than any other genre with films. But looking back over some of the better ones that had been made, Cloverfield, Exists was actually a very good one. And I was excited when ABC picked up The River, and I interested to see how this would exist in the television medium. But the numbers just weren't there for ABC to continue apparently. So I'm wondering where you see this style of film making, where it can go next, or where it should go next? Or do you think there's a pause happening right now and perhaps it will come back again after a little time?
Oren Peli: First of all, it's really hard to say. There's no way that I can predict anything. I personally love found footage when it's done well. The good thing about found footage is that anyone - like I did or The Blair Witch guys did - anyone can buy a video camera and make their own movie. The bad thing about found footage is that anyone can buy a video camera and make a movie [laughter]. A lot of times they can end up being not so great. And a lot of times studios, they see dollar signs and will say, "Oh, why are we spending $50 million on a movie? We can just make a low-budget found footage movie for three or five million dollars. How hard can it be?" And then they make really, really crappy movies. They push them real hard with marketing campaign. People go to the movie, and then they're like, "Oh, this movie sucked." And then they say partially or entirely because it was found footage, and that gives found footage a bad name.
So I do think that good found footage can work really well, and occasionally there are good found footage movies that are being released, but the problem is I think there has been a lot of found footage movies that simply are done very hastily, or they just don't respect the rules of found footage. I think found footage-- it's like being pregnant: either you are or you're not, you can't do it half way. So, if you commit to doing something with found footage, let it feel as natural as you can. You can't put mics on actors, have them be 200 feet away and zoom in on them, and then you hear them crystal clear because they have mics on them. So those kind of things, even if the audience is aware of them or not, just doesn't register as true. And if the film makers don't respect the found footage formula then the audience won't.
HTF: I got the chance to speak to Dean Israelite earlier this year who directed Project Almanac which uses the found footage approach. He talked about the challenge of creating an interesting visual mosaic using that approach, how the characters within the frame will move the camera and the different camera sources; that is was choreographed, like a dance. That was a visual-effects heavy film which may have contributed to it. But you've had the chance to obviously work with the found footage approach, and you've produced the Insidious movies which takes a more traditionally photographed approach. I can surmise that the choice of approach is either born out of the screenplay, or the story will dictate which filming method you take, but what else goes into the decision on what approach that you'll take for filming a piece? And how difficult is it to come up with the right ways that make sense for the camera to be pointing where it's supposed to point? Is that a difficult dance with the found footage format?
Oren Peli: Yes, but for reasons opposite of what you described. With the exception of the iconic start of Paranormal Activity, which is the bedroom start, which then will be the start we keep coming back to again and again. And I spent a lot of time trying to figure out the right angle, the right lens, and the right lightings to make sure that all the different gags that I want to do will work. So I spent a lot of time figuring out that particular shot. Everything else has to be motivated by the characters, not by the cinematographer because there is no cinematographer. The point of the found footage formula is to make you not be aware that there is a director or a writer or a DP. You need to get sucked into the world of the characters and believe that they're really filming it. And their motivation is not to create beautiful shots or to have choreography of the camera. It's supposed to just look real. And in fact, when we filmed Paranormal Activity, Micah [Sloat] had background as a cameraman. He was a cameraman in his college; they were doing like TV shows or something like that. And he ended up getting shots that were two beautifully framed.
He would become more a cameraman than a character when he was interacting with Katie, and kept looking at the footage. And I told him, "The footage looks too good; it doesn't look like just something that some random dude would use." So I told him, "You have to close the viewfinder on the camera and just not look at the camera, and just point it in Katie's general direction so that the footage will look not as good as you were." And it worked. Because otherwise, things just looked real. So, that's one of my problems: when I watch found footage movies and it just doesn't look like a found footage movie, I don't believe that an actor is holding the camera. I know that a cameraman is, and I see that everything is so beautifully lit. Yeah, it may look good, but it takes me out of the found footage movie, and it kind of and it kind of makes me more detached and loses all credibility.
HTF: What has been your scariest horror movie experience over the last few years and where do you think the horror genre needs to go?
Oren Peli: I would say the two movies that have actually had an effect on me were Babadook and It Follows. They had kind of like a subtlety about them and they didn't rely on jump scares or on visual gigs or anything like that. Those were the two movies that I like the most over the few last years. I don't know where movies -- where horror movies are going to go. It's impossible for me to say. I know that there is a lot of people, actually, now anyone can make a cheap horror movie. So there's probably going to be very smart and creative people who are going to make things that we never anticipated and never dreamed of, and I'm just excited to see what people are going to do. And just whatever it is, I hope it's going to be something new and creative.
HTF: I agree. Well, thanks very much for speaking with me today
Oren Peli: No problem
HTF: All the best to you
Oren Peli: Thank you. Thank you. My pleasure