Exclusive: Director Oren Peli Talks Paranormal Activity

Two words are on the lips of lots of horror fans this Halloween season and they’re not “remakes suck”, “PG13 blows”, or “Saw VI“. They are Paranormal Activity” (review here). Recently we sat down with director Oren Peli for an in-depth talk about the film, the phenomenon, and even the potential sequel.

Uncle Creepy: So here we are. It’s over two years since the film has been completed. The movie is finally in theatres courtesy of Paramount, and now that the film is out there, as I suspected there would be, there’s a lot of hype surrounding the film.

Oren Peli: “Well, we kind of had a feeling that people were digging the movie way back when it was first released to festivals like Screamfest LA and Slamdance. People were really responding well to it. Then we had a few other test screenings at a few other festivals, but what’s been happening for the last few weeks has been really insane and really out of control. I think what’s happening is that we’re getting a lot of people who really dig the movie, and they’re giving it a lot of good reviews. People who love the film are crazy about it. They say it’s one of the scariest movies they’ve seen and all kinds of stuff. They tweet about it, they blog about it, and other folks are seeing all of this positive buzz. Naturally they say to themselves, ‘Oh, this has got to be just hype.’ Fortunately, most of the people who had been thinking that way have ended up having a really good time. Not all of them certainly as you cannot please everyone.”

UC: What was it like for you watching your movie in packed theatres with crowds?

OP: “When I watch the film in theatres, that’s the only time I’m scared! But not because of the movie! I’m scared of the audience! *laughs* Is it playing well? Are they into it? Are they scared by it? I’m usually really stressed until about halfway into the film. By around then I can usually tell how well it’s playing.”

UC: I’ve seen the flick now a few times in theatres, and each time it has knocked the ball right out of the park. That’s gotta be a really gratifying feeling for you.

OP: “Yes. Just to know that the fans are enjoying themselves and hearing their emotions along with a few screams, moans, and groans … that’s really the best part of it.”

UC: It’s been a really long road to get the movie here. A lot of tinkering on your part, a lot of different endings. Can you talk about the different endings yet?

Paranormal Activity (click for larger image)OP: “Well, the original version of the movie had an ending that screened in a few festivals, and most people generally said that they liked it. The ending was never a big problem, but it was identified as something that we should try to work on. When Dreamworks got involved after they dropped the remake idea, we decided to tinker with the ending to see if we could come up with something better. We had a few ideas and ‘surprisingly’ the idea that came from Steven Spielberg ended up testing really, really well. People loved it. They went crazy for it, so the choice became really easy as far as using it.”

UC: So the ending in theatres now is the Spielberg recommended one?

OP: “Yes.”

UC: How many endings were there? How many did you film? How many different concepts did you have?

OP: “I don’t even want to say how many I filmed. *laughs* We tried a whole bunch of stuff. As far as actually shown publicly? There’s the current one, the original one, and one other ending which we screened once that some people loved and others thought was very inappropriate, but maybe they will all make their way to the DVD and Blu-ray.”

Editor’s note: Said inappropriate one was my favorite! It just figures!

UC: Now this Spielberg incident has gotten a lot of buzz. There was some incident that happened to him while watching the movie? Tell us what really happened.

OP: “I heard about this story just a couple of days after it happened. It was long ago so I can assure you this isn’t something Paramount made up to help the marketing. Here is what I heard — After Spielberg watched the movie, the door to his bedroom somehow became locked from the inside, and he couldn’t get back into it. There was no way to unlock it because there was no way it could have become locked to begin with. He ended up having to call a locksmith to remove the door, and once he got back into his bedroom, he looked at the DVD and said, ‘I don’t want this DVD in my house any longer!’ so he put it in a bag and got rid of it. So yeah, that’s the way that I heard it.”

UC: Man, what a happy accident for you!

OP: “YES! YES!” *both laugh*

UC: People are just responding so well to Paranormal Activity. It’s taken on a life of its own and has even shattered a couple of records already.

OP: “Yeah, I heard it broke the record for box office for amount made on less than two hundred screens and even came close to breaking a record per theatre average, but these things aren’t really my strong suit so I don’t know! *laughs* I know it did okay!”

UC: What is it about the movie that you think audiences are responding so well to?

OP: “I think it’s probably two things. A lot of people find it to be genuinely scary, and I think that’s because it taps into people’s fears of what happens around you at night when you are asleep. People have become very conscious of noises in their home once they’ve seen the movie, so it’s really getting under the viewers’ skin. The other reason I think that the movie is so effective is because of the realism of it thanks to the performances of Micah and Katie, who did such an amazing job being convincing as not only real people but as a real couple. They’re the reason people are getting much more into the movie than they would if it were scripted.”

UC: Tell us about the first time you met Katie and Micah.

Paranormal Activity (click for larger image)OP: “Well, we held auditions trying to find out if we could even find people who could pull this off. We knew it was going to be a very small cast, and honestly for the most part it’s just the two of them and a couple of other actors. Everything was filmed in one location, so it quickly became apparent that this was going to be a tall order. When Katie and Micah came in to see us, they immediately impressed us. We had a good feeling about them from the start. When we had the callbacks, we put them together as a couple. Then we asked them questions about, you know, tell us how long you’ve been together, tell us about your recent vacation, and how has this haunting affected you? They didn’t miss a beat. Without any preparation and despite the fact that they had only met like thirty seconds earlier, if you looked at that footage now, there would never be a doubt in your mind that they were anything less than a couple. There wasn’t even a hint of acting. They never hesitated. They were playful together how a real couple would be, and that’s when I was like, wow, this could actually work.”

UC: What type of research did you do for the film in terms of the haunting itself?

OP: “I spent probably about a year doing as much research as I could about hauntings and possessions and demons and demonology. I watched A LOT of movies and TV shows, both fictitious and fact based. I read books, I did a lot of research on the Internet, reading websites and going through people’s personal accounts. So I started getting a really clear and well rounded perspective on what it’s like to believe that you are being haunted by either a demon or a spirit. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out the differences in terms of hauntings between ghosts and demons, which I tried to make a good point of explaining. I needed to become basically sort of a theoretical expert on the issue, and in order to make things the right way, I had to do so to the best of my ability.”

UC: In Paranormal Activity you spend a lot of time building up the sense of dread before throwing your knock-out punches. How important was it for you to do that?

OP: “It was very difficult. I spent an unbelievable amount of time just editing and tweaking the pacing, and I tried to just rely on my instincts. For this movie to work, I needed to let the audience connect with the characters and buy into what was happening to them. While Katie and Micah were experiencing the same thing, it was from two totally different perspectives, and everyone seeing it in the audience will see it from a different angle, too. To be effective, everyone — Katie, Micah, and the audience — had to reach the same point together. I didn’t want them to rush into things too soon. If I just started showing crazy shit happening right away, it would have ended up kind of cheesy. It was important to take enough time for people to get into the plot along with the characters.”

UC: So what did you think about the proposed remake idea?

OP: “Well, I was conflicted about it. On one hand you get an opportunity to direct a movie for Dreamworks, and that’s something most people would kill for. Whether or not it’s your own movie or even something else, when you get a chance to direct a movie for Steven Spielberg, that’s just one of the most amazing things that you can be offered. But at the same time we never gave up hope on releasing the original film. Part of the original deal was that if we did the remake, the original cut of the film was going to get some really nice treatment on DVD, and the other part was that they would at least test screen it. We felt deep down inside before plans for the remake were even put in motion that if we were to have a good public screening in front of the Dreamworks executives, they would decide to maybe release the film as is. Thankfully that’s exactly what happened.”

UC: On to the marketing. When the idea first came up about the Demand It promotion, did you ever anticipate that it would work as well as it did?

OP: “It was a little bit risky. Demand It works really well for music in terms of getting concerts to your town, but it had never been tried for anything other than bands. We thought it probably could work because the movie usually plays well with great word of mouth afterwards. We felt that if these people had an outlet to spread the noise around, they could feel a sense of ownership of bringing the flick to their city. No one thought it would work as well as it did. Paramount probably suspected that we’d get to one million requests sometime but not as quickly as it did.”

UC: Now that the movie has become a phenomenon, it’s pretty much inevitable that sequel talk starts swirling around. Have you given that idea any thought?

OP: “It’s my policy for me and for the studio to not talk about future projects just yet. That being said, there’s a lot of misinformation out there right now. Most of what people are reading nowadays concerning a sequel is just speculation.

I do, however, want to take a moment to thank Dread Central and its readers. You guys gave us our first review and kept the movie on everyone’s lips while we were busy readying it for release. I’m never going to forget that. We’ll always have a special place in our hearts for DC. It it weren’t for you guys and all the fans everywhere, we wouldn’t even be here, so thank you!”

Many thanks to Oren for taking some time to chat with us. Make sure you are following @TweetYourScream on Twitter and have joined the official Paranormal Activity Facebook fan page!

Uncle Creepy

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  • rupp30

    i just got back from watching this a fourth time and jesus, every screening i have been to has been sold out. in wichita kansas! oh i can only imagine how it’s doing everywhere else especially after beating out saw VI. we need more films like this in the horror community. hopefully oren peli will keep giving us some.


  • mikeboogey

    What are you people talking about? Did you see the same movie I did? PA is just a little bit better then blair witch. There was nothing scarry about it. Would have been better if the actress was nude.

    • Cash Bailey

      Please go away.

      Go see the latest SAW movie if that’s what your definition of ‘good horror’ is.

      Then kill yourself.

      • rupp30

        sorry cash but i don’t think it’s right to tell someone to go kill themselves for not liking a movie. we all have our own opinion.

        but to the guy who posted above you, this was a thousand and one times better than blair witch so i have to ask you, did we watch the same movie?


  • LifeMi

    Awesome interview. I really hope Oren goes very far in his career.

  • Phantom9

    I’ve seen it and loved it as well, but now I’m dying to know what happened in the alternate endings!

  • Didn’t See It Coming

    Great interview! PA is easily my favourite horror film in years. I’ve seen it 3 times already and a 4th is in the near future. I absolutely loved this film from the first frame and especially to the last.

    • Nomad

      So what you’re really saying is….


      dun dun dun duuuuun

      • Sandstonesoft

        You know it’s something really dramatic when there are that many “duns”!