Interview: Oren Peli | CHERNOBYL DIARIES

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Since his debut feature film Paranormal Activity, which he directed and wrote, became a worldwide Box Office smash in 2009, Oren Peli has gone on to write and produce a string of successful low-budget horror projects with the intention of terrifying and unsettling audiences in a new and somewhat subtler way than the more graphic slasher films which came to characterize the horror genre in the early 21st century. As producer he's overseen the Paranormal Activity franchise (the fourth entry in the series has recently been released) as well as the 2010 chiller Insidious and the TV mini-series The River in 2011.  More movies are on the way including Lords of Salem (as producer) and Area 51 (as director/producer/writer) but Starburst recently spoke to Oren as his most recent hit, Chernobyl Diaries, arrives on Blu-ray/DVD.

Starburst:  You co-wrote Chernobyl Diaries? What inspired the story?

Oren Peli: It was rather accidental.  I was browsing the internet one day and found websites with videos and photo blogs from people who travelled to Pripyat and Chernobyl.  I found it fascinating and thought that the location would make a great setting for a scary movie.

How much criticism did you receive for potentially ‘exploiting’ the Chernobyl incident and how did you deal with it?

Very little.  A few people (in most cases without even seeing the movie) decided to get outraged and make a lot of noise about it.

We worked with the Chabad Children of Chernobyl Charity and screened the movie for them early on.  Not only did they not find it offensive, they were appreciative of the attention to detail and the amount of effort we put into replicating the setting, and the fact that the movie’s release is raising awareness to Chernobyl.

The budget for Chernobyl was, by Hollywood standards, very low; this is something of a ‘hallmark’ of your films to date. Do you purposely set yourself the challenge of making low budget movies or does the lo-fi approach just suit your movie concepts more?

It’s a bit of both.  I do think that in many cases you can create an effective movie with much smaller budget than what’s considered a “normal” budget, but also, for my aesthetics, I like the look of lo-fi, raw, gritty, almost documentary-like feel.

As writer/producer of Chernobyl, how involved were you in the actual making of the film? Were you involved in the casting?

I was involved in every aspect of the making of the movie, from story development, casting, filming, editing, etc.

Chernobyl did well at the box office but received some negative criticism. How much does this sort of criticism bother you?

You can never please everyone.  In every project I’ve been involved in I hear both praise and criticism.  One person would say “I didn’t like the movie – it was boring…”, and the next person says “this is the scariest movie I’ve ever seen and now I have nightmares”. Always fascinates me that people can have such different opinions of the same movie.

Paranormal Activity kick-started the so-called ‘found footage’ movie genre. Do you take an interest in  other ‘found footage’ movies  and what do you think of those films which have followed in your wake?

I do, although not specifically just found-footage.  I watch all kinds of movies.  I always enjoy seeing what creative ideas filmmakers come up with.

Are you a fan of horror movies in general and which films/ directors would you say have most influenced you?

I like horror movies, as well as other genres of films. I’ve probably been influenced by hundreds of movies that I’ve seen over the course of my life.  Speaking of horror movies, the ones that probably had the most impact on me were The Exorcist and The Blair Witch Project.

You seem to be consciously making an effort to tell horror stories in a more traditional way, relying less on blood and gore and more on building suspense through subtler chills and thrills. Is this a style you actively developed or is it more budget-driven?

It’s mostly for creative reasons.  For me, over-the-top gore isn’t scary.  The kind of things the frighten me are invisible and unknown threats. I find it often more effective to let the audience’s imagination fill in the blanks.

Paranormal Activity was, of course, an enormous worldwide success and has now become an ongoing franchise. Was this something you had in mind when you made the first film or was it conceived as a one-off?

Totally as a one-off.  Never imagined it would ever spawn a sequel, much less 3!

You’re now credited as producer in the PA series. How close an eye do you keep on the progress of the series? Are you concerned that the films maintain their original style and ‘integrity'?

I’m still somewhat involved. I am a producer, but obviously I do not have as much control as I did when I made the original PA.  Yes, we always struggle with the balance of providing something new and fresh while not betraying the core formula that makes the fans like the franchsie.

Insidious was very well-received. The recent Sinister seems to have been inspired by Insidious especially. Are you pleased that your films seem to be influencing other film-makers or do you think it’s just a case of bandwagon-jumping?

I think that Paranormal Activity might have encouraged other filmmakers – especially horror – to find cheap ways to produce high quality horror films.  But these filmmakers have been talented way before PA came out.  I’m very proud of Insidious.

You tend to cast less well-known actors in your movies rather than big ‘marquee’ names. Is this driven purely by budgetary constraints or do you think your films work better with less-familiar faces in the lead roles? How important is the casting process to your projects?

It’s both. In many cases I think that having an unknown face makes a movie more relatable and believable. However, sometimes we stray from the formula.  We had Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne in Insidious and that worked great.

I think that casting is one of the most important parts of making a film.

Are you pleased that mainstream horror films have largely moved away from the torture porn style of the likes of Hostel?

It doesn’t matter to me personally – I think people should be able to watch whatever films they want to.  On a personal level, I do prefer more subtle films that don’t rely on over-the-top gore.

The TV series The River has just started screening in the UK and is very much in ‘your’ style. How pleased were you with the finished series? Was the show conceived as an ongoing series or was the mini-series always intended to tell its story?

I am pleased and proud of many aspects of The River, however, as it went through the process of development with so many different entities involved, it did change quite a bit in style and story from what I originally had in mind.

Originally, we hoped it would do well enough to merit a couple more seasons to tell the story.

Which of your projects to date are you most proud of?

I’d have to say the original Paranormal Activity because it’s the one I had the most control over so I have the most sense of ownership of.

Chernobyl Diaries is out now on DVD and Blu-ray. See our review here.

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