Interview: Paranormal Activity Director Oren Peli
Thu, 15 Oct 2009 10:19:11
Paranormal Activity will possess you.
It's "horror" in the truest sense of the word. Documenting the demonic torment of a young couple, Paranormal Activity brings audiences face-to-face with the devil, and he doesn't let go.
However, filmmaker Oren Peli does everything in a very subtle fashion. There's nothing over-the-top about the movie. Oren allows the camera to guide viewers through this mental hell, leaving paranoia and fear in its wake. Oren is something of a poet with the camera and, if he were Edgar Allan Poe, this would be his equivalent of The Raven.
Once it lands in your mind, it chips away at any illusions of safety and stays forever…
Oren sat down with ARTISTdirect.com and Dolor author Rick Florino for this exclusive interview about the evil inside Paranormal Activity, allowing the actors to do their thing and the difference between demons and ghosts.
Do you feel like you're conjuring real evil with the camera? How did you approach the task of creating this darkness?
I don't think I'm really conjuring anything, so to speak. It's all fiction. There are a lot of people who possess a belief in the paranormal but, for the movie, it was just a camera and actors. So I don't necessarily feel like we were conjuring anything.
The film feels extremely realistic though. There's definitely a lot going on beyond the surface.
Yeah, much of it has to do with the actors' amazing performances. They were so natural that you really believed they were a true couple. Even if you know it's not real and it's all scripted, their performances make it easy for you to forget that fact and just get into the the story and go along with it.
So it was really about giving them [Katie Featherstone and Micha Sloat] space to interact.
Exactly! We were going for a lot of realism and authenticity, so they had to play the characters very naturally and make sure that nothing they said or did felt scripted or theatrical.
Did you spend a lot of time researching the occult?
I spent close to year on pre-production. Most of what I did during that year was read anything I could about hauntings, demons, demonology, ghosts and possession. I wanted to make myself very familiar with all of the different aspects of paranormal studies so that I could relate to the material more credibly.
Was there anything that particularly inspired you during that research period—stories, books or occurrences?
While educating myself about all of this, the most important thing was that I learned to appreciate the difference between demons and ghosts—which not a lot of people are familiar with. I made the choice to go with a demon for Paranormal Activity. The film explains what a demon is as opposed to a ghost. I think that makes Paranormal much scarier, and a demon is a better enemy for someone to deal with.
The demon has a distinct purpose too; he wants to destroy his victim.
Right! Also a demon is not the spirit of a person. You don't know where it comes from, what it wants or what it looks like. That makes the film very scary.
Was it difficult balancing that element of the unknown with a very relatable environment?
Your own bed at night is the one place that you should feel safe. If there is something invisible wandering around, you might not even know it. You might not know if it's there or not. That's part of what people respond to in the movie—it taps into our most primal fears.
Do you feel like the camera becomes both an extension of Micah and the audience? The physical camera is like another character in Paranormal Activity.
In a way, yes! The point that you just brought up is potentially very valid because Micah, in many ways, is the voice of the audience. He's not sure about what's going on. He's a little skeptical, but he's going with it, and he's going to do the experiment. We learn what's going on through Micah. He and the camera guide the audience through the film's journey.
You bring the viewer so close to what's happening that way.
That's part of the whole idea. Using the camera and the realism of the setting makes the movie feel very intimate and personal so people can relate and connect to the story better.
There's a true sense of rhythm to the movie. If Paranormal Activity were an album what would it be?
That's a tricky question [Laughs]. I'm not sure I have an answer for that.
Did you listen to a lot of music while you were making the film?
I generally listen to a lot of music but, unfortunately, not while I was making it. There was no music in the movie. When I was editing, I just had to listen to the dialogue so I couldn't have background music playing. In terms of music though, I listen to everything—from what's popular on the radio now and '80s to classic rock and techno. Now, I'm usually listening to the radio or internet radio.
Was making that distinction between ghosts and demons crucial for you?
To me, the whole thing was one big category of some invisible spirit that harasses people [Laughs]. There has been some movies where it was clearly a demon like The Exorcist and there have been movies where you're dealing with a ghost like The Sixth Sense or The Others. I really wanted to explain that difference though and tell the audience, "We are not dealing with the ghost of a person here. This is not a human being that died. We're dealing with something else—something that's sinister. We don't know where it is or where it came from, but it's not here for good reasons. It's only going to do bad."
Was there a lot of direct interplay between you, Katie and Micah?
Yeah, in many cases, I would set up a specific scenario where there would be no dialogue and I'd just trust their own intuition and instincts. In many cases, things just flowed great and they'd come up with their own dialogue. Sometimes they would say, "This scene doesn't make sense. It's not natural for these characters to act that way." We would all pow-wow and try to come up with stuff that was more authentic. We tried things many different ways. The actors were an integral part of the storytelling process because if they weren't convinced about what they were saying, it wouldn't come across as authentic. There was a lot of trust going on both ways.
It's interesting that their relationship falls apart in the same fashion that Katie's mental state collapses.
Right! That's also something that I read about while I was doing my research. People who believe that they're being haunted by spirits go through lots or problems in their relationships because either everyone doesn't believe them or understand what they're going through. It definitely complicates life in many different ways.
How did the ouija board inclusion come about?
As part of my research, I realized that the ouija board is very central to the concept of "something you don't want to do." You don't want to invite the demon in, and you don't want to encourage it to interact with you. Not being educated on the subject, Micah thinks that he might actually be helping by getting a ouija board and, of course, he's not.
His hubris definitely causes a lot of problems.
Exactly, it's part of the whole macho thing! This is my house, and no one's going to tell me not to protect and defend my house.
What's the important thing about Paranormal Activity to you?
I just hope people are scared and they enjoy the movie. One thing that's interesting about the movie is everyone sees it differently. One person might say, "Poor Micah, this woman moves into his house with this demon problem and he ends up in trouble because of it." Someone else could say, "Poor Katie, she has this problem and, instead of helping it, her boyfriend keeps making things worse." It's very interesting that people see it differently. You can take whatever you want from it.