(photo credit: Eliran Avital )
This weekend marks something of a homecoming for Israeli ex-pat director Oren Peli, who left for California over 20 years ago, at the age of 19. His first film Paranormal Activity a feature-length Blair Witch Project-esque horror film (or "supernatural suspense" as Peli puts it) about the paranormal goings-on while a young couple sleeps in their suburban home, opens locally on November 19.
A computer programmer by profession, Peli spent $10,000 and two years making the film with his friend, Amir, and his reluctantly helpful then-girlfriend. Together with his minuscule team and a year of research, planning and self-taught filmmaking skills under his belt, Peli shot the film in his own suburban San Diego home over a period of seven days. When asked why he didn't, say, apply to film school or at least register for a course when the urge to make a movie struck, Peli explains: "I always found that the best way for me to learn is independently. I didn't do too well in educational frameworks."
Peli kept things relatively framework-free for his actors as well, chosen out of the 200 auditioned. Then-inexperienced Katie Featherstone and Micah Sloat were given nothing more than scene breakdowns, and sometimes even less than that, before the improvised shooting. Peli says that along with the central role of the video camera, which helps blur the line between film and reality, it is the natural improvisation of the "girl-and-guy-next-door" actors that enables the audience to more easily suspend disbelief, increasing the fear factor.
As inspiration for the film, Peli mentions obvious point of comparison The Blair Witch Projectâ€š mockumentary This is Spinal Tapâ€š and various reality shows, like Survivor. He claims not to be a fan of classic horror films, but prefers films like Rosemary's Baby, The Others and The Sixth Sense, the slow psychological ones - "less blood and guts."
Once the film was shot, Peli spent a year doing his own post-production until he had an initial cut to show to friends and neighbors. A few cuts later and friends of friends were getting hold of the film, offering Peli feedback such as "the scariest movie I ever saw" and "I had nightmares for days."
Then one day the now-famous lottery-ticket phone call arrived.
DreamWorks was interested - not in buying the film, but acquiring it to be re-made. At this point Peli took Creative Artists, a prominent LA entertainment agency, up on their offer to represent him. Through test screenings, they were able to convince the studio to use the original. Some tweaks, cuts, and a new ending suggested by Spielberg (yes, as in Steven), and the film was ready for the Paramount marketing machine - which is where the second spark of genius occurred.
The studio decided on a viral media approach to maintain the movie's blurry film-reality line. After months of midnight showings in college towns and then larger cities - all announced on-line with something of an underground and clandestine air - the film opened to full US release on October 9. It has since grossed $100 million.
Did Peli know, deep down, that he had a winner on his hands? "I really had no idea if it would turn out good or bad. But always, in the back of my mind, to keep myself going over two years, there was the idea that maybe this could be something - sort of like the feeling when you buy a lottery ticket."
What has changed for Peli since producing and selling the winning ticket? "The main thing is that I left my job as a programmer and I am now doing this [making films] full time. I'm also traveling the world and doing press conferences. But yes, I do live in the same house [where the film was shot] and no, I'm not going to talk about my finances."
During the Tel Aviv press conference preceding the weekend opening, Peli remained tight-lipped about his new project, titled Area 51., saying nothing more than "I don't talk about current projects." Various US media outlets (including The New York Times and The LA Times), however, recently reported that Area 51 was filming in Utah and having a harder time getting distribution than one might expect based on the massive US success of Paranormal Activity..
Paranormal Activity opens this weekend in Europe and on November 19 in Israel. Check your local listings for cinemas and screening times.