This Halloween will be the third in a row that horror film fans have been treated to a new installment of Paranormal Activity, perhaps the biggest indie horror film success story of this century. At the heart of it all is creator Oren Peli, the Israeli-born filmmaker who wrote and directed the first film and has remained a producer and guiding hand on the each successive installment, including Paranormal Activity 3, which opens in theaters everywhere on October 21st. As a first-rate showman, Peli plays his cards close to his vest, and doesn't like to reveal anything that would spoil the surprises he has planned for his found-footage saga. But I did my best to pry loose some bits of info when I spoke with him earlier this week. After the jump, check out my exclusive interview with Peli.
At what point did you decide on the direction in which you wanted Paranormal Activity to go? Did it begin germinating before Paranormal Activity 2 was released?
After the second one did really well, and succeeded, it made sense to take a stab at doing a third one. It was a very collaborative effort: the producers, the writers, the Paramount executives – we all got together and started talking about different ideas. I think the idea of exploring the origin of the haunting and going back to Katie and Kristi's childhood, it was one of the leading ideas from the very beginning. We were debating a few other ideas, but it was always the favorite idea to go to.
What challenges did you face in expanding the mythology while delivering the same scares as the first two films? Obviously the more familiar an audience becomes with the subject, the harder it is to scare them.
Yes, it's definitely very tricky. You want to figure out a way to balance so many different elements. You want to introduce new things to the story and to the mythology, while respecting what's already been established. You don't want to answer all the questions, but you do want to expand the mythology a little bit, and also raise a few other questions. As far as the style, you want to remain true to the style of Paranormal 1 and 2 that fans have been responding to. But you also want to introduce new elements. So for example in Paranormal 2 we had a different way of presenting things with the security camera. In Paranormal 3 we had to figure out "Okay, how do we show something else that's new?" And we came up with a new camera that is very, very cool and so far people have been responding to it very, very well. So you kind of want to come up with the right balance of staying true to the style and story that you've established so far, but also presenting a lot of cool new story elements and new types of scares that will feel fresh to the audience.
Now that you've established the mythology, can you comment on how far ahead you're thinking? You don't show all your cards in this film, so are you envisioning a certain number of films or are you taking each film as it comes?
We're taking it one at a time. When I was making the first film I would have just been thrilled to see that one released. I never thought beyond Paranormal 1, and no one imagined that there would be sequels. Then when we came up with the idea for the second one, which came to us from our writer Michael Perry, we thought, "Wow, this is actually a great idea. Let's take a stab and do Paranormal 2." When it turned out really well, and the fans were still on board, we said, "Well, let's see if we can make another one." So I think we're going to take each one at a time. We don't have a roadmap, although we definitely are expanding the mythology. If the third one is successful, and the fans are still hungry for more, then obviously there are going to be discussions about whether or not we'll do a fourth one. But it's much too early to think about it now.
That being said, was there much backstory developed for 2 and 3 that you couldn't fit into those films?
It's not so much whether it can fit, it's about "Does it make sense to explore it in this movie?" You don't want to have a movie where it's got loads of information because that's not what the movies are about. But if there were ever going to be more movies, then we do have a wealth of story to draw from.
Without giving too much away, there's a reference made to Katie's mother in the first film that would seem to contradict something about her in this new movie.
In some cases there may be contradictions. In some cases, there may be things that are contradictions that will be explained later on. So in many cases there may be things that may not make sense; but who knows? If there are future installments, they may make sense.
Fair enough. [Laughs.] Can you talk at all about your ABC series The River right now?
I'm not sure if this is the right time to discuss The River. I think at some point I'm gonna end up doing publicity rounds for The River. Until then, I'll just say that we're very excited about it. And we're currently shooting episodes. And when the time comes, I'll do my publicity rounds for that.
Does the same go for Area 51 and Lords of Salem?
Yeah. I'll say that it's extremely exciting to work with a visionary filmmaker like Rob Zombie. But beyond that I don't think I want to disclose any details about any projects in progress.
In real life, what's your greatest fear?
Probably fear of the unknown. Or loss of control, which helped influence me to do Paranormal Activity. Just the sense that while you're asleep and you have no control over what's going on, and you're dealing with an unknown invisible entity. You don't know what it is, where it came from, what it wants, what it's going to do. That's something that I find pretty scary.
Since the second and third films function largely as prequels, do you see the Paranormal Activity series continuing to move back in time, with each successive film an earlier prequel? Or is it possible we'll see a straight sequel to the original film at some point?
We're not really thinking right now beyond Paranormal 3, but as you can imagine, even if we had ideas for the direction of any theoretical future movies, I wouldn't be discussing them in an interview. [Laughs.]
As the series' mythology grows richer, do you see the potential for it to expand to other media, such as comics, games or perhaps even a web series?
I don't know. I think there was a comic a while back in the Paranormal Activity 1 days, that was released maybe on Amazon or iTunes, which we experimented with. But other than that I don't think we're really giving consideration to something like that. But even if we did I probably wouldn't say something until it was released.
For Paranormal Activity 3, can you comment on any favorite moment you might have?
There are definitely a lot of great moments that even make me, familiar with the movie, jump and extremely tense. I don't know if I want to give anything away. But you'll be able to tell when you watch the movie, when it's released with an audience. It's very obvious which are the moments that really work when you can hear the audience scream or gasp or start shifting in their seats at the same time. That's when you know they're responding really well to the scares.
How about in the first two films? Do you have any favorite scares you can share?
I would say in the first one it would be Katie getting dragged out of bed. And I think in Paranormal 2 the most effective scare is the one in the kitchen when all the cabinets blow open, which gets the entire audience to scream.
How challenging is it to come up with a new cast for each film? What's the trick to getting your audience to warm up to new characters?
Well in some cases it's new characters and in some cases, like Paranormal 3, it's characters that have already been established, and you're just seeing them in a different time frame. But I think one of the key things is the casting. Finding actors who can really do justice to the characters that we know and make them feel organic and authentic and charming so that you can connect with them. That's really key, and so far we've been really lucky. So I think that's really important. Then once you have them you just have to make sure you keep a delicate balance between providing an audience with tense and scary moments that are needed for the franchise but also you want to have a lot of charming, heartwarming moments where you get to know the characters, you get to relate to them, you get to think, "Wow, these are normal people like the ones I know – my friends or my relatives." That's the key. If you know the characters and care about them, you'll be more scared as to what happens to them.
Any big plans for Halloween?
Probably just working and doing some promotion for Paranormal 3, and sneaking into a couple of screenings to watch Paranormal 3 play with real live audiences. That's about it. [Laughs.]
You should take a break. You've earned it.
Thank you. [Laughs.]
Thank you for your time.
Thank you so much!