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Exclusive: We Journey Down 'The River' With Oren Peli

The king of the found-footage film is bringing his magic touch to the small screen. Oren Peli, the director of Paranormal Activity, has a TV series hitting ABC on February 7th. The River follows a family and film crew as they search the Amazon for famed naturalist and TV host Emmet Cole. Keeping with the format that made Peli famous, The River is shot documentary-style - and it is really, really scary. You can check out my review of the show next week, but in the meantime, enjoy this exclusive interview with Oren Peli.

How do you think a found-footage show like The River will play to a television audience?

Well, we'll find out soon enough! It's not as hardcore found-footage as some movies are because, as part of the conceit of the show, the [footage] is actually filmed by professional cameramen - the documentary crew. So it's not going to be so shaky. It's going to be beautiful, like a National Geographic show or Survivor. So I don't think that will be much of a deterrent. I think that the thing that will set this show apart is the unique look of it, and the fact that it is a very scary show. I don't think there is anything like it on primetime TV. There are some horror shows on cable TV, but there hasn't been anything like this on primetime TV for a very long time.

How involved were you in the day-to-day shooting of the show?

For the pilot, I was very involved. I co-developed the story with other writers, I was in just about every casting session, and I was on the set every single day. So I was very involved. When the show got picked up, the show runners took over and I became more of a creative consultant. I'm not too involved in the day-to-day production.

Where did you guys film?

The pilot we shot in Puerto Rico, but the rest of the episodes we shot in Hawaii.

So you guys are really out in the wild. Did you have any trouble with the real wildlife?

Actually, there aren't many real animals [in the show]. Sometimes they are CGI. For many of the scary moments we have, we use a lot of practical effects and we actually do horrible things to our poor actors. But sometimes the very simple things we try to do with the animals, we can't, so we have to be creative and use CGI. 

You get into the shit pretty quickly with this show. In the first episode, it is barely twenty minutes in before you get your first big scare, and it doesn't slow down a whole lot. Did you have any trouble with standards and practices? Did ABC need you to tone it down at all?

I don't think it has been that much of a problem. [The biggest problem has been] how many bad words we can get away with, even though we bleep them. We were pushing the limits. But as for [the action], we asked ABC from the beginning, "How scary can we go? Do we need to tone it down at all?" It was never an issue of gore because we never wanted to go for gore or graphic violence. We are going for tension and suspense and anticipation. They said, "No problem. Go for it." They have been fully behind us from the very beginning. They knew we were trying to do something very different and instead of trying to hold us back, they said, "How can we help?"

Did you find that shooting in the found-footage framework created any limitations for television that you didn't face when shooting a feature?

It wasn't really [the medium] because the format is the same, whether you are shooting for TV or film. Shooting found-footage gives you a lot of freedom, but it also creates problems. You have to figure out why would anyone be shooting at this particular moment, how would they be shooting it, how can we get a camera angle that shows what is going on without it feeling staged. So you have to put a lot of thought into all that stuff. You also have to make sure everything feels very authentic. The cameramen can't know what is going to happen; they have to anticipate it. Cameramen are trained [to foresee it]. Something is about to happen, let's go get it. But it is the opposite: something has already started happening and you have to go discover it.

Was there much improv amongst the actors?

Not in the dialogue, but the staging was very free-form. The director would work with the actors. Sometimes we would have 10 or 12 cameras rolling at the same time, so the actors didn't even know which cameras would film them, or which we would use. So it wasn't like they could just go from point X to point Y. It was more like, "This is the scene, and this is sort of the way it will go." In one way, the actors really appreciated the freedom to operate. But it is also very scary because you don't really know what is going to happen, and it is very different from anything they have done in the past. They were both excited about it, but there were some parts that were making them nervous. In the end, they really embraced it and really enjoyed the process.

Did any of the actors actually shoot any of the footage, or would that just be a union nightmare?

There is actually stuff in the episodes that was shot by the actors. Whenever they would hold a camera, why not let it record? Sometimes [the footage] would turn out great, so we used it.

What was the per-episode budget?

I don't know exactly what it was, but I don't know if I am supposed to say what it is anyway. 

Understandable. But based on what I have seen, the per-episode budget is probably more than the budget of the first two Paranormal Activity movies combined. 

I'm not really an expert on television, but I have heard that this is one of the most expensive TV shows on the air right now. I think that for this show, the budget is actually necessary. We are shooting entirely on location, we are shooting on the water, we are doing a lot of crazy practical effects and visual effects The budget is necessary.

Have you noticed a difference between prepping and shooting a TV show versus a film?

Yeah. One of the main differences is the schedule. In the movie world, you generally have a lot of time to mess around, figure out the plot, and go back and do reshoots. In TV, everything moves really, really fast. You really have to be on top of your game. There is very little prep time so you have to have a top team so you can fly through the process. As soon as you are done with one episode you have to start on the next one. You basically have to create a mini-movie every 11 days. The other thing is that, from a creative standpoint, you have very little time to tell your story - only about 45 minutes after commercial breaks. However, you have an entire season to tell that story. Each character, each relationship, each dynamic, each conflict can actually evolve over many, many hours so you have to be smart about what you want to present on the screen for that hour, but also think ahead as to how it will evolve over an entire season.

Have you already started thinking what direction the show will go in if you get a second season?

We do have some ideas.

There is a lot of horror TV out there right now - and a lot of good horror TV. Do you think there is any particular reason for this?

I don't know. I think there has been a resurgence in horror in general over the last few years. I think people have been trying to figure out for a while how to figure out the formula. Cable has been pushing the envelope a lot, and it has found an audience. We are hoping to do the same for primetime network TV.

Do you watch any other horror TV shows?

I watch Dexter but that's really it. I don't have much time to watch TV.