Oren Peli Takes Us Down “The River”

The Paranormal Activity creator talks about teaming with Steven Spielberg to produce a TV-based freakfest, The River.

Oren Peli didn’t go to film school. In fact, the high school dropout never even made it to college. But the Israeli-born Peli taught himself enough about programming to become a successful video game programmer. Then a few years ago, he decided he wanted to make a film. With no filmmaking experience and a budget of only $15,000, Peli shot and edited Paranormal Activity in his own home. DreamWorks picked up the film, and an enormously successful franchise was launched in 2007—look for Paranormal Activity 4 to hit theaters on October 19.

Meanwhile, Peli is out to make his mark in television with The River, which he executive-produced along with Steven Spielberg. Premiering on ABC February 7 at 9 p.m. EST, the series out of Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment centers on the quest to find Emmet Cole, a wildlife expert and television show host who goes missing in the Amazon during an expedition. It is assumed that he has perished in the jungle, but when his emergency beacon goes off six months after his disappearance, and his wife and son set out to find him, their every move is captured by a documentary film crew. Needless to say, all does not stay in the realm of normalcy throughout the journey.

Co.Create spoke with Peli about the making of The River and going from a guy with an idea to a guy with a Spielberg-backed TV show.

Co.Create: The River marks your first foray into television. How did the show come to be?

Peli: Around the time that Paranormal Activity was being released I ended up having a lunch meeting with Steven Spielberg, which was amazing and surreal on its own. I find myself across the table from Steven Spielberg talking about my movie and his movies and all that kind of stuff, and I’m barely figuring out the world of films, and he’s saying, “We should do a TV show together.” I didn’t even know what I was doing in the feature world, and I knew even less about TV, but Mr. Spielberg said, “Let’s do a TV show together.” So I said, “All right. I’ll start thinking of ideas.”

And months go by, and I didn’t come up with anything. And in December, I’m hanging out on the weekend with Michael Perry, the writer of Paranormal Activity 2, and we’re talking about some ideas for movies that we never pursued, and we’re talking about this idea that we’ve had for a while, and we thought of it originally for a movie. And the basic concept was that there was an explorer with his own TV show, and he goes missing somewhere in the rainforest, and we are now following the documentary crew that’s filming the rescue mission, and along the way, they find the tapes that were left behind by the original mission crew. And we thought it would be really scary to see tapes of the horrible things that happened to them. That’s pretty much all we had.

And in just a few days Michael came up with a piece that had the river, the boat, all the characters, and we thought it was a great concept, and we brought it back to DreamWorks and they loved it. We kept developing it for a few more months, and they brought it to ABC.

Is The River a documentary horror series? Or maybe a paranormal action adventure show?

I don’t know if there’s a way to easily describe it. I would call it kind of supernatural/horror/adventure because it’s got some adventure elements with the family on a quest in an exotic place. It’s so very different from just about anything else that’s on TV right now, say in a police station or in a hospital.

How does the storytelling process differ from film to TV? Has The River allowed you to tell a richer, more in-depth story than you would have been able to share if you had based a film on this concept?

That’s actually very interesting because that’s something that I didn’t realize at the beginning. At the beginning, I thought that it’s actually very limiting to have to compress an entire story into one hour. Minus commercials you only have about 45 minutes to tell an entire story, and it’s tricky enough to tell an entire story in a 90-minute movie, so I thought it would be impossible until someone pointed out exactly what you just said, that you can actually get way deeper into characters and relationships and plot lines when you have multiple episodes, and hopefully, if you’re lucky enough, multiple seasons. So once I kind of got it, I felt like, oh, this is actually a great plus to be making this for TV.

The River is unlike most hour-long scripted series in that it is shot like a cross between a reality show and a “found footage” film along the lines of Paranormal Activity. Do you think audiences will quickly adjust to this meshing of shooting styles, and did this approach make it more complex to shoot?

The TV audience has been trained to watch reality, to watch how people behave in real life and stressful situations. At the same time, found footage is now doing pretty well in cinema, but there’s no scripted found footage shows on TV. So we felt like it would be a very interesting challenge to try to do that. It’s very challenging but to some degree it’s freeing. Mostly I would say it’s challenging because you really have to think differently about how to fake reality. For example, the cameraman is usually trained to capture everything. But here the cameraman cannot know in advance what’s about to happen. So they cannot anticipate the action. They cannot be too conveniently filming something that’s about to happen. They have to find and follow the action. And the actors, they have more freedom in the sense that we’re not telling them, “This is exactly your first mark, and you have to go to this mark after so many seconds.” They have a lot more freedom to walk around, which is in some degree very freeing but also can be a little bit scary. Luckily for us, the cast fully embraced the format and were totally rolling with it. Sometimes we would have 10, 12 cameras rolling at the same time, and the actors don’t even know which camera we are going to use, so they kind of forget the cameras are there and are just going about their business of being the character and going through the scene and not even worried about acting for the camera.

Can you explain the camera setup you had? You are obviously using lots of different kinds of cameras to shoot this show.

Yeah. Like for example, we can have two cameramen, or we can have a combination of a real cameraman filming and then one of the actors filming with their camera. Sometimes there are handheld cameras, and then we have stationary cameras that are installed all over the place. There could also be a combination of the regular hi-def camera, and there could be Canon 7Ds. We use GoPros. We use phone cameras. We use—you saw this on the pilot—the helicopter-mounted camera. So we use just about any camera that we could think of that makes sense.

Your editor must have been pulling his hair out when he saw the multiple sources of footage.

Yeah. I think our editor had a little panic attack when he saw the amount of footage that they’re getting after a day of shooting.

You shot the pilot in Puerto Rico, and then you shot the other seven episodes in Hawaii. Why did you change locations?

Well, it really was one of our only options. If we went all the way to outside of the United States, if we went to Australia, this would have been way more expensive. And we had a great, great, great experience in Puerto Rico. We really loved it there, but the two main reasons why we ended up going to Hawaii is just that some of the extras preferred it because it’s easier to get to Hawaii, and also we would have been shooting the show through hurricane season, and Puerto Rico is right on the path.

You’ve produced eight episodes, which is a short run for a series.

When we found out we were going to be a mid-season show we all breathed a collective sigh of relief. We thought, we have a few extra months to plan for it. It’s such a complex show that we thought that being mid-season and having a shorter season would really end up being beneficial for the show, and we felt like eight episodes really gives us a great amount of time to have an introductory first season where we can really set up the rules, introduce the characters, provide a lot of scares. We like the fact that every episode is like its own little mini horror story that you can jump into. But at the same time we wanted to make sure that we have a very strong season. So it does have a beginning and middle and some sort of conclusion. We definitely want to make sure that the season stands on its own, but say we’re lucky enough to have additional seasons—we do know where we’re going to go from here on.

You’re obviously known for scaring the bejesus out of audiences with the Paranormal Activity franchise. But did you have to careful about how scary you made this show given that it is on network television?

Surprisingly, not at all. We had all these discussions with ABC, and we asked them, “How scary can we go? Do we have any limitations?” And they said, “No. Go for it. Be as scary as you want to be.” And we were never interested in gore. We never wanted to resort to torture porn or relying on scaring people or grossing them out with gory images. And you know there’s a little bit of it in the show here and there, but that isn’t really what we’re relying on. We’re doing it as a side effect. But they said, as far as whatever we want to do to scare people, building the suspense and everything—go for it. And another discussion we had with them is about the language, and we made a point that in stressful situations people use frank language in a matter of life and death. They won’t be saying, “Oh, fudge!” Even in reality shows that people are used to watching usually what happens is that people would curse, and it gets bleeped out. And they were totally cool with it. So we do have the characters use frank language, and we just bleep it out.

ABC premiered a couple of episodes of The River in movie theaters in Los Angeles, Austin, Philadelphia, and New York City prior to the show’s television debut to get some buzz going for the show. What was behind that idea?

I think it was a great idea. We were very proud of the show, and we were trying to figure out a way to get the word out there before the premiere. We decided it would be a great idea to let people first of all see the show ahead of time but also see it on a movie screen. Not a lot of TV shows could say, “Our show looks so good it can be shown in a movie theater.” And seeing people react to the show in the movie theater, as someone involved in the production, it was a very great and rewarding feeling.

It must be interesting for you to look back on your career and think, just a couple of years ago I made a film in my house for $15,000, and now I have executive-produced a television series with Steven Spielberg.

I would say interesting is an understatement—it’s more like, crazy and surreal. I’m just considering myself extremely lucky. All I wanted is to have Paranormal Activity be released and become successful. And everything that’s happened since then is just an enormous bonus. [The people at Spielberg’s company] have produced a lot of TV shows, so they are very, very smart, they’re very experienced, and it’s been an ongoing process of constantly learning from them. And they’ve been very nice and very kind in guiding me as a total newbie by the hand and helping me, no pun intended, navigate the water of this crazy world of TV programming.

Throughout your brief but successful career in filmmaking, you’ve learned a lot on your own. Why go that route as opposed to studying film in college?

I believe that whenever I want to learn something I can learn it much better and faster by myself if I’m motivated to learn it as opposed to kind of doing it in more a standard, institutionalized way. So I’ve always had better luck learning things on my own. And I really love the challenge of doing it yourself and kind of being alone against the system.

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