A Masterclass In Microbudget Film Making – Interview with ‘Paranormal Activity’ writer and director Oren Peli


Paranormal-Activity-Oren-PeliLooking back at Paranormal Activity, the poster boy for microbudget filmmaking, what can we learn without just saying ‘it’s like Paranormal Activity’ and will be as successful (which I hear all too often)?

First off, I have to say just how impressed I am with the film. Oren Peli managed to keep up pace, tension and sense of dread with only two characters, minimal visual effects and TONS of atmosphere. Lucia, my other half, kept groaning in dread every time the lights went off and the couple got into bed… and she is a horror fan!

In many ways, it is a masterclass in no-budget film making. Consider…

1. It used the cheapest technology available.
2. The location was the directors house. We never left the home in the entire film.
3. There were only two main charaters who were in pretty much every scene.
4. There were two supporting characters who were in two scenes each. That’s a total cast of four!
5. The budget, technology and concept were not stretched or over ambitious, allowing the film to deliver on the concept.
6. It knew what it was. A creepy horror movie. And it never veered off that course.
7. It never over explained the concept.
8. The sound design was excellent and authentic feeling.

Paranormal Personally, I would have liked to have seen a few scenes dropped, taking the running time down by maybe ten minutes.

Still it took (so far) $183m worldwide. Not bad for a $10k production! And it’s now a brand with sequel upon sequel.

So the question for you is, how you can you tell your story using some of the above points? I am not suggesting you make another ‘Paranormal’ film in a documentary style. But do consider what we can learn form what Oren Peli actually did – the minimalism, reliance on characters and atmosphere, use of cheap but cutting edge technology (DSLR for example), a deep understating of ‘what’ he was making etc.

OK, so below is the interview we did with creator Oren Peli for the ‘Guerilla Film Makers Pocketbook’. You can buy the book direct from us here, or on Amazon or other bookshops. And with Christmas coming… enjoy!

Taken from The Guerilla Film Makers Pocketbook


055- Oren Peli Q – What is your background?

Oren – I have no film background – Paranormal Activity was the first thing I did in film. I’m a computer games programmer which I did growing up as a kid in Israel.  With games, you’re dealing with the placement of lighting, actors, choreography and the visual representation of things on a screen. You have to deal with camera angles. There is some storytelling, but in video games it’s more interactive. Plus I was comfortable with computers, which helped with the editing and visual effects.

Q – How did the idea for the film come about?

Oren – I moved to a new house and I started hearing noises at night. My first instinct wasn’t that the house was haunted, but it did get me to think about what was going on. It lead me to the idea of what if someone did think their house was haunted and wanted to prove or disprove it, so they set up a video camera. Then what if they let it play all night and the next day saw something scary in the footage. I was inspired by slower paced horror films like The Blair Witch Project and Rosemary’s Baby where the audience has to use their imagination more to get the scares.  I didn’t tell anyone I was making the movie. Not my neighbors. Not my co-workers. Only my small crew, my parents and my girlfriend knew.

Q – How long was your screenwriting and prep process?

Oren – About a year. I did a lot of research on filmmaking and ghosts. I had to learn how to do everything. What kind of camera should I use? How do I mix audio? I practiced with the editing software and learnt what I could and couldn’t do with visual effects, then I wrote the plot around that. I also read a lot of books and web articles on the process of filmmaking so that when I got to set, I was like an automated machine. I also bought a lot of books and watched a lot of movies and documentaries about ghosts, hauntings, demons, possessions and exorcisms. I tried to make myself an expert so the story was credible.

Q – Was it difficult taking the leap to making a movie?

Oren – It wasn’t that tough because my life was going on as it would and this was something I was doing on the side. I figured if nothing happens because the movie turns out horrible or it’s good but nobody does anything with it, at least I did something fun. Plus a lot of people spend a lot more money on their hobbies and still don’t have something that could change their lives. There was never a script. It was more like a simple treatment. In the film, all the dialogue was improvised. The treatment was like: a couple goes to sleep, such and such happens and then they investigate… As we were getting closer, I refined it more and as we were shooting it was really brought to life by the actors.

Q – This was the first time you auditioned actors. How did that go?

Oren – The idea was to use improv. I had to make sure that they were quick on their feet. In the audition there was no script to read, it was more like an interview. So I would ask them why they thought the house was haunted or tell them to get into an argument about whether they should bring a psychic over. We went to LA (I’m based in San Diego) and rented a theatre for the auditions.

Q – Where did you get your money to make the film?

Oren – It was my own money from working so I paid for things as we went along.

Q – I understand the shoot only took seven days, is that right?

Oren – The original schedule was set for fiv
e days as that’s how long I thought it would take. And it did. But I kept the actors and crew on for two extra days just in case we needed to reshoot. When you don’t have to worry about lighting and don’t have a large crew, you can be very nimble. I took a week off work.

Q – Did you have any other crew?

Oren – The crew consisted of myself, my best friend whose experience in film was the same as mine – none, and my reluctant girlfriend at the time. We lived together so she didn’t have a choice! The only thing I couldn’t figure out on my own and needed professional help with was make-up. So I hired a make-up artist for one day to do make-up effects such as the bite marks on Katie.

Q – What did you do about the camera and audio?

Oren – I shot on the Sony FX-1. It was an HDV camera that shot to tape. As for sound, that was part of my research. I wanted everything to be natural, so I didn’t want to use lavs (tie clip mics) because the characters wouldn’t be wearing them in their everyday life. But I had to find a way to get better quality audio so I had a boom mic attached to the camera which is obviously the one Micah uses in the movie. We used the excuse that they needed that mic to catch all of the little sounds from within the house at night.

Q – You shot the film in your house. Did you modify it in any way?

Oren – Yes. When I got the video camera I did test shots around my house and noticed how lame it was. All I had were these bare, white walls and carpeting. I wanted it to look normal and not like an eerie castle. So I put in hardwood floors and replaced the stairs and banister, painted the walls, built an archway between the living room and the dining room and put some artwork on the walls. I didn’t include this stuff in the budget because I was going to do it anyway as my own home improvements. The hardwood floors alone cost more than the whole film!

Q – Did you do a lot of takes?

Oren – There were sequences where we only did one take. The one with the foot powder and they go and investigate was the first and only take we did. When scenes didn’t work or if it didn’t make sense, we would stop, confer and try and fix it. It was a very collaborative process with the actors. I experiment a lot, and when I see it I say, “No, that wasn’t such a great idea. Let’s try something else,” or “Yes, that works great. Let’s move on.” So it was a lot of organic trial and error.

Q – How did you do some of the special effects in the film?

Oren – We have been very careful not to give away any secrets on how we did the special effects, but I will say that everything we did was in-camera.

Q – How long did post take?

Oren – Close to a year and I did all the editing on Sony Vegas. I chose Vegas because I use PCs not Macs. Also I read that Vegas is the easiest to use and very intuitive. I downloaded a trial version and found that I could move blazingly fast with it. It really helped when I got a page of notes from the studio as I could go through it in about an hour.  I bought a dedicated editing machine and put all my 70 hours of footage on the internal hard drive. I didn’t want to use external hard drives because they slow everything down. I had so much footage because I would let the camera just roll while Micah and Katie were making dinner, plus tape is cheap. And if I got a minute of useable footage from that, then great. I also did all the visual effects at home too. I went into forums online to get ideas. It might not have been the most efficient way to do it, but it made sense to me.

Q – How did you come up with the title?

Oren – For the longest time there was no title and I was forced to come up with one because I was submitting to festivals. Paranormal Activity wasn’t even one that we were all crazy about, but it didn’t suck and it’s dry and accurate.

Q – From the test screenings you did, what kind of feedback did you get?

Oren – The one that kept popping up was that the beginning was too slow. I kept shortening it, but what I learned was that if I kept it slow then people would say it was the scariest movie they’ve ever seen. But when I trimmed the beginning and made it flow well, then people would say that the pacing was excellent and the movie was kind of creepy. It just didn’t generate the same visceral terror. So, in the end, I didn’t care about the slow pacing. People are used to horror movies that start with a big bang at the beginning so when you break that structure, it’s very unsettling for them. They don’t even know they are watching a movie and then when you start scaring them, it really works.

Q – I understand there are multiple endings?

Oren – At the beginning I was very married to my version, which had the police coming in at the end. I got some criticisms, but I didn’t care. But it was too slow and didn’t have a big punch at the end. I then shot another version where Katie slits her own throat, but it didn’t fit with the film to be so gory. But when we experimented and tested the endings, the one that is in the theatrical version is the one that went through the roof, so there was no question what to do.

– Interview I hoped I would get into Sundance and then there would be a bidding war. But I finished too early and I didn’t want to wait. So I submitted to Toronto and a bunch of other festivals and got rejected by all of them. The only one we got into was Screamfest. But I knew if we went there we would lose our premiere at prestigious festivals. But I gambled and took the bird in hand. At the screening, I was as nervous as hell. I knew Screamfest was a smaller festival, we didn’t even do a Q & A, but a lot of press and distributors do go there. So I thought it was a good way for the film to get noticed. The screening was incredible! The audience was screaming and shifting in their seats and covering their faces. This was the first unbiased audience that the movie had played to, so it was the first time I realized it could work on a larger scale.

Q – Did you do any special marketing for the film like Blair Witch did?

Oren – I didn’t go that far. I created a simple trailer and website and before Screamfest I bought TV ad space and ran the trailer in LA. Then I stood on street corners and handed out flyers and went on a lot of bulletin boards and websites of film and horror fans to tell them about the screening.

Q – What was the tipping point at Screamfest that made the film do well?

Oren – We got a lot of good reviews and won a few awards, which got the attention of CAA. So they sent it out to producers as a directing sample. One came on and he took it to Dreamworks who loved the movie and they made a remake deal.

Q – How did that feel?

Oren – It was great but really we were more focused on getting a theatrical release. But Dreamworks had had a hard time trying to sell and market the movie as it was low budget and no stars. Even though Blair Witch was a huge example of how it could work. It took 2 years until they decided to release it themselves, instead of doing the remake, so we were happy for that but it was a difficult 2 years as I’m not someone who’s blessed with patience.

<em
>Q – What was it like dealing with agents?

Oren – They were very cool. I met my personal agent at a restaurant. I was excited to meet him because we had spoken on the phone and he was very complimentary about the movie, saying it kept him up at night scared. Most of my dealings with them have been over the phone and via email because I’m in San Diego. In fact, I didn’t even meet the agent who sold my film until very recently.

Q – How much did Paramount spend to release the film?

Oren – Once I delivered the film, it was out of my hands, so I have no idea.

Q – I heard that you met Steven Spielberg?

Oren – Yes. It was incredible! We had an amazing conversation. To meet your childhood idol and have a talk about our movies, it was surreal and exciting.

Q – What do you think was one of the biggest things you learned?

Oren –  I underestimated the time needed for post production. I thought you’d just slap it all together and you’re done, but there’s a big difference between having all the footage in order, and having a movie that works.

Q – What advice would you offer a new filmmaker?

Oren – Casting. Get it right. It can make or break a film.


Great stuff… OK, back to your film and my film now!

Onwards and upwards!

Chris Jones, Film Maker and Author
www.livingspirit.com
mail@livingspirit.com

Filmmaker (LivingSpiritGroup.com), screenwriter, author of the Guerilla Filmmakers Handbooks (GuerillaFilm.com), founder of Create50.com, CEO of The London Screenwriters' Festival (LondonSWF.com) and certified firewalk instructor.

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Comments

  1. James D says:

    Thanks for posting this, Chris.
    Informative and relevant to micro-budget indy filmmakers. I had already read the interview in your book a few months ago, but it’s amazing how many things you forget – it’s always good to re-read as a refresher.

  2. Edward says:

    Chris, what scenes in particular would you have liked to see dropped?

  3. Chris says:

    Perosonally, there were a few moments when I thought the characters became too relxed in the presence of events. This stretched credulity. Especially one scene toward the end where the girl, after being subkjected to all manner of wierd stuff, that was captured on camera, suddely decided to revise for her studies. This and other trims wouldhave increased pace and kept us believing 100%.

  4. Hi Chris,

    Great post!
    Thanks for this…
    I’ll be using it (to refer to) in my doctoral thesis 🙂
    (ie on the Story/Screenplay/Film patterns in the Top 20 RoI films…)
    i.e.: http://storyality.wordpress.com/

    (as: `Paranormal Activity’ is the #1 RoI film)

    Great work – as always!

    Cheers,

    JT Velikovsky

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