Fright night with Oren Peli

For the Israeli-born maestro of the unstoppable ‘Paranormal Activity’ franchise, the fun is in watching the audiences

Israeli filmmaker Oren Peli. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Israeli filmmaker Oren Peli. (photo credit: Courtesy)

NEW YORK — This is a busy year for Oren Peli. The 41-year old Israeli-born filmmaker is putting the finishing touches on his mysterious “Area 51” science fiction horror film, overseeing Rob Zombie’s original “witch film,” “The Lords of Salem,” and releasing the fourth in his unstoppable “Paranormal Activity” franchise. This week marks the American release of his newest film, “The Chernobyl Diaries” which he produced and co-wrote.

“The Chernobyl Diaries” is a classic example of “oy, why the hell didn’t I think of that?” filmmaking. A group of twenty-somethings traveling through Europe decide to take an “extreme tour” of the abandoned ghost city of Pripyat, which has been left untouched since its abandonment in 1986. Fifty-thousand residents evacuated after the incident at the nearby Chernobyl nuclear power, and it’s been completely empty ever since. Or.. has it?

‘Paranormal Activity’ is also considered by many to be one of the first films that fully exploited social media to help get the word to its target audience

Peli, who came to the US at the age of 19, spun Hollywood on its ear with the release of “Paranormal Activity.” While it took him two years to get the finished product in front of the right people (chief among them being Steven Spielberg) the low budget film shot on basic consumer security cameras became one of the most profitable films ever made. After an initial budget of $15,000, the 2009 final box office grosses reached $194 million worldwide, leading to a string of sequels and, perhaps more tellingly, a slew of imitators. (The “found footage horror film” is now its own mini subgenre.) “Paranormal Activity” is also considered by many to be one of the first films that fully exploited social media to help get the word to its target audience.

While Peli did not direct “The Chernobyl Diaries” himself, his stamp of smart marketing is all over it. The doomed, Cold War-era nuclear plant is a perfect location in which to cut loose a group of attractive young people to get hunted down by maniacal creatures. (And when can expect more of the same when Peli’s “Area 51,” named for the infamous Army base in the Nevada desert, gets released.)

I had the good fortune to grab a quick moment to discuss how Peli picks his horror locations, as well as a little of his Israeli background, when he was promoting “The Chernobyl Diaries” in New York this week.

A still from 'Chernobyl Diaries' by Oren Peli. (photo credit: Courtesy Warner Bros.)
A still from 'Chernobyl Diaries' by Oren Peli. (photo credit: Courtesy Warner Bros.)

If you were to shoot a site-specific horror film somewhere in the State of Israel, what location would you pick?

You know that isn’t the way I usually think about movies. First the idea pops in my head and then the rest of the story comes up around it.

Well, work with me – you’ve got people running, hiding in fear, what’s the one place or building or landscape where it would be fun to stash the camera and watch young people be scared… no place in particular?

I know what you are asking, but… no, I never think in these terms. Sometimes it is the location that makes the movie scary, like “The Chernobyl Diaries,” but other movies like “Paranormal Activity,” what makes it so frightening is that it is your own home that is the scariest place. It is story-driven, that is how my brain operates, sorry.

Where did you grow up in Israel?

In Ramat Gan.

People associate your films with seeing them opening weekend at midnight. Can you share what some of the movies you remember seeing late night with friends, opening weekend?

I certainly remember the event movies. I remember standing in line to watch “E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial” and “Star Wars” and the various Indiana Jones movies – those are my strongest memories of going to the cinema. I would go to a lot of movies with my friends but, unfortunately, not all of those movies were all that memorable.

Was there a theater you particularly loved?

Yes, the Dizengoff area in Tel Aviv, there were several theaters. Back then there were many theaters, now I think they are almost all gone, but there were some movie theaters there that you don’t see very much of anymore, the kind that hold a thousand or two thousand people with balconies. That’s where I saw a lot of the blockbusters would play, where I saw the Indiana Jones movies and whatnot.

Without giving away too many of the details, what are some of the scenes in “The Chernobyl Diaries” you love watching audiences watch?

We haven’t done our midnight screenings yet, that’s happening in a few days. But I love the moments when they are abandoned in a radioactive ghost town, in a foreign land, with no one knowing that they’re there, they think they’re alone and then they hear… a scream… maybe human, maybe inhuman… it’s a moment when people will gasp and it will really ratchet up the tension.

When you go to midnight screenings do you hang out in the back?

I hide in the back, to watch the audience watch the film.

You have a new project coming out with Rob Zombie, yes?

You will have to forgive me, but with all future projects, until they are coming out, I maintain a strict no comments policy. I apologize to you.

“The Chernobyl Diaries” is released in the US on May 25th, with global release dates later in the summer.

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