Produced for $15,000. Filmed in the director’s own home. Championed by the people. Paranormal Activityhas become the the most profitable film ever at the world box-office. The movie’s quietly-scary director Oren Peli tells DONALD CLARKEhow public screaming at a public screening convinced DreamWorks to give it a major release
WE WERE supposed to be having this conversation every other week. Ten years ago, a no-budget horror flick named The Blair Witch Projectsurprised everybody by not changing Hollywood. For a few months, breathless commentators argued that henceforth box-office smashes would regularly emerge unannounced from the garages of hungry amateur film-makers.
Well, five years ago we did get Open Water. Remember? It was about the couple floating in shark-infested ocean. No? Well, it wasn’t exactly a smash, but, for something made for buttons and bottle-tops, it did pretty darn well. The truth is, however, that, for all Blair Witch’s heroics, homemade films hardly ever make really big money.
Hold on, though. Sitting in the lobby of the Soho Hotel, I log onto Variety’s website to discover that a little picture called Paranormal Activityhas just broken the $100 million mark at the US box-office.
Produced for around $15,000, this impressive ghost story is, thus, the first genuinely homemade film to achieve blockbuster status since Blair Witch.
Much of that is down to a canny campaign by Paramount Pictures, but the picture has created genuine underground buzz.
Oren Peli, the film’s cautious, undemonstrative director, appears to be taking it all in his stride.
“We just hoped it would be good enough to secure a theatrical release,” he says. “We never dreamed it would do this well. When we saw it in a movie theatre with an audience we really knew we had something. My friends had been nice when I showed it to them, but when you see an audience gasping and hiding their eyes you know you have something.”
Like Blair Witch, Paranormal Activitypretends to be a found document – the record of an actual haunting. Set in a bland Californian house, the picture follows a couple as they seek to discover the source of various nocturnal bumps and creaks by videoing themselves at sleep. In the morning they watch horrified as the tape shows doors mysteriously closing and shadows flitting creepily down the corridor. Worse is to follow.
“It’s not exactly a haunted house film,” Peli says. “The original idea was to do with the idea of running a video camera when somebody is asleep.” Like Andy Warhol’s Sleep, the notoriously boring film of someone, well, sleeping? “I had never heard of that. But somebody mentioned it today. I just thought it would be interesting to watch the footage. What if something did happen last night and I didn’t know about it? Then I had to come up with a reason why something might happen. And a haunting seemed like the obvious solution.”
Oren Peli is not what I expected him to be. It’s wrong to generalise, but let’s do so anyway. Horror film directors tend to be one sort of rabid enthusiast or another. You have Old Testament classic-movie buffs such as John Carpenter. You have motor-mouth video kids such as Eli Roth. You have intense high-brow theorists such as David Cronenberg.
By way of contrast, Peli, a sober man who rarely laughs, comes across like an efficient, only mildly enthusiastic junior sales manager. Raised in Israel, the son of teachers, he emigrated to California in 1990 with a mind to achieving (his words) “the American dream”. Much of the following 20 years were spent working as a computer programmer and, from what he says, he only ever had the vaguest interest in becoming a film-maker. It was, unsurprisingly, The Blair Witch Projectthat first stirred his interest.
“ Blair Witchplanted the seed then Open Waterconfirmed it was possible,” he says. “I finally made the decision to make a film in 2005 and we got it made in 2007. I learned by reading a lot of books on directing and watched a lot of DVD commentaries and featurettes.”
Entirely unscripted, the picture includes much dialogue improvised by its small cast. “I had to teach myself how to do auditions. I would go to LA and rent a theatre then advertise for people. I had 150 people in one day, but it was tricky because these people had to improvise. Later, when filming, I would give them the scene, we’d discuss it, then they would use their own lines. It was a very collaborative process. They became storytellers as well as actors.”
When he finally got around to shooting the film, Peli decided, for reasons of economy and convenience, to use his own house as the location.
“It was meant to look like a normal house and it was a normal house,” he says. “The main thing I had to do was a series of renovations. I had to put down floorboards and do other home improvements. But that wasn’t included in the budget. I mean I did live there.”
So what of this $15,000 budget? That sum does not, of course, include marketing fees, the cost of prints or any of the myriad expenses involved in getting a film into the world’s multiplexes. But, even as a basic production budget, it seems a buttock-clenchingly small sum.
“My estimate was $10,000. Yes, we went over to around $15,000. There really is not much to spend money on. The actors’ salaries were not high. Cameras and an editing machine cost money. Really, the budget was never an issue. We were never constrained by lack of money. I can see how it might be a problem for other types of film, but not this.”
Very moderate. Very efficient. Oren Peli has a sober head on his unexcited shoulders. Nonetheless, eerie and unsettling as Paranormal Activityundoubtedly is, you need more than discipline to flog such a low-budget film to a major studio. Paranormal Activityplayed a few small festivals and eventually caught the eye of Hollywood agents CAA. Now, a major player was selling the flick, but, as we have mentioned, Blair Witchwas a long time ago. What studio wants to buy a home movie these days?
“We showed it to all the studios in town and they all passed. We screened it at the Slamdance festival and they passed again. Only DreamWorks responded well. They loved the movie, but didn’t know how to market it. The initial notion was that DreamWorks were just going to remake the film. But we felt that if we could get them into a public screening we could change their mind.”
Paranormal Activityis, indeed, a film to be seen with an excited crowd. Punctuated with the sort of surprises that cause neighbouring knees to be clutched and popcorn buckets to be upended, it is capable of inspiring genuine collective dread in susceptible audiences.
“We finally got the people from DreamWorks into the theatre and they were amazed. People were screaming and reacting really hysterically. It was astonishing. They decided then and there that, rather than remaking it, they would actually release the film in theatres. They just had to get approval from one more person: Steven Spielberg.”
As it happened, Spielberg liked the film very much, but suggested that Peli swap a slightly fussy ending for the current enigmatic denouement.
The version of Paranormal Activitythat resulted was very effective, but cynics might argue that the most impressive strokes of genius came from the marketing men. In former times, films tended to open slowly in a small number of venues and only later – trading on good word of mouth – gradually expanded beyond the big cities. Now, following the rise of the post- Jawsblockbuster, it has became common to fling thousands of prints simultaneously throughout the world.
Paramount, DreamWorks’ corporate overlords, returned to the old practice of a small initial release and then cleverly stoked a “grass-roots” campaign demanding that the film be expanded. Eventually, a website was set up that allowed punters to register their desire for Paranormal Activityto be granted a national roll-out. When the number of requests reached one million, the company would, it said, reluctantly comply with this, ahem, spontaneous crusade. A mere one million? Did Dr Evil come up with these figures? The figure was, of course, surpassed in double-quick time.
“Yes, the overall plan was to release it in a small way and build some interest,” Peli says. “Marketing the film was a problem. DreamWorks knew you couldn’t just blast a film made on home video with no stars onto 5,000 screens. But we knew what great buzz it had got at festivals. So we encouraged people to go see it and then blog about it or Twitter or just mention it to your friends. A lot of people say it was just a marketing trick. But, look, it would only have worked if people were keen.”
Well, the scheme has worked and, by one trade paper’s calculation, Paranormal Activityis now – when you rate according to the ratio of takings to production budget – the most profitable film ever at the world box-office. Yet this success does not guarantee Oren a career at Hollywood’s top table. The makers of The Blair Witch Projecthave been stranded in development hell for the past decade. The folk behind Open Water have yet to follow up their film.
Oren Peli, however, talks like a man with a plan. When I ask him about Area 51,his successor to Paranormal Activity, he calmly pleads the fifth. “I prefer to say nothing about any upcoming projects because I see no potential advantage in doing so,” he says.
No potential advantage? Is he really as organised and goal-oriented as he seems? “With any project I have been involved with I always put the most pressure on myself. I will try and guarantee every film is a hit.”
He’s a slightly scary individual, this Mr Peli. I suspect he may be around for a while.
Paranormal Activity is released on November 27