Oren Peli, the producer of "Cernobyl Diaries" talks about handing the reins to a new director; the state of found-footage films; and reveals his thoughts on the end of his primetime network TV series The River, after just one season.
Staci Layne Wilson: Are there really people who go on "extreme vacations" and thrill-seeker adventures available?
Oren Peli: Some people want to go that one extra mile and do something really crazy and they go swimming with sharks and bungee jumping and you know those kind of things and they kind of want the thrill and the one thing that is unique about our movie is that the people who go there are actually not thrill seekers at all. They're not into extreme tourism, they're just actually going about a fairly normal vacation and the crazy brother kind of talks them onto going on this thing so it's actually a very spontaneous decision where you think all you know, actually it sounds fairly harmless. What's the worst that can happen?
"What is the worst that could happen?" I think I know the answer to that! [laughter] So what has the reaction been to the trailers and stuff and all of the viral campaigns that you've been doing?
Oren Peli: Overall, very positive. It’s interesting that those people, especially the younger generation is not as familiar with Chernobyl, and even I who lived through Chernobyl, didn't know that there was this abandoned town of Pripyat right next to it. Which obviously made sense that this is where the workers of Chernobyl were housed. It seems to be re-educating a lot of people about Chernobyl and people generally respond to it as this is a really great idea for a setting for a horror movie and overall I think we had a very good positive response.
Yeah, I thought it was too but I was wondering if there is any sort of backlash... like it's disrespectful to use a real-life area that a tragedy occurred in, even though it's done all the time?
Oren Peli: Yeah, it seems to be like a very small minority that's very vocal, but there's been a lot of movies that have been done based on just about every tragic event you can think of, wars and stuff like that. And it's definitely never our intention to offend anyone. That wasn't why we did the movie. It's not a serious documentary. It's just supposed to be a horror movie and we hope no one will be offended. We did show the movie to people from a Children of Chernobyl charity and they were not offended at all. In fact, they thought it was actually a great thing that was kind of bringing back to the consciousness and raising awareness to something that is basically a forgotten disaster that people are still dealing with the after effects of it. So they're hoping that it's going to be raising awareness once again about the victims of Chernobyl and the dangers of nuclear disasters.
That's a great attitude. That's a good way for them to look at it, for sure. Now your cast seems really organic like they really were friends and relatives. How did you assemble them?
Oren Peli: It was very very tricky. We knew that in order for the movie to work, we needed to believe the characters and our attitude was that we don't want to have actors reading lines. We wanted to really feel like they were real characters that we’re bringing to life. So we had a very rigorous audition process, and they had to improvise on the spot. They didn't know what the setting was going to be. There were no lines for them to read. And once we found a few actors that we thought were absolutely brilliant, we brought them together to see how we could mix and match them how they work and how was the chemistry together as a couple, as a brothers as a group. And once we settled on that group that we are, then it felt like magic. They were so natural and they felt like they really knew each other. And in fact, a lot of them became really good friends during the process and are still keeping touch. It just created a very nice group. And part of what made the whole thing feel very authentic is the way that we were working with them and Brad, our director, was working with them, which was to give them a lot of freedom to improvise and in many cases was actually take their own dialogue from rehearsals and their own improvised dialogue even from the casting sessions and transcribe it back into the script. So that's why a lot of it feels like their own words, because that's really what it is.
Your director, is this his first feature?
Oren Peli: This is his first feature yes.
So what was it about him that attracted you and made you think that he could handle this, because it's a pretty big movie.
Oren Peli: It is his first movie, but he is extremely experienced. When it comes to, I mean, he's been a commercial director for many years. He's been a visual effects supervisor, which we thought would come in very handy for this kind of movie. And he's been a second unit director. So he is in some aspect, like one of the top experts on how to bring visual and put a good visual stamp on things and bring situations and scenarios to life. Of course we were a little bit nervous in the beginning, but the more we met with him and the more we talked to him and the more we got to know him. First of all, we just really liked him because he's such a nice guy.
When you're working with someone it's important they are nice, in addition to regard of talent...
Oren Peli: Absolutely. You want to make sure you get along and the more we just started working with him. And later on when we saw the way he was working with, even during the casting process, we knew that we made the right decision, because a few things that we may be were worried about in the beginning. Once we got into it, we knew that he was on top of everything. But it was a little scary, but he made us feel very confident in himself.
I'm sure he appreciates that you took a chance to on him.
Oren Peli: I hope so.
When it come to found footage, and sort of those kind of things, I feel they have definitely improved over the years. Like, Chronicle was one of my favorites, because they found an innovative way of floating the camera and making it look more cinematic. How do you find that the style is improving over the years?
Oren Peli: And you're talking about in general, not about Chernobyl Diaries?
Oren Peli: That's one of those questions that's like a very smart question. And I wish I had a smart answer, because it's really hard to predict. I'm sure that there is going to be a lot of people who are going to come up with very smart ideas on how to approach it. Even if you look at movies like District 9, was that film footage or not? It started this film footage, almost it started as a documentary and then it stopped being one and still worked. I think that what's probably going to happen is that a lot of people are going to try a lot of different things. And some of them are going to work and some of them are not going to work. And that's how it's sort of going to evolve in ways that we can't even anticipate.
What would you say in Chernobyl Diaries makes it rated R.? Is it the feeling of suspense and tension or is their actual gore scenes?
Oren Peli: We're not really all about the gore. That's not what really scares me. However there are a few really gory moments in Chernobyl Diaries again it's not the meat of the movie, but they are there, but I think that's a part of it and we do have some blood, which I think there are some restrictions on how much blood. You can show in a non-R-rated movie and the language, we are using very frank improvised language. So using the F. word, probably, how many dozens of times and in a PG-13 movie. I think you can only use it like once or twice. So those are the reasons.
I'm curious to know how you think that this movie will play in America as opposed to Europe and if you think that audiences any different? I mean, it seems like they're all pretty homogenized now with the same access to everything on the Internet.
Oren Peli: It's hard to predict the other movies that have been a part of the paranormal activity movies and insidious seems to have played pretty much the same around the world as they did in the US and I think also in Chernobyl Diaries the movie kind of touches upon a lot of very universal primal fears that I think would play just as well probably about anywhere around the world.
I want to talk just a little bit about The River, which we talked about at length before it aired. I don't really have TV, so I never got to see it. I'm dying for to come out on DVD, which won't be long right?
Oren Peli: Yeah, I think it's being released soon on the whole set.
So how does it work? Were you able to wrap it up at the end?
Oren Peli: The season does have some sort of a conclusion. But there's definitely places for it to have gone if it were given a chance to go beyond the first season.
And are you satisfied with how it worked out?
Oren Peli: I mean, obviously there’s some things I'm happy about, but obviously there's some things that we might have misfired on, and it didn't connect with the audience to the degree that we wanted. Now I do hear from a lot of people who did love the show and became addicted to it. So I think maybe it just wasn't the right show for the prime time network audience. I'm not really sure as far as the postmortem. What was exactly going on, I know that a lot of people will love it, but it just didn't connect with as many people as we needed it to to keep on going.
Are you going to do any more TV or what have you got lined up for yourself in the near future?
Oren Peli: I don't have any particular plans, but generally speaking even if I did. I probably wouldn't be speaking about it I like to keep everything secret. But yeah, I'm open-minded about anything but we'll see what happens next.