Produce Oren Peli has become a well known entity in the horror world over the last several years. He is the writer/director of the original Paranormal Activity and the producer behind the remainder of the franchise.
Additionally, he’s gone on to produce several other terror-filled offerings including Insidious, upcoming The Lords of Salem and television’s The River. His latest film Chernobyl Diaries, which opens in theaters this weekend, is set in the city of Prypiat that once housed the workers of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. The chiller follows a group of friends who sign up for an “extreme tour” through the abandoned city while vacationing in Europe – only to find themselves stranded where they are not so alone after all.
We had the opportunity to speak with the writer/producer recently about his latest endeavor, setting a thriller in the location of a real-world catastrophe – and what scares him, personally.
Screen Rant: Horror is always seeking to tap into fundamental human fears but sometimes the storylines are addressing topical issues as well. Chernobyl Diaries, among other things, is playing on concerns about nuclear energy. Do you think those issues are still as relevant today as they were at the time of the event?
Oren Peli: “I think it’s something that people constantly think about. In many places around the world, all over the U.S. and Europe there are active nuclear power plants. And for many years during the Cold War the threat of nuclear war was a permanent fear. There’s always the concern that human kind is biting off more than they can chew in harnessing nuclear power. There have been accidents like Three Mile Island and of course Chernobyl that make you more aware of the dangers. So definitely this is something that could be relevant. Hopefully this would never happen again, though.”
SR: This was the worst nuclear disaster in history. Did you worry about utilizing this event as the backdrop of a horror movie and how people would respond to that? There’s been an online campaign to boycott the movie due to its connection to Chernobyl, for example.
OP: “Well we weren’t approaching it as if we were trying to make a serious documentary. It’s a work of fiction so we didn’t have any intention of having people take it too seriously and it didn’t really occur to us that this was the kind of thing that could offend people. We’ve seen a very tiny but vocal minority on the Internet that have been saying that they find it offensive and definitely no one is going to force them to watch the movie, but that was never our intention. And we’re actually working with a charity that specializes in working with the children of Chernobyl and they’ve seen the movie and they didn’t seem to find it offensive at all. In fact they were happy that, because of the movie, that we’re raising awareness again about Chernobyl.”
SR: Were you thinking that this is something that could highlight the fears around some current nuclear threats? There are some issues with the animals in the film that make it seem like they’ve been affected by radiation poisoning.
OP: “I don’t even know if we were thinking about it on such a philosophical level. And a lot of those things aren’t meant to be explained. It’s just the kind of thing we thought would be a scary concept and that people can interpret it in whichever way is scariest for them.”
SR: This isn’t a found footage film, but it does have a documentary/home video cinematic style. Is it important to you to capture these kinds of stories with that type of visual aesthetic?
OP: “Yes, you know other than the beginning of the movie and a small moment in the middle it’s not found footage at all. But it does have a very realistic documentary style that I do like a lot. It’s kind of the way that Paul Greengrass does some of his movies. I like it, it makes it more relatable and intimate and you feel like you’re going along on the ride with the characters. And because of the way we let the actors improvise, it feels like you’re watching people react rather than actors reading lines – so I think that’s always going to be something I like. But ‘Insidious’ was shot in a very traditional manner and it did very well, so it’s a case by case basis.”
SR: Speaking of Insidious, there’s a sequel in production at the moment and another Paranormal Activity out this fall. Are you thinking that Chernobyl Diaries may also be a franchise? Perhaps a series of “extreme tourism” activities gone awry?
OP: “I never think beyond one movie at a time, when I did the first ‘Paranormal’ I was happy to see that is was doing well, same with ‘Insidious,’ so it’s really too early to tell on this one.”
SR: We’ve seen the Paranormal mythology evolve over the last several films, where do you envision it going from here?
OP: “The only thing I can say about ‘Paranormal Activity 4’ is that it’s coming out on October 19th.”
SR: Fair enough. Have you thought about branching out beyond horror?
OP: “Right now I’m having fun with what I’m doing but I’d never categorically say no to something because it’s not horror. I’m keeping an open mind.”
SR: How do you approach each new project? Do you look for aspects of the genre that you’ve not yet explored and try to find a way into them?
OP: “Really it’s always things that scare me like loss of control, dealing with the unknown and the unseen – whether it’s a demon or something that’s not supposed to be there in ‘Chernobyl.’ Something that’s not supposed to be there and you don’t know where it came from, or what it wants from you, or how to defend yourself against it. That’s the root of the things I find scary. Usually I don’t find gore or slasher films scary. What works for me is the slower build where you are tightening the noose around the situation until you are running out of options and then really have no idea what to do.”
Chernobyl Diaries is now playing in theaters.
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