'Paranormal Activity's' Oren Peli on Scares, Spielberg and 'The River's' Pricey Pilot (Q&A)

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Oren Peli

"The pilot was more expensive than any movie that I’ve been involved in," said Peli, a newcomer to TV.

Paranormal Activity’s Oren Peli is bringing his brand of horror to TV.

His debut series, ABC’s The River, follows a family and film crew as they search the Amazon for famed naturalist Emmet Cole over the course of an eight episode first season. In keeping with the Paranormal model, the Steven Spielberg-produced drama, which premieres Feb. 7, is shot documentary-style and is widely considered a favorite of ABC entertainment chief Paul Lee.

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Peli sat down with The Hollywood Reporter last month to discuss the involvement of Spielberg, the primal desire to be frightened and the reason The River pilot alone cost more than any movie he’s ever made.

The Hollywood Reporter: How do you explain the viewer desire to be frightened by fare like yours?

Oren Peli: I have a theory. Thousands of years ago, you’d sleep in a cave and you had no idea if you were going to wake up in the morning. A tiger could come in and eat you alive, and every day was a fight for survival. You had this daily adrenaline rush as you went to hunt or whatever it was that you’d do. Now, our lives are pretty calm. Merging on the freeway in the closest you get to risking your life. So what’s missing now is that primal emotion of being scared to death, and I think that’s why people crave thrills like roller coasters or scary movies. They give you the chance to feel this very primal emotion in a very controlled environment.

THR: Where did the idea for The River come from?

Peli: There was this unique period of time when Paranormal Activity was picked up by DreamWorks, before DreamWorks and Paramount got divorced and we got lost in the custody battle. So we figured we’d find something else to do. It was actually our producer Steven Schneider who became obsessed with this idea of nature run amuck and animals taking over humans. I started developing the idea of a missing documentary reporter who went to this weird place in the rainforest where strange things would happen. We came up with a four-page treatment but that’s as far as we went. We decided to go in a different direction with another project, and we basically forgot about it.

THR: At that time, were you developing it as another feature or a TV show?

Peli: We were developing it as a low budget movie. But then things started happening with Paranormal Activity, and I had a meeting with Steven Spielberg. To me, having grown up on E.T. and Indiana Jones, he was this larger than life God of cinema and there I was sitting across from him chatting about his movies and my movie and politics and all of that. At several points, I stopped to remind myself, ‘Holy sh--, I’m talking to Steven Spielberg.’ At one point, he says, ‘You know, we should really do a TV show together. There’s nothing like this, something very raw and visceral, on TV. Let’s figure out how to bring the horror nature of Paranormal Activity to TV.’ I barely understand the world of movies and I knew nothing about TV, but if Mr. Spielberg says, ‘Let’s do a show together,’ you say, ‘Ok. I’ll start thinking of ideas.’ We spent months and months trying to think of ideas and we came up with nothing.

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THR: So what happened?

Peli: We were hanging out on a Sunday afternoon as we were developing Paranormal Activity with Michael Perry, the writer of the movie, who happens to have a background in TV and won an Emmy for NYPD Blue. We were talking about other ideas for movies, and someone mentioned the original idea that we had and he just goes bonkers for it. He’s like, ‘This is a great idea, but why waste it on a movie when you can do a TV show where every season they go to a different place.’ So two days later, he has a whole pitch ready with the river and the boat. We call Dreamworks and we run the idea by them and they love it. They want to keep developing it and then we pitch it to Spielberg over the phone. He loves it and on the same call he starts pitching ideas back to us. Some of them actually made it into the pilot.

THR: Such as?

Peli: The whole panic room idea was his. He’s like, ‘what if they find this panic room and there’s something knocking inside?’ It was great.

THR: We’ve been told that you were relieved to have the first season wrap after just eight episodes. Do you know where the show goes from there if you were to get a second season?

Peli: We do have a road map. There are two questions. One, are we going to be able to find enough scares? We’re lucky because there’s so much folklore and real mythology that we’re drawing from, so I don’t think there’s a concern that we’ll ever run out of material. And as far as the run for the characters, we have a shorter-term vision for the next couple of seasons and a goal for when where we want it to end.

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THR: If you get a second season, could you handle 22 episodes or would you fight for another truncated season?

Peli: I think it can go either way. I was secretly happy that we ended up being a midseason pickup because it gave us a little bit more time to plan. The one thing that’s very crazy for me coming from the feature world is the pace of television. The schedule is insane.

THR: Horror has been a theme that scripted series TV hadn’t dabbled too much in until FX’s American Horror Story came along this past fall. Does having a show like that come on a few months before help or hurt your series?

Peli: Honestly, I don’t know. I think this show will end up living or dying on its own. If people appreciate the scares and the unique nature of it, I think it can do very well.

THR: What scares you?

Peli: Gory stuff can be shocking but it doesn’t really scare me. I’d say the kind of stuff that gets under my skin is the unknown. You hear a knock behind a wall and you don’t know what it is. Is there something there or not? Those are the things that scare me, and its what the Amazon is great for because they’re pretty much foreigners in this really hostile environment – they go to an area that even the locals don’t want to go to.

THR: On the film side, you have an enviable formula that keeps your movies low budget. The pilot of this series looks to be anything but. Is it possible to do that with a TV series like this?

Peli: No, these shows are expensive. The pilot was more expensive than any movie that I’ve been involved in.

THR: Why was that the case?

Peli: First, we’re dealing with real actors who get real salaries here, and then we shot the pilot in Puerto Rico and you had to transport people there. Plus, you’re dealing with a boat and a river, which are expensive things, and we had to build sets and do stunts. With the Paranormal movies and Insidious, we were fairly limited in terms of the number of stunts that we were doing. And in most cases, we only had one or two locations and we stayed in Los Angeles so nobody had to travel.

Email: Lacey.Rose@THR.com; Twitter: @LaceyVRose