Para­nor­mally prof­itable: the hor­ror film that’s made scary money,

Pro­duced for $15,000. Filmed in the di­rec­tor’s own home. Cham­pi­oned by the peo­ple. Para­nor­mal Ac­tiv­ity has be­come the the most prof­itable film ever at the world box-of­fice. The movie’s qui­etly-scary di­rec­tor Oren Peli tells Don­ald Clarke how pub­lic screa

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - frontpage -

WE WERE sup­posed to be hav­ing this con­ver­sa­tion ev­ery other week. Ten years ago, a no-bud­get hor­ror flick named The Blair Witch Project sur­prised 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 Ac­tiv­ity has 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 Ac­tiv­ity pre­tends 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 Project that first stirred his in­ter­est.

“ Blair Witch planted the seed then Open Wa­ter con­firmed 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 Ac­tiv­ity un­doubt­edly is, you need more than dis­ci­pline to flog such a low-bud­get film to a ma­jor stu­dio. Para­nor­mal Ac­tiv­ity played a few small fes­ti­vals and even­tu­ally caught the eye of Hol­ly­wood agents CAA. Now, a ma­jor player was sell­ing the flick, but,

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