EXCL: OREN PELI TALKS “CHERNOBYL DIARIES”
The DLB recently sat down with Oren Peli, the director of the first Paranormal Activity movie and producer of the upcoming horror film Chernobyl Diaries about a group of tourists visiting the site of the 1986 Ukrainian nuclear disaster. Here Peli talks about his memories of Chernobyl, working with first-time director Brad Parker, and scary Serbian secret forces dogs.
What memories, if any, did you have about the Chernobyl Disaster when you were coming up with the story idea?
I was 16 when it happened, and the main thing was there was so much confusion and misinformation about what happened. I remember that the Soviet government didn’t actually admit that anything was going on. I think it was either a Norwegian or Swedish scientist who noticed this big radiation cloud over Europe, and wondered what the hell was going on. And finally they did admit it, I think, two or three days after the fact. ‘Well, it was the weekend. We didn’t want to bother anyone during the weekend.’ All these weird excuses.
So I think that created even more of a sense of panic because the fact that they were being so shady about it made people wonder what in the hell is going on? What else might they be hiding from us?
And then I remember in Israel the main thing people were saying is that it seems the wind is taking it the other way, towards Northern Europe, so we’re safe. There was a sigh of relief. It’s someone else’s problem.
You hired actors based on improvised scenes, not on the script. Why was that such a good test of their abilities?
That was incredibly important because we decided fairly early on this is not going to be a found-footage movie but we still wanted it to feel very real and very authentic. And even though we’re not saying it’s a documentary of course, but we wanted to shoot it almost like it’s a documentary and to make a film like you’re not watching actors reciting lines, you’re following this group of people who act and behave very naturally, and for that I believe improvisation is a very important part of that.
And for the movie in many cases they actually are improvising on the fly. Or in many cases during the rehearsal, right before shooting the scene, Brad would go through the dialogue with them and kind of tweak it and change it and make it up on the fly until we thought, ‘Wow, this sounds really natural.’
But the other thing we did which was really cool, we used to videotape all the rehearsals. We just told them the generic sense of the scene, go. And they would come up with their own words and there would be a lot of cross-talk, and it just felt very organic. And then when we took the videotapes and transcribed the dialogue that they improvised on the spot into the script. So parts of the script ended up becoming their own improvised dialogue. So they were using their own words and their own voice which made it feel a lot more real and authentic than if they’re using someone else’s words.
Your director Brad Parker came from a visual effects background. Why did you hire him and what does he do very well?
He did just about everything well. The main reason that we hired him is simply because we had a lot of confidence in him. We liked him a lot as a person. We thought we’re going to get along great. He was extremely smart. He had a very strong sense of vision and visual style that we thought would be perfect for the movie.
And the few things that we didn’t know, because this is his first feature, how he’s going to work with the actors. Because of course he understood the story, but you never know until you get to the moment.
But even early on when he started working with the actors in casting we could tell right away that he’s extremely sharp and has great instincts, and we basically stopped worrying because we knew the movie’s in great hands.
Morten Soborg, who shot a lot of Nicolas Winding Refn’s film, was your cinematographer. Why work with him?
We were just amazingly impressed by his style. He makes everything feel very authentic and very realistic, and he was amazing to work with.
That person is insane. He would put on kneepads and elbow pads and a helmet, and he was fearless. He would sprint with this big camera on his shoulder. He had all these techniques. For instance, he would mount it backwards, so he’s holding it this way while he’s running forward while the actors are running behind him, and it was always in frame. I don’t know how he did it.
And his focus puller, if you’ve seen the movie you know there’s this underground tunnel. Those were actually a Nazi bunker tunnels in Serbia; it was a very, very, very creepy location. Like this narrow, and the clearance was like this. We all at one point or another bumped our head, and it’s pitch black darkness. The only source of light was a flashlight, and he’s just sprinting in darkness through this tunnel with his focus puller getting everything in focus. We still have no idea how they’ve done it, but they were absolutely amazing, and they got the exact style we were hoping for. Because the movie, every minute of it, is handheld, but it doesn’t feel like shaky cam. It feels like it was professionally shot.
You also kept the actors in the dark regarding some of the scares. To what extent did that help them give genuine responses on camera?
I will say the actors were really fantastic so there wasn’t necessarily a need to always do that. Most of the scares were great with them being in on it, but there were a few times… Sometimes we would be running a scene and the scene was running great. Then basically we’d get to the end of the scene – they’re running out of material and the scene’s kind of dying down – then Brad would run to the van and just bang on it, and then it would startle them and keep the scene going. So we definitely got some authentic reactions because of that.
You worked with Serbian Special Forces attack dogs. Were they as frightening to work with as they looked?
They were scary. We stayed away from them. We didn’t want to mess with them. And there were these trainers that knew how to handle them, and we let them do the work and we stayed away.
Chernobyl Diaries opens May 25.