SXSW Interview with Insidious producer & Paranormal Activity Director Oren Peli

INSIDIOUS is set for release this Friday April 1. The film was one of the opening night midnight features of SXSW 2011. While I was in Austin for SXSW, and the morning after the midnight bow of the film at the festival I had a chance to catch up with the producer Oren Peli. If Mr. Peli’s name doesn’t ring a bell let me add this. He is also the writer, producer and director of 2007’s Paranormal Activity. Insidious marks the first film from Peli and his producing partners on Paranormal Jason Blum and Steven Schneider. The three have set out to work with creative teams like Insidious director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell to produce low budget independent horror films. Their goal by using smaller budgets, thus producing the films independent of studio financing, gives the producers the chance to give the writer and director total creative control over their films and thus their vision. They have two more films in production with director Barry Levinson, Isopod and Rob Zombie’s Lords of Salem which Peli touches on in the interview. Peli also reveals the one thing that as a director scares him. Read on below to find out what that is…

How did you get involved with Insidious, did you approach director James Wan and Writer Leigh Whannell or did they approach you?

Well after Paranormal Activity had a good run and we had some good momentum going on we questioned if there was a way we could create a small budget horror movies and team up with other film makers. Give them an opportunity to have full creative control, and make the type of movies they wanted to make and the type of movies we would enjoy. Doing it with a very small budget. Also dong it kind of an old style way. When we approached them they stated that they had a story that they’d liked for a long time, and then we read the script for the story and thought it was awesome and we just kept moving along and four or five months later we started shooting.

A lot of the press made out a rivalry between Paranormal Activity and Saw and October becoming this battleground between the two now franchises. Now that Paranormal Activity has become the force of October did you have an idea of when you wanted Insidious to release? Did it have an impact at all in terms of getting the film completed?

When we made the film we really didn’t know when it was going to get released. We just wanted to make the best movie that we could and after Sony and FilmDistrict (the film’s distributors) became involved it was mostly up to them to decide on the release date. So we let that be up to them.

I do like the idea that you and your producing partners Jason Blum & Steven Schneider had about reaching out to other film makers to do something similar to what you did with Paranormal Activity. In my opinion you shifted the genre away from the torture porn/graphic violence to more of an atmospheric type of horror film like Paranormal Activity. Are you looking to work with any other film makers to do something similar to what you did with Insidious?

Well first of all to be fair the original Saw wasn’t really gory, it was the others that became much more gory but the first wasn’t like that at all. Also the first was more about the story and shot very cheaply for about a million dollars. So our thought was that if we bring back the team from the first Saw and make another movie, we knew we weren’t going to get a torture porn type movie we were going to get a very smart and kind of well crafted creepy story. As far as the first part of the question we now have post production going on The Bay (IMDB list the film as Isopod) which was directed by Barry Levinson and the next movie that we are shooting will be The Lords of Salem with Rob Zombie.

How is Area 51 coming? Are you finished with it?

Sorry I can’t comment on that.

Were you on set for any of Insidious or were you around more in pre-production on the film?

I would say I was involved in the later part of the film, but I was also on the set a lot. But not because I was offering anything just more because I liked being there and wanted to check out what James was working on. Also in case he wanted any advice from me as we did give him full creative control, and final cut so we weren’t there to bug him, as he was in control of the whole thing.

What is next on your plate be it as writer, director or producer as you were here on Insidious. I ask as I find the way you got into the business interesting since you made a film on your own that really gained lots of momentum and took off as it really captured audience’s imaginations. Where do you think you go from here?

I think I’ll produce a few movies whenever I can, as I do find something fun about that. And the one movie that has been announced that I will be directing next is Eliza Graves which is genre but not typical horror. Beyond that its hard to think too far ahead, I would like to transition away from genre films into more traditional types of films.

So would you want to do a thriller or a comedy?

I don’t know about comedy as its the one thing that really scares me because its so hard to do comedies that are respected; but thrillers or dramas or something like that.

Are you sticking around the festival to see anything else?

No I’m flying back in a couple of hours, but it seems like such a fun festival, from the atmosphere, but Austin can be that way almost all the time. So next year I hope to have a chance to come back and be more of a tourist with out any agenda.

Were you at the Insidious screening last night?

I was, I like how it played and it got a good reaction from the audience during the jump scares and the scary moments and by the end judging from the applause it seemed like they were really into it. So it went well. Were you guys at the screening?

No we cheated and did the lame/boring media screening in the afternoon…which is a shame as with films like Insidious or Paranormal Activity, seeing them with a packed house is the best way…

Yeah the crowd energy…

Right….

I’ve seen this movie now maybe three or four times, between test screenings and Toronto (Insidious premiered at the Toronto International Film Fest in September) and it always plays well and you can tell the audience is really into it and hooked as people are screaming and groaning and that is when you know its working.

I have to commend you, (Insidious Director) James Wan, and (Insidious Writer) Leigh Whannell as you’re the only three I can think of that have made me jump in a theater in a long while.

Oh thanks! I knew the movie (Insidious) when I was there on set, knew the script and saw the film being shot, and on the first rough cut with a temp score and no completed visual effects James showed, me it still got me. Now I’m pretty new to jump scares but it still got me every time. So that was the first indication that there was something very effective here.

Did the film go through many changes after that initial rough cut? Since you mentioned director James Wan had final cut.

He did have final cut but was also very collaborative so if we had any suggestions or ideas he would listen to them and there have been a few but nothing too radical or nothing that affected elements of the story. More just fine tweaking here and there but nothing too major. So if you were to see an earlier cut of the film to now its still 98 or 99% the same movie.

We talked with Leigh about the comedy and levity in the film. Was there any apprehension to having a break in the tension that the story had built up to there?

That is a valid question and it is a double-edged sword as everyone really seems to love them (Specs and Tucker) and after forty five minutes of non stop terror you get a moment to take a breath. With out them I’m not sure if we would have been able to maintain that pace and sustain the rest of the movie. I think it takes a little bit of tension off but a few minutes later you’re already building up again. I feel that comedy and horror can be very interlinked and very kind of different sides of the same emotion and if you watch some of the really good horror films there are elements of comedy and here it blends fairly well, but it is tricky as it could be easy to go too far.

As a director or writer do you watch other horror films? What is your source of inspiration as far as creatively?

From life experiences, things I read on the internet, from movies, TV shows, I do watch lots of movies, as many as I can. Not only horror movies but anything I think I would enjoy watching. Watching movies is a hobby so if I don’t have anything going on its not uncommon for me to watch two or three in a row on a good day.

Can Blair Witch be thanked of giving us Saw, Paranormal Activity and now Insidious? Seems that way...

What would you say would be the film that really pushed you to go and do Paranormal Activity and finally said, “okay I’m going to make a film”?

The kind of life altering moment was The Blair Witch Project. I’d always loved movies but it never seemed like anything obtainable to me. Because I always thought you had to have connections and kind of work your way up through film school and something like twenty years and then maybe you get a chance to direct something. So I was never really thinking about it and then I see The Blair Witch Project and I read about it and thought a couple of guys bought a video camera and then ran around the woods for less than $60k and here it is making all this money. I said okay, mental note….so I started looking into other movies that launched careers of film makers like Pi for Daren Aronofsky, or El Mariachi for Robert Rodriquez and even Saw seeing and reading about it here are these two kids that came from Australia out of seemingly nowhere and made a movie that turned into a franchise and even Open Water, so all these movies that kind of came around I started to see a pattern and say okay maybe I can buy a video camera and make a movie and if it goes well and I’m lucky who knows?

Technology seems to be making film making easier and more accessible than its ever been….

Absolutely you can buy a high quality high def camera and shoot everything on your own, cut everything on your PC and you’ve got a movie. Like Insidious James actually cut it at home on his own personal computer.

How did they film Insidious? What camera was used?

It was with the Red

Have you used the Red?

I have not, but that was nice looking at the dailies that they are shooting. Just looking at the film you would never guess it was done for the budget that it was, as it looks much bigger than it really is.

Can you talk a little bit about the casting of Patrick Wilison and Rose Byrne and how they came on to the picture?

I wasn’t really involved in casting early on. But I know we were fans of their work so we would have felt lucky to get them and we were really lucky to get them and they were always 100% there and giving their all. And it was then that we felt like now we have the movie.

Did you have anything else to get out there?

Just that it was lots of fun working with James and Leigh on the creative process and we are really happy with how it turned out and really hope that people go out and see it and enjoy it on April 1!

By John Coovert

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