Ramat Gan, Tel-Aviv, IL
Director Oren Peli took his own fear of the unknown, shot it with a night-vision camera, and scared to death all those who dared to experience it. Peli brought moviegoers face-to-face with evil with the horror flick "Paranormal Activity" (2009), the story of a couple terrorized by a strange presence in their suburban home. With a cast of unknown actors, an $11,000 budget, and no prior filmmaking experience, Peli created a shoe-string budget masterpiece that struck abject terror into the hearts of those who saw the film, including that of director Steven Spielberg, whose company DreamWorks produced the film. Peli's directorial debut earned just shy of $100 million less than a month after its wide release in the U.S., and scared up comparisons to another indie film, "The Blair Witch Project" (1999), which also had the same slow burn effect by exploiting the visceral fear of the unknown via a camcorder. With "Paranormal Activity," Peli succeeded not only in leaving in his wake thousands of sleepless fans, but also proving that imagination - not special effects - was a more powerful force in creating a great horror movie.
Oren Peli was born and raised in Israel. He moved to the United States when he was 19 years old and worked as a full-time software engineer, creating animation and game programs. The idea to make a film about the supernatural came to the technophile when he lived in San Diego, CA. According to the director, Peli and his girlfriend at the time constantly heard odd creaks and sudden thuds, which they attributed to living in an older, detached family home. Still, Peli became fixated with thoughts of using a video camera to capture what might be lurking in the middle of the night when they were asleep. He took great inspiration from the suburban nightmare film, "Poltergeist" (1982), directed by Tobe Hooper and produced by a man who would figure prominently in the production of his soon-to-be-movie.
Armed with just a cinematic idea set to home video, Peli set out to do what many considered was passé at the time. After all, "The Blair Witch Project" had already mined the low-budget POV camcorder experience. Nonetheless, he immersed himself in research, learning everything he could about demonology, haunted homes and exorcism. In 2006, with the help of his friends, a high-definition video camera, and $11,000, Peli shot his first feature film using his own bedroom as the set in just seven days. He cast two unknown actors, Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat, to play a couple that set up a video camera in order to capture the supernatural activities that intensify nightly while they sleep. The chemistry between them was palpable, as were the mysterious events that unfolded - a pillow sheet billowing inexplicably, a door opening by itself, or mysterious footprints - and trap them in a state of constant fear. With no script in hand and a vague idea of what Peli might spring upon them during their scene, the actors gasped, screamed, and unraveled the way they would have in real life had a demonic entity actually surrounded them. It made for an extremely chilling and realistic-looking film that felt more like a documentary than fiction.
The week-long shooting period was intense for Peli, who also applied all the visual effects via his home computer. After 10 months of editing, the movie began a grueling journey to the big screen, with Peli getting rejected each time by major studios. It ultimately landed in the hands of Hollywood producer Jason Blum, who in 1999, had passed on the chance to produce the international phenomenon "The Blair Witch Project," which was made for $35,000 and grossed more than $240 million. Freaked out by "Paranormal Activity," Blum immediately jumped on board and sent a copy to Spielberg, whose company, DreamWorks, eventually produced the film. Spielberg reportedly would only watch the film in its entirety during the daytime; he could not stomach it at night. Once he was hooked, Spielberg also influenced the film's alternate, more plausible ending.
In 2008, Peli's directorial debut held its first test screening in Santa Monica, CA; it resulted in hundreds of traumatized fans either screaming or yelling at each other due to the horrifying spectacle they had just witnessed. Within 48 days of the screening, Peli sold the distribution rights of the film to 52 countries. Paramount Pictures (which released it) also came up with a brilliant marketing plan. Instead of promoting it with posters and trailers, Paramount directed fans to a website where they could, with a single click, demand a movie to be played in their area. The overwhelming fan response resulted in "Paranormal Activity" playing in cities like Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco, as well as smaller college towns. By the time of the film's wide release in the fall of 2009, Peli's small film rocketed to No. 1 at the box office.
Within weeks of its release, Paramount Pictures announced that a "Paranormal Activity" sequel was in the works, with Peli again at the helm. But in the meantime, the suddenly hot Peli began directing the sci-fi thriller "Area 51" (2010) about a group of teenagers that discover the infamous area in the Nevada desert that shows signs of alien life.