A good scare is a hard thing to come by on primetime television series, which tend to steer clear of horror outside of dead bodies on a cop show. But when “Paranormal Activity” mastermind Oren Peli is at the helm, fear becomes the central plot.
The terror auteur makes his television debut with “The River,” a paranormal thriller that chronicles the search for nature show host Dr. Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood), who has disappeared in the Amazon. The rescue operation is spearheaded by Cole’s former costars — his wife (Leslie Hope) and son (Joe Anderson), who assemble a team that includes a film crew documenting the expedition. But the hunt for clues quickly leads to unexpected, unearthly finds — like angry spirits and terrifyingly evil baby dolls.
“We were all on the same page that the way we want to create the scares is not with gory images or anything that’s overly visual,” says Peli; the “we” he refers to includes producing partner Steven Spielberg, who convinced him to turn “The River” into a TV series rather than a film. “We want to create the kind of anxiety and tension that allows the audience to use their own imagination to fill in the blanks and kind of create their own worst-case nightmare scenario.”
The effect is artfully achieved by using “found” footage from the search party’s documentary crew as part of the series’ cinematography. Showrunner Zack Estrin finds the tactic so crucial to the heart of the show that he refers to it as “the use of the camera as a character.”
“When you’re watching the show, you aren’t just, you know, seeing people react,” Estrin says. “You’re actually having the filmmakers themselves react because those camera guys are getting scared just the same as everybody else, and I think it has a much bigger impression on the audience.”
How does using “found” footage to tell a story change an actor’s method? Well, for one, there’s no downtime.
“Because there are multiple cameras and those cameras can swing anywhere at any time, you have to be on your game 110 percent as opposed to 100 percent of the time,” says star Joe Anderson, who plays Dr. Emmet Cole’s son, Lincoln. “You never know when you’re going to be filmed. There’s sometimes a little window that you know the camera is going to pass over you and you have to give something specific within that window. It’s freeing and challenging at the same time.”
About Mr. Spielberg …
Getting a television series, Oren Peli says, was as simple as meeting with Steven Spielberg. Which, of course, wasn’t very simple at all.
“It actually started with an idea that I had for a movie, which was much more simple than the way ‘The River’ has evolved,” Peli says. “It was just going to be about a documentary crew that has gone missing in the rainforest and filming the rescue mission to find them. I developed this idea with a couple of my producing partners, and we just put it aside and went on to produce other films. Then I had a meeting with Steven Spielberg, and he told me, ‘Hey, we should do a TV show together,’ and I’m thinking, ‘OK. Sure, whatever you say.’”
At that point, Peli admits, “I was barely figuring out the world of movies. I had no idea about anything with TV, and I tried to come up with some cool idea for a TV show.” He turned his focus back to films, and ended up chatting with the writer of “Paranormal Activity 2” about ideas that never came to fruition.
“I was telling him about this idea for the missing rainforest expedition, and he goes crazy for this,” Peli remembers, “like, ‘Why waste it on one movie? You can turn it into a whole TV show, and every episode they get into another adventure.’ And then we came up with the idea of making it on the boat on the river and pitched it to DreamWorks, and they loved it.”