Oren Peli talks Chernobyl Diaries
By Anne Brodie May 28, 2012, 14:20 GMT
Six tourists hire an extreme tour guide who takes them to the abandoned city Pripyat, the former home to the workers of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. During their exploration, they soon discover they are not alone. ...more
In April of 1986 a catastrophic nuclear accident occurred in Chernobyl, in the Ukraine that sent radioactivity across much of the then USSR and Europe.
The attempts to clean up the area nearly bankrupted the Soviet Union, and much of it remains as it was on that day, reduced to radioactive rubble, a constant reminder of the risks of nuclear power. It is considered the second worst nuclear accident in history after last year’s Fukushima Daiichi disaster.
What a perfect place to set a horror film! That crossed the fertile mind of writer producer Oren Peli, whose Paranormal Activity films changed the genre, and he immediately got to work on The Chernobyl Diaries.
It follows hitchhikers who take an “extreme tourism” trip to the area where they encounter the irradiated monsters that sprung up after the blast.
Monsters and Critics spoke with Peli in Toronto:
M&C: How did the idea for a film about Chernobyl come about?
Peli: It happened accidentally. I was browsing the web one day and I ran into some photo blogs of people who went on tours in Pripyat, the town next to Chernobyl which is where the workers of Chernobyl lived which was abandoned overnight and in a different way there are a lot of towns that becomes ghost towns usually because of economical reasons people will pick up their things and go. But here they didn’t have the chance to pick up their belongings.
It’s almost as if they vanished and it has a post apocalyptical feel about it. In addition to the effect of radiation, it’s a very eerie setting unlike any other place on earth and I thought it would be a great setting for a very scary horror movie.
M&C: As a writer how do you go from initial scenes at the ghost town and translate that into ninety minutes of sustainable horror?
Peli: There’s no real trick to it. To me the essence of the movie was people who find themselves way over their heads and they’re trapped in a town and in a foreign country and no one is coming to help them and no way of getting out. They have to worry about being there too long because of radiation.
You think you are alone and can wait it out but you realise that there was something else there, you hear a scream in the middle of the night which may or may not be human so you have this whole other thing to worry about, you don’t know what it is or how to defend yourself against it. That was the main thing.
And then from there you work yourself backwards, who are these people and how do we create characters who feel real and we can get to know them and like them and then you move forward.
How do they get out of there and what are all the horrible things that happen to them how we can set them up in advance of setting up the story and you keep going over it, time after time over months until you have something that looks like a story.
M&C: Did you visit Pripyat? Did you want to shoot there?
Peli: Originally, not only were we want to visit it but we were thinking about shooting it there and we figured it would make it cheaper because the locations were already there and so we thought “Why not?”, but the main reason that we didn’t shoot there, the only reason is that for whatever reason in 2011, for most of the year the Ukrainian government stopped allowing people to go in.
They were doing some construction on the reactor, and we tried really hard to pull strings and whatever so we had to find a better place.
M&C: It’s a health risk!
Peli: The initial research we’d done told us it wasn’t that bad and the levels of radiation were low enough that if you were there for a short period of time, you’re going to be okay unless you’re there for days or weeks. However, and people do go there, on YouTube you can see videos, and they’re okay.
The one thing we heard later on when we were shooting in Serbia, we met with a nuclear researcher and he said “You know it’s true, you can hold a Geiger counter in the air and the level will be low and safe but if you’re walking around and there is a patch of dust on the ground that you are going to kick, and there is a particle that happens to be radioactive and you breathe it in, and it gets lodged in your lungs, that’s what you don’t want to do”.
It’s like “Okay maybe we should skip the whole idea of the trip”!
M&C: Did it look like Pripyat?
Peli: Yes, most of the exteriors we found in Hungary in an abandoned air force base, was built by the Soviets in the 70’s around the same time Pripyat was built and abandoned by the Soviets in the mid 80’s, the same time Pripyat was abandoned. So there was a similar architecture and level of decay so it was a great basis for it.
Brad Parker our genius director could look at every location and say “This could work for this scene and this could work for that scene”. And this is almost right but with visual effects we can make it perfect so it seamlessly flow from one place to another, you can’t tell in the movie, as we moved from Hungary to Serbia and it flows and no one would suspect the hard work we had to do to make it ... Pripyat is the main character in the movie and we tried to recreate it as accurately as we could.
The tunnels we used in the movie in Siberia are actually a Nazi underground bunker, they had a whole system of rooms and chambers and tunnels. If we had built it as a set we never would have it. It was very unsafe, narrow, the doorjambs clearance was low and we had to duck and every one of us bumped their heads on it.
Our cinematographer would run in total darkness and sprint with the focus puller and somehow getting everything in focus, with no idea how they worked but they did amazing things we could ever have imagined.
M&C: This film is quite different structurally from the Paranormal Activitys. It is more of a narrative, despite the fact it’s not traditional it seems more directed.
Peli: It’s true the film is not found footage and so I would say probably a way to describe it is halfway between found footage and traditional movies so it’s not found footage, it’s not all the way traditional.
There is much more of a sense of narrative but at the same time we allowed the actors to improvise much of the dialogue and we used a very different style of shooting and just about every moment of the movie is shot handheld but by a professional cameraman so it doesn’t feel shaky but we wanted it to feel like you’re going on an journey with these people as opposed to watching these actors reading lines. It was important for us to hold on to the essence of keeping this very visceral and real and authentic.
At the beginning of development we thought for a moment that we were maybe going to make it as found footage, but as we went on, it stopped making sense and we thought if we forced it to be a found footage movie it wouldn’t work, so we dropped it immediately.
We just said “You know there have been a lot of movies that used that style, if you look at the early Paul Greengrass films, movies like Traffic, Children of Men, The Wrestler, they’re not pretending they’re found footage movies but there is something about them that is different”.
It’s different from a traditional movie. They’re not polished, they’re raw and gritty and edgy and dirty in a good way in a way that feels very visceral and that was our guide as to how we were going to approach making Chernobyl Diaries, not found footage but you’re still connected to the action and the characters.
M&C: What is Paranormal Activity 4 going to be about?
Peli: I’m sorry, I can’t help you! [Laughs]
Visit the movie database for more information.
FROM THE WEB
Further Reading on M&C
COMMENT on Oren Peli talks Chernobyl Diariescomments powered by Disqus
Latest Headlines in Movies
- 1. Five Chow Facts from Ken Jeong - The Hangover Part III
- 2. 33 Postcards – Movie Review
- 3. Desperate Acts of Magic – Movie Review
- 4. Review: 'Star Trek: Into Darkness' a bold effort
- 5. Riddick trailer and production stills bring the action