Sociologists have probably written about it at great length, but horror’s boundaries have shifted steadily outwards – once, American teens were getting chopped up in backwoods Southern States, or turned into werewolves in rural England, but thanks to the likes of Hostel, Train, and now Paranormal Activity creator Oren Peli‘s Chernobyl Diaries, the crumbling landscapes of ‘New Europe’ are a causing sleepless nights. We talked to the found-footage auteur about how he painstakingly recreated the radioactive ghost town of Pripyat, and why we’re all so afraid of Eastern Europe….
The idea happened sort of accidentally. I wasn’t specifically looking for an idea for a new horror movie, but one day I was just browsing the internet and I ran into some websites and photo blogs where people went on tours of Pripyat and took photos and videos and posted them online. I’d heard of the Chernobyl disaster, of course, but I didn’t know there was this abandoned town of Pripyat that’s been left, frozen in time, since the disaster in ‘86.
I became totally fascinated by it. I started researching more and looking at as many videos and articles and photo as I could. It seemed like there was no other place like that anywhere on Earth – it was basically a modern ghost town that has been taken over by nature and wildlife. On top of that, you have the radiation and I thought this would be a really creepy and scary place, and a great setting to do a scary movie in.
One of the most striking things about the film is the production design – it really does look like those photos you mentioned. Was it difficult to recreate that?
Yeah, it was a big challenge for us, because it’s not something we invented, it’s a real location, so it was very important for us to recreate it as accurately as possible. We think it’s a huge compliment when someone who’s been to the real Pripyat thinks we might have actually shot the movie there – that’s how we know we’ve done a good job.
A lot of the credit for that goes to our director, Bradley Parker, who is an extremely visual-oriented director who has a lot of experience in visual effects. What we did was find locations that would substitute for the real Pripyat – because we weren’t allowed to shoot in the actual location – so we found a combination of abandoned buildings and an abandoned air force base and all that kind of stuff, and he would look at it and say ‘OK, so this looks pretty close, but if we add some CGI here and do set extensions over here and then do some production design in this area then we can accurately recreate the real location.’
Did you want to direct the film yourself at any point?
Well, I had too many things on my plate. I wasn’t really looking for a new project to get involved in; what happened was, I was having dinner with my friend Brian Witten and I told him ‘you know, I was goofing around on the internet the other day and I found photos of Pripyat and I thought it would be a cool setting for a horror movie…’ He got really excited and was like ‘we need to do this, we need to make this movie!’ I said, ‘no, I’m too busy,’ and he said ‘no no no, we’ll get a director, he’ll do all the hard work, we’ll just produce it.’ So he talked me into doing it. I ended up getting much more involved than I originally thought I would be, and ended up on the set almost every day, but the fact that we had a director who really did all the hard work made it possible.
There aren’t really any big stars in the movie, but the cast are all really strong; were you involved in the casting process? How did you find them?
Yes, I was involved in the casting. One of the things that was a big challenge for us is that, although the movie is not a found footage movie, we wanted it to feel almost like a documentary. So our approach was that it’s not going to be a horror movie, it’s going to be almost like a documentary about a trip gone wrong where horrible things happen to people. To pull that off we had to find actors that had a very natural ability to act but not feel like they’re acting, and they had to have the ability to improvise.
What we ended up doing in many cases was either letting them improvise on the spot while we were shooting a scene, or sometimes we would videotape the rehearsals and let them improvise, and sometimes we would say, ‘you know what, what they just came up with sounds better than what’s in the script!’ We would transcribe their improvised dialogue back into the script so they were saying their own words, which we feel gave it a very natural feeling.
So it was definitely very hard to find actors who could pull that off and it took us months to assemble the group but we are very happy with the way it turned out because they were all so talented and they each brought something unique to the mix.
There’ve been a few movies about a group of kids who go off somewhere – like Hostel, or Train – and they all involve going to Eastern Europe. Why do you think that’s become the new scary place to go?
I think probably because of two reasons: one is that it’s kind of new, ever since the fall of the Iron Curtain, it’s become more easily accessible but because for many decades there was a very real lack of information and communication between the two sides, there’s a bit of mystery and maybe some level of inherent fear among Westerners about what may be really going on there.
So I think that’s part of it, and the other thing is that in these countries there’s still a sense that they’re countries that are a bit unstable and trying to find themselves, so I think there’s a bit more danger, or at least the appearance of danger, when it comes to exploring those European countries than a typical Western democracy.
And it’s a slightly unfamiliar territory, too…
Yeah, exactly, the culture is unfamiliar, the language is unfamiliar, so there’s more of a sense that you’re really in a foreign place, and at the mercy of the locals.
The movie is coming out now in time for Halloween, and you’ve been involved in making films that have come out this time of year for the past few years now. Is this a particularly exciting time of year for you? Do you go big on the Halloween parties?
I’m actually not usually into Halloween celebrations, I end up being too busy with Paranormal Activity, but usually I’ll make it to one or two Halloween parties and I’ll do the absolute minimum when it comes to setting up a costume. I don’t go all out for that.
What’s your costume going to be this year, then?
I don’t have one! Usually I just got to the store and pick up something on the day.