With Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, the found-footage franchise starts a new chapter. Writer/director Christopher Landon (writer of the last three Paranormal Activity films) wanted to approach the series’ mythology from a new angle, setting the story in a Latino community in California as young (Jesse) begins to realise he has been chosen for something sinister…
We spoke to Landon about the positive fan reaction to The Marked Ones, why a new start was needed, and why the microbudget franchise continues to be so popular.
So have you enjoyed seeing the positive fan reaction to the film?
You know it’s definitely the most fulfilling and thrilling aspect of getting the movie out there is seeing…I’d be a liar if I said I hadn’t been obsessively stalking Twitter! And it’s been so much fun to see so many people just loving the movie and praising it and really feeling like we took a fresh approach to the franchise because when you’re five movies deep into a franchise you can get into a stale place.
What was behind the decision to take a new approach?
After we made Paranormal Activity 4, that movie was, in hindsight, a big disappointment to our core fans because we really just didn’t advance the mythology at all and we kind of dropped everybody into a big weird pit at the end of the movie. We really learnt from that and that was one of the big goals when we all sat down and talked about this movie, how we really wanted to get the mythology back on track and to answer some questions and then raise some new ones. Because that was something that I think we do in this franchise. So it was really, really important to us to have a really clean narrative that advanced the mythology this time.
Was it intimidating as a director to be the one behind this change in setting?
You know, it wasn’t, I think because I’ve been making these for the last few years now, I was on 2, 3 and 4, I was just gung-ho and ready to do something different. So for me it was less of a challenge and more of it just being really exciting and fun for me. I just kind of jumped on it and I think with everybody involved there was just a really renewed kind of enthusiasm when we approached this movie.
It definitely feels bigger in terms of scope. Was it rewarding to open the story up a bit?
It was, it was fun because I felt like we were able to kind of open up a bigger box, you know. We’ve always, and look, I think the success of the franchise, and especially the first two or three movies, they were successful because they were very claustrophobic films and I think that really played into the suspense of them. But I think at this point we felt like we needed to not only feel like we were in a different world and experience the story through a different family but we also wanted to open the setting up and capitalise on this idea that if you’re marked, it doesn’t matter where you go, that it’s always with you.
So it was really fun to actually shoot in different locations and it allowed for us to do stuff that we could never do before. For example, when we did the basketball scene when Jesse and Hector get mugged, we got to throw guys through the air and we had a massive crane there to do those stunts. And we never could have done that in a house, so it allowed for me to do stuff that we hadn’t done before and to do some bigger set-pieces.
We did a test screening of Paranormal Activity 3 and there was this girl in the focus group, she was probably about 15 or 16 years old, she was a Latina, and she was so passionate about the film and the franchise and knew everything, I think she knew it better than we did, and she believed it so much and also kind of referenced stuff that had happened in her family. She made a lot of cultural references. And I think that was when we had like an “aha!” moment, where we thought “Wow, this is amazing, this girl is so invested.”
So we just started talking about how, culturally, the Latino culture really lends itself to our franchise and how there’s so much spirituality and belief in the supernatural and belief in all of this stuff. And I started doing research and visiting these botánicas, which are like spiritual pharmacies. We actually shot in one in the movie, when Irma goes to the botánica that’s a real place, we didn’t dress that. That wasn’t Hollywood dressing, that is exactly how that place looks when you walk into it. And the gentleman in the movie who does the ritual with Irma, who gives her the eggs and does that whole bit, he’s the actual owner of the shop. He’s a curandero, he does this stuff for a living.
So I started looking at all this stuff and I was just like “God, this is so obvious, we have to do this.” But then when I wanted to approach the story, because we had focused so much in the past on family dynamics, I actually thought it would be a little more interesting and a different in-road if we approached a friendship. And I really do think ultimately that it becomes the emotional core of the movie, is that it’s about friendship, it’s about these best friends who will go to any lengths to try to save their friends, and so that just felt like a fresh place to start. And I also just loved their dynamic. When I was writing the characters it was so much fun to approach all of these scenes but then when I actually cast the movie and these actors automatically clicked, their chemistry was so strong that I don’t think anybody who sees the movie will doubt that these are best friends and that they’ve known each other their whole lives, and that really comes across and I think that’s what audiences are really connecting with.
Do you think there’s scope to explore other communities and faiths in future films?
Yeah, one of the things we set up in the movie is that this is something that’s happening on a global scale, and so I think that there’s certainly the opportunity for the franchise to go anywhere and to explore any culture we want because we’re kind of keying up the idea that the coven is everywhere. And so I think that there’s certainly, I think it would be interesting to try and explore some other places but we’ll have to see what Paramount wants to do.
Having worked on the last three films as well, do you feel a sense of pride at how the series has continued?
I really do because one thing I know for certain is when the first Paranormal Activity came out I think everyone, and I think to a degree at first the studio felt like “Oh, this is a one-off.” And the fact that we’ve been able to turn it into a five-movie franchise, and also the fact that we’ve been able to, and I think this is the part that we take the most pride in, and I say we because everybody that works on these movies, they work so hard, and the producers and the studio and everyone involved, and we’re really proud of the fact that we’ve been able to do things to make each movie different in its own way. So that it’s not a repeat Randy situation. It was something that allowed us to constantly stay engaged and be excited about making these movies, that every time we approached them we always had the spirit of “let’s do something different.” And I think that’s paid off for us.
I think it’s two-fold. I think the first thing is that we’re very character-centric, and what I mean by that is that we really develop believable characters and real people and I think that the films are easy to invest in because you get drawn in by the characters. And then I also think because most horror tends to just be really gory, and aggressive in that way and I don’t consider these movies horror movies, I think they’re suspense movies because that’s what we’re playing on and that’s what we’re trying to do, is to really just be suspenseful without being gory and crass. And so I think that that really appeals to a lot of people. And I appreciate horror movies, I love the Saw franchise, and have thoroughly enjoyed it but you have to be able to like that kind of stuff, and I don’t think a lot of people ultimately do and I think that’s our other strength.
It has become one the landmarks for showing how profitable low-budget horror can be.
It’s funny too because I’ve had people ask me, “Now that you guys are so far into the franchise, why don’t you spend more money and really go crazy, budget-wise?” And I always tell them that part of what makes the movies work is, because we work with such a restricted budget, it forces us to be more creative. I find that that works for me on all levels; I think limitations ultimately produce better alternatives. I think you really have to force yourself out of that box. I think part of the appeal is that we’re kind of the anti-giant tentpole movie, because now I think we live in an age where so much of what we see, eveyrthing is just wall to wall CG stuff. I love them too but they’re just really, really big. And we’re on the other side of the spectrum and we’re waving over here. We’re really low-budget and everything we do is sort of practical, everything we do is pretty much real and grounded. And I think that’s appealing to people.
Finally, what’s your favourite scare in the film? Oscar coming off the roof got a big reaction!
My favourite jump scare…I would probably have to agree with you on that one. It was my favourite jump scare just because, scale-wise, it was the biggest thing that we did and when we shot that, I remember because we really only had one chance to get that right and so my stomach was in knots when we were on set because it took so many hours to set that up. And you just cross your fingers and think “Oh my god, please don’t let this go wrong!” So that was my favourite but I also, I think my favourite moment in the film as a fan is the end, which I don’t want to spoil, but hearing the audience react to it, especially the people who really understand what we’re trying there, is my favourite moment because you just hear the gasps in the audience and the realisation kind of landing on them and I love that it’s genuine surprise.
Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones is in cinemas now. You can buy Paranormal Activity on Blu-ray for £8.45 at Amazon.co.uk.