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Chernobyl Diaries Writer Oren Peli on Why He Set a Horror Movie at a Nuclear Disaster Site and Radioactive Terrors

Oren Peli
Oren Peli Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

When Oren Peli directed the breakout horror hit Paranormal Activity in 2007, he had virtually no filmmaking experience, having come from a software programming background. Since then, however, the Israeli-born Peli has quickly become a horror-movie machine, producing (and occasionally writing) the Paranormal Activity sequels, the James Wan chiller Insidious, and now, The Chernobyl Diaries. Chernobyl is about a group of young Euro travelers who take a trip to the abandoned Ukrainian town of Pripyat (where the 1986 Chernobyl disaster took place) and are pursued by what appears to be an entire ecosystem of radioactive, man-eating things. While it’s directed by Bradley Parker, Peli says he and producing partner Brian Witten were also involved heavily in the making of the film. Peli recently spoke to us about his decision to set a horror film at Chernobyl, how he gets such naturalistic performances out of his actors, and why the new film isn’t a found-footage movie.

What inspired you to set a movie in Chernobyl?
I was just browsing the Internet one day and I found these travel blogs and videos of people who went on tours in Chernobyl and the town of Pripyat. I’d go on YouTube and type in “Pripyat,” and all these videos would pop up. I didn’t realize that apparently the radiation levels have gone down and people can go on short tours there. There’s no other place on Earth that’s like this: Basically, a modern ghost town that’s been abandoned overnight. It was evacuated in such a way that people didn’t even have a chance to pick up their personal belongings. I thought it looked really eerie and scary and might be the perfect setting for a great horror movie.

Did you ever consider shooting there?
That was actually our original thought. We figured we could shoot there and have access to the real locations so that it could look authentic. Plus, we didn’t want to spend money re-creating it in another location. But then, in 2011, for most of the year, the government of Ukraine stopped allowing people to go into Pripyat. That was when we needed to shoot the film, and as hard as we tried, they wouldn’t let us go in, either as tourists or as filmmakers. So we had to use a different location. I never got to visit it myself.

I liked the suggested horror in the film — for most of its running time, we don’t really know what our heroes are being chased by.
Not knowing the thing that’s chasing you is a lot scarier than seeing it right in front of you. One of the things that makes the location so unique and so amazing is that you can be there in broad daylight, out in the open, and still feel very vulnerable — both because of the threat of radiation and also because you’re in this eerie abandoned place and you don’t know what may be lurking inside the buildings. The fact that it’s so desolate and so remote and so foreign makes it really scary.

It’s interesting that this isn’t a found-footage movie, à la Paranormal Activity. Did you ever consider making it one?
At the very early stages of developing the film, we actually did think of making it a found-footage film, but the more we worked on the story, it just felt like it wouldn’t make sense, that it would feel forced and inorganic. But we decided that, even though it isn’t going to be found footage, we wanted it to feel authentic. So we decided we were going to shoot it not like a horror movie, but a documentary where horrific things happen to people. We made sure our actors were very natural, that a lot of the dialogue was improvised, that the camerawork was done in a very natural way, so we don’t have shots that feel like they’re from a crane or anything like that.

I’m impressed with the naturalism of your actors, who are mostly unknowns. How do you go about casting these films?
First of all, we used the same casting director [Terri Taylor] as we did on the Paranormal Activity movies, and she knows what I’m looking for in terms of actors: People who feel real, so it feels like you’re not watching actors reading lines but characters living the moment. And when we do auditions, we don’t really have any lines or scenes or dialogue for them to act out; we just put them on the spot and have them improvise a scene that they don’t really know is coming. So, we see how they hold under pressure without being able to prepare for what they’re about to do. They don’t know what the movie is about, they don’t know what the scene is about. Then, the very few actors that manage to do a great job — who convince us that they’re living in the moment — we take them to the next level, and we put them together with other actors and do chemistry tests, to see how they are together. Again, without any preparation, without them knowing what they’re supposed to do.

What types of things do you make them do during auditions? Can you give some examples?
Sometimes we just interview them and create these fake, but natural scenarios — like, we might ask them if they’re excited to visit their brother in Europe, and ask them to tell us about their relationship. Or we create some stressful scenarios: For example, we’ll say, “You’re in a subway car and you’re trapped, and you’re running out of oxygen. Go!”

Your background wasn’t in film, and you’ve said that you basically didn’t know anything about filmmaking at the time you made Paranormal Activity. Over the years, what’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned about filmmaking?
Well, I definitely feel like I’ve learned a lot. Paranormal Activity was a unique project in that I made it basically on my own, with a little help, and I had no exposure to the filmmaking world when I made it. Since then, with the other Paranormal Activity films and with Insidious, I’ve definitely had the chance to work with more and more people. I think the most impressive thing I’ve learned has been how a good crew can operate really cohesively. On Paranormal Activity, it worked to my advantage not to have much of a crew, but on a bigger movie, where you have to work with a larger group of people who basically become your second family for a few months, it can be a great experience. Even though all of my projects are small scale compared to most Hollywood productions.

Chernobyl Diaries Writer on Radioactive Terrors