Oren Peli talks “The River” and how long he hopes it will flow

If you’re not yet familiar with the name Oren Peli, just find yourself a scary movie fan.

Even horror flick aficionados who thought they’d seen it all (I live with several) got the bejesus scared out of them by Paranormal Activity, the spare, terrifying 2009 mind-bender that the Israeli-born Peli shot in his own San Diego area home for around $15,000. The film grossed more than $107 million worldwide and has spawned three sequels, the latest of which — Paranormal Activity 4 — will hit theaters in October.

Now Peli has paired up with Steven Spielberg to bring his unique brand of terror to television via tomorrow night’s hugely anticipated ABC premiere The River. The eight-episode inaugural season, shot documentary-style, tells the fictional tale of wildlife expert Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood), who goes missing after decades spent traveling the world with his wife and son while filming a popular reality series. Six months later, Cole’s emergency beacon goes off, sending his family and former crew members — TV cameras in tow — on a fright-filled sojourn deep into the Amazon to find him.

We quizzed Peli about the challenges of maintaining his scare quotient while luring in a mainstream TV audience during an ABC event at last month’s winter TCA press tour.

Channel Guide Magazine: The premiere episode leaves little doubt that this is an Oren Peli project. Did you have to do much wrangling with the network about how far you could push the terror envelope?

Oren Peli: I asked them from the very beginning, “How scary can we go with this show?” and they said, “Go as scary as you want!” They were not trying to hold us back — they told us to go for it.

And we were all on the same page that we didn’t want to go for gore. We didn’t want to go for blood and guts and we didn’t to shock people with those types of images.

The tricky thing — which is tricky in movies as well as television — is how to come up with effective scares. The kind of things that build the tension and gets under your skin. In that sense, TV is really all about writing the story, making sure that you have really scary moments, scary mythology and — most importantly — characters that you really care about, so that you’re worried about what is going to happen to them. When you have all of these elements together, then you end up a really effective and scary show.

CGM: Were you cognizant of also appealing to viewers who might not necessarily enjoy horror films? Because the show, at its heart, really appears to be about a family desperately searching for one of its own.

OP: I think the show will appeal to people who want to see a different kind of show — something that’s very unique and unlike anything that’s ever been on primetime TV, something that will be very scary.

But above all of that, it’s a very compelling story about a family that is looking for their missing father and husband — and the other people who are on the mission for other reasons. That’s the force of the show; the scares are kind of like a bonus on top of that.

CGM: How much research did you have to do for the supernatural elements?

OP: We did a lot of research before the pilot on anything to do with the Amazon and then after the show got picked up, we did more research on the actual lore and mythology that takes place in the Amazon. The episodes that we have, they sound very fantastical, but they are all based on actual mythology that has been practiced and carried on from one generation to another for hundreds — and sometimes thousands — of years by tribespeople in the Amazon.

CGM: Is it exciting or daunting to know that you have to have enough of that complex material to last as many seasons as the viewers afford you?

OP: It’s very exciting! We’re very proud of this season; we feel like it’s a nice, complete season that has a beginning, middle and an end, and we’re very happy with the way that it concludes. If we’re lucky enough to have a second season, we have a lot of ideas. We kind of have a road map as to where the show will keep on going for a few more seasons — if we’re lucky enough to get them.

CGM: Your characters are in spectacular peril — do you have to be somewhat careful with them to make sure you have enough folks left for additional seasons?

OP: {Laughs] The Amazon is a very dangerous place. Accidents happen. Bad things happen. People die sometimes. We really love our core actors, so hopefully everyone will survive. But there are no guarantees!

The two-hour premiere of The River airs Tuesday night at 8pm on ABC.

Photos: ABC/Bob D’Amico
Oren Peli image: ABC/Rick Rowell

About Lori Acken 1195 Articles
Lori just hasn't been the same since "thirtysomething" and "Northern Exposure" went off the air.