ABC’s intensely scary paranormal thriller The River follows the story of world famous wildlife expert and TV personality Dr. Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood), host of the beloved series “The Undiscovered Country.” After Cole goes missing deep in the Amazon, his wife, Tess (Leslie Hope), and estranged son, Lincoln (Joe Anderson), decide to lead a rescue mission deep into the unexplored reaches of the Amazon River, where nature is cruel, magic is real and nothing is what it seems.
While at the TCA Winter Press Tour, executive producer Oren Peli (creator of Paranormal Activity) talked about how he ended up developing an idea for a TV show, the extent of Steven Spielberg’s involvement, the challenges of telling a season’s worth of story in only eight episodes, doing the episodes with a scare-of-the-week while also advancing the overall mystery, trying to create moments where you don’t know what’s going to happen because it’s the unexpected that’s scary, and that even though no one is safe, characters won’t be killed off just for the sake of killing them off. Check out what he had to say after the jump:
OREN PELI: It actually started with an idea that I had for a movie, which was much more simple than the way The River has evolved. It was just going to be about a documentary crew that had gone missing in the rainforest, and filming the rescue mission to find them. I developed this idea with a couple of my producing partners, and we just put it aside and went on to produce other films. Then, I had a meeting with Steven Spielberg and he said, “Hey, we should do a TV show together.” I was thinking, “Okay, sure, whatever you say.”
At that point, I was barely figuring out the world of movies. I had no idea about anything to do with TV, and I tried to come up with some cool idea for a TV show. And, months went by and I didn’t have any idea. Then, one day, we were just hanging out with the writer of Paranormal Activity 2, chatting about ideas for movies that we thought about and never produced, and we were telling him about this idea for the missing rainforest expedition. He went crazy for that and was like, “Why waste that on one movie? You can turn it into a whole TV show and, every episode, they get into another adventure.” And then, we came up with the idea of making it on a boat on the river and pitched it to DreamWorks, and they loved it. We kept developing it, and then Michael [Green] and Zack [Estrin] came on board, and it became The River.
What has the experience with TV been like for you? Has it been an adjustment, figuring out how to tell a story over a longer period of time?
PELI: Definitely. It is so different. I had no experience in movies, really, before Paranormal Activity, and I didn’t know anything about TV, so it was a learning process for me to figure out how things are done. It’s a very different pace that things move, in the TV world. Luckily, I was working with Michael [Green] and Zack [Estrin], who have been through this process many times before, and the people at DreamWorks TV. They had to guide me and walk me through the process. It’s been a very crazy experience, but also a great one because I got to work with so many great people and everything turned out really great. We’re very happy about it.
PELI: Probably just the fact that it actually happened. We had the idea, and then we talked to DreamWorks, who said, “Oh, yeah, we love the idea. Let’s pitch it.” And then, we pitched it to ABC and they said, “We love the idea. Let’s get a script done.” We got a script done, and they were like, “Okay, let’s do a pilot.” Every step of the way, we couldn’t really believe it was going to go all the way to actually becoming a show. Now, we have an entire season, and we’ll see how the audience receives it. But, it’s gone much further than I ever dreamed it would go, for my first try at TV.
Whenever Steven Spielberg’s name is attached to something, it’s always a question of how hands-on he is. How much is he overseeing this project?
PELI: When we were developing the pilot, one of the main things that happened, with the panic room, is something that he pitched to us over the phone. That made it into the pilot, and that was his idea.
Obviously, you have to wait and see how audiences respond to the show, but how big is the mythology and how much of the big story have you already thought out?
PELI: The first eight episodes are actually really cool. Every week, we have a very exciting scare-of-the-week, but we also advance the story of the search for Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood), the missing explorer. There is some sort of a conclusion, at the end of the first season. I’m not saying what it is, or whether it’s going to be good or bad, but there is going to be some sort of resolution. If we’re lucky enough to have future seasons, we do have a road map so we know where to go. But, for now, we’ve just been concentrating on the first season. We wanted to make it a complete season, on its own, but we do know where to go, if we’re going to go further ahead, beyond that.
PELI: No one is safe on the Amazon. You do want to create a real sense of danger, in the sense that people will die. We actually love all these people, so we don’t want to kill them off just for the sake of killing them off. I’m guessing most of them will stay, but beyond that, we’re not going to speculate.
Were there any real-life scares during production?
PELI: Whenever you shoot on a boat in the river, some stuff will happen. We had some people falling into the river. In the last few episodes that we shot, in an abandoned children’s mental facility that the locals said was haunted and some of the crew didn’t want to be at, Thomas Kretschmann, who is our tough German guy, claims that something hit him, and there was no one behind him, and he broke his leg. We had some weird stuff happening there.
How involved is Bruce Greenwood, in the episodes?
PELI: Well, even though he doesn’t have a lot of screen time in the early episodes, he’s the driving force of the show. That’s why everyone is there. None of them would be there, if it wasn’t for his character. The great thing about the format of the show is that they’ve been on The Undiscovered Country, our show within a show, for 15 or 20 years. So, whenever we wanted to do any kind of flashbacks, Lincoln (Joe Anderson) and Lena (Eloise Mumford) have been filmed ever since they were kids, so we can always go to all their footage and use it as flashbacks, or to fill in stories.
Even though he may not be physically there, his presence is there and we can always use footage, either from the past, or more recent footage that we’ve just discovered, from right around the time that he disappeared. So, there’s definitely going to be some Bruce on the show, and just about the right amount to keep you intrigued. And, there’s going to be some resolution towards the end, so there’s going to be more Bruce, towards the end of the season.
PELI: Our overall philosophy is that we don’t want to have to rely on gory images to create a scare. If we’ve done that, then we’ve failed. There may be some situations where something bad happens to someone and there may be a visual image of something, but that’s not going to be our meat, or what we go far. My philosophy is always that the scariest moment at the dentist is the moment before you get the shot. The shot itself is not what hurts. It’s just sitting there, waiting for that moment.
That’s really what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to create those moments where you don’t know what’s going to happen. There’s something out there, stalking you in the jungle, and you can hear it, feel it and smell it, but you don’t know what it is, you don’t know when it’s going to strike, and you don’t know how to defend yourself against it. It’s the invisible predator, or the unknown force. There are many different ways that we’re actually drawing on local folklore. There are so many amazing legends, and we’re using a lot of them as our basic storylines for some of the episodes. We feel like, if there’s going to be gore that’s meant to shock people, then we’re not doing our job right. That’s not what’s supposed to be the scary thing.
PELI: Actually, Paranormal Activity was filmed all in mono. There was a little bit that we added in post, but most of the sound was either mono, or a little bit of stereo. We didn’t really employ too much of the surround sounds. Maybe we did that a little bit more in Insidious. But, at the end of the day, I don’t think it matters that much, where the sound is coming from, it’s just the fact that there is something out there. Sound does play a very important role in The River, and we’re thinking it will actually play very well on the TV. We were all on the same page, that the way we want to create the scares is not with gory images or anything that’s overly visual. We want to create the anxiety and tension that allows the audience to use their own imagination to fill in the blanks and create their own worst-case nightmare scenario.
Do you think it was an advantage that you only had eight episodes to tell this story?
PELI: To some degree, it did feel like an advantage. In a way, it actually made it feel like a very compact season. We did cram a lot of stuff into it, which actually become good. We ended up having a lot of good stuff, and every episode became very rich, in terms of the scares and in the way that we got to develop the characters and their relationships. We did feel like we crammed a lot of stuff into a smaller season.
Why do you think horror is doing so well on television right now, with The Walking Dead and American Horror Story?
PELI: I don’t know. I think that horror, in general, is fairly popular. It’s definitely popular in film. There’s just not a lot of good horror on TV, so whenever there is good horror on TV, people rush to it.
I know you like to be secretive about what you’re doing, but can you say what’s going on with Area 51 and if that’s going to come out?
PELI: Sorry, I don’t comment about any projects. So, no comment.
The River premieres on ABC on Tuesday, February 7th. Here’s a featurette that sets up the story: