Today’s TV Addict Top 5: Questions with THE RIVER Creator Oren Peli

In anticipation of tonight’s spine-tingling, edge-of-your-seat-exciting, 2-hour series premiere of THE RIVER — ABC’s newest series that chronicles what happens when a reality television crew documents a distraught wife and an estranged son’s attempt to rescue their TV personality father following his disappearance in the Amazon — your very own TV Addict had the pleasure of attending a Monday evening CTV-sponsored screening with creator Oren Peli at the beautiful Bell Lightbox in Toronto. So just what did the twisted mind behind Paranormal Activity have to say about his foray into televised terror? Find out for yourself after the jump.

Where did the idea for THE RIVER come from?
Oren Peli: THE RIVER started as an idea for a movie that was going to be about a missing nature show host, it didn’t have the river element it was just a rainforest and the idea wasn’t very developed. We were going to follow a rescue mission that along the way would come across these tapes showing horrible things happening yet have no choice but to continue the search. That was kind of the grain of the idea, but then I had a meeting with Steven Spielberg who asked if I had an idea for a TV show along the lines of Paranormal Activity. So a few months later, I told the writer of Paranormal Activity 2 about the idea I had for the rainforest and he said, “Why just waste it on a movie, we could turn it into a TV show?” So he started pitching an idea of how it could be turned into a TV show with the river, a boat, the characters and all the elements that we have now. Curiously enough, I’ve actually never been to the Amazon.

How advantageous is shooting with as many cameras as you do?
What’s cool about using so many cameras is that the actors never know which camera we’re going to use. Sometimes there would be 10 or 12 cameras — two of which were handhelds — shooting at the same time. So the actors weren’t really playing to specific cameras they were just going by the business of being immersed in their character and the environment which I believe helps create a more natural performance. In fact, in many cases when you see the actors operating a camera on the show, the camera would be rolling and sometimes we’d use footage that the actors themselves have shot.

How far have you planned ahead in terms of THE RIVER’s mythology?
If you’re asking about LOST, we all really love LOST. I thought the first couple of seasons were some of the best television I had ever seen and then it got a little confusing. But since it was done at ABC, the big lesson they learned was that we can’t really string people along for too long. And that’s why it’s really important for us that every episode is kind of like its own self-contained mini-horror movie and every season — despite having a mini cliffhanger of sorts — has an ending. We don’t have every episode mapped out, but we know where we’re going and we do know our ultimate end goal.

What’s it like writing for television versus film?
Writing for television is very tricky for several reasons. First of all, you have to take into consideration commercial breaks. You also have a lot less time to tell a story, 44 minutes versus 1.5 to 2 hours on film. Of course, unlike film you get to think about story in the context of an entire season, where you actually have a lot more time. You don’t have to tell an entire story of a character in one episode, you can introduce them and build upon them in subsequent episodes so that you actually can delve far more deeply into characters and relationships than you would ever get to with a movie. It does take a lot of planning, it is freaky, but once you kind of embrace television gives you a lot of options.

What was it like working with executive producer Steven Spielberg?
It is really cool and he was surprisingly involved for being as busy as he is. He was involved in the casting process and even the first time we pitched the show to him like right there in the room he fired off a whole bunch of ideas and thoughts, many of which made it into the show. He reads every script, gives notes, watches the different cuts of the episodes and gives notes. He was surprisingly involved. We got tons of ideas from him and generally speaking they are really good ideas. One of the ideas for examples is the whole panic room we put into the pilot. Or more generically, originally we had one fewer female character, and he suggested we were too skewed heavily towards male so we added another female character which was a really smart idea.

To see what terrors are lurking in the Amazon, tune in for the 2-hour premiere of THE RIVER on Tuesday, February 7th at 9PM on ABC (CTV in Canada).

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