Oren Peli wasn’t satisfied with scaring the bejeezus out of you in the theater, so he’s bringing his particular brand of horror right into your TV.
Best known as the writer-director-producer at the helm of the “Paranormal Activity” franchise, Peli’s made frightful “found footage” his stock in trade. With his new ABC series “The River,” he puts a fresh spin on his signature cinematic style: when famed explorer and TV personality Dr. Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood) goes missing on an expedition in the Amazon, his wife Tess (Leslie Hope) and son Lincoln (Joe Anderson) put aside the “perfect TV family” façade and face their fractured bonds as they embark on a search for their lost patriarch. Along the way, they dsicover snippets of video from Emmet’s fateful trek as they trek deeper and deeper into the dark and deadly jungle.
“It actually started with an idea that I had for a movie, which was much more simple than the way ‘The River’ has evolved,” says Peli. “It was just going to be about a documentary crew that has gone missing in the rainforest, and filming the rescue mission to find them. And 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 told me, ‘Hey, we should do a TV show together,’ and I'm thinking, ‘Okay. Sure, whatever you say.’”
“At that point I was barely figuring out the world of movies - I had no idea about anything with TV,” Peli continues. “I tried to come up with some cool idea for a TV show, and months went by and I didn't have any idea. And then one day, we're just hanging out with Michael Perry, the writer of ‘Paranormal Activity 2,’ and we're just chatting about ideas of shows ‑‑ of movies that we thought about and never produced. And we're telling him about this idea for the missing rainforest expedition, and he goes crazy for this, like why waste it 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 the boat on the river and pitched it to DreamWorks, and they loved it. And we kept developing it, and then Michael Green and Zack Estrin came on board, and, you know, it became ‘The River.’”
“The foundations were there in what Oren and Michael Perry had come up with,” says Green, a writer-producer known for his work on “Heroes” and the “Green Lantern” film. “As soon as they approached me with it, I just said, you know, without even looking at it, ‘How scary are you willing to go on this?’ And Patrick Moran at the studio actually was the one who answered it. I have to credit him with it because it was a great answer. He said ‘You can go as scary as you want, as long as we care about the people.’ And I just took that as a marching order and thought you'll be so much more invested week to week if you got to know these people, if they felt like real people – as opposed to in a horror and thriller, where you'd end up with a lot of just sort of surface stereotypes. We wanted you to be worried about these people, and that was the real focus.”
Producer Zack Estrin (“Prison Break,” “Tru Calling”) says the show will be as horrific as television will allow – but that doesn’t mean it will be gory. “Some people will consider horror this sort of really in‑your‑face gore, some people will consider horror to be tension,” he says. “For us, I think real scares come from the anticipation of something happening: the waiting, the silence, the little rattle outside. The challenge is going to be to do this on television where you have to break for commercials six times, to be honest.”
Estrin says the backdrop of the Amazon has provided fertile territory for original-feeling horror plots, beyond the overarching mystery behind Cole’s vanishing act. “Each week, we're sort of culling from real legends and lore of that region in the Amazon,” he says. “So for as many episodes as we are blessed to have, we've got spooks and scare things for a week‑to‑week basis based on real stuff from down there – real scares.”
Although Greenwood’s missing character is set up as the object of his family’s quest, the found footage element will keep Cole at the forefront throughout the series. “One of the things that appealed to me the most about the character at the outset was he's a guy that's happy to wake up in the morning,” says Greewood. “He's got a lot of joy in him – this guy was a guy that believed deeply in his love for his wife and his love for his son. So as a starting place of joy, for me, I thought that would be a fun, fun zone to be in when you go to work, particularly if the show succeeds and you're doing it for a long time. However, he discovers something out there that changes his view of the world and his ability to tap into that joy, so there's a wrestling match there for him – which is fun to invest in.”
Leslie Hope says she was drawn to the project because it mirrors her off-screen interests. “For me in my real life, I have made documentary films, I've been to the Amazon and lived with a tribe in the jungle. That sort of so lined up with my real personality. The reality is, doing a TV show, you're kind of left with yourself, right? I mean, there's only so much acting you can do week after week after week after week. And what you sort of want to line up – in my world anyway –something's that sort of close enough to you that when you're not as good on the day, your own stuff can maybe prop you up a little bit. So I felt very, very privileged to have a job that lined up with my own character of me, Leslie, as closely as this did.”
Only Hope feels fairly secure among the cast. “I was on a TV show where I got killed sort of unexpectedly – in my mind – a year ago,” she laughs. “I thought I was all in good shape because I was playing the wife of the hero, and I was pregnant. And I ended up getting stabbed in the guts, right? So Michael Green made a promise that it would be at least 40 episodes before they would kill me and stab me in the guts. Call it a spoiler.”
"The River" debuts with a two-hour special Tuesday, February 7th at 9 PM ET on ABC