After three installments in the series, the producers, and the films’ distributor Paramount, have Paranormal Activity down to a science. Talking to Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, the directors of Paranormal Activity 3, they inherited not just the franchise’s found-footage aesthetic, but an entire mythology of storytelling, and an infrastructure of style and execution that made film fit in with its predecessors even before they started to put their stamp on it. Meanwhile, Schulman and Joost were able to simultaneously contribute the flexibility and authenticity of real documentary filmmaking, having previously directed the acclaimed 2010 film Catfish before jumping to fiction work with this.
Movies.com sat down with Joost and Schulman the morning after they premiered the film at the 2011 Fantastic Fest in Texas, where the film met with uproarious success as it scared a capacity crowd in Austin’s storied Drafthouse Cinema. In addition to talking about the “Paranormal boot camp” that they went through, they discussed the challenges inherent to found-footage films, and offered a few ideas about where the series might go if its supernatural entity survives this third entry.
After all of the controversy over “Catfish” did you have any trepidations about making an “actual” fake documentary?
Joost: We thought about it, but I just don’t think you can let thoughts like that stop you from doing things. And the truth was that Catfish was real, but the process of making Catfish and being documentarians prepared us really well for this movie – just the shooting style and the looseness of it and just having a concept of what feels real just having shot a doc, and shooting so much stuff all of the time made this a really good project for us. And we always wanted to make lots of different movies, and particularly horror movies, so it was just, what are we going to do? And Adam Goodman who was the president of Paramount was just like begging us to tell him that Catfish was fake – and we couldn’t tell him that. He was like, “if you tell me Catfish is fake, you guys can have the job right now.”
How did you have to adopt the aesthetic of the previous two, and what were you able to bring to the film given your background as documentarians?
Schulman: We went into a Paranormal boot camp as soon as we started. We watched the first two movies as much as possible and basically learned the rules. There’s like a whole manifesto that applies to this genre, within the genre.
Joost: Oren’s the godfather of authenticity, so if you have an idea, he’ll say, like, “if you change this then it will be better.” Wow, I can only do my Oren impression right after I talk to him.
Schulman: So it didn’t mean that the movie had to be exactly the same. There’s a little bit of a different style to each one. And I think that’s okay, and I think they should evolve and change; I mean, this is a trilogy, and it’s the third one, so maybe the story should get a little bigger or the style should change, especially since we’re going back in time. But I guess we adore home video, and that’s sort of one of our great, great passions, so the first thing was we’re going to take the cameras off the wall. We’re not going to do the surveillance thing again. We’re going to get back to the style of PA1 a little more, so it’s more handheld, like it’s shot by a passionate inhabitant of the house who loves his camera and loves capturing stuff – which is us, every day – and do it in this time period that really meant a lot to us. That was when we first started seeing video cameras around. We were those kids at that age being filmed by our parents.
What’s involved in a “Paranormal Activity” boot camp?
Schulman: Well, I guess you watch the movies as many times as you can take, and then I guess it’s just like this conversation. There’s a pretty awesome creative team behind the whole movie, and these are people who deeply, deeply love the series and the franchise. I feel like if you love Paranormal movies, you love Paranormal movies, and it goes the same with the studio that’s completely behind them. It’s this constant conversation that’s like, what is the truth behind Katie and Kristi’s past – what really happened to them? And it’s not just fun writing a story, but people really get into it like it’s this undiscovered holy grail, and if you can figure it out, it will be a revelation. And Oren’s there and he knows if you start to stumble across something that’s right or wrong – not like there actually is a right answer, but he can feel whether or not it fits, if it makes sense. So I guess the boot camp is just like a lot of hypothetical conversations about these two girls’ past lives – and I guess their whole family history.
There are always two major considerations that you as filmmakers have to resolve: why is someone filming, and why don’t they leave?
Schulman: That’s kind of the question of the day, every day – why is this character filming this? Which is part of this dogmatic style of the film, which makes it really hard. And there are tons of limitations. One is that someone needs to be filming it for a pretty good reason. And there’s a host of other ones, like no close-ups, no coverage, no lights, not this, not that. But the motivation is you basically need to put that out there early on in the film; the characters themselves need to have a really good reason. Like Micah in the first one instantly jumps up and you buy it, because something is going on, and he’s got this new camera. What do you do with a new camera? You use it. And he’s this like American man with a new toy and everyone knows how that goes. In this movie we’ve got a wedding videographer and we’re coming at it from like our own lives, our Catfish perspective, which is, if anything even minutely interesting is happening, capture it, just in case it turns into something else. We tried to use that with him and hope that it just sort of starts to rub off so the audience goes along for the ride. And if they’re too worried about it, at any point in the film, we’ve got bigger problems. I mean, you came to a Paranormal Activity movie, so you sort of expect these conceits.
Joost: And they leave the house, which felt so good.
Schulman: But I mean, we were thinking that too, which is like, why are these people still in the house? Why doesn’t she believe in this? But people are stubborn, and the house is hopefully your safe zone.
Particularly because you had little girls involved in the stunts and “action,” so to speak, how much were you able to do on set, both in terms of practical implementation and of not traumatizing them?
Schulman: I would say we did most of it on set. The only things we wouldn’t do were scenes where a character had to curse. So like during the Bloody Mary scene, Randy would just perform the scene and leave a few gaps for himself, or use silly words like “shoot” and “dirthole,” and then he would go in and fill those in on his own. So we spent a lot of time keeping curse words out of their ears. Because this movie must have like 25 f-bombs, and everyone on set would be very careful, but that’s about it. But that scene is one where we knew we wanted to do something in black, and just because you have to be practical in these movies and have to do it as cheap as possible and as scary as possible, it’s like there should be a scene that’s terrifying and you don’t see a thing except for the red light of the camera. And we sat down with Chris Landon, the writer, and were like, “all we know is that it has to be totally black.” And he was like, I’ve been dying to do the Bloody Mary scene, so [after he brainstormed] that’s where it ends up.
How much were you guys actually able to use VHS?
Schulman: It would have been nice to use VHS but there’s so many practical limitations. Like one is that it’s 4:3, and no movie theaters project 4:3 – people just don’t even see that in their lives any more.
Joost: It’s also just hard to watch over a long period of time, big like that.
Schulman: We can’t ingest it and color-correct it or put any effects into it.
Joost: But we did do cool things like we built an HD camera into an old VHS camera body, so when you see people in the mirror, it’s a period-accurate camera.
How many of the ideas were dictated by the house as opposed to just the script?
Schulman: A lot – all of them. There wasn’t even a script until the day we found the location.
Joost: So much is decided on that.
Schulman: Like, oh, there’s a little closet there. There’s a ledge there. Where’s the kids’ room in relation to the parents’ room? I mean, the whole thing is bedroom based, so you need to know the architecture of the house just to write a scene. There’s no pan-cam unless we know what the pan-cam covers. That little closet was just because they have a little closet in the house. We called it a scare hole (laughs).
Talk a little bit about balancing a film that’s part of a trilogy and telling a story that can also stand on its own.
Schulman: It’s funny that friends who haven’t seen the first two and aren’t horror fans are like, oh, you made a new movie – I can’t wait to see it. We’re like, you should probably see the first two. So in order to see your movie we have to watch three movies? I have to watch two very scary movies to watch your movie? I guess you could see it, but it would be so much better if you know the whole story.
How much have you thought about the possibility of additional installments?
Joost: Everybody including us wants to keep this story going and keep telling this story, and I think that the possibilities after this film are kind of endless. I mean, it’s broadened out so much in this film and it’s become so much more specific, which I think is great.
Schulman: It doesn’t even have to go back in time. It could go forward. Theoretically in any direction you go, it’s still going on. Like, it never stops.
Joost: Katie’s still on the loose. She’s out there somewhere with a baby.