Guerrilla Filmmaking Techniques – Paranormal Activity

Guerrilla Filmmaking Techniques

photo credit: moonfletcher

Oren Peli is the first time director behind the smash hit Paranormal Activity, an excellent example of guerrilla filmmaking techniques. Oren did not go to film school and most of his training consisted of operating a video camera for his University’s TV station.

How he made his hit film is however a textbook example of how guerrilla filmmaking techniques can create a blockbuster successful movie on a tiny budget. I’m going to go through some of the key points of how he did it in this post.

Guerrilla Filmmaking Techniques -The Idea

Oren admits that he has been afraid of ghosts and ghost movies his entire life. He decided that maybe he could make something positive out of that by making a ghost movie.

Guerrilla Filmmaking Techniques – The Research

Oren started by doing extensive research into paranormal activity and ghosts and finally settled on the idea of a malevolent demon as the unseen antagonist.

He decided to go for suspense and believability rather than gore. What you can’t see is always scarier than what you can see. Oren thought that we are all a bit afraid of what might be happening while we sleep that we aren’t aware of so he went after that angle.

Guerrilla Filmmaking Techniques – The Screenplay

Rather than write an actual screenplay, Oren decided to use a technique called “retroscripting” where the actors are given the circumstances of each scene and how the scene should end and then are allowed to improvise their own actions and dialog.

This technique can often result in much more realistic acting, especially from less-experienced actors, than the more normal tight scripting. Commonly with this technique the scenes are filmed in order so the actors can really get into the flow of the story. Oren’s production schedule was too short to allow this, however.

Guerrilla Filmmaking Techniques – The Location

One of the biggest difficulties of making a film is finding the locations that you can use without getting permission, insurance, being sued or getting arrested. The best solution is often to just use the locations that you already have access to.

This is typically your own home, apartment or workplace and possibly the homes or workplaces of your friends. If you try to get formal permission to use a business location to shoot a film you will probably be turned down, but often you can ask your supervisor if s/he minds you doing a “little training or student video” at the shop and they will just tell you to go ahead so long as you really downplay what you are up to.

Oren spent a year preparing his house for the shooting which included painting walls, adding furniture and even creating a stairwell.

Guerrilla Filmmaking Techniques – Getting Actors

Oren interviewed a few hundred unknown actors until he found Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat who had such a natural chemistry together that it seemed they must have known each other for years even though they had actually just met. He also found a small group of support actors for the other small roles.

I understand he paid the lead actors each $500.

Guerrilla Filmmaking Techniques – Production

Peli decided to just put a video camera on a tripod in a very obvious and amateurish way because it would be true to the story and, of course, his technical understanding of filming was almost non-existent.

He also decided to shoot the entire film in 7 days to further lower costs. This was made possible by careful planning and scheduling of each shot well ahead of the actual production. The longer your production the more you have to pay for food for the actors and crew and the more likely that one of the key people will have a schedule conflict.

Guerrilla Filmmaking Techniques – Distribution

The best guerrilla filmmaking techniques in the world won’t do you any good if you can’t sell the film. Low budget horror films about the easiest genre for a beginner to use to break in so Peli was smart to make this decision.

Peli’s film was shown at the 2007 Screamfest Horror Film Festival and caught the attention of several film insiders. The initial opinion was that the film should be reshot with Peli directing but using much more sophisticated techniques. A test screening of Peli’s original version was held and a number of people walked out on the film. It turned out that they left because they were so scared. This convinced Paramount to try a release in 13 college towns of Peli’s original version, but with some changes in the editing and ending.

Peli also began a viral marketing campaign using a web site where visitors could “demand” that the film be shown in their town. Eventually the film was released world-wide and on DVD. The gross to date has been about $200,000,000. Not bad for 7 days work in your home.

And here is the trailer:

What do you thing of Oren Peli’s guerrilla filmmaking techniques?

Have you seen the film? Did it scare you? Leave a comment.