After landing the assignment to direct Paranormal Activity 3, filmmakers Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost could have taken it easy. After all, the franchise’s built-in audience, first established with director Oren Peli’s 2009 homemade “haunted house” smash Paranormal Activity and widened via last year’s equally successful sequel, is pretty much guaranteed to send the flick to the top of the box office—it’s not like Hollywood has anything else to offer scary movie heads this Halloween season. In reality, all Schulman and Joost had to do was show up on set, yank a few pieces of furniture with wires to create a poltergeist effect, and make sure it resembled coherency in post-production. Ridiculous profits and a mega-hit for their first big studio job would’ve surely followed.
But the young, New York City natives had no desire to go out like that. Realizing that the fans deserve something extra from a second horror sequel, the shot-calling duo took the producers’ template—set the film in 1988, to show how all of the creepiness began—and went balls-out from there. Looking back at the childhood days of Katie (the main character of ’09’s Paranormal Activity) and Kristi (Katie’s younger sister, introduced in Paranormal Activity 2), Paranormal Activity 3 uses its VHS-styled look to amplify the franchise’s “less is more” approach. For the first time in the series’ run, there’s a lot of “activity,” in the form of actually visible spirits, more violent attacks on the family, and, though we won’t spoil it here, an ending that both reaffirms the second entry’s mythology and takes the Paranormal brand into The Wicker Man’s territory.
The franchise’s best movie yet, Paranormal Activity 3 is a genuinely scary victory for Schulman and Joost, whose only previous credit is last year’s is-it-real-or-not documentary Catfish, the polarizing account of Ariel’s brother Yaniv’s online flirtations, on Facebook, with a hot girl who’s actually a troubled middle aged housewife. Like Paranormal, Catfish subverted expectations with characterization and a left-turn of a final act; unlike Catfish, however, Paranormal Activity 3 will make sleeping alone at night a real chore.
Prior to seeing PA3, Complex had a long and lively chat with Schulman and Joost to discuss what they uniquely brought to the found-footage brand, how the film’s late '80s setting brought their inner kids out, and why Hollywood needs to check itself when it comes to horror. Now that we've seen the film, and lost a little sleep as a result, we can't argue with them.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
Complex: After the success of Catfish, were you guys immediately looking for the next project?
Henry Joost: Yeah, Catfish ended up consuming a lot of our lives after Sundance, and we were really working on it until a month after it finally came out. There were a bunch of projects that we’d been developing, but then somebody from Paramount called and said, “Would you be interested in Paranormal 3?" and that sort of came out of the blue. But we were instantly like, “Hell yeah!” [Laughs.]
Why the instant excitement? Are you guys longtime fans of horror?
Ariel Schulman: Definitely, and we want to try our hands at every genre, but particularly horror. The Paranormal films are sort of their own genre within the genre, and there’s a really great challenge to making them.
They sort of have these dogmatic limitations, and it’s not your typical, gruesome gore-fest—it’s really restrained, and they have really unique pacing and they create this atmosphere that’s very identifiable. And they’re also based in home video, which is a world we really love.
In what ways did the Catfish production and experience inform how you guys would approach Paranormal Activity 3?
Henry Joost: It just felt like the perfect follow-up. We’re home video enthusiasts and documentarians, and Catfish was basically born out of our own home videos. This one is a film where we’re using home video as a style to scare audiences, which, for a couple of filmmakers, is the best challenge.
It seems like filmmakers tackling the found-footage genre are inherently locked into certain styles and techniques, which could limit the amount of experimentation. Was it difficult for you guys to experiment with different tricks in Paranormal Activity 3 for that reason?
Henry Joost: Yeah, it’s a huge challenge, but I think a lot of creative things emerge out of limitations. You impose your own limitations if things are too free-form, but Paranormal is interesting because it comes with a set of rules. Like, in a normal movie you don’t always have to justify why the camera is filming the scene—why is the camera there? Why would they film this?
In most movies you never think about that, but in a Paranormal movie you always have to think, “OK, so why is this character interested enough in picking up the camera and filming this scene?” That just makes you approach everything in a fresh way, and you’re constantly challenging yourself to answer those questions.
How’d you guys answer those questions for Paranormal Activity 3? That’s the biggest question about any of these found-footage movies.
Henry Joost: Well, we totally relate to these characters. That’s our impulse, you know? When strange things started going on in our own lives, we picked up the camera and made Catfish. The character in PA3 is a lot like us in that sense—that’s his first instinct.
Ariel Schulman: And he happens to be a wedding videographer, so he has the cameras around already. And that’s what Henry and I used to do ourselves, so we can relate in that sense, too. Every PA movie starts with a character who, for some reason or another, has to surround himself with cameras. In the first PA, the activity has already started, so Micah goes out and buys the video camera in order to capture it; in PA2, there’s a break-in, so the dad character surrounds the house in surveillance cameras. This one, the dad character is a wedding videographer, so he’s already got the cameras.
Did the wedding videographer characteristic exist when you guys first signed onto the project, or is that something you brought to the script from your own backgrounds?
Henry Joost: I think that character was already in place when we joined on, actually. There was kind of an outline in place when we joined on, but we tried to add a lot of authenticity to that character. Just the way he would really behave, and the real type of equipment he would use.
Ariel Schulman: He’s sort of a combination of us and the president of Paramount, Adam Goodman, who was also a wedding videographer as a young filmmaker. Seriously. We share that origin story. [Laughs.] He was making wedding videos back in the late '80s, the same time that this character is, so he would vouch for the authenticity of equipment, style, and impulse.
Was it difficult to track down all of that old equipment from the '80s?
Ariel Schulman: It sure was. We found a guy in, like, a couple of hours north in California who still had an entire old editing bay. We brought him as a consultant and to help construct the editing system, so that it would be fully functioning and completely period-appropriate. There’s not a single prop in the movie that was made after December 31, 1988.
Henry Joost: We were just searching for “wedding videographers” online, but specifically guys who have businesses that have been in operation since then. So it was a little hard to find, but once we found him he was just like, “Oh, you gotta meet my friends,” and he started connecting us with all of these people who had all of their old equipment and all of this knowledge about how to set it up and use it.
Ariel Schulman: And they were pretty thrilled to hear that somebody actually wanted to use it. [Laughs.]
Paranormal Activity 2 only came out last October, so there was an extremely fast turnaround time for you guys to finish this one for a Halloween-pegged release. Did you guys have any prep time at all after you signed on to direct the movie?
Henry Joost: We had to start like six hours later. [Laughs.] We got a phone call, we were on a plane at seven in the morning the next day, we landed and then went straight to Paramount at, like, ten at night for a casting session, and it never let up from there.
Ariel Schulman: It basically didn’t stop until last week. [Laughs.] It was about five, six months’ worth of simultaneous writing, shooting, and editing.
And was that overwhelming?
Henry Joost: It was everything—it was exciting, it was difficult, it was challenging, it was a lot of fun. But it was just non-stop. Like [Ariel] said, it’s unusual to be writing, shooting, and editing all at the same time, but, also, really good things emerge from that.
Being that you were shooting in a normal-looking suburban house, did you have to keep the production a secret from the rest of the neighborhood?
Ariel Schulman: Yeah, people thought we were making a mayonnaise commercial. [Laughs.] It was very low-profile. We all had code names, we had a cell-phone jammer on the block. Finding the house was actually pretty tough, because it’s 1988 and we needed to find something that would just transport you to the mid '80s instantly. And most people have renovated their houses since 1988. [Laughs.] So we found this house not too far out from the city that hadn’t been touched since it was built in 1984. You walk in and you’re immediately transported back to your childhood.
Henry Joost: It felt like we walked into one of our childhood friend’s houses.
Ariel Schulman: Exactly. For us, the two young characters, Katie and Kristi, are the exact same ages we were at this period in time, which is really exciting. So all of the props and the sets took us back to childhood. You could tell immediately if something was inauthentic. Everyone who came on set felt like they’d gone back in time.
How far did you guys take it with the authentic props? As far as finding an old Teddy Ruxpin doll?
Ariel Schulman: Wait, what made you say Teddy Ruxpin?
Oh, because that’s what the toy I identify with from that time period.
Ariel Schulman: It’s funny you say that, because he happens to be a co-star. [Laughs.] He was wonderful to work with, actually. He’d always repeat his lines the exact same way, almost like he was pre-recorded.
[Laughs.] I was six years old back in 1988, so the little girls in the film seem to be about the same age as I would have been.
Henry Joost: Yeah, us, too, actually.
Ariel Schulman: You’re gonna love it, then. We’ve got Teddy Ruxpin, we’ve got Lite-Brite, we’ve got glow worms, we’ve got Care Bears, Cabbage Patch Kids…even Mr. Wizard.
How about My Pet Monster? That was a personal favorite of mine.
Henry Joost: Yeah, definitely. I remember that. But I don’t think girls played with it. [Laughs.] So it didn’t make the cut for the movie.
Fair enough—their loss, though. One of the film’s aspects that critics seem to really appreciate is the idea of having the father character put a camera on an oscillating fan, something that’s never been done before in any found-footage movie. Was that completely your idea?
Ariel Schulman: Yeah, the “fan cam.” That was something we brought to the project. We were really inspired by this moment in Rosemary’s Baby, where, I can’t remember if it was Mia Farrow or Ruth Gordon…. Wait, it’s Mia Farrow on the bed.
Henry Joost: She’s sitting on the edge of the bed and talking on the phone.
Ariel Schulman: Yeah, that’s it. The camera is focused on the other characters, two rooms down away from her, and you can’t quite make out what Mia Farrow is doing through the frame of the door. But very famously during the early screenings, the entire audience would lean to the left and try to poke their heads around the door-frame and see what she was doing. We thought that was so cool, so we were trying to come up with this method of doing something like that in a Paranormal movie.
Paranormal is a very interactive film, and we wanted the audience to sort of have to physically adjust in their seats to have to catch up with the frame. So we started designing these sequences with the writer, Chris Landon, that were built around just missing things, and the three of us arrived at the idea of this “fan cam,” which is a device built by the character in the film in order to catch what he’s been missing.
That’s really clever, because these movies are all about the audience knowing that something’s coming but the filmmakers screwing with that expectation as much as possible.
Henry Joost: Yeah, we tried to subvert expectations in almost every scene.
Henry Joost: Yeah, I think you’re right. There’s a very fine line between…. There are things in this movie where we just felt like, “It’s the third one, so we have to take it to the next level.” I don’t want to be too specific about it, but I think that once people see it they’ll understand how we were able to do that.
Ariel Schulman: We’re dealing with a really dedicated fan-base here that knows the rules and knows exactly what they want, but at the same time wants to be given something completely unexpected. In the beginning, I sort of likened it to showing up at someone else’s wedding and having to give a really personal toast, and they’re listening to every single word, and you need to nail it just right.
It seems like you guys were intent on making this one the most extreme and hardcore Paranormal movie yet—I don’t know if “violent” is the right word, but it’s certainly more visceral than the previous two.
Henry Joost: Yeah, it’s definitely crazier. I mean, it’s the third one—you’ve got to step it up a little bit, but keep it in the same world.
What were the ideas that spawned from the notion of “taking it further”? Was it difficult to do that within the established context of a Paranormal Activity movie?
Henry Joost: I think the great challenge all summer has been…. The main goal of the movie is to scare people, so we’d show up on set and every day was a challenge to find a new, fresh way to scare people. And it was sort of like a battle royale of “Best Scare Wins!” What you see ultimately, in the final product, is all of the best scares that we could come up with through five months of trial and error.
One thing you guys do in the movie that seems to fulfill that is the “Bloody Mary” sequence, which is a perfect way of delivering scares in the late '80s concept. I vividly remember playing that with my cousins when I was little.
Henry Joost: I know, it’s like everyone at that age played it back then. How old are you?
Henry Joost: Yeah, [Ariel] just turned 30, and I’m 28. But, yeah, everyone did that—it’s like Teddy Ruxpin. Everyone remembers these things so clearly, it’s pretty funny. This movie takes you back; it taps into those early fears that we all had.
Ariel Schulman: That’s what Paranormal movies do. They tap into the simplest, most universal fears: the bedroom, nighttime, and those games you played as a kid when your imagination was wide open. I’ve heard this from a bunch of people, but people have said that they heard the words “Bloody Mary” in the commercial and they immediately turned the TV off. [Laughs.]
Some girl said to me the other day, “I can’t even brush my teeth in the mirror now, so thank you for that. Now I’m expecting a lady to pop out of the mirror and kill me.” Everyone brushes their teeth in the mirror so you can identify with this stuff. That’s why it’s such a simple and inexpensive type of film to make.
The Paranormal Activity movies work so well because they tap into that old-school approach to haunted house movies, like in the original The Haunting, not the awful remake. Was that something that really appealed to you guys about the project, as well?
Henry Joost: Totally, yeah. It’s not one of these movies where it’s about people’s eyeballs getting pulled out or limbs getting cut off; it’s about what you don’t see, and your imagination being the scariest thing. What’s in the dark? What’s behind that door? What’s just off camera? Those being the scariest things, which is film-wise something we totally agree with.
Ariel Schulman: Yeah, I don’t think you’re going to present something scarier than what people are imagining. There’s a sequence in The Haunting that’s the ultimate example of “more is less,” and it’s when they’re inside the bedroom, it’s the middle of the night, and the presence is on the other side of the door and the door starts bulging inward.
Hell yeah, that’s such a well-made sequence, and you don’t see anything at all.
Ariel Schulman: Exactly, and the handle starts shaking and they can hear it just stomping through the halls. They never open the door, they never see it, and it’s horrifying. That film was very inspiring for us.
It’s crazy, and even sad, that most people in Hollywood don’t seem to get that.
Ariel Schulman: Yeah, they waste all of this time spending money and building CGI monsters when all they have to do is just keep a close-up on the person’s face as they’re watching the monster run by, and let us fill in the blanks.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)