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.]