'The River’ lets audiences ‘fill in their own nightmares,’ says executive producer
When it comes to terrifying your audience, it isn’t so much about what you show, but what you don’t show.
So says Oren Peli, executive producer and co-creator of the haunting new CTV thriller “The River,” which employs some of the same scare tactics Peli used in his first feature film, “Paranormal Activity.”
The result is an edge-of-your-seat, bone-chilling experience.
“We felt very confident that we can create a lot of scares just by creating a very scary atmosphere and building the anxiety and suspense. We don’t have to show anything too shocking,” says Peli, who was inspired to make “Paranormal Activity” after watching “The Blair Witch Project.”
“We want to let the audience rely on their own imagination --- to kind of fill in their own nightmares. That’s always more effective than putting the monster in front of the camera.”
In “The River,” beloved TV host and wildlife expert Dr. Emmet Cole (played by Quebec-native Bruce Greenwood) goes missing on his latest expedition in the Amazon. After six months with no contact, the search for Cole is called off until his beacon mysteriously begins to emit a signal. It prompts Cole’s hopeful wife (Canada’s Leslie Hope) and reluctant son Lincoln (Joe Anderson of “Across the Universe”) to go off and look for him, with a documentary film crew in tow.
Once in the Amazon, the search party finds and boards Cole’s old boat the Magus, which is equipped with cameras in every room.
“We figured that in order to tell the story in the format we wanted to tell it we were going to have to have the camera crew that is carrying the real hand-held cameras, but they’re not going to be able to be everywhere and we wanted to create a sense of this kind of ‘Big Brother,’ where no place is safe,” says Peli.
“Every inch of the boat can be covered so even when people go about their business and kind of forget there’s a camera there, it’s going to get captured on tape and you’ll be able to get a glimpse into the intimate moments that go on there.”
It’s not long before the crew realizes something is not right and a mysterious spirit could hold the clues to where Dr. Cole is -- if it doesn’t get them first, that is.
Peli says the rise of reality television in the past 10 years has made people more compelled by real people in real situations and shooting a horror series in this hand-held style also makes the fear seem more real.
“Even though one part of your brain is saying, ‘Logically I know that it’s scripted, it’s not real,’ another part of your brain (taunts) you with a suspicion of disbelief and it makes it more relatable . . . there’s something about it that removes the visible layer of filmmaker.”
Peli originally planned to make the idea a feature film but after meeting with famed director Steven Spielberg, who is also an executive producer, the concept turned into a TV series instead.
They chose to set the story on the Amazon because of its vast size, among other things.
“It’s very conceivable someone could disappear there,” says Peli.
“There are still a lot of tribes that have never been discovered by Western civilization. It’s a beautiful location, it’s also very scary, very mysterious, so we just figure that it’s the perfect location for a . . . horror show.”
Even though the pilot was shot in Puerto Rico, the remaining seven episodes of the series were shot in Hawaii.
As well as a new ‘monster of the week’ every episode, the characters will also have to learn how to survive with the other members of the crew, which includes TV producer Clark (Paul Blackthorne), mechanic Emilio (Daniel Zacapa), Emilio’s daughter Jahel (Paulina Gaitán), bodyguard Captain Kurt (Thomas Kretschmann), camera operator A.J. (Shaun Parkes) and Lena (Eloise Mumford), whose father also disappeared as part of Dr. Cole’s crew.
“If you’re not going to care about the characters then you’re not going to be scared for what’s going to happen to them so we put a lot of effort into making sure that the characters are very compelling . . . they have many layers and as this show progresses throughout the season you find out a lot of their secrets and sometimes covert agendas as to why they’re really there.”
Peli adds there’s nothing else on TV right now that’s like “The River” and says he hopes it fills the void of people wanting a mini-horror movie each week.
“A lot of the shows out there right now are either cop dramas or medical dramas and we tried to do something that’s way, way out there and very different . . . So far we’ve been getting very good response.”
“The River” premieres with a special two-hour episode tonight at 9 p.m. ET/PT. New episodes will also be available at CTV.ca the day following the broadcast.
About Sheri Block
Sheri Block has been covering entertainment for CTV.ca since 2008. In addition to covering Will and Kate’s Royal Wedding in London, Sheri’s highlights have included going on tour with “Canadian Idol,” being a stand-in on “Canada’s Next Top Model” and meeting Colin Farrell at the Toronto International Film Festival.Follow her on Twitter!