Scare films use ‘Blair Witch’ playbook

For 'Cloverfield' and 'Paranormal' less is more

One is a big-budget monster-movie crammed with visual effects. The other is a microbudget haunted house film that has been making the fest rounds.

But both “Cloverfield” and “Paranormal Activity” borrow admiringly from the “Blair Witch” playbook: Make your pic as real as possible by casting unknowns who can improvise. Eschew the gore, and scare auds with a homevideo documentary style. And build suspense by not showing everything.

“It’s the idea that anticipation is as scary as anything in a movie could be,” says “Cloverfield” director Matt Reeves. “People’s imagination is the most effective tool in creating terror or dread.”

“Cloverfield” — that was always the film’s title, by the way — has generated considerable media heat since Paramount Pictures launched its virulent online campaign with an untitled trailer — the first ever encountered by the MPAA — attached to “Transformers.”

Shooting that trailer (in which a Manhattan party is interrupted by a monster attack that severs the head of the Statue of Liberty) with small digital cameras before they started production was part of producer J.J. Abrams and Reeves’ learning curve on this most unusual studio movie.

Israeli emigre Oren Peli faced an even steeper learning curve in mounting his first film, “Paranormal Activity.” He arrived in the U.S. at age 19 and pursued a career as a videogame programmer. Terrified by “The Exorcist” as a 10-year-old, he studied graphics and animation but never film. “I’m comfortable with visual graphics,” he says. He’d never studied film.

The idea for “Paranormal Activity” came when Peli and his wife moved into a new house in a San Diego suburb and were frightened by strange noises. “What if a video camera filmed the house at night?” Peli asked. “Then we would know what was happening.”

Peli shot the film over one intense week with one high-def camera — in his own house. His two actors — Katie Featherstone and Micah Sloat — are so convincing as a young couple fighting a haunted house that some who see the movie insist they must be intimate in real life.

“I really dig the ‘Blair Witch’ or ‘This Is Spinal Tap’ style of filmmaking,” says Peli, on the phone from his day job. “It has a more authentic feel when it is done right. Some movies are trying to do one scare after another. They don’t put attention into building atmosphere. (But) in the right context, something ordinary can be disturbing.”

Peli shot the film with a Sony SX1 and a crew of three: “myself, my wife and my best friend,” he says. “We hired a girl for the makeup.” Actor Sloat, who has a broadcasting background, manipulated the camera. The minimal f/x were mechanical (wire removal was the biggest post-production headache). One major budget item: making Peli’s house and hardwood floors camera-ready.

“Cloverfield’s” Reeves and Abrams first met as 13-year-olds screening their early shorts at an 8mm film fest in Los Angeles. They’ve been creative confidantes ever since, with Abrams producing Reeves’ first feature, “The Pallbearer,” and the duo collaborating for six years on TV’s “Felicity.”

Then, after Abrams’ hit series “Alias” and “Lost,” he landed a deal at Paramount and he and producing partner Bryan Burk brought in Reeves to work with “Lost” writer Drew Goddard on expanding Goddard’s elaborate 60-page treatment about a monster attacking New York City into a feature film.

Even Reeves thought he was an odd choice to direct a studio event pic. “My first response was, ‘This is enormous,'” he recalls. “There was so much in it. I’d never done visual effects. Why would they want me?”

Abrams and Burk, though, wanted Reeves to make the characters natural, realistic and believable.

“Cloverfield” — the government’s code name for a “case incident” involving footage recovered from a site “formerly known as Central Park” — was designed as a handheld digital mock-doc. The initial scenes set up the premise: The camera’s hunky owner Rob is in love with a beauty named Beth. He doesn’t want to shoot a testimonial video at his brother’s going-away party, so he passes the camera to a guy named Hud, who keeps shooting through the long night as New York is attacked by something gonzo, loud and very scary. “I saw it, it’s alive!” cries one onlooker.

The filmmakers coaxed Paramount into letting them use no-name actors who could improvise, low-key natural night light, herky-jerky HandyCams (as opposed to SteadiCams, which can be artificially jerked around later; “People would smell that in a second,” says Reeves), and no musical score at all — just source music and well-orchestrated ambient sound.

Somehow, with smart advice from “Zodiac” director David Fincher, the filmmakers persuaded the studio to let them blow up digital footage to 35mm; early tests came out looking almost “too good,” says Reeves. (The digital “Cloverfield” will screen in a few hundred situations.)

For “Paranormal Activity,” Peli also insisted on no musical score. “I knew from the beginning we’d have no noise except what was in the camera,” he says. “We don’t have a sound mixer trying to scare us. Everything we hear is authentic, what the actors are experiencing.”

After shooting the film in a week, Peli took one year to fiddle with the cut on nights and weekends. He eventually sent it to festivals. It wasn’t until he won an award at ScreamFest in October that he realized the film scared people. Now the film has a berth at this month’s Slamdance, and Peli is a CAA client. Peli wasn’t alone in putting the camera into his actors’ hands. “Cloverfield” thesp T. J. Miller’s handling of a lightweight Panasonic HD HandyCam accounts for about an eighth of the final film.

“The little camera establishes a feel — its grace notes; you see the reflections of the actor holding the camera,” says Reeves, who reserved the minicam for intimate scenes among the actors. He kept tweaking those scenes, shooting as many as 60 takes.

The film starts out with the Panasonic, then moves into transitional sequences shot with a 3-lb. Canon for about a third of the film.

“There’s something about juxtaposing something outlandish like a monster with gritty naturalism,” says Reeves, who was transfixed by a security-camera shot of a VW transforming in a parking lot in “Transformers.” “It was so real-looking. The Spielbergian idea of the ordinary and the extraordinary is very relatable and accessible.”

For the widescreen scenes with visual effects, which require higher resolution, a cameraman dressed like Hud sports the much-heavier hi-res Sony F23 or Thomson Viper.”The cameraman was creating the illusion that huge cameras are very light,” says Reeves. “It was grueling. People fell.”

The filmmakers seamlessly melded all the shots, including continuous masters with massive effects added by VFX houses and stop-motion master Phil Tippet. One five-minute shot incorporates 20 VFX elements.

While Paramount got behind the garage-band approach, the 90-minute “Cloverfield,” which bows Jan. 18, did cost $25 million. And, yes, you do see the monster.

“People think you use the ‘Blair Witch’ aesthetic to avoid seeing things,” says Reeves. “I didn’t want to have all that anticipation and not reveal him. The fun thing is you do see everything over the course of the movie in several different ways, but it’s filmed heavily from one point-of-view. You move quickly. By the end you have intimate contact.”

Intimate fear is what Paramount-based producers Jason Blum and Steven Jay Schneider responded to when they decided to take on “Paranormal Activity” after seeing a screener. Blum is now an exec producer, Schneider a co-producer.

“This movie builds true fear, tension and suspense rather than disgust,” Schneider says. “Oren’s making pure classical horror.”

The trio are still fussing over a new cut, which will screen for the first time at Slamdance. While they’ve fielded several offers, according to Blum, attorney Linda Lichter will shop for a distrib in Park City.