Asked if the psychology of terror has always fascinated him, Peli told United Press International in a recent phone interview: "I don't know if I've ever thought about it or analyzed it too much. It's just what's instinctively scary to me, which is usually not anything like slasher films and films with a lot of gore.
"It's more like a fear of the unknown or the unexplained," he noted. "So, in the case of the 'Paranormal Activity' movies, it's the concept of an entity -- from God knows where -- that is now in your house and trying to harm you. And you don't know what it looks like, you don't know where it is or how to defend yourself against it. And in 'Chernobyl Diaries,' you are in this foreign land in one of the most foreign locations on Earth. There is no other place like it. It's abandoned and was evacuated overnight, then there is the problem with the radiation and now you're stranded there in the middle of the night and you're supposed to be alone, but you hear some scream or cry in the night that may or may not be human. Wondering what it is and what's going to happen next, that anticipation, that concept is very scary to me."
Peli produced "Chernobyl Diaries" and co-wrote it with Carey and Shane Van Dyke, based on his original idea. Visual effects master Bradley Parker, whose film credits include "Let Me In," "Fight Club" and "Peter Pan," makes his directorial debut on the movie, which stars Jesse McCartney, Jonathan Sadowski, Devin Kelley, Olivia Taylor Dudley, Nathan Phillips, Ingrid Bolso Berdal and Dimitri Diatchenko.
The film follows a group of young travelers who pursue an extreme tourism experience in Prypiat, a town near the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine. They get more than they bargain for when their guide goes missing, leaving them trapped as prey to mysterious, blood-thirsty creatures on the site of one of the worst nuclear power plant accidents in history. In 1986, an explosion and fire released large quantities of radioactive contamination into the air, forcing thousands in the area to leave their homes and the plant to permanently close. Dozens of people died of radiation poisoning related to the disaster, while scientists say thousands of others have suffered serious health problems from exposure to the radiation.
Peli said he came up with the idea for his film when he was reading online about how some curious travelers are touring the area around Chernobyl now that radiation levels are lower.
"I didn't know that there was this town next to [the plant] that has been totally abandoned and evacuated and has turned into a ghost town for the last 25 years and now -- because the radiation levels have come down enough -- people can actually go under controlled conditions and with the right tour guide can go on a tour," Peli explained. "I looked at all these videos [online] and thought it looked absolutely amazing and very sad and very creepy and thought that seemed like a good premise for a horror movie."
The filmmaker said writing the script was an organic, collaborative process intended to make the characters' dialogue as realistic as possible.
"We actually started improvising with the actors through rehearsals and some of it was even from improvisations during the casting process and we would video-tape it and then transcribe their dialogue and put it into the script. So a lot of the dialogue in the movie was improvised on the fly and was actually their own words that they improvised prior that became part of the script for the movie," he said. "Even though the film is not found footage, we wanted it to have a feeling you're not watching a traditional horror movie but more like you're going on the ride, the journey with this group of people."
Although Peli did not direct the movie, he said he was on the set every day and very hands-on in the casting and post-production processes.
"I was a lot more involved than I originally thought [I would be,] but Brad, our director, did most of the really hard work," he said.
Peli insisted he doesn't worry about all of his films being as successful as his directorial debut "Paranormal Activity" was at the box office in 2009. That movie cost $15,000 to make and grossed nearly $200 million worldwide. It also earned Peli a reputation for being a skilled, subtle filmmaker who can make effective entertainment on a shoestring budget.
"The main thing is personal satisfaction -- if I'm happy with the movie, if I'm proud of it -- that's the main thing. And, hopefully, it also will be well-received by the fans. But it's also nice to see good reviews and to enjoy commercial success. ... I actually feel like there is less pressure now. I feel like I've already proven something with 'Paranormal Activity.' That movie really changed my life, so everything I do from now on is a bonus," Peli said.
"Chernobyl Diaries" is in theaters now.