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Oren Peli Interview: The ‘Chernobyl Diaries’ Producer Talks Atomic Horror

Chernobyl Diaries
Warner Bros.

I’ve just returned from getting hosed down in a decontamination unit. Coincidentally, this is just what I do on Sunday nights and has nothing to do with the fact that I’ve just chatted with Oren Peli, writer and producer of the atomic horror flick ‘Chernobyl Diaries.’

Mr. Peli is the man behind the ‘Paranormal Activity’ films (as well as producer on ‘Insidious’ and the cancelled show ‘The River’) and it stands to reason that ‘The Chernobyl Diaries’ will be another in a string of successes when it opens for insatiable horror audiences this weekend.

Its “why the hell didn’t I think of that?” premise drops a van loaded with adventuresome teens in one of the best real life haunted houses – the (actual) abandoned city of Pripyat outside of Chernobyl. There they will face their own fears. . .or is it wild animals. . .or radioactive psychopaths . . .or, well, perhaps its best to let Mr. Peli get into it.

So how long of a gap was there between learning that there are actually “adventure tours” to the radioactive ghost city of Pripyat before you decided that you’d be shooting a horror movie there?

I mentioned it to producer Brian Witten in November 2010 and we were shooting in November 2011.

That’s a quick turnaround, but I mean in your head – how quickly do you make the jump once you learn about a location like this?

It was a gradual process. I was just speaking to Brian about Pripyat, not even about a horror movie, but then I started thinking it would be cool if someone did that. Brian kept coming back to me and he eventually convinced me to make a horror movie there – it took a few weeks.

When did you take your first tour of the city?

Actually, I’ve never been there.

WHAT?!

I wanted to go. I wanted to shoot a large part of the movie there, the exteriors, for authenticity. But in 2011 the Ukrainian government stopped letting tourists in, we couldn’t figure out why. There was some kind of construction around the reactor or something.

Wait, wait, wait. I’ve seen your movie. I know why they wouldn’t let you in there.

Yes, we joked about this – and wondered if there was a hidden entrance we could use like the tourists in the film.

So you designed the town based on photos?

Yes, we had access to a lot of photos and video and our director, Brett Parker, has a lot of expertise in visual effects, he was able to figure out how to recreate the town in set dressing, in set extension, in CGI, etc. We shot mostly in Serbia and Hungary – the exteriors were in an abandoned air force base in Hungary built by the Soviets at about the same time, and it was also abandoned around the same time that Chernobyl happened. So there was a similar style of architecture as well as a similar level of decay.

Well, it fooled me. Tell me a little about your memory of the Chernobyl disaster?

I was in Israel back then, and I remember that the story came out in a very bizarre and convoluted fashion. The Soviet government didn’t really tell people about it at first – it was Swedish or Norwegian scientists who first discovered a radioactive cloud floating above Europe. Finally the Soviet government admitted what happened and came up with weird excuses why they didn’t say anything, like “it was the weekend and we didn’t want to disturb anyone.” I remember it being extremely scary, because Israel isn’t all that far from where this was, but the winds went in the other direction – I remember listening to news reports about that. It felt like the one major nuclear disaster that made people think twice about nuclear power near a major city. . .and who’s to say this wasn’t one of the major factors in the end of the cold war.

I loved the guy you had playing Uri, the badass Ukrainian special forces dude. I imagine this guy had some good stories to tell.

Well, many people wouldn’t guess but the actor, Dimitri Diatchenko, is actually American.

Awwww!

Obviously he is of Russian ethnicity, but he is as American as one can be, born in the States and he fools everyone with his characters. It is the magic of the movies.

You can meet Uri and try to listen for a fake accent when ‘The Chernobyl Diaries’ hits theaters May 25.

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