ABC presented their midseason lineup to the Television Critics Association today. “The River” is a horror show about a documentary crew searching for a missing nature show host. Oren Peli is one of the producers and the show utilizes the found footage format with documentary cameramen as characters in the show. Peli and executive producers Michael Green and Zack Estrin spoke about their plans for the eight episode first season in a panel this morning.
The disappearance of Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood) reveals scary elements as his wife (Leslie Hope) and son (Joe Anderson) uncover clues in the Amazon jungle. Along the way, they will meet a new scare every week. “We say they’re on a fictional part of the Amazon that has a lot of surprising twists and turns,” Green said. “There’s more than just ghosts to be scared of there. It’s the Amazon. There are endless things that can try to hurt you..”
More specifically, danger can come from mythological creatures and really bad people. “There’s the jungle, there’s human danger, paranormal danger, there’s these people who are scary as well,” Estrin said. “For as many episodes as we are blessed to have, we’ve got spooks and scary things on a weekly basis based on real stuff from down there.”
With studio horror films going for PG-13 ratings and televised crime shows creating more gore than we’ve ever seen, it should be easy for “The River” to be scary on ABC.
“I said how scary are you willing to go to this?” Green recalled of his network meeting. “They said, ‘You can go as scary as you want as long as we care about the people.’ I just took that as a marching order and thought you’ll be so much more invested week to week if you got to know these people, if they felt like real people. As opposed to in a horror/thriller, you end up with stereotypes, the football player and his girlfriend go out in the woods, they’re going to get slashed, it doesn’t matter how well you know them. We wanted you not to be just scared for people, we wanted you to be worried about these people.”
One difficulty with horror on television is that if you have a regular cast, you’re not going to kill them off. Anthology shows get around that and experiments in offing regular cast members have had mixed results (Harper’s Island.) The producers of “The River” are willing to kill their characters.
“We like them to feel disposable,” Green said. “The Amazon is a place with real stakes and real danger. Honestly my philosophy in television is treat every script like your last because it might be. We don’t leave a lot of cards on the table. We do the best for that episode and trust ourselves to come up with more later.”
One character who could be safe is Tess Cole. Hope has been promised a little more job security than she had on 24. (Spoiler alert for season one of 24.)
“I did a TV show where I got killed somewhat unexpectedly in my mind,” Hope chimed in. “I was the wife of the hero and I was pregnant. So Michael made a promise that it would be at least 40 episodes before they would kill me and stab me in the guy.”
Green won’t kill his regulars indiscriminately. That would be a lousy gimmick too. He’ll make it count. “They do get a phone call before [we kill them off,]” Green said. “We can’t give away the end, but real stakes. That said we don’t want to violate anyone’s trust as a viewer to get attached to people and we’ll remove them just for a gag. We take it very seriously.”
Between character deaths, mythological creatures and natural dangers, there are plenty of different types of scares “The River” can deliver.
“Some people consider horror in your face gore,” Estrin said. “Some consider horror to be tension. For us real scares come from the anticipation of something, the silence, the little rattle outside. Things you have at home can give you real fear. The challenge is to break for commercials six times. Can we maintain that in the course of an episode knowing someone’s going to try to sell us something in between?”
Sound will play a role in the horror too, and you won’t need a fancy surround setup to enjoy it. “I don’t think it’s as much where the sound is coming from but that something is out there,” Peli said. “Sound does play a very important role in “The River” and we think it will play very well on the TV. We were all on the same page saying we want to create scares not with gory imagery or visuals. We want to create anxiety and tension that allows the viewers to fill in their blanks and create the worst nightmare scenario.”
Found footage may be the buzzword of the movie industry, but it’s almost an afterthought for the producers of “The River”. “We considered it not a major part of the idea of the show,” Green said. “As much as it’s a newer idea, it’s something people have become accustomed to. We didn’t try to be overly cute about it. It becomes a generative device, a participatory device because the point of view becomes your point of view. That makes it scarier and real to us. As much as we have fun with it, we don’t want that to be the lead.”
Peli began developing “The River” as a movie. It grew bigger as he took meetings with the likes of Steven Spielberg, who also executive produces the show. “It actually started with an idea I had for a movie that was much more simple than “The River” evolved,” Peli said. “It was just a documentary crew gone missing and the mission to find them. Then I had a meeting with Steven Spielberg and he told me, ‘Hey, we should do a TV show together.’ And I’m thinking okay, sure. At that point I was barely figuring out the world of movies, I knew nothing about TV. He was like, ‘Why waste this on one movie? You can turn it into a TV show.’ Then we thought of the idea of making it on a boat on “The River”, pitched it to Dreamworks.”
Spielberg remains involved creatively, if not hands on. Yet even his tangential involvement has given many films and TV shows a distinctly Spielbergian feel.
“Poltergeist is a great model,” Estrin said. “Those are the kinds of scares we’re going for. To have someone like him at the hip gives us guidance, his influence in the stories, his influence when he’s watching the cuts, it’s amazing. He’s off filming a movie or two at the same time. The fact that he finds time to watch these cuts and give us notes, he’s been incredibly supportive.”
A discovery the crew makes aboard a wrecked ship in the pilot was Spielberg’s idea. “One of the main things that happened in the pilot, the panic room thing, was something he pitched to us over the phone,” Peli said. “That was his idea.”
The search for Emmet Cole will continue for eight episodes (or less, depending when they find him.) However an important aspect of “The River” is that each individual episode is a mini horror movie.
“We wanted to make sure this show had standalone episodes,” Green said. “Each episode is its own horror film you can enjoy and not participate in the ongoing mystery. There are long arcs for people who want to experience it that way. We looked more to X-Files than Lost. We just want to do the best eight episodes we can, make each one a little jewel of a thriller and make sure anyone can enjoy any of those episodes.”
“The River” premieres Feb 7 on ABC.