The River mixes horror with improv acting to create a terrifyingly realistic TV series about magic

A beloved, famous scientist named Emmett Cole has gone missing on an expedition in South America. After six months, his wife Tess and grown son Lincoln give him up for dead. Until they get a call from his emergency beacon on a remote branch of the Amazon River. The only problem? They don't have the money to fund a rescue mission, unless they invite a TV documentary crew to film their attempts to find Emmett. They have no choice but to let the world watch as they cope with incredible tragedy and pain — and on top of that, it turns out that Emmett has disappeared because he was dabbling in Amazonian magic.


Yesterday at Comic-Con, we had a chance to sit down with the cast and creators of Steven Spielberg production The River, including executive producer Oren Peli, best known for writing and directing Paranormal Activity. What we learned made us even more excited about this fantastic series that's coming out with 7 episodes in 2012, starting in March.

Taking back horror from the torture porn merchants

Oren Peli and writers Michael Green and Zack Estri were very clear that the scariness in The River would be based on tension and character-driven situations. "Our goal isn't to shock the audience with gore and blood and torture porn," Peli emphasized. "We want to scare people with scary stories. And the network, ABC, they said to get as scary as we can." Added Green, "It feels like we've reclaimed horror from people who want to make it as disgusting as possible. We don't want to show you crazy extremes of gore - we want to make it real."

With a lot of input from Steven Spielberg, they have plotted out the whole first season, assuming they get picked up for more episodes than the 7 that ABC has ordered. And Peli says that they have already thought many seasons ahead.

The show is going to revolve around local legends about magic in the Amazon. The writers and actors have been reading a lot about these myths. Said Estri, "Legends about the Amazon are all designed to keep white people out. To repell people. But they're also about how the Amazon will accept or repel you based on whether you'll be a good or bad influence on it." Laughing, Peli added that many horror stories abou the Amaon are about "the white people who ignore the warnings and are foolish enough to go there."

We'll be seeing a lot of ghosts and monsters, and some things that even the actors admitted are too creepy for them to watch. Apparently episode two will revolve around an experience with a ghost that strongly resembles a real-life experience with ghosts that actor Leslie Hope (Tess) had. As they work their way up the Amazon, the characters will stumble across more of the videotapes that Emmett has left behind, chronicling his encounters with magic.


Peli said, "The point of the show is to follow a missing person, and you get the fragments of the tapes as we go along. It's always going to be character-driven. We think this premise is really rich ground."

"There are just so many legends about magic in the Amazon," Estri agreed. He and Green said they can't imagine ever running out of stories to spin out of those legends.


Everything you see happening is really happening

Peli is known for his found footage style, but actors Leslie Hope (Tess), Eloise Mumford (who plays tech geek Lena) and Joe Anderson (Lincoln) made it clear that he's also really interested in improv acting. Mumford told us that her audition for the show involved Peli filming her for a fifteen-minute "interview" while she stayed in character, improvising answers. Like Hope and Anderson, she was immediately smitten by Peli's style and respect for his actors' ideas about their characters. Anderson talked about how all the scenes we see in the pilot, where Lincoln is diving under the stalled boat and everybody is trying desperately to yank the boat out of the mud in total darkness, were filmed with a real boat that they had accidentally grounded.

"It's hard to act when you're diving underwater and your ears are full of water and you can't hear anything," Anderson joked. "They put this boat on a mudbank and realized they couldn't get it off. So they made us do it," Anderson recalled. "There were mud and stones flying up off the back of the boat, and it was complete madness."


Peli also recreated the reality TV set that the characters endure on the real set. He positioned still cameras all over the boat, so the actors really were getting filmed by to the kinds of stationary surveillance cameras you'd see in a reality show like UK series Big Brother. Hope called the camera arrangement "freeing," because "you're captured wherever you are. You're being caught [on camera] all the time. It's really interesting as an actor because you don't have to play to the camera."

Peli was also careful to choose actors whose real lives mirrored their characters. Paul Blackthorne, who plays invasive and aggressive documentary filmmaker Clark, is himself a documentary filmmaker (he couldn't be at Comic-Con because he was shooting a documentary). And Hope has also done documentary filmmaking in South America before.


Heroic women

Both Mumford and Hope talked about how they loved playing female characters who don't have to wear makeup and high heels. Hope's Tess is a lifelong adventurer who has worked alongside her husband in the wilderness for most of her adult life. And Mumford's Lena is a tech geek who does everything from helicopter flying to electronics hacking. Their characters are just as multifaceted as Lincoln and Emmett, and just as fearless.

But every character has more layers than you realize. As Anderson put it, "If you think there's a layer beneath the surface, there are probably 10 more layers."


We loved the pilot, and after learning more about the cast and crew's vision for the series, we're completely sold. We can't wait to see more of this show next year.



"Listen, we like the parts of LOST that had a menacing black cloud, think you can make a series with that again, but different?"

Automaton writers:

"Yes sir!"