Many directors dream of launching one hit franchise. James Wan has launched three.
The Malaysia-born, Australia-raised filmmaker first made a name for himself with Saw, a psychological horror film that spawned six sequels, all of which Wan produced but did not direct. Then he directed Insidious and its first sequel; a fourth film — again, produced but not directed by Wan — is now in the works. And then he directed The Conjuring, a huge hit that led to a prequel-ish spin-off called Annabelle.
Somewhere in there he also directed Furious 7, which is not only the biggest hit in that series but the third-highest-grossing movie of all time overseas (behind Avatar and Titanic) and one of only six films that have made over $1.5 billion worldwide.
Soon Wan will return to the world of blockbusters with the superhero movie Aquaman. But first he took a breather by returning to the world of The Conjuring.
Based on the infamous Enfield Poltergeist case from the late 1970s, The Conjuring 2 — opening this Friday — takes paranormal experts Ed and Lorraine Warren (played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) out of their familiar American environment and puts them in north London, where a single mom (Frances O’Connor) and her four kids are apparently being terrorized by the ghost of a former resident of their home.
I spoke to Wan about his new film at a press junket in Los Angeles last Saturday. What follows is a slightly edited transcript of our conversation, combined with a few extra questions and answers that came up at a roundtable interview afterwards.
First, before we start, I just have to say that one of my most memorable experiences in a theatre ever is thanks to you. When I saw Insidious —
James Wan: Uh-huh?
— the popcorn literally flew off my lap.
Wan: (laughs) That’s cool. Which scene? Which moment?
The face behind —
Wan: — behind Patrick’s head.
Yeah. So I’m more careful now with when I pick up the popcorn.
I read an interview you did a few years ago where you said you had done enough horror, you were dropping the horror genre, and here you are back doing it three years later. What drew you back? Why did you come back to it?
Wan: I’m still technically not fully back in horror. I’m back in the world that I started with, with the first movie. And after F7, I guess I just wanted to kind of go back to a smaller movie and work in a franchise that I created, and it just felt like the natural thing to do. Just to work with people that I like, like Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, in this world that I created. And so besides creatively, from a creative standpoint, the opportunity to expand on this world that we had created with the first movie. But also the chance to work with the same crew, work with family, was kind of cool.
What kind of access did you have to Ed and Lorraine’s files? Were you able to pick and choose any case you wanted?
Wan: Yeah, I think we have access to a bunch of their sort of greatest hits stories, and this story was kind of picked early on, whilst I was actually in the middle of working on Fast & Furious 7, so I thought it was really cool. I knew that we had to touch on the Amityville story in some respect [in the prologue to The Conjuring 2], just because that is the case that put the Warrens on the map and made them infamous, so we knew we had to touch on that. But I didn’t want to spend the whole movie on Amityville because we’ve seen that so many times already, so we wanted to find a different case. They’ve got so many stories — right? — to delve into, and it was really cool that we found another case that kind of mirrors the Amityville one.
Was there any concern about the fact that the sequel is covering more familiar material? The first Conjuring, I’d never heard of that case before, and I don’t know how well known it was, but here, Amityville of course is very famous, and even the Enfield case has been filmed before [in the British miniseries The Enfield Haunting, which aired last year].
Wan: It’s highly documented, yeah. It was something that we felt was a natural progression, whereas the first one, the first movie introduced the general public audience to the Warrens. A lot of people who live on the upper east coast of America know who the Warrens are, but outside of that, in the world, they’re kind of famous only if you know the sort of paranormal-supernatural world. Then you probably have heard of them. But outside of that they’re not quite as well known, so after the first Conjuring, it kind of put the Warrens really on the map, so it just felt like a natural progression from a story and character development standpoint, to touch on the infamy that they have received after Amityville, and then going on to investigate the Enfield [case]. And I just thought that was an interesting backdrop to set against, the fact that the Warrens are so much more well known now — they’re doing talk shows, TV, they’ve got the lecture circuits deal — and when they do these talk shows and all that, people are calling them out for being charlatans or whatever, and I just thought that skeptical angle is one that I had to acknowledge in this film.
I don’t know where you stand on that debate — whether it really happened or the skeptical side — but I’m just curious: The film is about things happening to one family, and then the Warrens come into it and they get drawn in even more than they expected. Now as a filmmaker telling this story, did you ever get the feeling that you were being drawn or dragged into something like the Warrens were?
Wan: (chuckles) Well, I think when you’re a director, you get sucked into your project whether you like it or not, right? You get invested emotionally, you give it everything you can, you spend so much time working, living, eating, breathing this project, and so you kind of need to be in that head space to make the project. And so, yeah, I got caught up in that world, definitely, but it’s just one of those things that I think, you know, it is what it is. I believe that these people believe in what they do, and I think that’s all that matters at the end of the day. I say that I’m not making a documentary, I’m making a very subjective point-of-view movie, seen through their point of view, and my job is to try and be respectful to these people that I’m basing the film on, or at least using their life stories as a foundation.
The press notes refer to a priest blessing the set before you shot the film. Did that happen on the first film?
Wan: No. (laughs)
So did you feel you needed to now?
Wan: You know what was interesting, we didn’t necessarily have anything scary or creepy happen on the filming of the first movie that I know of. As a director you’re always so busy — you’re go, go, go, you’re always moving, moving, moving — so I’m not actually privy to all the weird stuff that’s happening around me, but for a lot of the cast and crew, that’s what I hear stories from them about, weird stuff happening. And shooting in the South as well. (laughs) There’s a lot of creepy stuff, the South is a lot more haunted, and we shot that in North Carolina — and I did hear a lot of creepy stories happening to cast and crew, where they were staying, and because of the nature of the movie that we were making, I think that made its way into the psyche of their head and kind of affected them in some ways, so I think, moving ahead, I don’t know whose idea it was to bring a priest down to bless the set, but I’m all good with that. You can never have too much good blessing. (laughs) Nothing bad happened on this set, so it must have worked!
Given that you’ve done a couple of Insidious movies and a couple of Conjuring movies, rumours of things happening on the set: Did that ever happen on Insidious or only on these true-story movies?
Wan: I can’t quite remember now about Insidious. You mean, like, kind of weird paranormal things? Is that what you’re referring to?
Wan: I heard one story from Insidious 2. We shot a portion of the movie at Linda Vista Hospital — I don’t know where that is exactly, I think in Boyle Heights — Linda Vista Hospital is a shut-down hospital that’s been abandoned for all these years, and a lot of films shoot there, and it is probably one of the most well-known haunted locations in Los Angeles. A lot of those ghost-hunter shows go to Linda Vista and they do their night-walk through with the EPV equipment and all that stuff, so it’s really famous for being haunted, and when you’re there, it’s really creepy. There’s a really sort of oppressive vibe about it. And I heard one story where one big grip guy, he was in between the floors — we were shooting on one floor and then setting up shots on another floor — and in the stairway, pitch black at night, he’s going up the stairwell, and he stopped at the landing, and he said he felt someone, a little kid’s hand came up and held his hand on the stairs, and then he looked down and there was no one there. (laughs) So that was one of the creepy things that I was told, that happened on that movie. And again, I don’t think it was the scary horror story aspect of that movie, I think it was just because we shot in such a haunted location.
Coming out of Saw, where Jigsaw is getting people for the wrongdoings they did, you guys got labeled for that — there was that term “torture porn” that was used for a while — and then there are these films with Christian/Catholic heroes, so what drew you to these movies?
Wan: You know what’s funny is, when I made Saw, I got accused of being a fascist, when I made Insidious, I got accused of being godless, and now I made the Conjuring films and I’m accused of being too much God. (laughs) So it’s really interesting to see how people have reacted to my three sets of horror films. But listen: for me, at the end of the day, it’s all about telling the stories of Ed and Lorraine Warren, and these two characters are such devout Catholics, and there was no way I could make a movie about them and not touch on the role of religion and faith and all that. It’s such a big part of who they are. It makes up what they do and how they interact with other people. And so that is their badge, that is literally their shield that they use to go do the things that they do, like when they go into whatever dark or evil things that they battle against. They used two things. They used their faith as a crutch to stand on, and the other thing is their love for each other. And I just thought that is such a great dynamic to showcase in a movie, from a cinematic standpoint.
The Conjuring 2 has lots of scary stuff, but it seemed almost like a family-friendly movie in some ways.
Wan: (laughs) Yes, yes.
There’s a scene where Patrick Wilson almost swears and stops —
Wan: Yes. But that, again, is my way of trying to draw who the Warrens are. They’re kind of like that kind of people, the “Oh shucks, good golly” type.
I discovered afterwards that the film is rated R. Were you going for an R rating or PG-13?
Wan: I was going for PG-13 on the first movie. There’s no blood, there’s no swearing, there’s nothing bad in the first movie, and yet I got slammed with this really hard R rating, and I couldn’t get around it. They said, “The movie is just too scary, we cannot give you a PG-13.” So going to Conjuring 2, then, I was like, Oh well, you know what? I’m just going to embrace the R-rated aspect of it and not be dictated by the ratings system, and just make the best movie I could.
How do you balance these really scary, intense moments with the true facts of what actually happened?
Wan: I think it’s important that I keep going back and use the true-life aspect of the characters and the events as the foundation for me to spring off to hang my scary set pieces. So I use inspiration from what the family has said over the years about living in the Enfield house, how they constantly heard banging noises, doors were slamming and pounding, and furniture moved on its own. So I used that as a jumping-off point for me to craft the way I design my scares. So when I design my scares, I don’t have to do that in the way it actually happened for the family necessarily, I have to filter it through myself, because I think at the end of the day I still have to tell an entertaining, scary story.
How did you come up with the cinematography, and that flowing style throughout the whole film?
Wan: I don’t know, I’m just such a big visual fan, I love my camerawork. There’s two aspects of film crafting that I’m very strict about, and that’s how I move my camera and where I cut the film. I’m very heavily involved in the editorial post-production process, and the camera — it’s just such a big part of my storytelling language, I like creating the tension, I like creating the emotion through the movement of my camera, or the lack of movement through my camera, depending on what fits the scene best. So it was a great experience for me to work with Don Burgess, who is an amazing cinematographer and has done a lot of movies with Robert Zemeckis, and the great thing with Don is — because he’s done a lot of crazy stuff with Zemeckis — that whatever cool things I come up, he would not be fazed. He would be like, “Okay, let’s find ways to do that.” And I just think the camerawork is such a big part of storytelling for me.
If I have to point to something specific with the way I move my camera, I love to do it with a wide lens. I like to show you as much of the space as I can, even if I’m following a character. I think the general filmmaking consensus is to create claustrophobia, people like to go tighter and tighter and tighter. I go the opposite — I go wider and wider and wider. I like to show more of the space, because then your eyes are searching the entire frame, wondering what is going to happen. Am I seeing something in that corner? Am I seeing something over there? It just feels more real, because for us, as humans, when we look at things, we see things like this, we see so much of the world, and we can focus in on one thing but we still see through our peripheral vision what’s happening over here and what’s happening over here, and that’s what I’m always trying to capture.
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Plus: one bonus quote regarding perceived parallels between the Conjuring films and The Exorcist:
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Wan: Here’s the really interesting thing. The event took place in 1977 to 1979, and a lot of people back then who wrote stories about what was happening in Enfield believed that the kids saw The Exorcist and started riffing off that. So that’s why there are shades of The Exorcist in this movie — even though The Exorcist wasn’t my inspiration — because people that didn’t believe the kids said they were inspired by the movie. I had a little Easter egg in the London montage sequence at the start of the movie — I had a marquee with The Exorcist II across it, quick flashes — because that was the very year that The Exorcist II came out. (laughs)