Director James Wan’s secret to making creep-tastic cinema is knowing how to scare himself.
Not many horror directors will admit to actually being afraid of the “dark side,” but that’s what separates James Wan from many of his peers.
Having directed the ultra-violent horror hit Saw and the supernatural spookfests Insidious and Dead Silence, Wan admits the reason why he’s so attracted to horror is that it scares the living hell out of him. “People say to me, ‘You make scary movies, so you must not be scared of this stuff,’” says Wan. “No way. I’m terrified! That’s why I can make these kinds of movies, because I find them terrifying. All I do is put what scares me into my films.”
His latest, The Conjuring, certainly tempts fate in ways that Wan’s previous films haven’t. For one, it’s based on a true story. Taking pages from the lives of famed spirit hunters Ed and Lorraine Warren — two of the first paranormal investigators involved in the infamous Amityville disturbance — the film follows one of their most famous cases, involving a haunted New England farmhouse. “The story is set in the early ’70s and follows a mom and dad — Carolyn and Roger Perron, played by Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston — with five daughters who move into a farmhouse where they encounter a number of entities,” explains Wan. “Not all of them are bad, but one of them is really bad. It’s the dead spirit of a witch who used to live on the land. Before she killed herself, she cursed the land and anyone who would take her land and then proclaimed her love to Satan. Then she hung herself.”
The witch in question was named Bathsheba Sherman, and her spirit’s poltergeist-like activity is well documented in daughter Andrea Perron’s multi-volume book “House of Darkness, House of Light: The True Story.”
Tapping into both the experiences of the Perrons and the Warrens — played by Insidious star Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga — brought an even creepier vibe to the film, according to Wan. “A lot of stories I heard, I thought, ‘Nobody is going to believe that’ and what ended up in the film is much less than what the family said they went through,” he says. “After what they experienced at the house, they went to Ed and Lorraine to help them get rid of this dark entity that had latched itself onto their family.”
It was a warm spring day in Wilmington, North Carolina, when Geek arrived on the set of The Conjuring. Wan was coming into the production’s home stretch on the Screen Gems stages as he began day 35 of the 40-day shoot. This project is the director’s first studio film since Dead Silence, and he was clearly enjoying the freedom that a longer shooting schedule affords. His last film, Insidious, was shot in just 20 days. “On indie films like that, you go, go, go,” Wan explains. “That ‘go, go, go’ spirit gets filtered into the energy of the film and can really come across on screen. When it’s raw and real, it’s a good thing, but, shooting a studio film, you also have more time and money to work on it, so you can really craft a shot and work with your actors. You don’t just do one or two takes and have to say, ‘Oh, sorry, we didn’t get what we wanted, but we have to move on.’”
The big action of the day took place within a cellar set built on Stage 3, which had been expertly production designed and dressed with dust, old furniture and broken concrete. It was so perfect and creepy that it even — perhaps unintentionally — had that musty-cellar smell.
Watching Wan work, it was clear how passionate he is about delivering the scares. In one sequence, Lili Taylor — who plays Carolyn — lights a match and walks down the darkened stairwell into the pitch-black basement. It’s super creepy, and even though I was watching the action unfold on a monitor just a few yards away at video village, it showcased the eerie flair for the supernatural that Wan has perfected throughout his career.
In addition to Taylor descending into the cellar, Wan crafts subsequent unnerving scenes involving a stunt person suspended on wires being thrown around the room by a supernatural force, a shot of a ghost walking through a bedroom and, finally, an eerie image of the aforementioned witch hanging from the cellar’s rafters.
“I thought this could be a really cool project since it deals in a similar world I dealt with in Insidious,” Wan says. “This is a true story and a period movie. And even though it’s a ghost story, I could shape it in a very different way. I’m a big fan of William Friedkin’s earlier work. I love The French Connection and the raw style of filmmaking he had in the 1970s and I thought this would be a great opportunity to embrace that style of filmmaking but shoot it with today’s technology. This is a really interesting hybrid. It’s very beautiful to look at, but has the spirit of how they used to make these movies back then.”
While Friedkin’s classic The Exorcist remains the 24K gold standard for demonic possession films, there has been a recent resurgence of this sub-genre — including the Paranormal Activity films, The Last Exorcism and its sequel, and last year’s The Possession. For Wan, this subject matter has gained traction because it still works. “It’s been around forever but it’s very effective and we can all relate to it,” he explains. “What The Exorcist has done for that subculture is really incredible. That’s probably one of the scariest elements people respond to in these supernatural stories.”
According to Wan, who takes the supernatural seriously, one of the most dangerous things people do is treat things like Ouija boards as toys. “One of the things that’s been pointed out, and people don’t realize this, but over the years, because of movies and books and things like Ouija boards, the occult has become so trivialized and commercialized,” he says. “People don’t realize what they’re doing because what these things are meant to do is to invoke dead spirits.”
And, not surprisingly, The Conjuring cast and crew experienced a number of unexplained phenomena during the shoot, but Wan said he thankfully was spared any supernatural contact. “If weird stuff started happening on the film, I would have been so freaked out,” he admits, noting his crew wasn’t quite so lucky. “Some truly believed the houses they were staying in were haunted. One felt a sheet being pulled off of her. Another said she was sleeping and felt someone sitting on the bed next to her. She experienced so much of that as the film went on. It was really freaking her out, but that all stopped the day Lorraine Warren showed up on set. After that visit, she didn’t experience it anymore.”
It’s months later, and Wan is back in Los Angeles, where he is busily editing The Conjuring. “My films are somewhat quirky and a bit offbeat, but I think this is my most mainstream movie,” he says. “Testing it with an audience was an amazing experience. It’s always great to watch people respond to the film vocally by jumping and screaming.”
This enthusiasm from the test audiences, not to mention the studio’s response, resulted in the film being moved from its original January release to the middle of summer, on July 19, where horror is normally scarce at the multiplex. “After the studio saw the film, they felt confident that it would be great counter-programming,” says Wan. “Holding the film until July has also allowed more time for the marketing campaign and I’m really digging the stuff that’s coming out because they’ve had more time to think about it.”
One of the most surprising things about this process for Wan is the R-rating The Conjuring received from the MPAA. Lacking any blood, overt violence and strong language, the film is even more outwardly benign than the PG-rated fright classic Poltergeist. “[The Conjuring] is not R-rated worthy, but the MPAA felt strongly it was an R movie,” says Wan, whose previous film, Insidious, dealing with similar subject matter, was cut down from its original R, resubmitted to the MPAA and ultimately received a PG-13.
“I think the true story thing has a lot to do with it,” says Wan of The Conjuring. “That has a different connotation and puts the movie in a different light. The MPAA says the film is simply too scary [for a PG rating] and there’s not one thing we could change. I am happy that I didn’t have to change the movie, though.”
Meanwhile, Wan has another horror film coming out in 2013, Insidious: Chapter 2, which continues the scare thrill ride he started with the successful 2011 independent thriller. “The second one is like a classic domestic thriller with supernatural undertones,” says Wan. “So it’s a similar type of movie in a slightly different sub-genre. I wanted to explore more of the characters I set up. So how it ended in the first one, the second goes in a different direction. I always want to do something different and not repeat myself. So the second one has a much more realistic edge to it, it’s not as stylized as the first film.”
Even though Wan has made a name for himself in the horror genre (his one detour was the action film Death Sentence), he wants to focus on doing action and science fiction films after he completes Insidious: Chapter 2. “There’s only so much horror you can do — I’m all horrored out,” says Wan, who clarifies that he doesn’t want to retire from the genre altogether, just take a break from it. “Hopefully, the studios will let me try something different and help me branch out. I love action and sci-fi and now it’s time to spread my wings.”
That said, Wan feels Hollywood is now looking at him differently, especially with all the success he’s had, which has allowed him to be viewed outside of this horror box: “Films like Insidious and The Conjuring, if you take out the scares, there’s still acting, performances and drama, and people are now seeing I do that kind of stuff as well.”
Still, Wan regards his stint in horror with utmost respect and even though he only helmed the first Saw movie (and was an executive producer on the six sequels), he’s grateful for how the fans have embraced those movies and jumpstarted his career. “It’s amazing how we cracked into the subconscious mind of pop culture in such a big way,” he says. “I grew up loving Freddy Krueger and A Nightmare on Elm Street. That’s the apex of the horror world and now our character Jigsaw and Freddy Kreuger are on that same level.”
As The Conjuring prepares for its release, Wan says he’s thrilled with how the film turned out. “It was based on a true story, so I couldn’t branch out too much to do my weird stuff,” says Wan. “I wanted to honor the story of these people and, at the same time, I shot it in a way that makes it feel different. The scares are a big difference. I pride myself on making the scares unique. I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel, I’m trying to give it a different color.”
Wan’s Secret Romance
While most horror directors profess their passion for the genre, and director James Wan does love horror, he admits the movies he loves to watch most are not what you’d expect. “My favorites are romantic comedies,” Wan reveals. So with that, the filmmaker counts down his five favorite recent romantic comedies.
1. Music and Lyrics
“I love it. It has a great soundtrack and it’s so cute and nice.”
2. Notting Hill
“I’m a huge Hugh Grant fan.”
3. 50 First Dates
“I love Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore in that.”
“That was my favorite movie of 2010. It’s a great film — funny, fun and sad.”
5. While You Were Sleeping
“That’s one of my favorite films. It’s cute and so sweet. It’s nice to see something that isn’t scary for a change. It’s very uplifting.”
And if you think Wan is straying too far from his creative roots, here’s his favorite film to re-watch every year to remind himself of what great filmmaking is:
“It’s my favorite movie of all time. Most people love Steven Spielberg for Jaws, and I love that as well, but Duel was low budget and shot so quickly. It was Spielberg’s indie movie.”