The Conjuring Director James Wan, On Making A Classical Chiller With Way Less Blood
It's hard to imagine what modern horror movies would be like without James Wan, who released Saw in 2004 and ushered in an entire new era of bloody, in-your-face horror. But for his next film, Wan isn't breaking ground on new genres or even getting all that bloody-- he's looking directly toward the past. Telling the story of Ed and Lorraine Warren, the real-life pair of paranormal investigators who hunted down dozens of ghosts and other spooky occurrences in the 70s, The Conjuring uses the period setting to riff on classic horror, getting away from the splatter and toward some really unnerving scares.
On the set of The Conjuring last April, in Wilmington, N.C., Wan rattled off half a dozen films that inspired him, from The Amityville Horror (based on a case the Warrens themselves investigated) to The Sixth Sense. He also talked about the ways in which it's different from his surprise horror hit Insidious (which has its own sequel coming this summer), how the witch in The Conjuring is his version of the shark in Jaws, and what it's like making his first film without old buddy Leigh Whannell. For more from the set of The Conjuring you can read our full set visit report or our interview with star Patrick Wilson. The film itself comes to theaters July 19.
Could you tell us about the tone of this film? Insidious had a very dark tone, but it had some kookiness to it. Does this have some lightness to it, as well?
No, this is definitely a bit more serious. I wanted to make that a fun, creepy, sort of tongue-in-cheek movie, to some degree. But just the nature of what this film is, and the fact that itís based on peopleís stories, I want to honor that as much as I possibly can and ground it in reality as much as I possibly could. And also, itís a period film, as well, and I want to stay true to all of that.
Because this is a period film set in the 70s, does that make it a slightly gentler era that weíre looking at, when compared to recent horror films?
The film that I want to make is a more classical chiller. If you look back at the original Amityville Horror, I think it was kind of in-your-face for the time. But if you look back at it now, itís definitely a much more moody piece. One of the big inspirations for me on this film is the feel of that period. Still one of my favorite movies is the original The Haunting. I love that style. I love that feel, and I want to take that feeling and apply it to this story.
Can you talk to us about pacing, and maybe trusting your audience to stay with you as you develop your characters in a genre that doesnít always allow the filmmaker to do that?
I think it really depends within this subgenre, itself. If you are making a traditional slasher film, then the pacing has a different feel from a supernatural movie. Supernatural movies generally have a much more brooding pace. If you look at films like The Sixth Sense or The Others, itís more building up the characters and building up the situation as opposed to just opening with a big action set piece. Thatís definitely not what this film is. This film is more in line with the other two.
So tonally, itís quite a bit different than Insidious. As for the scope of the movie, has that opened up, as well?
Itís not as quirky as Insidious. Insidious is independent. Itís like the Clerks of horror films, you know? Itís supernatural, but itís kind of in that vein. It embraces its strangeness, and thatís what we were going for. This definitely isnít in that world, but I think this lives in a much more realistic world.
The studio has been talking about how the Warrens having so many stories, this could be the start of a franchise. Like they are the Nick and Nora Charles of horror movies. How are you building them as characters Ė different from other horror movies Ė that the audience would want to follow them from film to film?
One of the first things that Patrick (Wilson) and Vera (Farmiga) wanted to do when we began production was to meet Lorraine Warren. Unfortunately, sheís the only one who is still around, so everything that we learned about Ed was from her point of view. We wanted to try and capture some of their quirky charms. I tell people this is a subjective movie. Iím making this movie through her point of view. So whether or not you believe in their story or the story of the parents, Iím showing you a movie through their point of view, through what they experienced. People can then decide what to believe.
We were told that you had an unconventional take on the possession makeup. What can you ell us about that? Is it a less-is-more aesthetic?
Yeah, it definitely is. Iím trying to find that balance. I feel like, with most filmmakers of my generation, I like the over-the-top stuff. I like to be wacky and really in your face. But I also find thereís a lot of merit to holding back, as well, and I really did discover that with Insidious. Insidious and Saw were very different films, tonally. One wasnít afraid to shove as much in your face as possible, and one held back. But when I did show you stuff, it was kind of off-kilter. I want to try and do this with this one, as well, but kind of put my stamp on it, as well. I think itís a more mature film that anything Iíve done.
Can you talk about your visual style for the film? From what weíve seen, it appears to ape natural lighting and seems to have a lot to do with texture.
Right. One of the things myself and [production designer] Julie [Berghoff] wanted to do was to bring across the flavor of that period. I think thatís whatís going to give this film another level. At the end of the day, it is a classic haunted house ghost story. Iím not here to reinvent that wheel. As I said with Insidious, I didnít want to invent the wheel, I just wanted to paint the wheel a different color. With this one, the different color I want to embrace is Ö I want to make a classical period film. I want to capture that with the production design, the wardrobe and the photography. If nothing else, I know this will be a beautiful-looking film!
That being said, what is the secret to making a successful haunted house movie?
People ask me, ďWhy do you like haunted house films? Theyíre so done to death.Ē And I say, ďThereís a reason that theyíre done to death. If you can make it work, itís a very effective subgenre!Ē We can all relate to it. We all live in houses or apartments, and we can all relate to having siblings or a mom and dad. Right off the bat, you have the shorthand of the characters going into it. Hopefully you create characters who people like, and so when stuff starts to happen, you are right there with them. With this movie, I have a trick. The heroes of the story, the haunting isnít really haunting them. Itís haunting another family. Theyíre the ones who come in an investigate, determining that there is something here in this place, on this farmland, in this house. How do I make that scary for the heroes of the film, as well? That, I think, was my biggest challenge for this film. Having Vera and Patrick to work with and play with is very important because theyíre such great actors, and you believe them.
Some of the crew members have said theyíve encountered some strange happenings on set and around North Carolina during filming. Have you had any weird experiences?
[Laughs] I donít want to make us fake stuff, but it has been really weird some of the stuff that I have been hearing. Even Vera has said that from the moment she came on to do this movie, sheíd always wake up between the period from 3 to 4 in the morning. She says she has been waking up every night in that period. At first, I was like, ďWell, you just came from L.A., and with the time difference ÖĒ You know? Even now, though, she still says that she has a hard time sleeping between those hours. And Iím like, ďNo way.Ē Because in the movie, thereís a very specific period where the witch character died in that timeframe. And so Iím like, ďNo, that canít be.Ē Vera seems to have made this connection, though, and I do think thatís kind of cool.
Is the witch going to be like your shark from Jaws, where you pick and choose your moments until sheís fully introduced?
Um, yeah. For these films to be effective, you want to pick and choose your moments. You want to have those moments where [the audience] goes, ďDid I just see that? Did that just happen?Ē Which is the kind of filmmaking that I love. The kind of films that I love have a character walking down a hallway and youíre like, ďDid I just see someone behind the drapes?Ē I love that. I love the idea of playing with the audience, and being able to build on that [tension]. Sure enough, you think you see something later on, or you donít see something and then Ö itís just trying to find that balance. Todayís horror-movie audiences are so savvy. You always have to try and stay one step ahead, to try and make it fun for them.
I donít like predictable horror films. But itís a lot easier said than done. If it were so easy to do, then every horror film that got made and released would be freaking awesome and scary all of the time. Thatís not always the case. So yeah, weíll see.
Is Leigh Whannell involved in this at all?
This is the first project Iíve done that hasnít involved Leigh at all.
Is he crushed?
Well, heís busy right now! Heís busy writing. But heís not even cameoing in it for me. Iím flying solo on this one.
How is that?
I love having Leigh around. Itís just cool because weíre such good friends and we pretty much think the same. Sometimes if I like something, Iíll ask him what he thinks and heíll give me his opinion. If Iím not sure about something, Iíd go to him and heíd validate it for me, as well. I donít have that, but I think itís kind of cool at the same time to do it on my own. Up until now, Iíve always had Billy from Saw make a guest appearance. This also will be my first film where I donít do that. Iím growing up and moving on. [Laughs]
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