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 it’s based on people’s 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, it’s 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 we’re 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, it’s 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 doesn’t 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, it’s more building up the characters and building up the situation as opposed to just opening with a big action set piece. That’s definitely not what this film is. This film is more in line with the other two.
So tonally, it’s quite a bit different than Insidious. As for the scope of the movie, has that opened up, as well?
It’s not as quirky as Insidious. Insidious is independent. It’s like the Clerks of horror films, you know? It’s supernatural, but it’s kind of in that vein. It embraces its strangeness, and that’s what we were going for. This definitely isn’t 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 – different from other horror movies – 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, she’s 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. I’m making this movie through her point of view. So whether or not you believe in their story or the story of the parents, I’m 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. I’m 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 there’s 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 wasn’t 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 it’s a more mature film that anything I’ve done.
Can you talk about your visual style for the film? From what we’ve 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 that’s what’s going to give this film another level. At the end of the day, it is a classic haunted house ghost story. I’m not here to reinvent that wheel. As I said with Insidious, I didn’t 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 … 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, “Why do you like haunted house films? They’re so done to death.” And I say, “There’s a reason that they’re done to death. If you can make it work, it’s a very effective subgenre!” 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 isn’t really haunting them. It’s haunting another family. They’re 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 they’re such great actors, and you believe them.
Some of the crew members have said they’ve encountered some strange happenings on set and around North Carolina during filming. Have you had any weird experiences?
[Laughs] I don’t 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, she’d 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, “Well, you just came from L.A., and with the time difference …” You know? Even now, though, she still says that she has a hard time sleeping between those hours. And I’m like, “No way.” Because in the movie, there’s a very specific period where the witch character died in that timeframe. And so I’m like, “No, that can’t be.” Vera seems to have made this connection, though, and I do think that’s kind of cool.
Is the witch going to be like your shark from Jaws, where you pick and choose your moments until she’s 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, “Did I just see that? Did that just happen?” Which is the kind of filmmaking that I love. The kind of films that I love have a character walking down a hallway and you’re like, “Did I just see someone behind the drapes?” 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 don’t see something and then … it’s just trying to find that balance. Today’s 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 don’t like predictable horror films. But it’s 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. That’s not always the case. So yeah, we’ll see.
Is Leigh Whannell involved in this at all?
This is the first project I’ve done that hasn’t involved Leigh at all.
Is he crushed?
Well, he’s busy right now! He’s busy writing. But he’s not even cameoing in it for me. I’m flying solo on this one.
How is that?
I love having Leigh around. It’s just cool because we’re such good friends and we pretty much think the same. Sometimes if I like something, I’ll ask him what he thinks and he’ll give me his opinion. If I’m not sure about something, I’d go to him and he’d validate it for me, as well. I don’t have that, but I think it’s kind of cool at the same time to do it on my own. Up until now, I’ve always had Billy from Saw make a guest appearance. This also will be my first film where I don’t do that. I’m growing up and moving on. [Laughs]