"I'm growing up and moving on."
James Wan is joking when he says this, explaining how The Conjuring is the first film he's made without his longtime collaborator Leigh Whannell, and without a cameo by Billy the Puppet, the icon from the film that launched Wan's career, Saw. But as The Conjuring prepares to arrive in theaters next month, it's clear Wan wasn't really joking at all. The Australian-born enfant terrible, who launched the entire "torture porn" sub genre when he brought Saw to the Sundance Film Festival at the ripe age of 26, has spent a decade building his name on blood, guts and death. But with both The Conjuring and Insidious 2 coming this summer, and production on Fast & Furious 7 starting, Wan is rising fast and in a lot of different directions… and The Conjuring wants to be first to prove that he doesn't need torture or creepy puppets to entertain the hell out of you.
Though it's arriving with an R-rating (on the set the producers said they were aiming for a PG-13), the 1970s-set, based-on-a-true-story The Conjuring is billing itself as a subtler, more character-driven riff on horror, a tale of possession and things that go bump in the night that's not so much about the tormented family, but the people who come in to save them. Ed and Lorraine Warren were a married pair of paranormal investigators who handled dozens of cases, including the possession at the center of The Amityville Horror, and were described on set as a kind of Nick and Nora Charles of ghost stories. Casting Patrick Wilson (of Wan's Insidious but also an Emmy and Tony nominee) and Vera Farmiga (of TV's Bates Motel) in itself is enough to promise a kind of classy horror story, and Wan cites The Exorcist and the original 1963 The Haunting as references for the mood and tone. "I think it’s a more mature film that anything I’ve done," Wan says.
Last spring, on the Wilmington, N.C. set, The Conjuring was going by the title The Warren Files, which practically screamed "start of a franchise" (Wilson confirmed "Vera and I wouldn’t have signed on for one not knowing that they didn’t want to do more.") And the dead-simple plot of The Conjuring wouldn't be hard to replicate, especially given the dozens and dozens of cases the Warrens handled. For this one, it starts with a witch named Bathsheba who made a pact with the devil to return as an all-powerful demon-- "didn't quite work out that way," cracks producer Tony DeRosa-Grund. The tree where Bathsheba hung herself, a gnarled, hand-shaped black monstrosity which production designer Julie Berghoff calls "the most iconic part of the film for me," was emblazoned on many on-set logos, and is featured in the film's unsettling trailers like this one below:
Decades after Bathsheba hangs herself from the tree, the Perron family moves into her Rhode Island farmhouse, and the story from there is familiar-- unexplained happenings, odd behavior, and an inability to leave the house that's driving you crazy. Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston play parents Carolyn and Roger Perron, and a bevy of up-and-coming talents play the Perrons' five daughters, including White House Down's Joey King and The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn's Mackenzie Foy. Though some producers suggested he trim the 5 daughters down to 3 to make them more manageable for the film, Wan insisted on keeping the original five, and all of the Perron daughters-- now in their 40s and 50s-- visited the Wilmington, N.C. set. According to producer Rob Cowan, daughter Cindy had "quite a reaction" to the sight of the film's witch, who is a stunt man in makeup. "She really said that was exactly what she looked like."
By the time of the scene we watched them shoot last April, Bathsheba was nowhere to be seen on the outside, but had come to possess mother Carolyn (it was day 38 of 40 of the shoot, and with Wan shooting chronologically, we were nearing a big finale that nobody wanted to tell us much about). In the scene Lili Taylor is walking down the stairs into her cellar to investigate-- classic horror movie mistake. To guide her way Taylor's character, Carolyn Perron, lights a series of matches, allowing them to burn down to her fingers before dropping them and plunging herself back into darkness. Face lit only by the match, Taylor looks terrified and on edge… but it's only going to get worse for her. When Taylor was done the crew began setting up wires for the stuntwoman, who would be flung unwillingly around the room as the witch Bathsheba possesses Carolyn's body. As the Perrons themselves recalled it, the witch took special interest in the mother; Livingston met the real Roger Perron and explains, "He thought she [the witch] kind of had a thing for him and wanted to get rid of his wife, you know?" An image of Carolyn mid-possession, dangling above the cellar, is on the next page.
In the story the cellar--which you can see in the image above-- is a space the Perrons didn't even know existed until they moved into the house, and in real life the mysterious haunting only begins when the family opens up the closed-off cellar and fireplaces. The movie version of the cellar is a bit smaller than the one that really existed, according to producer Cowan, but it more than holds its own as fuel for nightmares, crammed with rusted old tools and mysterious mirrors and shadowy corners you can't really see even when you're in there. Production designer Julie Berghoff, stopping herself from giving away too much of the plot, revealed only that there's "a lot of action" in the cellar, and she paid attention not only to making it perfectly spooky, but perfectly lived-in as well. Beams of the ceiling are made to look like old reclaimed telephone poles or logs, the walls were painted to look as if they'd been replastered many times, and as for all the scary props? "Everything in there has a back story, believe it or not."
Standing on the hard-packed dirt floor of the cellar is legitimately creepy-- it's hard to imagine anyone going about their daily business in there-- and while no one on set seems actively scared of it, most of them are happy to talk their encounters with the supernatural since production began in February. Producer Rob Cowan and screenwriters Chad and Carey Hayes recount what happened when the actual Perron daughters visited the set, and how when one of them glimpsed the witch in costume, she promised "Something really bad is going to happen out here today." Hours later, the real Carolyn Perron, who was the only living family member not to visit the set that day, fell and broke her hip. "Literally she said this is Bathsheba, the witch, doing something to her," Cowan recalled, with the fervor of someone retelling a spooky ghost story." Producer Peter Safran remembers sending the script to Vera Farmiga via e-mail, only for her to tell them that when she woke up the next morning, there were three deep scratches on her computer screen, hours after she had been reading the script. And though Wilson doesn't seem too swayed by reports of the supernatural on the set, to play believer Ed Warren he had to embrace some of the man's beliefs-- "When I'm Ed, I believe." Later today we'll bring you complete interviews with Wan and his cast, along with more details from the production team and screenwriters about how the moody details of The Conjuring came to exist, from construction the gnarled tree from which Bathsheba hanged herself to how Patrick Wilson somehow managed to pick a ring for Ed Warren that looked exactly like one that belonged to his own father (spooky!). The Conjuring arrives in theaters on July 19, riding on some spectacularly great buzz. You can check out the full trailer below, and come back later today for our interviews with the cast and crew.