James Wan, the accomplished filmmaker behind the scare-your-socks-off hits Saw and Insidious brings his latest horror/ghost-story The Conjuring to UK cinemas this Friday. Sticking to a similar premise to that of the recent Insidious, the film centres on a haunted family and the paranormal investigators tasked with ending their woes. What separates this from Insidious, however, is that The Conjuring alleges to be a true story, always something sure to add an extra chill down the spine, even for the more incredulous among us.
The story focuses on the Perron family home, plagued by unexplained supernatural phenomena. The parents of the family (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor) decide their only resort is to call in paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) to deal with this powerful entity.
The real life Ed and Lorraine Warren investigated the Perron’s Rhode Island farmhouse back in 1973 and both Lorrain Warren and Andrea Perron served as consultants to James Wan, stating that the movie is indeed an accurate account of what really happened to the Perrons during the decade they spent living at their farmhouse. Just to creep readers out a little more, Andrea Perron, who wrote a three-part book based on her own experiences, House of Darkness, House of Light, cites the film as an actual work of art rather than a work of fiction.
In our interview with Wan below, he discloses what entices him to true-life supernatural stories and discusses the film’s period angle and how it compared to his previous projects, his adulation for classic horror movies, his own fears and much more. Look out for Mr. Wan at a local cinema near you as he has been known to ‘cinema hop’ to witness audience reactions to his movies…
Does the period angle make the movie more effective?
I don’t know. Not necessarily, because films like Saw and Insidious and Dead Silence were all contemporary but if you look back at the movies I’ve made, I’ve always had a love for nostalgic throwbacks. Dead Silence was my love for Hammer Horror that came out of England. I loved that very stylised, almost campy feeling. I lovingly embraced it. And even Death Sentence, which not many people saw, was a revenge thriller made in the mould of The French Connection, which is the kind of films I love too. Having said that, The Conjuring is set back in 1971 and I do think the period setting gives it a really interesting ambience. I think it brings a sense of authenticity to the true life story of it.
With practical effects as well, it feels like the analogue version of horror?
I love that. I kind of miss that. Now it’s all gone digital and there’s something fun from a nostalgic standpoint. That aside, I wanted to find something that was a bit different. I didn’t want to do the same thing again, so the stories of the Warrens take place in that world, but I wanted to give it a very different flavour. Setting it in a different time period helps a lot for me to be able to play with the production design and camera work from that period. That made it more fun.
What were the biggest challenges for the movie?
Just trying to stay as true to the stories that the Perrons and the Warrens would tell me. And trying to make a movie that is scary! To make a scary movie that is effective, despite the fact that I’m basically recycling a lot of classic horror movie tropes, haunted house tropes. The creaking, slamming door, hearing sounds, all that stuff that we’re so familiar with, but because I wanted to stay true to the stories, I couldn’t just branch out of it and create something so stylised, so that was a big challenge too.
Are you superstitious? Were you worried something might follow you back from the production?
Yes, I am somewhat superstitious. I try not to walk under a ladder if I can help it, that stuff. Believe it or not, I’m really scared of things in general, so I don’t want to tempt fate. I did the movie because I love the story of the Warrens. And the chance to scare the crap out of people, I love that too!
Have you ever experienced anything yourself?
Not to the extent that is in this film.
What scares you most in the whole wide world?
The whole wide world! Seriously. I think what happens in our world is so much more frightening than anything I can come up with in my movies.
Which horror movie scares you most?
I don’t know… That’s a hard one. I have so many. I can say that the films I went back and drew inspiration from, more for the flavour than anything else, not so much for scares, but Let’s Scare Jessica To Death, a pretty obscure movie from 1971. I watched Don’t Look Now. I didn’t go back and watch Amityville because I think the film already strays a bit close to it, so I didn’t want to go and revisit that. I would say the movie that has the biggest influence on me for this was The Haunting, the Robert Wise version.
Do you enjoy watching audiences and how they react to movies?
Definitely. I think that’s my favourite thing about making these movies, watching people watch them. When my films come out, I like to cinema hop and know what moments are coming up, I pop my head in and watch people squirm or slide down in their seats. I like that sadism!
Is it better to erase the clichés and make new methods, or continue them?
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to do something completely different and there are filmmakers out there trying to do completely different things. I think you should aspire to want to do fresh things all the time, so it’ll be awesome in the future to see someone come along and do something so outside of the box that we haven’t seen before. I think it’s a good thing to try and push cinema much further along. I could not do that with The Conjuring, because I’m trying to adhere to the story and what the people went through, but I tried to show it in a different light. To cook the same dish, just with different ingredients.
Is your style very different because of your background?
I don’t know, because my style is very influenced by Hollywood. But because I am a student of cinema, I watched lots of European films, lots of Asian films, so I have a big diet of films from around the world. I filter it all through my own sensibility.
Is it tricky working with young children on a horror film? How do you protect them from getting screwed up?
Luckily the kids are already messed up! They can’t blame me. No, it was difficult on Insidious because my talented child actor in that one was very sensitive to what was happening. But on The Conjuring, these girls were so fearless. And they were so professional, they got that it was filmmaking. They could be crying in tears, freaking out, screaming, but the moment I called cut, they turned to the camera and smiled. They were so cool! I couldn’t believe how experienced they were. Even the youngest girl, playing April, she’s never really made a movie before but she was a little star. I’d give her directions sometimes and she’d look at me as if to say, ‘I’m going to do it my own way…’ It’s cute. They were really great to work with.
Did you worry about strange things from working on the film?
Vera and I had very similar things. When we were preparing to make this movie, we were pretty affected by the subject matter. Vera would tell me that when she first got to Wilmington to shoot the film, she kept waking up at about 3:00am. So naturally she just connected it to the film. I don’t think it had anything to do directly, per se, but I think because she’s so caught up in the world, and because actors want to live their characters before they play it, that affected her in some way. When I started designing how I would want to shoot the film, it wasn’t fun. Especially when I had to work on it at night.
The writers talked about you knowing you were on to a good thing when you get scared. Conversely, does working on scary movies make you less likely to be scared by them?
I’m not scared of my own film. You just can’t be. I’m just not. The only time I can really experience how effective it is, or not, is when I watch it with an audience. I do get scared when I watch other people’s films. I can hang my filmmaker’s hat outside the door and just watch them for what it is. I am extremely squeamish, I know you have a hard time believing that since I’m the grandfather of torture porn, but I’m bad with gore and blood and guts, so when I watch a movie I didn’t make, I have to look away.
Did you visit the original house?
No. God, no! I didn’t want to. I was invited to visit both the Perron house and the Warren house and I was, like, ‘No f*****g way!’ I was too terrified. But Patrick and Vera went to visit Lorraine at her place, just to pick up a vibe, see who she was. Vera did not want to go down into the haunted museum, but Patrick did. I don’t know what I was doing, but I was just hanging with friends and I get this text message from Patrick and it’s a picture of him with Annabelle the doll! I started cracking up and telling him the doll’s going to latch on and go home with him… I don’t know if Patrick believes in it as much as the others. He’s definitely a lot stronger.
What inspired you to turn the Annabelle doll from a Raggedy Ann doll into what we see in the movie?
I’ll tell you what the inspiration is: lawsuit! I didn’t want to be sued. I can’t do a Raggedy Ann doll! That’s what the real Annabelle is, but I can’t go to the company and say, ‘Would you mind letting me show to the rest of the world that the product you’ve made is a conduit to demonic creatures?’ So I had to take artistic licence there.
Why did the doll look like Linda Blair?
Really? She wasn’t the inspiration! Through the process when I was prepping the movie, I was doing a lot of sketches, and at one time she was in a bright costume. I don’t know what it is, but I find ghost brides so scary. I was trying to capture the image and I showed it to the guy who built the doll for me, and he did a few sketches as well and I got my costume designer involved with the outfit.
Did you want to keep the pace relentless throughout?
It’s funny, people have said it has a relentlessness to it, while others have said it has a slow burn! Which one is it? I think it’s a combination of the two. A lot of the scares have a classic slow burn – I didn’t just jump straight into it. I tried to creep you out at first, create this palpable sense of dread so that when I do get to the scare where you’re jumping out of your seat, you’ll hopefully hit the ceiling. But I do think that towards the end it gets ramped up so much that people walk out so beaten up by what happens at the end. But there’s hardly any blood or gore, and yet people are telling me how scary it is!
Do you feel proud of Saw, now 10 years have passed?
I can definitely appreciate it more now, because I really hated being labelled the torture porn guy. I felt like that marginalised me as a filmmaker. I despised it, and that was a reason why I didn’t want to make another Saw film, and why I’m doing an action film. But it’s been 10 years and I can look at it now and see it for what it is, and appreciate it. People talk about the Saw movies from a nostalgic standpoint now. It shows how fast we progress. The last Saw came out three or four years ago and it feels like so long ago now.
Are you afraid you’ll have no horror in the next movie (Fast & Furious 7)?
Afraid? No! I’m thankful for that. It’s good to do something non-horror for a change. I’m done with horror for now. But I want to go and rejuvenate and I think I’ll come back to it one day…
The Conjuring will be creeping into UK cinemas this Friday (2 August). In the meantime, we’ll leave you with a trailer for the film to keep you on edge until the release date.