James Wan has had quite a year. In April, he scored a gig directing the seventh Fast and the Furious movie, despite a pedigree established primarily on horror projects.
But in July, The Conjuring – the director’s big-leagues studio effort for Warner Bros. -- made a mint off of a simple concept and elegantly straightforward execution. And now, two months later, Insidious: Chapter 2 arrives in theaters, already bursting from advance sales and the feverish anticipation of fans of the first film. Whether or not it lives up to expectations, be those critical or commercial, Wan’s future is brimming with enormous possibility.
Just days before The Conjuring opened nationwide, Wan sat down with Spinoff Online to discuss his work on, no, not that film, but Insidious 2. In addition to talking about the process of connecting the oddball sequel to its hugely successful predecessor, he discussed the ways in which horror movies work – and sometimes don’t work – on audiences, and reflected on the things that have scared him, both in his own films and in real life.
Spinoff Online: I was trying to describe the movie to a friend of mine —
James Wan: I’d love to hear your description of this (laughs)!
I said, “It’s like The Frighteners meets the finale of Twin Peaks.”
That’s kind of cool.
Where did you come up with —
Can I tell you, Leigh [Whannell, the screenwriter] and I, our description of it, just when we were making fun of one another? We’ve described it in the past as Phantasm meets Sleepaway Camp meets Back to the Future (laughs)!
Also a little bit Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
How did you conceive this, and how much reverse-engineering did you have to do to continue this story?
It definitely wasn’t easy. This sort of stuff is hard, and we felt like we had a seed of an idea, and that was what kind of got me excited, actually – the idea of Chapter 2, revisiting Chapter 1. Before we had a full story worked out, I liked that. And I remember saying to Leigh, if there’s any way we can make that integral to the overall story, so it’s not just one or two scenes where we throw it out, but somehow we could open the film like that and pay it off later, because that’s what makes it fun, and that’s what Leigh and I really love. Even when Leigh and I were crafting the script for the first Saw film, we loved the puzzle aspect of it – how clues get revealed to you at the start, but then you don’t fully understand it until late in the movie. And in a lot of ways, Insidious: Chapter 2 is more like the first Saw in terms of how we were kind of trying to craft it, but obviously living within the Insidious world. But it wasn’t an idea that came out of nowhere, it was an idea that was organically there to begin with. When Patrick Wilson’s character at the end of the first Insidious would go into the Further to save his boy, he comes across an early version of himself. We’ve established very early on in that movie that in this world, time and reality is not the same as how we perceive it in quote-unquote the real world. So when we started looking at it from that perspective, it made it very exciting, because it meant that we can have fun with it.
How complicated can you make this mythology before you confuse yourself? Particularly because you sort of have two villains who are doing lots of different things at different levels?
Yeah, it’s somewhat of a fine line, and, hm, I don’t know – we’ve made very convoluted, complicated movies in the past (laughs). So I guess we’re not afraid of it, but hopefully it works well enough for people to at least understand the overall gist of it. And if they have to go back and sort of rethink some things, if they didn’t quite catch it all in the first run-by, that’s fine. I’m OK with that. Because I think it’s always a challenge when you’re trying to do something that’s a bit different because we could easily have just gone off and made a very straightforward movie – which, I’ll be honest, I did that. I did that with The Conjuring. When I’m with Leigh, when he and I get together, Leigh’s not from that world, and he doesn’t necessarily just want to do things that are just straightforward. So all of the movies I make with him are not very straightforward. Well, they may feel straightforward, but they have all of these sort of strange quirks to them, and that’s part of the fun of working with Leigh Whannel.
What was the chronology again? You did The Conjuring in between Insidious 1 and 2?
Because you made a more traditional horror movie in between, did you either take lessons from Insidious 1 and apply them to The Conjuring, or take from The Conjuring and apply that to Insidious 2?
I definitely did. I heard some of the feedback from the first movie and I realized that people were very much more affected by the first two-thirds of the film, and when it started getting a bit too fantastical, that was when they kind of disengaged from it a bit more. And here’s what the irony is – the stuff that everyone said they loved in the first Insidious were just classic haunted house tropes! A door swinging open on its own, banging, footsteps, there’s nothing unique about that, right? But we put The Further in there, and that was the stuff that made it unique, and yet people really liked the more standard, traditional stuff. So when I went off and made The Conjuring, I’d go, great – I will do the standard, traditional stuff. And when I did that people really loved it. They said it was scary and it’s effective. But then they would go on to say, but there’s nothing original about it. And so I’m like, fuck! I can’t win here. I give them this and they say, “but you don’t have this,” and I give them that, and they go, “no, you don’t have this!” So, ah, fuck it (laughs)! So after The Conjuring I wanted to come back and go, you know what? I’m just going to raze it. I’m not going to let people dictate how I make movies. I don't think that’s the right way to do it. And so when I came back to Insidious 2, I wanted to embrace this quirky world that we had established in the first Insidious. And also it’s a cool world with a bigger mythology to explore – and that was what we kind of ran with.
Do you think that quirkiness is the source, or the result, of the humor that pops up in the movie? In other words, did you deliberately want to play with the tone of Insidious 2, or was that just necessary to leaven the tension of the story?
I think the Insidious films are a bit goofy, whether you like it or not, just conceptually what it is. But it’s OK. This isn’t life or death that I’m dealing with, it’s fun filmmaking – and I’m OK with that. I want people to enjoy the movie. I want people to scream and get all excited about it, and have fun with it. And so, I felt like I could actually do a little bit more with Number 2, because in Number 1, we’ve already established it, and what was somewhat jarring to people in the first one was I felt like they’ve already been sort of prepared for it by the time Number 2 comes around. So when I go more in that direction, they don’t kind of go, oh, that came out of left field! So I was able to have a bit more fun with the characters.
What do you feel like is the single scariest gag you’ve ever put into a movie? I know what I think it is.
I’d love to hear what you think.
The one in The Conjuring with the wardrobe. I didn’t even watch half of it and it’s still the scariest thing I saw.
Hahaha! That is a good one. I think I really like in the first Insidious when Rose wakes up and she thinks there’s someone outside her balcony window, and sure enough, there’s someone in there. And he’s just pacing back and forth, and then without cutting away, he walks out of frame, and bang, he’s in the room there. I think that is sort of a great moment with the set-up and the pay off. Also, the one that I really like is in The Conjuring when Lily is drawn down by the sound of someone clapping, playing and messing with her, and then she pokes her head into the basement and she gets knocked down. That whole sequence, I love – that’s like the kind of stuff I love. Just the anticipation of something’s about to come out, something’s about to happen, and you know it’s going to come, but you’re not quite sure how or when. I love all of that stuff, and I felt like all of that one builds up to a really big high point for me. And it’s so simple as well, you know? You don't see anything at all. If you can scare an audience without showing them anything, that’s one of the hardest things to do in a horror movie. The reason people make slasher films, movies with blood and guts, is you can elicit a kind of visceral reaction, and that’s one that is to me very easy to do.
What is sort of the one thing that scares you the most?
You know, for me they fall into two worlds – the things that can scare me in the movie world, like Jaws. I find Jaws so suspenseful and scary – it made me terrified of the ocean. But then to give you another example, things that happen in the real world, I find really nerve-wracking. Like last night when the [George Zimmerman] verdict came out, I was on Twitter, and I saw that people were starting to riot. I mean, that to me is terrifying! I remember growing up and hearing about the L.A. riots, and how crazy it was, but back from the safety of being in Australia. But now I live in Los Angeles, and to think that this stuff could be happening right around me, I find that really, really [scary]. It touches on the kind of fear that we live in, the real-world fear, and I find that kind of stuff to be the most horrifying.
Insidious: Chapter 2 opens today nationwide.