Don’t close your eyes, don’t slip out of the theater — just accept it: If James Wan is making a horror film, he’s going to scare the bejeezus out of you. And you’ll love him for it.
After being behind the lens on “Saw,” “Dead Silence,” two “Insidious” films and “The Conjuring,” Wan made sure audiences discovered that, along with giving them nightmare-inducing big screen experiences, he could make high-octane, crowd-pleasing blockbuster entertainment in the form of “Furious 7.” But he couldn’t resist reuniting with Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga for “The Conjuring 2,” the second cinematic adventure of married, adorably-in-love supernatural sleuths Ed and Lorraine Warren, who in the ’70s and ’80s were involved in some of the most significant and terrifying real-life paranormal instances of the era.
Wan sat down with Spinoff Online to reveal why he couldn’t resist returning for one more “Conjuring,” and the inspiration he took from the spooky — and controversial — real-world tale of the Enfield Poltergeist. He also explained how he opened up the Warrens’ story into a bigger world, even as he scaled down his horror-space into a surprisingly small, but still intensely scary locale.
Spinoff Online: How easy was it for you to say yes to returning to this world? I remember at the time the first film came out, you were pretty clear: “I love my horror movies, but there are other kinds of movies I want to make.”
James Wan: And I do stand by that. Yes.
And you got a chance to do that as well.
Was it an easy yes, or did you still have to think about coming back?
It was an extremely difficult yes. It was a yes for many, many reasons, ultimately. There were many reasons that ultimately led me to the yes, as tough as it was. But it wasn’t an easy thing for me to decide on.
What were the elements that made it easier, once you decided, and then the things you got excited about?
I read the script, and I really liked it. I like that they were thinking of taking on the Enfield setting and story. That plus the combination of coming to work with Vera and Patrick again.
There are two things that I think set this franchise apart from other horror franchises: your visual style, number one, and then the real sense of character and a real love of the characters, both with Ed and Lorraine, and with the families in each movie. Tell me about getting there and making that distinction and getting us involved in both sets of characters.
A big part of it had to do with the fact that, “Okay, if am coming back to do this, it better be good, right? It better be something that feels different, and it better be something where I can get the chance to give it my all.” Ultimately, I didn’t want people to say, “Oh, he has another horror movie.” I really want people to kind of treat it with a bit more respect, and for them to get all the things they enjoy from any other drama movies and treat “Conjuring 2” in the same way that they would treat any of those other films.
So for me, crafting the characters was a very important part for me to come back to this film, because I always say, if you take out all the scary stuff out of “Conjuring 1” and “Conjuring 2,” it plays just like any other human relation drama movie. I think that is the key to the “Conjuring” films, that separates them from all the other horror films out there.
What were the insights you got from the real family in this case that you wanted to find a way to bring to life in the film?
We met with the family, we met with Janet Hodgson, and Margaret, and Billy early on, just to get a firsthand account of what happened to them. We came across a few stories that were really interesting that I really wanted to incorporate into the movie.
I don’t know — It just helped to actually have them tell us, firsthand, what happened to them, just to give it that much more authenticity. If nothing else — even if they’re not necessarily new stories that we haven’t already heard of, that isn’t already out there in the documented world — what it does is, it allows me, as a director, to hear it from them and to kind of empathize with them, and therefore it informs the way I made the film. That was the most important thing for me, to get to know who they are, and therefore know how to direct my actors.
There’s a great, creative moment in the film in which you acknowledge the real-world skepticism and the controversy that surrounds both the Warrens and this particular possession case, and you make it part of the story.
Listen, from making the first “Conjuring,” we became very aware — “we” meaning myself, the writers and the producers — of how many skeptics there are out there of the Warrens and the worlds we’re telling these stories in.
We knew that going into number two, it was something that, at the very least, we should acknowledge and definitely touch on, because I think at the end of the day, it just makes for a more interesting story, and it makes for a deeper sort of characterization, and it just gives it more depth. It was definitely something that we all felt that we wanted to kind of touch on and, at the very least, acknowledge.
I remember talking to Lorraine Warren at the time of the first movie, talking about different stories. This one is one that she told me about.
Oh, really? So she’s a psychic! She already knew what number two was going to be. [Laughs]
I remember her recalling some of the elements of this story as particularly frightening for her. Did you talk to her about this particular one?
Yeah, we did. That was the thing that myself and the writers really wanted to do, was to talk to all the families members that are still around, and, obviously, that includes Lorraine. It wasn’t so much needing to know the specifics of what happened and what they did when they were there — I mean, of course, we wanted to know that as well! But for me, again, coming back to the fact that I wanted to make a movie that’s about the characters.
The thing I wanted to hear about the most was her relationship with Ed. I wanted to hear the stories — like anything, anything fun, anything that’s silly that Ed would do. The good stuff and the bad stuff in their relationship. I felt like that is the stuff that I took, and it really informed my filmmaking and my storytelling of who they are. I remind people that it’s not a documentary. The movie is extremely subjective, and it’s told through the point of view of their perspective.
In this one, we get to see so much more of Ed and Lorraine’s relationship. It’s developed in more detail. What was fun about working with Vera and Patrick to find this new corner of that couple and really explore it more than you did in the first one?
One of the things that we really wanted to push more between the two of them besides how they interact with each other, [is] how they approach the work that they do.
Obviously, Vera’s cinematic version of Lorraine is a lot more spiritual, it’s a lot more tender and more sensitive. Whereas Patrick’s, one of the things Patrick really loved to play up on is how pragmatic and practical the real Ed Warren was. He really treated his ghost-busting business like it was any other kind of day job — like how a plumber would go to someone’s house and fix the sink, or fix the plumbing. That was what we really wanted to push even more in this film, really show the contrast between their two methods.
Lorraine is a lot more spiritual — it’s more internal, it’s more feminine. Whereas Ed is more of a cowboy, a bit of that Elvis swagger to it. That was no coincidence that he got to [sing like] Elvis in the movie. So that to me was really fun.
But what I like is the twist, the turnaround from the way we approach it in the first movie. In the first movie, Patrick’s character was really concerned for what Lorraine went through. It was about him trying to protect her from all the bad stuff. In the second one, it’s about her protecting him, ultimately, from the bad things that she’s been seeing in her vision.
The physical environment is so different from the first movie. And, I imagine, both really challenging and kind of creatively exciting, in that you had such close quarters to deal with it and come up with logical ways to create the scares and move the family around within that little confined space.
Yeah — believe me, that was actually one of the things that I was most excited about. It allowed me to, again, make something that’s very different to the first film. The first movie took place — the first movie was a big farmhouse, isolated in the middle of nowhere.
Whereas the second one, it’s a very small house, but now, it’s in the middle of a really busy, bustling city. It’s very urban in its setting, there’s lots of pedestrian traffic all around it. At the end of the day, it’s a very plain and boring looking counsel house. There’s nothing scary about the house — or, rather, it’s not a classic, traditional haunted house-looking house. It’s not like a crazy gothic mansion, and that’s what I love about it. It gave me the challenge to try and take something that’s so plain and simple and make that scary.
Given that there are still several significant supernatural cases that the Warrens worked on, could you imagine doing one more?
Myself? I can imagine being involved in it, at least in the capacity of a producer, yeah. I don’t know. I’m just so close to it at this point, to think about directing another one — I just want this one to get out first, and then we’ll see what happens!
What does it mean to you to have created — certainly with Annabelle and now with your nun demon — these visually iconic horror characters that people are going to cosplay when they go to conventions, on Halloween, etc. Is that kind of exciting?
It is. Listen, I don’t set out necessarily to create a character that people can dress up as for Halloween, but it’s very flattering and it’s really cool that people take to it and it has a life of its own outside of the movie. I think that’s really awesome. For me, it’s just always about finding those elements, those characters that scare people. I’m such a visual filmmaker, I’m always looking for visual iconography that will stick in people’s minds.
Another thing I thought was really fun was how you not just gave a nod to “The Amityville Horror” — another of the Warrens’ real-life cases — but you incorporate it as a story point.
Going into “Conjuring 2,” we knew we had to touch on the Amityville case because that was the case that put them on the map and made them famous, right? We knew that we had to go there at some point. Like what we did with the cold case in the first “Conjuring” movie with Annabelle, we felt that it would be a great cold case opening as well at the start of “Conjuring 2.”
But I did not want it to be just a throwaway thing. We thought about it, we looked at it, and we wanted it to be the starting point for Lorraine’s character arc. It’s where she goes to help investigate this particular case, but in doing so, she ends up having a future premonition in this space that kicks off, basically, her character’s journey throughout the entire movie.
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