James Wan is a legend of horror film-making, with movies like Saw, Insidious and Dead Silence under his belt. And The Conjuring, which comes out Friday, might be his scariest film yet. We talked to Wan about how to make a really scary movie, and why his movies are the opposite of "found footage" horror.
We were excited to sit down with Wan for an exclusive interview at the junket for The Conjuring. Here's what he told us:
At Wondercon, you told the audience that you had already proved everything you needed to in the horror genre. What did you mean by that?
Well I felt like I've played in this sandbox for a fair bit. Yeah, I feel like I've done the things that I wanted to do in the horror genre for now. I guess that's basically what I mean. [Laughs]
Can you describe your evolution in horror?
I guess all my filmmaking, up until now, has mainly been in this particular genre, so... I think when I started out with my first movie, Saw, I did not know much about making movies, in terms of real production work. I remember being really disappointed on the first Saw film, with how much I could really get for such a low budget, and for the number of days that I had to shoot the film.
That was something that became really apparent on my first movie, that having the time and resources to do things well really helped with achieving your vision, and stuff like that. I've learned that along the way, and fast-forward to a bunch of films later, and now I'm at The Conjuring. I've basically collected a bunch of knowledge, and I've honed my skills and sharpened my tools, so to speak...
And I think The Conjuring is a culmination of all the stuff I've learned throughout my pretty short young career, up to this point. I'm pretty happy with this movie — happy enough that I feel like I want to try something different, after this. [Directing Fast and Furious 7.]
So The Conjuring takes Ed and Lorraine Warren, real-life paranormal experts, and turns them into the stars of a new film series. What's the appeal of turning these people, in particular, into franchise heroes?
I think just the fact that they're such fascinating characters. Whether you believe in them or not, that's beside the point. But the fact that what they set out to do is real, what they achieve is pretty incredible — that alone makes for pretty interesting storytelling. And throwing on top of that [the fact] that what they do and want to achieve is in the supernatural realm makes for amazing cinematic horror storytelling. And so, the idea that they've investigated so many cases, and the opportunity to explore the different cases that they've had, is very organic in that respect of a potential franchise.
Now having said that, I didn't make The Conjuring thinking that it will be a franchise per se. I never do that with my movies. I don't set out to make sequels, if that makes sense. But it just so happens that the movies that I've done do go on to have sequels.
Both this film and Insidious feature paranormal experts who actually know what they're talking about. How do you make knowledge scarier than ignorance?
It's that classic trick: If you can make the expert terrified, then you as an audience go, "Wow. If this person who knows about this world is so scared, then I'm scared as well." Right? So that's basically the philosophy behind it.
One thing I love in The Conjuring is the crazy camera work, like the under-the-bed shot and the skewed camera angles when we go into the basement. Were you trying to duplicate the feel of a found-footage movie? Were there crazy camera tricks you tried that didn't work out?
I think it's the opposite of found footage. I don't think you have such crazy camera work in found footage — or at least such controlled camerawork. With The Conjuring, I really wanted to create classical cinema-style film-making, pure cinema as it were. But I love my camera work, and in this case I really wanted the camera work to put the audience into the mindset of the characters, so when the camera starts to spin out of control, it's my representation of what the characters are going through, and I want the audience to physically feel that as well.
The other thing that jumps out at me in this film is the sound design. As with a lot of horror movies, the sound really makes it scarier. How much time do you spend tinkering with that? Is it almost like you're creating a musical?
My philosophy is with horror movies is: Sometimes the visual is a lot less important than the sound design. It's been proven time and time again that low-budget horror movies, that don't have the budget to show you all the good stuff, have really good sound design to help convey the mood and the atmosphere. And I think, for me, the soundtrack was very important [in The Conjuring] from the sound design to the musical score.
Just knowing the levels of sound, and the kind of sound to use for the scenes and the situations. Sometimes, you go, "this moment here, the creaking of the door should be more shrill instead of deeper. And then in this scene, the creaking floorboard sounds too similar to the creaking door, so you need to change it up. Right? And the wind isn't right. The wind needs to be more howling. Or this needs to be more subtle." And so yeah, a lot of thought goes into that. And especially the music as well. Just finding the different shape in the music is very important in helping to dictate the feeling what the scene should be.
If you could add smells to your films would you want to?
[Laughs] I think that would take away from the enjoyment factor of watching movies. There's a reason why Smellovision has never really taken off. And I think it's a good thing. Having said that, in the context of The Conjuring, the characters are constantly besieged by a really foul odor. There's the smell of rancid meat, that they talk about in the film. [Being able to smell that] would back up the story, so to speak. But outside of that, I'm not a big fan of Smellovision.
In movies about demonic possession, there's often a priest who turns up. But in this movie, the characters talk about Jesus and their religious faith a lot. Was that just because of the Warrens and their real-life faith?
Yeah, exactly. I did not want to make a preachy film, believe it or not. I wanted to make a movie that honors the characters in the film — especially the two sets of families. The parents [of the possessed family] were not religious at all, but the Warrens are. And for the Warrens, their religion is what they stand on. It's what they use as their foundation when they go in and do these scary things. So it would be disingenuous of me if I did not put that in the film, because that's such a huge part of who they are.