Over the past decade, either as a producer, writer or director, James Wan has shown again and again he knows how to scare you. And if you know anything about the horror genre, which repeatedly churns out mediocre to bad films, what Wan has done shows the tremendous talent he has behind the camera. In his latest film, the supernatural thriller The Conjuring 2, he cracks open another Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) file, the Enfield Poltergeist. This time around, the loving couple travels to north London to help a single mother (Frances O’Connor) raising four children alone in a house plagued by malicious spirits and to determine whether what’s going on is all a hoax. For more on the film, you can read Perri’s review or click here for all our coverage on The Conjuring sequel.
Shortly after seeing the film I sat down with James Wan for a wide ranging conversation. During the interview he talked about what the past few years have been like given that he directed Furious 7 after the first Conjuring, if he feels like he’s finally made it to the next level as a director, the editing process of The Conjuring 2, what he learned from friends and family screenings, how close the sequel got to another director helming the project, how he likes to craft a scene on set, his preference for film or digital cameras and why, guilty pleasure movies, why superhero movies are the most popular genre on the planet right now, and a lot more. Check out what he had to say below.
COLLIDER: So how are you doing?
JAMES WAN: I’m alright. I’m exhausted as f*ck.
This has has to have been literally non-stop for you the last few years.
WAN: Yes. Yes. That’s all I can say. Literally from Insidious 1 onwards, it’s been nonstop. Listen, it’s been great. After Dead Silence and Death Sentence things were a bit quieter so I’m actually cool and happy that things are chugging along.
Do you still have that internal voice that says you really haven’t made it yet, that this could all be taken away or have you reached a plateau where mentally you know it’s gonna be okay even if a film doesn’t work? “I’m still gonna get another movie, it’s still gonna be fine”?
WAN: I think I have a little bit of both. I think you cannot be too complacent. I think that’s dangerous and you cannot take anything for granted. I always try to better myself with every movie I make. I don’t take anything sitting back and so I try to learn from every film I make and carry that onto the next movie because I think it’s important as a filmmaker to keep growing with each film and I think I am growing with each movie. And I think it’s important because you need to strive to better yourself.
Let’s jump into The Conjuring. Was this almost, after your last film, a borderline vacation for you in terms of being able to control everything, in terms of “I know what I’m doing here, this is my wheelhouse”?
WAN: You know that’s what I thought before I came back to Conjuring 2. I thought, “this is gonna be a walk in the park. How hard can it be?” Boy, was it a lot trickier than I thought. It was a lot harder. A lot of the stress on me for this one came from the pressure I was putting on myself to try and top the movie or at the very least to live up to the expectation of the first film. You know the first movie is really beloved and that really hung over me like a cloud throughout the entire shoot, throughout the entire production. And I actually think that was a good thing because what it ended up doing, ultimately, was that it made me not settle for anything less than the best that I could do and sometimes my best wasn’t enough and I kept pushing myself further. And you know, whether that is in the storytelling of the screenplay, whether that’s in the way I move my camerawork when I’m shooting the film, or whether that’s post-production with the way I cut the movie and sound design and music, it just kept me going and going and pushing and pushing and not settling for anything less than the best movie I could make.
How long was your first cut versus the finished film?
WAN: [laughs] Believe it or not my first cut was a bit longer than this. I had to cut out a lot of stuff.
Well, the movie is 2 hours and 10 minutes or something?
WAN: The movie is … People quote the duration of the film but they don’t realize that also includes the end credit, and the end credit is so long.
Totally, but what I’m saying is like was your first cut 3 hours, was it 3 and a half?
WAN: No, it wasn’t. It was a bit more but it was a tricky one because the irony was that there would be moments, I never thought that this would happen, but there were things that I wanted to cut out but the studio was like “no you can’t cut that out because that’s important for this thing” and I would go “what about if I cut this out?” and they’re like “no you can’t cut that out because that’s important for this other stuff,” so I thought it was really ironic that sometimes I was having debates with the studio and they’re the ones telling me to keep the emotional stuff in there and I think it’s important because you generally don’t get horror movies that spend this much time with its characters and character development.
What did you learn from friends and family screenings or test screenings that impacted the finished film?
WAN: It was more nuances here and there. I think the biggest thing was the… test screenings have always been the saving grace of my movies because like most directors, we don’t like the process because it can be hard. One person can just say “I want that,” and that could completely derail the process of how you do it. But at the same time you do learn a lot, you learn what works and what doesn’t work and so the things I learn more than anything is just like the timing of my scares and little nuances here and there that I can go back and tweak.
One of the things in The Conjuring 2 is the camera is always moving. Well, it seems like it’s always moving.
WAN: Right, yes.
So talk a little bit about that, and what your thoughts were on keeping a camera in motion.
WAN: Yeah, listen. I mean, it’s called motion picture so the camera moves. I’m a visual filmmaker so the camera is a big part of my storytelling tool and it’s something that I really rely on to tell a scene or create the suspense that I need and create the emotion of a scene or a sequence. It’s a very powerful tool and I really believe in it and so other people have pointed out to me that one of the scenes that they think is very powerful is just that one sequence where I don’t move the camera and that’s the moment where Patrick is interviewing the little girl and his back is to her and it’s just one long take without cutting away. I think you can say a lot with the movement of your camera but you can also say a lot by keeping it still. In the same way that I have the same philosophy with music and sound designs. You know music and sound design can be very powerful with how you use it but also the absence of sound can say a lot as well. I try to approach that in my camerawork as well.
How much of this movement and having a static camera is you doing all this in advance of the shoot — you know, storyboarding it out, deciding all the stuff — and how much of it is you in the moment looking at the scene and saying “we’re gonna do it this way”?
WAN: I generally go into a movie with a very strong vision, with how I want to make the film, how I want to shoot the film, how I want to edit the movie, what I want the sound to sound like. So I have a very concrete idea even if I don’t storyboard it, I know exactly what I want to do once I get into the sequence. Now having said that, I try not to let that slave me to the process. So if I do storyboard a sequence I don’t necessarily stick to it if I discover more exciting things on set. When you work with an actor and then you discover new things that are better, I think you gotta be free to be able to go with the new things that you’re finding. I think that’s very important. I have a strong idea when I go to shoot a movie but I also love to discover things when I’m on set as well.
Film or digital? And why?
WAN: You mean the process of shooting it?
Are you shooting on film? Are you shooting digital and when did you make the conversion for digital?
WAN: I’ve shot all my movies on film up until… My first three movies were shot on film. Saw was shot on film, Dead Silence and Death Sentence were shot on film. With Insidious, I moved into the digital space. I don’t really even talk about film vs. digital anymore because it seems like such a null argument to talk about at this point.
There are still filmmakers that are really into it — J.J. [Abrams], [Christopher] Nolan. There are still a few people that are all about “the religion is film and that is it.”
WAN: I’m well aware of that. I think storytelling is storytelling. It doesn’t matter what format it’s shot on.
So I have to ask, what camera did you use on this and why?
WAN: I used the Alexa on this one, the same camera that I used on the first Conjuring and also the same camera I used on Fast and Furious 7. I’m a big fan of the Alexa camera because I think it just creates really beautiful blacks and I don’t know, I’m just a big fan of this particular camera. I’m a big fan of digital. Listen, I grew up with digital still photography and I love digital manipulation and for me to make that transition in my feature into the digital space, it wasn’t that difficult at all because I’ve always loved digital still photography.
Favorite movie of all time?
WAN: [laughs] Favorite movie of all time?! I hate being asked…that’s like being asked what’s your favorite song?
I will leave that question alone and say instead, maybe a movie comes on cable. For example, for me, Man of Steel, like I f*cking love Man of Steel. If it comes on cable I will watch it beginning to end. What are some of the movies that when they come on they hook you?
WAN: There’s lots of classics, lots of good ones like when Die Hard comes on you’re like “I gotta watch Die Hard,” or sometimes even guilty pleasures, like the more fun movies.
That’s what I was going to go to — what’s a guilty pleasure that you love, that you’re embarrassed when people know that you’re watching?
WAN: That I’m embarrassed. Oh …
A real guilty pleasure.
WAN: I like the Twilight films. [laughs]
That 100% qualifies.
WAN: Listen, I think they’re fun movies but jeez, then there are classic, old-school romantic comedies that I love like Joe vs. the Volcano, that’s probably my favorite Tom Hanks romantic comedy. Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Joe vs. the Volcano, that’s one of my favorite films.
For a split second I thought you were gonna say Bringing Up Baby. I don’t know where that came from. Anyway — when you think back when you’re a kid, what do you remember as that moment when it hit you that “sh*t, I wanna make movies, this is something that I love.”
WAN: I don’t necessarily have that particular movie that was the turning point because I know for a lot of people it’s like Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark or whatever. I don’t necessarily have one but growing up there was one movie that I just go “this is amazing” and that’s when I start to realize that movies weren’t just magic, that they didn’t just come out of nowhere, people actually made it, that a lot of effort and a lot of humans went into crafting a film and that film for me was The Terminator. I’m a big Cameron fan. I love what Cameron did with the first Terminator but in terms of the first two horror films that really scarred me and terrified me they were Spielberg’s Jaws and Poltergeist.
Both of those are phenomenal. Moving backwards a little bit — talk a little bit about how Conjuring 2 came together. Was it one of these things where you went to the studio and said I have an idea or the studio after it makes all that money is like “let’s talk a little bit about a sequel”?
WAN: Well, what’s funny is I finished Conjuring 1 and then I did Insidious 2 but I didn’t really finish Insidious 2, I just kind of segued immediately across to Fast and Furious 7. So I was really busy in that period when the studio and producers were cooking up the sequel to Conjuring. And I was there early on kind of helping them determine what stories to go with and how to shape the world. And that was very early in the process and so once Fast and Furious got too busy, I kind of left that behind, because I didn’t think I was coming back to direct Conjuring 2 anyway and so I was willing to just let it go. I’m like “that’s the next director’s problem, not mine.” I helped them sort of find the story and develop the world with the writers and all that and I was ready to move on and so there was a big period there when the latest script was done. I always stayed in touch and would work on it a little bit as well, but in terms of its direction I left it more up to the producers, to the studio, and the writers and then when I came back to it, when I finally came back to Conjuring 2, it was like ok now that I’m back here this is how we’re gonna make this movie. So I took the movie and I did really kind of get in there and I really ripped things apart and really put my stamp on it again.
Did it ever come close to another filmmaker taking the reins, or was everyone sort of holding out for you?
WAN: I think the studio did interview other filmmakers, and I encouraged them to talk to fellow filmmakers, because I think you guys need to find someone. But the studio and Peter Safran, the producer was always knocking on my door, saying “James, you sure you don’t want to come back? You sure you don’t want to come back to this?” and eventually after enough knocking I’m like “alright, I’ll come back.” And partly because working on Fast and Furious 7, it was such a big, daunting movie, even though it was an incredible experience because I got the opportunity to play on such a huge canvas and I got to do so many crazy, cool things, ultimately I felt that for my next movie I just wanted to go and do something smaller and something more personal and Conjuring 1 was such an intimate movie for me and it just kind of made sense for me to come back for number two.
This is a universe that has many stories to tell and I would imagine that this is going to be a big hit for Warner Bros. I would imagine there would be another story to be told. Is there another filmmaker out there that you would like to see? Because I can’t see you doing Conjuring 3 — you’re obviously doing something else. Is there another filmmaker that you would like to see take the reigns, assuming there’s a third?
WAN: Assuming we are lucky enough to have a third chapter, there are other filmmakers that I would love to sort of continue on the Conjuring world, if we are lucky enough.
You don’t want to drop any names?
WAN: [laughs] I don’t want to say no. Not just yet.
I’ll leave it there. I don’t want to ask you questions about your next project because I’m not gonna do that but I am curious what do you think it is about superheros right now that makes it the most popular genre on the planet? The stories are just the biggest movies out there right now, so what do you think it is?
WAN: I think a big part of it is because we’re finally at the point where we can actually tell these larger than life stories and have the technology to make them work. That’s one factor, that we can create these whizz-bang visuals to go with the story and ultimately superheroes say a lot about the society we grow up in. Pretty much all the good superheroes have some kind of social commentary about why they are who they are. It teaches values and so it’s a very important thing. On one hand it works on a surface level because it’s super incredible to watch from a visual feast standpoint but on another level it works on a very human level it works on a very human, emotional level and I think it makes it fun for us. Let me pose you a question. Do you think people are having superhero fatigue?
I think that yes and no. I think there are certain characters that the audience is a little bit, I don’t want to say tired of, but you can’t keep on telling the same story and I think one of the reasons why…
WAN: Which one of the characters is that?
I don’t want to say because some of these people… you know what I mean.
WAN: [laughs] You’re not the one getting interviewed. You can always censor yourself out!
What I’m saying is I think one of the reasons why, truthfully, why the Marvel movies have been so successful, is that they’ve flipped each film on its head. Like the Winter Solider was a 70s political thriller. It’s just different kinds of stories. There’s an element where you need to flip it on its head, you need to reinvent it.
That’s very true. If your franchise has been around for awhile you have to find ways to keep it fresh and I totally agree with you. That’s why the Fast and Furious franchise is so incredible.
I also think one of the things that’s amazing about the Fast and Furious franchise is the diversity. I really think that’s a huge reason that people around the world gravitate towards it.
WAN: It’s almost like a no-brainer. It always kind of bamboozles me when people go “why do you think the Fast and Furious franchise are so popular overseas?” I’m like “duh, really?” It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work that out.
The Conjuring 2 is now in theaters.