Ron Livingston (Office Space) is set to square off against some paranormal activity in James Wan’s upcoming horror film, The Conjuring. The story centers on Carolyn and Roger Perron (Lili Taylor and Livingston), who call in accomplished paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) when their home becomes plagued by unexplained phenomena.
During our set visit, Livingston talked about why he got involved with the film, forging chemistry with his on-screen family, meeting his real-life counterpart and working on the immersive set. Hit the jump for the full interview with Livingston and be sure to check out our set visit recap, plus interviews with James Wan, Patrick Wilson and Lili Taylor. The Conjuring opens July 19th.
Ron Livingston: I hadn’t done a haunted house movie yet.
Because you hadn’t been offered a good one?
Livingston: Yeah, I did “Nightmares and Dreamscapes” which was a Stephen King miniseries for TNT. But it was kind of an anthology where it was a bunch of strange tales. I was a big fan of ‘The Shining’ as a kid and ‘Poltergeist’ was another great one. It’s just a really cool framework for a story. The first 3rd of it you’re allowed to go kind of slow and discover what’s happening. I kind of compare it to a detective movie except the people aren’t detectives so they’re the dumbest detectives ever. All the doors are slamming by themselves and crazy things and it’s like, “what is it? I don’t know.” I saw ‘Insidious’ that James and Patrick did and was really blown away. They had a crazy low budget but he was really ambitious with it and it had kind of a Hitchcock styling. Really beautiful camera work and he was so creative with his production design. You know the design of the demon in that one? And just sort of all of the lost souls in the kind of limbo world that Patrick goes into. So I just knew that whatever this is is going to be really well built. It’s going to be a great roller coaster and it’s going to look beautiful.
Now it’s just a matter of trying to sell the story. For the really scary stuff to work at the end you have to fall in love a little bit with the family and want then to be ok. And once you get the audience to buy in on that then they care. They want them to be okay.
That’s one of the things that made Poltergeist work and I know that’s one of James’ favorite movies. Did he give you any kind of reference in terms of movies you should watch to prepare?
Livingston: You know, I heard that he was really pretty diligent about that with the design team. You’ll have to ask him exactly what they were. With us? No.
You were on your own.
Livingston: Yeah, I feel like a really good director sometimes will kind of see what the actors are doing and then get in there. Because there’s the realization that you have to find it a little bit and then kind of clump around and sniff it out. And he’s been great in terms of giving you a little bit of space to do that and then coming in the with stick when he needs to.
Did you get a chance to speak with your [real life] counterpart?
Livingston: I did. I didn’t speak to him before the shoot. I did a little bit of reading before the stuff and kind of determine that this wasn’t necessary. There’s some [films] where I do a lot of homework and then there’s some, this film in particular, where it’s supposed to take you by surprise. So you kind of just want to get in there and have everything take you by surprise rather than just have him tell you how everything went down. Patrick and Vera play the experts and I think they’ve been good about really being all over the Warrens and learning their process and their history and how they came up. We are a real family, the parents, but at the time they didn’t know they were going to be this family. So I kind of wanted to go into it not knowing. I wanted to wander in and take my lumps.
What kind of work have you been doing to establish that family chemistry?
Livingston: Well honestly, you know it’s funny, I thought I would be doing a lot of work with the kids. Because there’s five daughters and some of them are like seven and eight [years old] or something like that. But it wasn’t necessary at all. These girls were so open and game and great. Lovely and sweet, sweet kids. Hayley [McFarland] and Shanley [Caswell], the two oldest girls, did not only a fantastic job on camera, but they also set the tone as far as being big sisters for the little girls. And that kind of made it all work. They made it a family right away, by day three.
Can you talk a little bit about what you were shooting, running down the stairs? So we have a little bit of perspective on what’s happening.
Livingston: Yes. This is a sequence in the 3rd act where the house kind of house some various spirits that are attached to it that haven’t left, basically. One of them in particular has taken possession of Lili [Taylor] at this point. And it has actually followed us. You know there’s the question in haunted house movies, “why don’t they just leave?” And in this one we do leave and one of the things kind of attaches to her and brings her back So we kind of run screaming in from the motel and try to get her out and take her away to the priest to perform the exorcism. But the spirit won’t let her leave the house and at that point it starts to get kinetic. She goes flying down the hallway, spins around and gets dragged down the stairs. And we run down to find her flying around and banging into things. So, pacing wise, if the movie has some build and then all hell breaks loose – you’re looking at one of the moments where all hell breaks loose.
Do you know that your wife is being haunted?
Livingston: At this point, I think you see what you see. So you’re kind of like, you know. If we’ve done it right I think you kind of walk the audience through it. There’s kind of a fine line that you want to run. You want to audience to slowly buy into the concept and the premise, so you have a couple of characters who are themselves slowly buying into the concept and the premise. And the great thing about it is, I don’t think anyone [pauses]… people say, “do you believe in this? Or do you believe in that?” “Yes I do.” Or, “no I don’t.” Everybody has a couple of different opinions that come out at different times. There’s how you feel about it at 330AM in the dark, and then there’s how you feel about it in the light of the day reading Scientific American. And I think the fun of the movie is swinging back and forth between those two things. As a character and in the teaser footage I saw. It’s funny, they cut together some sequences just to show the cast and crew and I know it’s all shot. But part of the fun is having that scare happen and being like, “oh they got me!” I think we’ll definitely get the audience on this one.
Since they built all this stuff do you kind of feel like you’re living in that environment a bit more than in a normal movie?
Livingston: Yeah. I mean the set on this is just incredible. The deck on it is really terrific. The fact that they just built the entire house. We had a full two-story house to match our exterior location. And then the cellar is its own thing. It really allows you to get a feel. You get to immerse in it. Which I think is key because on a movie like this, the house itself is kind of the star of the movie. I mean ‘The Shining’ has Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duval, but it’s the lodge and that hallway and the doors and the big grand thing, you know? Even ‘Poltergeist’ with that suburban development, you know? The place itself becomes a very important character in the movie. I don’t think anybody on this movie, from James on down, took that for granted. It does make it a lot easier to act.
Have you played opposite the witch already?
Livingston: I don’t do much with the witch. No. I think that’s coming up. That’s pieces that we see. The real life Roger kind of said she didn’t bother him that much. That he thought she kind of had a thing for him and wanted to get rid of his wife, you know? I’ve also heard that the Warrens have said that the wives are targeted because – 30 years ago, at least – they were the ones who were home all day. Often by themselves.
It’s been mentioned that James is shooting this chronologically. Do you find that helpful as an actor?
Livingston: I do. Tremendously. You forget how much easier it is to do it this way because you’re used to working the other way. It’s funny, probably part of the reason he did it is because he thought it would have been easier for the kids [on set]. The kids would have been fine, they’re such pros. But I found it a lot easier. I think it’s easier for continuity too, because you don’t paint yourself into a corner. Like, “oh he tore his jeans in this shot, but we already shot stuff after.” We can kind of figure it out as we go and if there’s gaps we can plug them. It also I think helps with the tone, because if there’s a slow build it’s easier to tell where you are on that. “Okay yesterday we were here, so we’re coming off of that.” As opposed to, “where were we in March?”
It seems like at some point there was a discussion about not doing it as a period piece. Would you have been as interested in it if that were the case?
Livingston: I think it works great as a period piece. There’s something about it that feels tome more authentic. Because it’s out of the history files a little bit? I don’t know why. I also think it allows them to use a different kind of film stock looking style? It’s got those real deep blacks that they used in the 70’s and the kind of earth tones in the colors. It’s really cool looking, it looks badass. The camera style has some elements of these beautiful Hitchcock shots, but I think because the [digital] camera is lighter you can do some of that Blair Witchy stuff where they’re kind of running around.
What kind of camera are they using?
Livingston: Um, you have to ask someone smarter than me. It’s digital, an Arri Alexa I think.
We saw a shotgun. Are you the person who gets to use it?
Livingston: No, I don’t get to use the shotgun.