With James Wan’s The Conjuring opening up in a few weeks, we’ll be bringing you all sorts of content from our set visit. The new horror film from the director of Saw and Insidious centers on the Perron family and their decision to bring in acclaimed paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) when unexplained events start happening in their house.
During our set visit, producer Rob Cowan talked about how he got involved with the film, the Perron family’s reaction to being on set, bizarre incidences during filming, promoting the true story of the film and getting to meet Lorraine Warren. Hit the jump for the interview with Cowan and be sure to check out our set visit recap here, plus interviews with James Wan, Patrick Wilson, Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor. The Conjuring opens July 19th.
Rob Cowan: No, no I came in…Tony was really, as I’m sure he went through it, Tony started with the rights and everything way back when, and then the writers came on and got it set up at New Line along with Peter Safran, who you’ll probably meet a little later on. James [Wan] did a draft of the script when he came on and when James delivered his draft, that’s when I came on.
Oh, so you’re really recent.
Cowan: Yeah. It was mid-summer or so when it was really starting to look like a movie and starting to move forward on putting it together and everything. Tony’s really been the one who’s been there all the time from the very beginning. As I’m sure he told you, he has a relationship with the Warrens and a little bit with the family. Did they tell you that the family all came to the set?
Cowan: It was pretty interesting, because one of them actually had quite a reaction when she saw the witch that we have, the character that they were supposedly haunted by. I thought they’d be fine because they knew and it was in the middle of the day time and everybody’s around and they’re doing his make-up and fixing him up and getting him ready to do a scene, and all of a sudden, one of them bolted over to Pat. I just look up at the top of the hill and you were…Pat’s hugging this woman who was…
Who was it?
Cowan: It was Cindy. The second-to-youngest; April’s the youngest. It’s funny because we’ve been dealing with eight-year-olds and she’s 50 or whatever. But she really had a bad reaction, it was quite interesting.
So they had seen this thing? It wasn’t just shadows?
Cowan: Yeah, they all have different viewpoints on what they’ve seen. It was kind of interesting having them all there because they all had different experiences in very different ways, even the father who kind of embraced it. We asked him, and everybody always asks him…we tried to put a little bit of this in the movie…they stayed there for ten years. Why would they not leave? He said, “I would have stayed. I’d still be there now.” His wife just really couldn’t deal with it any longer. He said to us that the ghost, witch, whatever it is was much harsher on his wife than on him. He said he actually had good experiences with it where he would be by himself and sense that she was there or see something that felt like she was there and he said it was fine, he didn’t have any problem with it at all. So all the kids had different viewpoints. When Cindy…it was interesting; you’re never sure whether it was just an apparition or were they actually…but Cindy said that’s what it felt like she had looked like, she really felt like we had recreated it. We hadn’t done it on any way other than “this is what we want it to look like,” but she really said that was exactly what she looked like. So they do all feel like they had seen. But I also think they saw different things, each of them saw it in a different way.
There’s always a question in these movies of, “Are these people going crazy or is there some sort of suggestive, collective hallucinations?” Do you draw any of those lines or bring any of it up in the movie? Or are you playing this as this is actually happening?
Cowan: You know, it starts that way. What’s great about the movie is, I think people will really identify with it because it isn’t some horrific thing that’s going on that you have no tie to it yourself. It’s all the things we all go through, when you’re a kid especially. Is there something in your closet, is there something under the bed, why did that door open on its own, why did that thing I thought I put down here move over here? So when it starts, it’s a lot of those kinds of elements, things that go bump in the night. But as time goes on, it becomes very real and you realize this is really happening to the family, particularly when the Warrens show up. There are a couple of glimmers of seeing somebody, but it’s when they show up that it really manifests and starts to become very aggressive. But it is one of those things at the beginning and everybody thinks that. They just think that…and the characters in the movie believe that, too, that just something’s gone wrong and there really isn’t anything there. But when you start to add it up…and then it became the mother who realized they had to do something about it and in real life went and got the Warrens to come and help them out and see what they could do.
Why was it so attracted to the mother?
Cowan: You know, in reality, what Lorraine [Warren], who came to the set as well, told us is that seems to happen with most situations that they’re experienced in where it tends to go after the mother. I don’t know if there’s really any explanation except she was alone a lot of the time. In real life, the husband had gone away for trips; we have a little bit of that in the movie where he was a traveling salesman. So she was the one who was left alone with whatever it was in the house and it just latched on to her. I think she’s…I don’t know if you heard this story…so, the family came to the set and they came for one day and it was like a family reunion; they haven’t been together for quite a little, but they collected from all over the place to come to our set on that day. The only person who didn’t come was the mother, who they said doesn’t leave much where she lives and doesn’t fly well. There was a moment where she might come anyway, but she didn’t come. So they come to the set and literally right after the incident with Cindy and the witch, they got a call that the mother had tripped and fallen and broken her hip and had to have an immediate operation. Literally when they went down to her she said this is Bathsheba, the witch, doing something to her. But it was that day, that afternoon, they’re all standing on our set and the mother trips and really quite seriously broke her hip and had to have it replaced. They operated that day.
Tony talked about this stuff happening to them. What about you guys making the film? You’re conjuring up her name, you’re putting that out there…have you guys had any questionable things happen on set?
Cowan: You know there’s been actually a fair amount and not necessarily even on set. We’ve had a lot of crew members come in from out of town and living in these old homes around here and feeling like they’re seeing things. One of our hair person, you can talk to her, has many stories about things that she believes are going on in her house, like seeing people and feeling like she’s being tugged in her bed when she’s asleep at night. There’s been some stuff, particularly we have this artifact room which we’ve created. I don’t know how much you know about this story, but in real life, the Warrens have…you can look it up on the internet…they have a room that if there’s a cane or something that they feel is possessed, and the most famous is this doll Annabelle, they take it and they put it in this room. It’s kind of a museum now but it’s also where they keep their haunted artifacts. So we recreated that in our…we just shot it yesterday. Everybody who went in there had something where they were like…one of our camera guys was in there alone going to pick up a camera piece and saw a lid of a jar drop onto a table and he said, “I’m not going back in that room.” And a bizarre thing, there’s a pig, there’s a wooden pig that we had in there. They had all manner of things: masks and little religious artifacts and things like that. But there was a pig that everyone attests would move around the room; it would be there and they’d come back and it would have moved over to there.
Cowan: [laughs] No, no. Oh yeah, that’s right, I guess, yeah. I never thought about that. As you know, the Warrens were involved in the Amityville story. That’s a good point. But no, there’s not been any big incident, but everybody has things just stopping and it feels like…we always have problems on the set anyway, but it feels like there’s a lot more of that on this set than normal.
Other than all this other worldly stuff, as a producer, is there anything particularly hard to set up?
Cowan: Not really. James is, in my mind, an extraordinary director. I’ve worked with a lot of directors and he understands filmmaking really well, which makes it easy for me, for my job. And he also really understands this genre, and not in a way of like, “I know how to do creepy things,” he’s not…sometimes you’ll have guys that do these movies and they’re just steeped in this world. He actually is very afraid of all of this stuff. He said to me one day, “This is how I know how to make stuff scary, because I’m scared of this stuff whenever I hear a door closing,” or whatever. Because he knows very exactly what he wants or what he needs to be able to get out of a scene or a shot or whatever, it’s been easy that way. Our biggest hurdle was, the house is such a big part of the movie and we really wanted to find a real house that we could use and do it inside and out, because both of us love to do practical, the idea that everything is real. But as we got closer and closer, and looked at a lot of homes, we found a great house for the exterior. What James needed for every single angle was very particular: where a door needed to be, where you had to stand to be able to see that door open or where a shadow had to happen, so, we eventually just built the house. Unfortunately it’s down now; we were very proud of it, it was a fantastic home that they built. But it was great to work with because it was literally like a character and James…we’d spent a lot of time with each room and what it needed, and so when we were shooting, it had all those great little angles and movements to it. No, it’s been a great shoot that way. Like I said, I attribute a lot of it to James because he’s got a lot of energy, he’s got great ideas and he fuels everybody’s energy. The cast fell in great and very easily and they’ve been terrific. They’ve really molded into this really well. It’s been a nice shoot all the way around.
So in the story: did they say that things started stirring up after they discovered the basement? They didn’t know the basement was there?
Cowan: Yeah, in the real life it’s slightly different than we’ve done in the movie, but they had found this cellar which actually was interesting, because it was quite large, the cellar that they had in the real house, it was very long. They had had some things happen, very subtly. It was opening up for them, in real life, opening up the cellar and opening up the fireplaces, because all the fireplaces had been closed up when they bought the house. When they opened up the fireplaces and the cellar, that’s when everything started up. We just condensed it all down. Obviously with the movie we had to take a bunch of stories and mold it into one beat, but it really was when they started opening up some of the walls that they found things going on.
Cowan: Yeah particularly the fireplaces they had a real problem with, with light coming through it, inexplicably weird light. And infestations, I think there was a little bit of this in Amityville, infestations of flies and birds inexplicably coming and going out of there. They felt it had to do with, not randomly because the chimney was there, I think they just felt like it was something they just didn’t want to have to deal with anymore so they boarded it up, and the basement as well, the cellar. The cellar apparently had many, many stages to it, sort of an alleyway that they could go through. You’ve seen our cellar; it’s more condensed. The previous people had boarded it up and actually told them…they had mentioned about that, but they said, “Make sure you leave the lights on at night when you…” They didn’t say why, they just said, “I would leave the lights on when you are staying here at night.”
This was originally called The Conjuring, now it’s called The Warren Files, it’s based on the two real life characters who have a lot of cases…do you have options on Vera [Farmiga] and Patrick [Wilson] for any sequels? Are you thinking about a franchise where those characters could pop up again?
Cowan: Yeah, obviously you hope…you never know what happens. The Warrens have many, many stories. It was great actually having Lorraine down here because, just anecdotally, she would start to spin off and tell a story. They are great characters to run with. In our feeling, it’s what makes the story slightly unique because those characters are always the characters that come in as cameos and then leave and that’s it. So it’s been fun to follow them. The more research you do on them, the more research we’ve done on them, you realize they were kind of unique; there weren’t a lot of people that did this. And they were involved in Amityville and Haunting in Connecticut and they’ve been involved, not even just here, but over in Europe, as well. They were called over to London. Again, I’m not sure how much you know about them. It’s quite fascinating because the Church actually really used them as a fact-finding group to go out and see whether or not…if they’d heard about someone that they felt was possessed or that there was something going on demonic, that they would actually go…I think it’s called a “discerning,” to see whether something that’s going on in a building or a house or with a person is just not real, just something supernatural or something really demonic; if it becomes something demonic, then the Church gets actively involved. And it all sounds movie-ish, but it’s real. When you research and talk to Lorraine and the whole group, it’s what they did, they had the Church call them up. We have elements of that in the movie where they’re called upon to go and deal with things. So, yeah, our hopes would be that this works out and everybody likes the characters and we can run with it a little bit more.
Cowan: Well, yes and no. It does open up beyond that. There are certain bigger elements to it, but the core, especially since we’re following the Warrens, it’s not entirely about the…like Amityville where you’re with the family, stuck in the house, so you see what goes on with them [as they] figure out and deal with this, and also some other cases that they do. It does get opened up beyond just that house. The funny thing is, when shooting the movie, when we’re in the house we love being there because it’s so much fun, the stuff that goes on. The house is great, the family is great. It’s a great story to have started with for the telling, because in some ways we’ve tried to…although they’ve been doing it for a while when this came along, we’re trying to make it a bit of a genesis, like this is what really got them going. You’ll have to see the movie, but it was a big hurdle for them to deal with this and something very extraordinary that they hadn’t dealt with before. That really propels them to take this on and do it in a big way.
Was there ever a discussion about setting it not in the 70s?
Cowan: Before I came on there was. I think there was discussion about bringing it down, and James might know better, but bringing it down to not being the 70s and maybe there are two kids and not five kids, which is always the practical thing; do you want to run around with five kids? From what I understand, James was the one who said, “No. If we’re going to tell their story, we have to tell it the way it really happened,” where there were the five kids and it was the 70s and it was this certain time period. So he brought it back into making it more real than it was before.
We were talking about titles. Could it go back to The Conjuring or are there other things? What do you want to evoke with your titles, since there are a bunch of different things? Obviously, The Warren Files will give you a franchise, but what’s the thought on that?
Cowan: I think there still is discussion going on about the titles and I’m not sure until we get done that it’ll really solidify. I think the best thing to evoke about this is a sense about the world that it is and, it’s tricky with these things because you don’t want it to scare an audience off, because it’s a very accessible movie: it’s not a slasher movie, it’s not bloody at all, it’s a fun romp and, like I said, it really is very identifiable for things that scare you. That’s why it’s always tricky finding that right title of something that isn’t off-putting and doesn’t make you feel like, “Okay, I don’t want to go see a movie about something demonic,” and allow it to have that kind of tell that you can run with. The Warren Files is fine, but it’s a little dry; you might think you’re watching CSI or something. So it is still in the works, it’s still being talked about.
How about in terms of promoting the movie, because people see little bits about it and say, “Oh, it’s like Insidious or any other haunted house movie.” Is there a certain angle that you’re going to try to push?
Cowan: One of them obviously, and there’ve been others, is the true story aspect. But the other aspect is that it takes it from different point of view, which is the Warrens’. You don’t normally see that. Like in Insidious, it was literally the family and the woman that came in was an outsider that you don’t really worry about, especially, I’m sure, in promotion they didn’t deal with. But in this, it’s going to be really what happens when you have these people who are demonologists, that’s what they did for a living and…she’s 85 and is still doing cases. So it’s taking a little bit from that, there they’re this real life couple that this is what they did for a living, basically. So that’s the different take on it, for marketing.
Was there any trepidation at first about doing it from their perspective since maybe the standard thinking is to tell it from the perspective of the victims so that normal, everyday people can relate to it better?
Cowan: I think originally the writers, Chad and Carey Hayes, it was their thought to take it from the point of view of the Warrens. I think their feeling was, which is true, that the story is great but, just as you were saying, how do you make it feel different and that we’re seeing a different movie from Haunting in Connecticut or, I know they’re doing Haunting in Georgia now, it was their thought about when they heard about the Warrens and their involvement in this and how heavily, is that it’s a different way to do it and to bring it in from a different point of view. It was funny with us, we all identified with the family. The Warrens were, how we say, like Burt Lancaster in The Rainmaker; they’re like these people who show up and they’re kind of different and a little quirky and odd, but we all loved the family. It was the family that all the crew and everyone identified with, so I think, with the movie, you’ll still identify with what they’re going through. But it is fun to watch these other guys come in and try and deal with it and how they deal with it. And their own personal stuff they’re going through, as well.
Did Lorraine say anything about Vera and Patrick, as far as casting?
Cowan: She was very happy to have Vera play her [laughs] since Vera’s very attractive. But I know Vera was very affected by meeting Lorraine. Patrick and her drove up and went to meet Lorraine in Connecticut where they live. Vera came back with all of these stories and how she wanted to dress. We actually have some pictures of them standing together and they look pretty similar. It really affected her a lot to the point that we actually put chickens in a scene yesterday because they actually have chickens in their house. But it’s interesting with Lorraine and hopefully we’ll get her out there when we’re doing marketing, she’s really a force. It’s fascinating to watch. She’s 85 and we have long days on the set, sometimes 14 hours. When she would come to the set, she would not leave until the very last shot was done and she went around and met every crew member and remembered all their names. There’s something really great about her, she has this great aura and personality around her and you can see how she could lecture for many years. It was funny, we took them in the house and she immediately took to some of the things that we were doing in the house and how we were representing what they do for work and how they were doing it and felt that we were doing it very accurately. I’m sure, like I said, she’s happy to have them play their family.
It was interesting getting the parents together. We had a picture taken with each of them sitting on the step with their counterpart below them. We grew up with the movie with all these kids and then, all of a sudden, there are these 50-year-olds that showed up and trying to match them all up. They were the same, they were really…you could see that each of them was really excited to meet their little counterpart and who they were.
Do you know what rating you’re going for?