Posted on Friday, July 19th, 2013 by Peter Sciretta
I’m not a huge horror film guy, but I probably see more than your average film geek. I’ll be the first to admit that I had little interest in The Conjuring as I usually don’t like possession stories. The idea of someone becoming possessed by someone else has always been a movie storyline pet peeve for me, likely tainted for me by comic book storylines I read as a kid where the superhero somehow becomes controlled by the bad guy. While I was in San Francisco covering the Pacific Rim junket, I was presented with the opportunity to talk to director James Wan. I’ve been a fan of Wan since seeing the first Saw film at Sundance in 2004. That interview is why I ended up seeing The Conjuring in San Francisco and… I’m very glad I did.
The Conjuring is creepy as hell, a well made horror film — a throwback in many ways to the horror films of my childhood. Wan is a master of his craft, and I’m excited to see what he’ll be able to do once Hollywood lets him play in other genres (I really enjoyed his 2007 thriller Death Sentence which was virtually unseen in theaters).
After the jump you can read my interview with James Wan. We talk about The Conturing‘s connection to AMITYVILLE, the importance of the period setting of the film, the struggle with creating a horrific story while trying to stay true to the true story, the Perron family’s reaction to the movie, delving into some of the filmmaking techniques employed in this film including the sound and an early tracking shot, and I tried to get him to talk about his upcoming gig directing Fast & Furious 7.
Peter Sciretta: Hey James.
James Wan: Peter! It’s good to see you, man.
Peter Sciretta: It’s good to see you. I’m a big fan.
James Wan: Thank you. I think… Is this first time we’ve met?
Peter Sciretta: Yeah, it’s the first time we’ve actually met.
James Wan: Yeah. (Laughs) I recognize your face from the website, so I feel like I know you already.
Peter Sciretta: Awesome. Yeah, I’ve been following your career since the first Saw, so its great to finally speak with you…. Is this a prequel to AMITYVILLE?
James Wan: Well in terms of timeline it is, yes. But in terms of a set of movies, I don’t know. I’m not sure. Actually I don’t think Warner Brothers or New Line own the rights to AMITYVILLE, so that’s probably a “no.”
Peter Sciretta: Obviously this is a true story or it says it’s a true story or “based on true events.”
James Wan: Well it’s based in truth. They are real characters.
Peter Sciretta: How important was the period setting for this film?
James Wan: It was extremely important, just because if I’m telling people that it’s based on “these sets of guys” and “this is what happened to them in 1971 and then set it in 2014, it’d be a bit unrealistic. It’d be a long stretch, but no it was very important, the period, and doing it back then, because it does dictate the kind of form of storytelling it can have, right? People don’t have like mini iPads or iPhones and stuff like that and so it’s a very different time and I think that’s what made it interesting for me to want to tackle this film. After INSIDIOUS I didn’t really want to do another haunted house ghost story movie, right? But the opportunity to tell a movie about the Warrens was what made it exciting for me. I’ve always been fascinated by the Warrens and the chance to tell a movie through their point of view was very interesting. Now I know there are skeptics out there of what they do and that’s fine. People can have their own opinion of who these people are, but you know I’m not here to judge them, I’m here to make a scary drama based on their stories and experiences and the experiences of the Perron family as well.
Peter Sciretta: Yeah, well I’m curious. With any movie that’s based on true events, how do you find the balance of creating these horrific, dramatic, tension filled moments and the true facts of the events?
James Wan: That’s a very valid question. Let’s put it this way, from the get go, the writers and myself, the Hayes brothers and myself, we really wanted it to be as grounded as possible and so the writers went and spoke with the Perrons very early on. They had lots of chats with them and lots of chats with Lorrain [Warren] as well, not just to talk about the case itself, but to talk about who they are and what makes them tic in a way. So those were things that were very important. Down to little details that we put into the film, like Lorrain has a whole bunch of chickens as pets. She refers to them as “children,” right? In the movie we just had a very fleeting sequence where Vera Farmiga is feeding chickens with her daughter, but that was it you know? People might be like “Why is she feeding chickens?” But that’s a big part of who Lorrain is. She is very charming and eccentric and quirky and so we wanted to get that across. Now in terms of my scare set pieces, once again I tried to stay true to the things that I would hear coming from the Perron family and things I would hear from Lorrain and then try and take the stuff that they told me, that were very frightening, and kind of filter it through my sensibility, so from there I know how to put it on screen and show it to the audience.
Peter Sciretta: You mention the Perron family. Have they seen the film?
James Wan: Everyone has, yeah.
Peter Sciretta: What is their reaction?
James Wan: They all loved it and they all felt… Let’s put it this way, they are extremely… There’s a lot of gratitude for what we did for them, meaning we didn’t portray them as a crazy nutty family and that we saw them as normal people that went through these extraordinary circumstances.
Peter Sciretta: The period, I feel like it did influence how you shot the film, like it feels like an old school horror film in many ways, but there are moments with tricks that we play with today.
James Wan: Right.
Peter Sciretta: I wanted to talk to you about a couple of those, like your use of bass in some of the films, like I just loved. I’ve seen it in other horror movies. I could be forgetting something.
James Wan: The bass. I think it’s very important. For me and my films I want my audience to experience cinema in its full glory. It’s not just visual, it’s audio as well. It’s emotional and I want you to be engaged with not just the scene but with the characters. I want you to go on this journey. I don’t need to reinvent the wheel with a story, but I just want the over all experience to be one where you walk out of the movie going “Wow, that was such a cool ride. That was such an amazing ride.” It’s every facet of filmmaking crafting. Take bass for example, when that comes in it hits you in the gut. When things start to tremble. I think that’s very important. For me the sound design and the musical score is a big part of what makes scary movies work. Knowing the right kind of sound to use, you know I love my creaking doors and my sound designers will be the first to say he has a collection of creaking doors that he’s collected over the years of working with me and he knows the kind of sound that I love and it’s just knowing the right kind of sound aesthetic to use in the movie is very important and knowing the right kind of string instruments to use in the musical score at the right moment is very important, so the visual an the audio needs to go together, like an interlocking jigsaw puzzle.
Peter Sciretta: You sparingly use today’s techniques in the visual storytelling too, but there’s this long tracking shot early on through the house following the family. I was wondering if you could talk about your choice with that.
James Wan: Yeah. I wanted to do things like that, because I feel like it helps to put you into the mindset of the characters and with that particular long tracking shot at the start of the movie I wanted to show you the geography of the house. I wanted to show you the geography of the landscape itself, so if I establish it early on in the movie, then when lots of stuff happens in different rooms and different spaces you already kind of know where you are and so I’m not then trying to spend twenty minutes halfway through the movie trying to explain to the audience where they are. So if I show it early on, I bring it into the movie much more intimately.
Peter Sciretta: Well there’s a lot of action films today where you don’t have any sense of geography of where everything is and I felt like I knew that entire house by the end of the movie.
James Wan: Right, right.
Peter Sciretta: I have to ask you a generic question about FAST SEVEN, because you’re going to direct FAST SEVEN. What can you tell us about FAST SEVEN that you have not told anybody about FAST SEVEN?
James Wan: Jason Statham is going to be in it. (Laughs) Bet you didn’t know that one.
Peter Sciretta: I did.
James Wan: You know, it’s not one that I can talk about at this point other than it’s a movie that I want to…. Coming into this massive franchise I do feel like I have big shoes to fill. Justin and gang did such a great job in making it what it is now and I’m going to honor that world, but at the same time I want to bring my own spin to it, because if I don’t then I would not have pursued it, I wouldn’t have come on to it. Hopefully I will be able to get to do my thing to it, which is I want to bring a lot more suspense and edge of your seat sort of tension to my version of it.
Peter Sciretta: Well thank you so much. I just wanted to say I really liked DEATH SENTENCE and I want to see you do more outside of horror. I feel like you’re so talented as a filmmaker.
James Wan: Well thank you. You know what? [FAST SEVEN] is going to be DEATH SENTENCE on steroids. Thanks, Peter.
Peter Sciretta: Thank you.