Interview: Why 'The Conjuring 2' Director James Wan Wants To Continue To Make Big And Small Movies

In 2013,  James Wan directed his most successful and critically acclaimed horror film, The Conjuring. Instead of rushing a sequel to a start date, all involved waited for Wan — a filmmaking machine who has had four features come out in the last three years — to come back for the sequel, which sees the return of paranormal investigators Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga). This time, the couple venture overseas for the Enfield Haunting.

At the press day for The Conjuring 2, Wan discussed with us his career, the pace of the film, working with kid actors, and more. We began our conversation with Wan discussing a striking long take in the sequel, in which Ed communicates with an evil spirit, Old Bill. It's the kind of seamless long take you don't know is a long take until it's over. Below, read our James Wan interview.

How did that long take of Ed talking to old Bill come about?

I loved it. It's funny, a lot of people talked to me about how much they like the moving camera work, and one of the things I love about what I did in this movie is actually the one scene where we stopped the camera from moving. [Laughs.] I think there's something very dynamic to that, in the same way, when I speak about sound design and music. The presence of music is very powerful, but so is the absence of sound as well and the absence of music. Same with camera movement. There are two interviews in the film, with that scene [featuring Ed] and the documentary crew interviewing Janet Hodgson [Madison Wolfe], and so I shot and edited that in a much more traditional way, much more conventional movie way.

By the time we get to Ed's interview of her, I wanted to do something different. I wanted to put the audience in the mindset of the Warrens and the characters because Janet says, "It doesn't want to speak unless you guys look away." I wanted to shoot in such a way where when Patrick turns his back to face her, and then the focus now racks to him. Even though we think we see something in the background, we're still not quite sure what we're seeing. It's very vague at the same time, and I like that. I like that you're just equally unsure of what is going on as the main characters are.

On set, what was there [for the obscured figure behind Ed]?

What was there? You want me to give the trick away? [Laughs.] Oh, man, don't make me tell.

[Laughs.] You can keep it a secret. 

[Laughs.] Let's keep some mystery.

Is that important for you to preserve some mystery about filmmaking? 

I do. I do to a big degree. That is a reason why I don't like doing audio commentaries for any of my films. I did it for the Saw film because I felt obligated to Lionsgate because they asked me, but ever since I don't do more audio commentaries because I do think it's important that you just watch the movie without having too much given away.

The Conjuring 2 is a very sweet horror movie. The affinity these films have for the Warrens is apparent. 

Yes, we love the characters. That was part of the reason why I decided to come back to Conjuring 2. I get to expand on the role of these two people, the cinematic version of Ed and Lorraine. The versions that Patrick and Vera Farmiga played, I really love them. Also, I wanted to do something that feels different to a lot of horror movies. Especially a lot of studio horror films. That is, take the time to actually create these characters that you care about, get to know them a bit more. Just come up with character moments that you wouldn't usually see in a typical horror film. One of my favorite sequences in the whole movie is when Patrick tries to get the family together. He plays them an Elvis song, and I feel like that sequence says a lot about how we feel about his character and how he interacts with the family. Also, with that one scene, there's lots of layers to it. Not only makes the family feel a bit happy with what's happening, but also it's a montage sequence and also shows how Lorraine is feeling about everything.

You're not afraid to take your time with those character moments. 

I mean, I will tell you what the most incredible thing is when I finished the movie I was like, "Man, it is a long movie, and I want to cut it down more," but I wasn't quite sure what areas to ... I've read some of the criticisms of the movie that, yes, it's long. In the same article, they criticize they length, they also talk about how much they love the characters and I was like, "Well, you can't have both." [Laughs.] You can't say you love the scares and you love the characters and complain that it's long because I took the time to create those characters and those moments. I think you want that. If not, there are lots of other horror movies that just breeze through. Plenty of those for you guys to watch as well.

Conjuring 2 pic

Some directors have varying techniques when it comes to working with kid actors. What's your approach? 

One of the things I learned very early on is you need to cast the kids for the characters you want them to play. They need to be who they are, right? If you want a loud, boisterous kid character, you need to find that kid. It's a lot harder to tell kids who understand what it is, about the nuances and this and that. You need to cast them for who they are. Get them to play themselves, basically. That just makes it a lot easier than doing when you give them directions and they can just do who they are themselves. Having said that, Madison Wolfe is the opposite. She is someone that you can speak like an adult to, and she just understands. I think directing her is ... Sometimes, it was harder directing adults than it was to direct her. She just really gets it. I don't know what it is. Someone, at such a young age, and yet be able to understand the process of filmmaking and really understand what she has to do to play up to the camera. It's pretty amazing, and I think she's just naturally gifted.

The film relies heavily on practical effects, but there is one particularly crazy CG shot involving the crooked man. When you're making a horror movie, do you try to be more sparing with CGI?

I don't have anything against CGI. I like to keep it as minimal as possible, but obviously, CGI is great when you're trying to do certain things that you can't do otherwise, like that scene you're referencing. [Laughs.] It's so funny, I was speaking to a journalist earlier, and she said, "You use a lot of CGI effectiveness and a lot more," and I'm like, "Which scene are you referring to?" and she goes, "The crooked man." I go, "Well, no. The crooked man's actually a real live actor who was playing it. That person really moves like that. He looks like a human stop motion puppet." I just thought that it's really interesting, this particular actor, Javier Botet, that he can do such incredible things with his body. In a lot of ways, it was like some form of physical theater. So what is great we found with computer effects that I did use a bit in this movie is to paint up a lot of modern technology that you would see in the background, in the distance. Getting rid of the cell tower. Painting out a building structure that isn't native to 1977. It helps with keeping the period aspect of it, and that's when it's helpful. I generally love working with as much practical as I could.

We don't see that many studio horror movies anymore made at this cost. Do you often have difficulty getting horror films of this scale made? Was the first Conjuring tough to get made? 

The Conjuring was a small studio film. It's a lot bigger than most horror films, much bigger than most horror movies that I've made for one or two million dollars, right? I know, I've done those movies as well. It was great to be able to make a movie with my vision and just fully get into it and yet still have a studio support behind me as well. It was so refreshing for me actually to have money to work with. Had the days I needed to craft my shots, work with my actors, and I think it really paid off with that film.

That's one of the things I would love to see more is, with the success of Conjuring – and who knows what's going to happen with Conjuring 2? — but I like the idea of opening the doors for more indie filmmakers that have really proven themselves within the indie horror world. Possibly come and make these bigger studio horror films, but still with the creed of the identity of ... Let them make the movies they want to make, but with studio support, because for myself a lot of the films I loved growing up were all studio horror films. People forget that all the great horror movies back in the days were all made by the studio system, and we're from really respected film directors.

Is that a part of your plan for [your production company] Atomic Monster, finding those young filmmakers and giving them opportunities?

Yeah, I think with Atomic Monster, it's a small level. It's more at the level of what we did with Lights Out. I do think, just by keeping the budget smaller to begin with, you have more freedom to make the movie you want and there's a lot less pressure. Once you've proven yourself with this, then you're showing to the studio that you're capable of doing the bigger stuff. To me, Atomic Monster is almost like a process; it's almost like some sort of intermediate film school towards the bigger films.

Going from Insidious to Furious 7 and then The Conjuring 2 to Aquaman. 10 years from now, do you hope your filmography continues that balance between those two different kinds of films?

I would love that. I think Steven Spielberg tried to do something similar. I love the idea of being able to ... I love big-budget filmmaking as well. I love going to Furious 7 and playing with this huge canvas, a huge palette. When I'm making a big movie, I miss and appreciate all the subtleties that come with making a smaller film that is more intimate, more personal. [Laughs.] Then when I'm making a smaller movie, I miss all the bigger movies and so if I can have it in my career, the ideal thing would be to go back and forth between the two.

***

The Conjuring 2 opens in theaters June 10th.