Michael Chaves Interview

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, the latest entry in the wildly successful Conjuring franchise, is in theaters and streaming on HBO Max right now. Once again, Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga are back as intrepid ghost hunters Ed and Lorraine Warren.

But there’s a new filmmaker behind the camera – Michael Chaves, who steps in for James Wan, the director behind the other two main Conjuring films. Chaves’ film deals with how the Warrens got involved with the real case of Arne Johnson, a young man who claimed a demon jumped out of the body of his girlfriend’s little brother and into him. In the film, after the demon enters Arne, he kills his landlord – and pleads not guilty by reason of demonic possession. It’s a move that takes the franchise, and the Warrens, in a new direction.

/Film spoke with Michael Chaves about that new direction, the true story behind the case, storylines that got cut from the final film, and where the Warrens might go next. Some spoilers follow.

What do you think is key to making a Conjuring movie? What do you think is key to that universe?

As simplistic as it sounds, they all need to be scary thrill rides. I think that horror is going through a Renaissance right now and [there are] so many different types of movies that you could easily define as horror. But I think big scares, big tension jump scare…even though [there are jump scare] critics out there, people love to go to the movies and get scared. And I think that’s the biggest thing with the Conjuring movies and The Conjuring Universe. That’s one component. I think the other component is positive emotion, positive relationships, in the broadest sense. A lot of times these are stories of families, and friendships I think that those positive stories, those positive relationships in the face of great evil – I think that really resonates. And then the last thing is I think they are stories of faith. I think faith and love [are] these powerful elements that are used to fight demons. I think that’s really important.

One thing I noticed about this entry is that it doesn’t go out of its way to set up a new Conjuring spin-off. The first movie had Annabelle, the second movie had the Nun, but there’s nothing really like that here. What was behind that decision?

We actually did have what we thought was going to be the new [spinoff] demon, and this is something that was true to the story. We had a demon that was full-on pulled from little David’s interview and description. Arne said he saw the same thing. And it felt like this was going to be the iconic demon. And James [Wan] was with this from the very beginning – James, Monster Maestro. And we shot it. We had a cut of the film with this demon in it. The demon worked with Occultist, the grand witch mastermind [and villain of the movie]. It was the two of them together.

Ultimately, [the reason it was cut] was a two-part thing. One, it started to get really complicated. We’re introducing a human adversary, which was the first time that’s ever happened in The Conjuring Universe. So all of a sudden, [the] relationship [between the Occultist and the demon] seemed a little hinky. And then there [was] the demon itself – I was like, “This is going to be surefire. This is going to be the spinoff.” [But] sometimes they just don’t quite click. I think with iconic monsters, you need to take big swings. And the same thing happened in The Conjuring 2. The Nun was actually totally created in reshoots. The Nun didn’t exist before. There was another demon in [Conjuring 2] that The Nun replaced. And so we were in a similar situation where we had this story, [and] it was getting a little too complicated. The demon just wasn’t quite connecting.

[So] we eliminated it. And ultimately I’m actually very proud. I think if you are a real harsh critic of The Conjuring, you would say, “They’re always looking to spinoff. They’re always trying to plant a demon that they’ll spinoff into something else.” And what I actually am so proud of is that [with] this story, we were already taking a step out of the familiar format. And New Line, James, everybody was on board with that. Our first plan didn’t quite work, and we could adjust it, and tell the very best story with what we had. And I’m actually very proud that this doesn’t have that obvious spinoff. [But] I think that there’s a lot of threads you can pull. I think there is still a lot of room for where [the franchise] could go.

Like the other two main Conjuring movies, The Devil Made Me Do It is based on a true story. But there’s obviously a lot of liberties taken here with what really happened, and things have been fictionalized. I’m wondering how much research went into the true story, and how you decided to change things for the movie. 

[With] the first draft of the script, we brought in Arne Johnson [and] our writer [David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick] interviewed [Arne] and [his wife] Debbie, [and] got their accounts. [There are] also other interviews that we pulled from that formed that first draft, [and] the first draft was very close to his accounts [and] his experience. We also combined some other Warren stories – the fact that [Lorraine Warren] was working with police departments didn’t really happen in this case, but there were other cases she was helping out with, missing person cases. That always fascinated me. It was something New Line and James really wanted to touch on. How she was going into the world, working with police departments, and we’re like, “We got to try and weave that in.” So that wasn’t quite part of the story, but we threaded that in.

And one of the things that we were all very sensitive about was the murder, and how we handled that. Arne doesn’t remember anything that happened. Arne blacked out, or claimed to have blacked out. And he was found covered in blood, walking on the roadside, a few miles away. The actual murder itself was [at] this daytime party that had gotten out of hand. There [were] a lot more people there, a lot more witnesses [who] describe [the murder] like it felt like it was like this otherworldly event. Of course, a lot of them were drunk. There were also some underage kids there that were drinking. It was [a] chaotic, strange scene. And so for a lot of reasons, I think we wanted to try and reshape that a little bit.

The real victim’s name was Bruno, and we changed his name to Bono, because we wanted to take some liberties here. There were things that actually made [the victim] look very bad, things that he did that day that just did not look good. And it was tricky to thread that needle, because Arne murdered him. Arne took his life. And it was important that we didn’t want to make [the victim] look like a bad guy, because it would have been very easy for us to tell us the straight story, but it [might] make him look like a villain, and then it almost starts to justify [the] murder. And we didn’t want to go in that direction. Arne accepted his fate. He didn’t deny doing it. He claimed that he was possessed by a demon, and he went to jail [and] he served his time. So there was a degree of accountability that I think is important.

I don’t know how much input you have in these things, but I’m wondering where you would like the story to go from here. Because I love these movies, and as long as Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga keep coming back, I will watch them. 

I’m with you. I love those guys, and I love this series, and I honestly consider it one of the greatest privileges to have been a part of it. Ultimately, as you probably can guess, this is James’ baby. Even as he handles all of his other projects, he is the Kevin Feige of this world. So it’s really up to him, the direction that it takes. I grew up watching The X-Files. I loved how each one of those cases felt new and unique. And I think that the success of that first Conjuring is the reason we have this incredible franchise, but it’s also built this unfair expectation that they always have to be haunted house movies. I am so excited to see the Warrens go outside of the haunted house, and just take on cases that are surprising and exciting. I think there’s so much interesting material for them to explore. I also just love how we start pulling out the thread of Satanism and the Satanic Panic. And as [the franchise] heads into the ’80s, where that really became a thing, I feel like that could be really exciting to see as well.

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The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It is now in theaters and streaming on HBO Max. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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