Both of The Conjuring movies are scary. Horror is subjective and your mileage may vary, but I think it’s safe to say at this point that James Wan has established himself as a master of his craft. He’s able to create a sense of dread and carry it through a film, constantly ratcheting up the tension without resorting to cheap, unearned jump scares that instantly deflate it. It’s an almost humorous when you say it out loud, but it’s the reason that both of these sexless, largely bloodless films have been slapped with R ratings; the folks at the MPAA just thought they were too darn scary.
But when you talk to James Wan, the scares are not what he’s focused on. He’s passionate about them (and when you meet the guy, it’s hard non to get swept up in his infectious enthusiasm), but to him, that’s not the heart of what these movies are about. To him, these are love stories, stories about families helping one another and trying to make each other’s lives better. It’s what sets The Conjuring films apart in the landscape of modern horror: you care about these people so much that you want to come back for more of their story instead of the monsters’.
When I got home last night, my TV turned off by itself.
James Wan: Did you pay your electricity bill? That’s what I want to know firstly.
Doing these films, how many unusual things have happened to you?
Wan: Well, when I’m directing a movie, I’m always so busy trying to make the movie and get everything done in time that I’m not privy to a lot of weird and bizarre supernatural stuff that might happen around me. I could have a ghost standing right next to me and I still might not be aware of that. I’d probably tell the ghost to go get me a coffee or something. But no, on Conjuring 2 it was actually really smooth sailing.
But you blessed the set, is that why?
Wan: That is why. (Laughs) That must be the reason why. It was Peter [Safran’s, producer] idea to bring a priest in early on.
Peter Safran: It worked well! We had a lot of trouble on the first movie, we did not on the second.
Wan: Clearly that was the reason why we didn’t have any ghostly experiences.
Why do you suppose that this is a horror film that works, that really gets under your skin? It’s so easy to make a bad horror movie, so what’s the secret of making a good horror movie?
Wan: I was actually very apprehensive about coming back to direct The Conjuring 2 because the first one was really beloved and I didn’t know how I was going to be able to top the first movie. When I eventually did come back, all of us – myself, the writers, the actors, the producers, and the studio – we knew that we had to live up to the first movie, at the very least. We have to work hard to try to live up to that expectation. Because of that, I never took any of this lying down. I really went for it, and that was something that we all, collectively, felt like we had to do. We felt like there was such a love for the first film that it’d be really sad if we didn’t, at the very least, try to come close to the first movie.
And for horror sequels it’s tough because the more you’re exposed to something the less scary it becomes. How did you approach this one so that it wasn’t diminishing returns? Because this really works with an audience.
Wan: I think it’s hard enough to make any sequel to a commercially successful movie, right? Whether it’s a superhero or an action movie, it’s always extremely hard to live up to what people like about the first one, but it’s triply difficult when it’s a horror movie. I don’t know for the life of me, can you think of a horror sequel that people like more than the first one? It’s really hard in that respect. I guess there’s Aliens, but the first Alien is fantastic as well. It’s really just a handful. So, I look at that and go, ‘okay, what can we do to make it a bit different?’ And I realize that though people love the scares of the first movie, I think what made them love it even more is the characters. Without really knowing it, they fell in love with Ed and Lorraine Warren. They were played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga who are both extremely lovable, so you just feel like you know these people. Because of that, we really wanted to make a movie first and foremost about them, about their characters. For me, crafting the scare scenes, that’s kind of the easy stuff, but I really wanted to get the character arcs and the story correct, then go back and sort of look at what kind of scares I can come up with that feel different even though I’m playing within the tropes that come with the haunted house subgenre. I always look at it from a perspective of, ‘how can I make this different from something you’ve seen before, and if you know what’s going to happen, how can I tweak things a little bit?’
As a film viewer, which do you think is scarier, the sounds or the visuals?
Wan: What I’ve discovered over the years of my heavy diet of watching scary movies is that, surely visuals are very important, but if I have to pick one over the other, I’d say the soundscape is way more important than the visuals. That’s not to belittle the amazing visuals that we have in this film, but it’s proven to us time and time again by a lot of low budget horror movies that are very successful, that work very well, but you barely see anything on screen because they don’t have the money to show you the stuff on screen. So much of it is played through what might be on screen, and it’s given to you by the soundscape. The soundscape gives you a sense of what is happening, it dictates the emotion you’re feeling in this scene. It’s the soundscape and the sound mix – which not many people realize – knowing what to make louder and what to make quieter. Maybe as you approach this one moment, your music goes down, then the creaking floorboards should be louder, or the rocking chair should be louder, then, all of a sudden, the rocking chair goes away because you feel the wind rattling the windows. There’s a lot of craftsmanship that goes into the technicalities of putting that together that I really, really believe in. That’s why, when I make my movie, I sit all the way through to the very end of post production. I don’t believe that I don’t believe that a movie finishes for a director when you call cut at the end of shooting. You gotta sit all the way through because so much of what makes scary movies work for me is really the craftsmanship you put into the editorial process, the pacing, the sound, all the way to the very end.
I think the telephone was one of the scariest things. It was so loud!
Wan: (Laughs) I think what makes the telephone scary is not necessarily the volume, but the tonality of that ring that we’re no longer familiar with. Because that’s not a modern ring, and it’s a very specific English ring as well, so we wanted to make sure that was period correct and correct to the region of the work it was in. It’s one that you’re not quite sure what it is, and yet it’s somewhat familiar. And it’s so shrill.
How do you feel about using practical effects in a horror film over CG? For instance, the simple thing of pulling a dresser on a wire, do you try to get as much of that on set as possible?
Wan: Well, that wasn’t how we did the dresser gag. There was a lot of big expensive effects that went into making that thing move. (Laughs) No, I’m a huge fan of practical filmmaking. I like to capture as much of the real stuff in camera as you can. It just makes it feel more real because it is real. It’s within the frame and I can frame for it, I can compose the shot, and my actors can actually react when they see something move in front of them. They can look at it with their jaw-dropping awe. So that is very important to me. I try not to have any of the ‘CGI’ stuff be apparent to the eye. I like it to be naked to the eye so you can’t quite tell that that’s what we’re doing. The computer effects that are so important in a movie like this are used more to help tell the story. By that I mean, it is hard to shoot an exterior period movie. Everywhere you look, it is filled with modern technology: cars, cell towers in the distance, nothing looks like what it used to look like. So what is great with digital filmmaking is that it allows you to go in and paint out that cell tower or that hi-tech hotel that wasn’t there back in the ‘70s. It’s a really great tool for things like that.
The scene I thought was really brilliant the way you shot it was the scene where Ed Warren is in focus while Janet is out of focus behind him. There’s this tension of ‘are we going to see the ghost? Are we not?’ Did you know right away that that was how you wanted to approach the scene?
Wan: Yeah, I kinda did. They have two interviewing sequences in the movie. First you have the documentary crew that interviewed the little girl, which is shot and edited more like a conventional movie moment, but with that one, where Ed is interviewing the little girl and she doesn’t want them to look at her, I thought it was the perfect opportunity to have them look away. Even though you as an audience is looking at what is happening in front of us, because it’s out of focus and the focus is on Patrick in the foreground, you’re never quite sure what is happening in the background. I love the idea that it’s just as vague for you as an audience watching it as it is for Patrick as a character interviewing her. He doesn’t really know if she’s spitting out the water and doing it or not. I want to portray that moment to the audience, putting you in the mindset of the lead character. If he’s not sure what’s happening, I want you to be not sure what’s happening. At the same time, it was a great breather and a great contrast for my constant moving camerawork that I have. It just allows me to lock off for a long scene. It was a long sequence to shoot where nothing is happening, and it’s really difficult when you’ve got to get it right within the shot because you don’t have anything else to cut to. I didn’t really shoot anyone else’s reaction because I was determined to make that work. Again, it’s a testament to Patrick as well. I told Patrick, ‘this is a long three-to-five minute sequence, I know it’s like five pages of dialogue and I need you to get it right, and we’re going to do this as one shot.’ He was so excited about the challenge because he said that one shot was the closest thing to a stage play for him.
Am I nuts or didn’t the girl turn into the old man?
Wan: You might be nuts. (Laughs)
I want to know about a sequel to this, because this is already getting great reviews, are you already in the midst of discussing a sequel to this?
Safran: In the same way we weren’t going to make a sequel to the first unless we felt we had a story that was worthy of doing it, that’s the same thing now. We’d love to make another film, but we’d have to know that it’s going to be a worthy successor to the second one which is also a beautiful film.
Patrick told us that you said you had an idea.
Wan: Damn that Patrick! He’s always getting me in trouble.
Did the water sequences in this help you get prepared for your next film that you’re going to be doing.
Wan: The irony was, when I was shooting all that rain and on that submersed set with all that water, I remember thinking, ‘aw crap! I have to put up with this for an entire film.’ It’s just really difficult to shoot in water. After all these years and so many water-based movie, you always hear how miserable it is for the actors to shoot it, so we’ll see.
Can you clear up some of that stuff that happened in the press about the rumors that maybe you were not going to stay with that film.
Wan: Listen, I don’t really know where that came from. Like everything, I found out on Twitter or Facebook as well. I read about in on social media like, ‘oh really? That’s happening?’ About my career, which is even funnier. Literally, that weekend I was in the middle of finishing up Conjuring 2, working on the sound mix and then all that stuff broke out. I will say this, I think it’s more exciting and more tantalizing to write it up with all this dramatic stuff that’s happening on set. I’m not quite fully submerged in that world – I’m more from the outside looking in – but from what I can see, it’s not quite as dramatic as everyone’s making it out to be. I mean, that’s all I can really say at this point.