As the creator of the Saw franchise, director James Wan ushered in an entirely new genre of stunningly violent horrors films that detractors (and even many fans) dubbed “torture porn.” So it’s no small surprise that his new movie The Conjuring – an Amityville Horror-style movie about a family battling a haunted house in the Seventies – is virtually gore-free. Like Wan’s last film, Insidious, the film creates crazy levels of suspense from the first frame and doesn’t let up until the credits roll.
We spoke with Wan about The Conjuring, shagging off his Saw baggage, his favorite horror flicks and his plans for the seventh Fast and Furious movie.
I just saw the movie in a room full of hardened movie critics. They seemed pretty freaked out, so I guess you did a good job.
That’s awesome to hear.
What drew you to this story?
[The real-life paranormal investigators] the Warrens. I’ve known about them since I was pretty young, back in high school. I’ve sort of been following their story ever since. I was fascinated by what they did and who they are. I’ve sort of kept them in my peripheral all these years, and I’ve always thought their life stories would make a very interesting movie.
Did you speak to Lorraine Warren through much of this process?
I did. The writers and producers did a lot of research with Lorraine early one, before I even came on.
Do you believe in the paranormal, or are you a skeptic?
I’m definitely open-minded to these sorts of things. I love a ghost story. I think they affect me more than other people that are much more skeptical than I am. I think that it’s good that I do buy into them to some degree. I think it helps me to know what is effective and what isn’t effective.
I guess it would be hard to make this movie if you felt it was all bullshit.
It would be. You have to believe and just go with it. If nothing else, you have to believe in the characters, and I do believe that these guys really believed in what they did. And so that definitely helped me as a filmmaker.
Making this movie must have been a little daunting. There’s been so many haunted house movies. There have been so many movies that feature exorcisms. You’re also dealing with the shadow of The Amityvile Horror and The Exorcist, two of the most famous horror movies ever. Were you at all ambivalent about wading into these waters?
I was definitely mindful of those two movies. Ironically enough, Amityville Horror is one of the stories that put the Warrens on the map. It’s hard not to make that comparison, and it happened around the same time as well.
In terms of The Exorcist, that whole movie was an exorcism, so to speak. This one has only a short one, towards the end. But that meant it was tricky, because Ed and Lorraine were very devout Catholics, and exorcisms are built around Catholic rites. Both stories pull in from the same place. It’s definitely hard for people not to make comparisons between my film and The Exorcist. I tried to do it in ways that wouldn’t invite comparisons. My character was tied to a chair and covered in a sheet. I felt better about that since I could never compete with what William Friedkin did with his movie.
You’re famous for Saw, but this is such an incredibly different kind of movie. If I had watched this and not known the director, I would have never thought it was the Saw guy.
Yeah, it’s very different. Saw is 10 years ago now. I have other styles of filmmaking. If anything, it’s closer to Insidious. After that movie I didn’t want to go back to another haunted house supernatural ghost story, but what really drew me back to The Conjuring was the opportunity to tell a true-life story, and a story that’s based on Ed and Lorraine Warren.
Do you see any common threads between this and Saw?
Hmmm. The only thread is that I think I learned a lot from Saw since it was my first movie. I learned what I could do and what I couldn’t do, within my budget. I learned what worked and what didn’t work with Saw, and the same with Insidious.
Insidious must have really gotten the attention of Hollywood, since you made it on such a small budget and then grossed a fortune.
Yeah. That same thing happened with Saw. I think what Insidious did was give me, in some weird way, more respect. That’s just purely because it isn’t a gory movie. It’s a PG-13 movie, and I always thought it was a lot harder to make a horror movie that was PG-13 and have it still be effective.
I really relish that sort of challenge, and that was basically the same thing I wanted to do with The Conjuring. Basically, I’ve done a very restrained movie, a very held-back kind of film, but I created an atmosphere that was very brooding, very creepy and very dread-inducing. I’ve a big fan of suspense and tension filmmaking, and that was my goal with The Conjuring.
It was very clever that you don’t see a single ghost through most of the movie. It forces you to visualize them in your mind.
That was my plan. I always felt that what is scary is actually hearing someone tell you what they think they see. That sense of invisibility makes things a lot scarier, since your imagination tends to fill in the gaps. So a character can be staring into the darkness behind a door and you just see the fright on their face. I think that’s scarier than showing you what’s behind the door.
Do you think you’ve shaken off some of the baggage that comes with being known as the creator of Saw?
There was a lot of baggage I had to take off, yes.
Were you ever concerned it was there forever?
That was definitely a concern. I’m extremely thankful for what Saw gave me, but at the same time it really did put me in a box that I just didn’t like. I look at who I am and I go, “That’s not me.” I made that film, and I love it, and I made it for a very calculated purpose, which was to get people’s attention. I achieved that goal, but it just so happens that I didn’t realize how successful I was in achieving that goal.
It took me a while to shake that off and showcase that I can make different kinds of movies, and I can make scary movies without relying on just the shock factor of blood and guts. I’m a huge fan of tension. I’m a huge fan of suspense. I’m a huge fan of not showing you things and letting your imagination do the rest. That’s why I went off and made Insidious.
What do you think is the scariest movie ever?
Oh, my goodness. That’s like trying to pick my favorite rock song. It’s tricky. As a horror movie buff and a fan of the genre, I love the movies that I love for different reasons. I would say that Jaws is one of my favorite movies. It has this great monster. It has characters that you love, and they’re really fun. It is just so suspenseful and high-tension. I would have to also say that The Exorcist is one my favorites, too.
Broadly speaking, do you think that horror movies are better now than they were 10 or 20 years ago?
I don’t know. If you speak to anyone, people will always look at movies through the prism of nostalgia. They always say, “Oh, they don’t make movies like they used to,” and all this shit that I don’t necessarily agree with. I think we make great movies as well. I just think we look back at things in a more romantic fashion.
One thing that people often say today is that all the best horror movies are indie films and that studios don’t make good scary movies anymore. And that’s true. But then I would always ask people to name their favorite scary movie. Without a doubt, people would say either The Exorcist, Poltergeist, Jaws or The Haunting. They would basically name all studio horror movies.
That was part of what I wanted to do with The Conjuring. I wanted to go back and make a classic horror film like they used to do, and really embrace that and make a classic horror film with great actors and make it very classic and beautiful to look at.
Are you surprised by the great reviews it’s gotten so far? Critics are often pretty rough on horror movies.
I’m very surprised, actually. You’re right. Critics tend to be very hard on the horror genre. I think there’s something about The Conjuring that seems to be connecting with people, and I’m happy for that. Hopefully this will be inspiring studios to make more classic horror films, and to not be afraid of them.
So you’re directing the next Fast and Furious movie?
Apparently I am, yes.
That’s a much bigger project than your recent works. Certainly a bigger budget. It’s got to be overwhelming to have that franchise in your hands.
Yeah. I’ve been wanting to break out and make big movies for a long time. I’ve been wanting to make dark horror movies since my first film, but I’ve just been so successful with my indie horror movies that I haven’t had the chance to show that I love other kinds of films. I’m a big fan of the action genre – I love it. It’s actually probably one of my favorite two genres I want to make movies in. I made one movie, a revenge film, for my third film, but nobody saw that, and so nobody knows me for that. And so the chance to play in a much bigger sandbox, in a different genre, it’s very exciting for me.
The Fast and Furious movies are really defying gravity in that each one seems to be more popular than the last one. That’s amazing when there’s been six of these things.
Yeah. I kind of want to respect the world that they’ve created and that the fans really love. But at the same time, I want to bring my own stamp to it.