SAN FRANCISCO—Some people in Hollywood are always going to be defined by their first film. Once a rookie or unheralded name delivers something that attracts a lot of attention, expectations rise unrealistically and disappointment seems inevitable.
After speaking to director James Wan in a hotel room in San Francisco, one gets the sense that he will not be one of these people.
Wan’s latest film, The Conjuring—starring Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga as real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren—revolves around the case of Roger and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor) and their five daughters. Although the film is unquestionably frightening, it relies on atmosphere and anticipation, rather than blood and guts, to create a sense of dread.
That’s in stark contrast to the film that started it all for Wan, 2004’s Saw, a terrifying gore-for-all that was as popular as it was polarizing, turning a profit of more than US$100 million and leading to three sequels. But it also threatened to pigeonhole the filmmaker.
“After Saw, I became known as the ‘grandfather of torture porn’, which kind of annoyed me,” the veteran horror director insists (he also helmed Dead Silence in 2007 and 2010’s Insidious). “I wanted to show people that I love to make scary movies and there’s more ways to scare people than just throwing buckets of blood.”
What separates The Conjuring from most horror movies is its alleged basis in real life. Wan wanted viewers to feel for the characters, to not only be frightened by the events on-screen because they are scary but because they happened to real people.
“The Conjuring really is a love story, about the love of two sets of families,” he says. “When we set out to make this movie, we weren’t making a horror film; we were making a drama…about two families that have to deal with what they deal with, and it just so happens that what they’re dealing with is that of the supernatural.”
The film takes place almost entirely in the Perron’s gigantic haunted house in the country (they moved from New Jersey; pick your poison), and though it’s hard to imagine, twin screenwriters Chad and Carey Hayes claim that the atmosphere on-set was a joy. The credit, they say, goes to Wan.
“It was all those moments that make you feel like it sets the film apart a bit,” Chad maintained during a news conference for the film held earlier in the day. “And James did a great thing. Halfway through the film, we’re out on location at the house in the countryside and we were about to break for lunch, and before we did that, James said: ‘No, no, everyone come inside.’
“We had a big flat-screen TV, and he had cut a trailer using footage from the first half of the movie, and it made everyone realize, ‘We have something really special here.’ People were already excited about it, but, visually, it just started to really connect. It was, hands down, one of the best experiences Carey and I have ever had with a film.”
Though he has an immense love for horror, Wan believes it’s time to depart from the genre, with The Conjuring representing his swan song (he has Insidious: Chapter 2 coming out later this year, but he views that as more of a continuation of the first story). The Malaysian-born and Australian-raised director takes over the Fast & Furious franchise next year with the seventh installment, and he is looking to expand his horizons even further in the future.
“I love all kinds of movies,” he says. “I’d love the opportunity to do other kinds of films. I love sci-fi; I want to do that at some point. And I love romantic comedies; they are one of my favourite things to watch. That’ll probably take me a while, but I want to do that.”