Having directed last summer's Furious 7, the most successful instalment of the gravity-defying Fast & Furious sequence (it grossed skywards of $1.5 billion) you'd think James Wan might fancy some down time. Instead, the Malaysian-Australian is a man on a mission, a filmmaker determined to bring back the lustre to the studio horror movie.
“I take the genre seriously,” says Wan. “So many of the directors we love started out in horror. Nowadays, there are sometimes independent horrors that critics like. But the respect that studio horror films used to command is gone. Often, rightly so. Studio horrors are by-the-book and not adventurous enough. But they don’t have to be like that.
"I like to remind people that the movies we loved growing up – The Shining, The Exorcist – are studio films. Back in the 1970s, the studios put real money into horror; they didn't just go after quick bucks."
In this spirit, The Conjuring, released in the summer of 2013, managed a rare double by wowing critics – the 86 per cent aggregate score on Rotten Tomatoes marks it out as one of the best reviewed horror films of this century – and hoovering up some $318 million at the box office.
The Conjuring wasn't just a hit among genre aficionados; this was a date night movie. The film's sizable gross makes it the second most profitable horror of all time, second only to The Exorcist (1973).
Not counting Furious 7, Wan has previously been wary of sequels. Having co-created Saw, the most successful horror franchise of all time (something of a theme emerging), Wan directed the much-admired first film, but was happy to sit back as an executive producer on the following six instalments. So why Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013) and, now, The Conjuring 2?
"Just after Saw I kept getting offered Saw-inspired or Saw-type horror scripts," he says. "And I got offered a lot of money. But if I had wanted to do a Saw-type film, I could have directed one of the sequels. I did Insidious 2, but that's because, in my mind, I wasn't finished telling the story. It wasn't a sequel to me. It was Part B of one film. Like Kill Bill. So The Conjuring 2 is my first sequel."
Wan doesn't like "to repeat himself" but he will made an exception for Ed and Lorraine Warren, the devoutly Catholic, paranormal investigators whose case histories have inspired many movies, including The Amityville Horror, The Haunting in Connecticut, The Haunted (1991) and, of course, The Conjuring.
Ed Warren died in 2006 but Lorraine, now aged 89, made a cameo appearance in The Conjuring and acted as a consultant on both films.
“Lorraine is older now and her memory isn’t what it used to be,” says Wan. “But myself and my actors - Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson - would consult her as much as we could. A lot of times - for me - it’s not so much about the specifics; I’m more interested in the relationship between her and Ed. I want my cinematic Ed and Lorraine Warren to be really loveable people.”
Ed - a self-taught demonologist - and Lorraine - a clairvoyant and medium, would found the New England Society for Psychic Research in 1952, publish dozens of books and investigate thousands of cases. Does Wan buy into this body of research?
"Hmm," he smiles. "I don't necessarily need to believe in everything the Warrens have written about. I just need to believe that they believe. The Warrens have such strong conviction about what they do. I've always said that The Conjuring movies are not documentaries. These movies are told from their point of view. If people are upset that they're not more objective, well, maybe the movies aren't for you. I think of them as entertainment using true-life events as inspiration."
The Warrens fame would, in 1977, bring them to the United Kingdom, to investigate the Enfield poltergeist. The council house spirit would attract the attentions of tabloid newspapers, including the Daily Mail and Daily Mirror. The episode provided writer-director Wan with the inspiration for the properly spooky Conjuring 2. He, in turn, has a ball with this grotty, leaky new environment.
"I actually embraced that the Enfield case is not your classic big haunted gothic house," says the 39-year-old. "If it had been I'm not sure I would have done it. I personally still love that visual of creeping around an old house. But I've done the big scary house in Insidious and the big creaky farmhouse in The Conjuring. I wanted this one because it's a very mundane house – slap in the middle of a bustling suburb on the outskirts of London. It was new, aesthetically."
Sensible upbringing Wan, an irrepressible fellow who punctuates his conversation with shaking laughter, could never be mistaken for a dark soul. He hails from a “very sensible, practical family. Growing up, my dad was a civil engineer and my mom was a nurse.” James had to explain to his “brainy” cousins what “media arts” was, when, aged 17, he enrolled in that course at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.
"Blame my mom," he says. "She's the one who got me watching movies. I saw Poltergeist aged seven, I think. Scarred me for life. There was no going back."
Wan had consumed a steady diet of genre film by the time he started film-school.
“I know it’s a cliche, but I idolised Steven Spielberg and the fantasy action films of John Woo and Tsui Hark. And, as an Australian, I loved George Miller, Peter Weir’s early stuff, Fred Schepisi. And from over the way, the splatterpunk movies Peter Jackson was making before he became Sir Peter Jackson.
“Myself and Leigh Whannell (Wan’s co-writing partner on five films to date) were straight out of high school. Our love of film was pure. And by pure I mean very naive.”
His producers on Saw (2004) would later joke that Wan and Whannell must imagine that masterminding a juggernaut franchise is easy. Made on a tiny budget ($1.2 million), Wan's first American film would gross more than $100 million and spawn six sequels, videogames and theme-park rides.
Saw's monstrous moral crusader, Jigsaw – scourge of crooked bankers, property developers and rapist lowlifes – would become an icon worthy of Freddy and Jason. Even Billy, Saw's resident creepy puppet as designed by Wan, would become a best- selling Halloween mask and doll.
“We spent a lot of time crafting it, what we wanted it to be if we ever got to make it,” Wan says. “I was so young. Making it was stressful because I was struggling to make the movie that was in my head. I didn’t intellectualise or psychoanalyse any of it. I just thought about what would be cool or what would scare me. It turns out what is scary for me is scary for a lot of people.”
Proud of horror
Post- Furious 7, The Conjuring 2 feels a bit like returning to the day job, he says.
“People ask why go back? Horror is a director’s medium. It allows you to craft a movie, with the way to move your camera, the way you edit, the way your actors move, your sound design. Any director should be proud to work in horror.”
And now for something completely different: Wan is developing a live-action reboot of the cult mecha anime, Robotech, as well as the Aquaman movie for the DC cinematic universe.
“I never wanted to make a comic book movie just for the sake of it,” says Wan. “But I love that he’s the butt of comic book jokes. I have total visual freedom with a character that nobody would touch before because the technology simply didn’t exist. It would be much harder to reinvent something like Batman or Superman, where the bar has been set so high.”