A few weeks back, I had the chance to go up to San Francisco and chat with director James Wan about the upcoming scary supernatural thriller “The Conjuring,” which opens this week.
The film follows paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren who work to help a family terrorized by a dark presence in their farmhouse. Forced to confront a powerful entity, the Warrens find themselves caught in the most terrifying case of their lives.
Here is what James Wan said about bringing Ed and Lorraine Warren to the big screen.
So stuff that’s happening in between pre-production and the writing phase. Can you talk about that?
James Wan: Yeah. The toughest thing about making a movie like this is when I’m trying to come up with ideas, alone in your house at night, it does creep you out big time. What I usually do is, I think about it like a set piece, and I walk myself around my house, put all the lights off. And I find myself getting really disturbed by it, then I know it’s actually working. I kind of used myself as a gauge. That’s what I do.
Structurally, it’s very similar to Insidious with the slow burn and the build up and the release. And after kind of the freneticism of Saw, and the more aggressive stuff in Dead Silence, do you find yourself responding to the slow burn more?
James Wan: I just do what I think is right for that particular film, you know? Insidious and The Conjuring, they’re not that kind of movie, so I can’t start that aggressive, though Conjuring does build to a very aggressive climax, I think starting a bit more low key gives me a place to go.
What I really like about this film is – I don’t like scary movies – but I like your film because it’s so unexpected things happen all the time. So how did you get this kind of idea? This is good timing.
James Wan: Right. It’s definitely a challenge. The tricky thing with The Conjuring is I’m dealing with a lot of very traditional sort of haunted house ghost story tropes here. Things that we’re very familiar with in this world like a slamming door or a chair that moves on its own or whatever, right? But that was the world that the parents kind of lived in, right? And so I wanted to honor that as much as I could. I could very easily kind of go off and think of something really outrageous, but I would not be genuine to what they went through. And so I wanted to kind of stay true and honor the people that the movie is based on, but having said that, I kind of wanted to stage them differently. And so even though I’m dealing with similar ingredients, so to speak, I wanted to cook it in a very different way. And I think cooking it in a different way is what kind of sets you apart and not quite know what to expect.
Can you tell us about the casting? It’s amazing, especially the little girls, and there’s a lot of them.
James Wan: Yeah, I know, the kids in the movie, initially, when I first came on, the script only had the parents with two kids. And I totally get that because from a production standpoint, that was a lot easier to handle. It’s hard enough to cast one kid, let alone like six in the movies. And as a rule in filmmaking, don’t work with kids and animals. And when I came on board, I looked up – I started researching that the family, the parents did not have two kids. They had five kids. And so I was like, we can’t right off the bat not be true to that. And so there’s something, for me too, there’s something interesting about the family of seven people. Just the dynamic of all that, and the fact that pretty much all of the family, except for the father are all female. I think that gave the movie a very sort of feminine edge to it, and it has a very maternal quality to the movie. Even all through the way to the antagonists as well throughout the film, and that’s what I really like about it. And so I give credit to my casting director, Anne McCarthy for really helping me find these kids. It was a big challenge. She read a lot of people, and I looked through a lot of videos and talking to a lot of these kids. Because there’s so many of them, allocating out time for them is very difficult, and so we wanted to find the kids that has personalities that when – even though I don’t have a lot of time with each one – but when you do see them, you kind of know roughly who is it is. And now, in terms of the adults, I’ve been a big fan of Vera Farmiga for a long time, and so I really, really wanted her for this role. I just loved the way – I love the sensibility that she has. I love that she’s a strong woman, but she can also bring a sense of vulnerability as well to the role that it needed for Lorraine. And I love the way her eyes look as well. She’s got these beautiful, piercing eyes, and I felt like when you look at her, you can kind of believe that she can kind of look past our world into another realm. And I think that it just added a level of authenticity to that, and obviously, I’ve worked with Patrick before. Big fan of Patrick Wilson, and I loved it. And when I first read it, I was like, you know what? I want to try and get Patrick to play Ed. And Patrick was my first to play Ed, and also, with Ron and Lili, I just think I’m such a big fan of Ron and Lili as well. So it’s really a dream cast for me, to work with all these actors that I kind of grew up admiring and really respect. I think they’ve brought so much to the movie.
This is based on the Warren family. How much of that did you actually see, footage or documents?
James Wan: Well, documents, when I came on, the script was already there, and so the producers and the writers actually really got in there with Lorraine. They were pretty much picking her brains every day when they were writing the script. And not just the actual case itself, they were also talking to her about who she is. They just wanted to know what made her tick, and I think that was very important with wanting to be true to these people. I would say I’m not really here to make a movie that kind of – I’m not making an objective film. I’m making a subjective movie that is basically seen through the point of view of Ed and Lorraine and the Perron family. So I’m not here to kind of judge them so to speak, but I like them as people. And so I just kind of wanted to bring as much of that into the movie as I could.
So you met the Perron family?
James Wan: Yeah, we did. We talked, and we met Lorraine and the parents as well. The dad, and I think three or four of the daughters, yeah. They came on set. The day they came on set, the Perron’s, they were pretty freaked out. They were really disturbed. It was a really bittersweet experience for them because on one hand, it took them to their childhood. On the other hand, it was a pretty fucked up childhood. It was pretty messed up for them. I can’t remember which one it was, but I think it was Cindy. She came, and then she saw what we were shooting, and she could not stand it. And she just started bawling. She starting tearing up, and she walked away. She just couldn’t handle it. I think it kind of brought back a lot of her pretty tough memories for her.
How much fact do you put in? I know you put in fiction, but what is totally based on fact?
James Wan: Seriously, I tried to stay as true to their life story as I could. I think the only thing that we did that was kind of tweaked a little bit for movie reason is they lived in that house for nine years. They lived in that house for so long. And you know how people say, if you ever live in a haunted house, you get the hell out of there? Not everyone does that. And so they did not do that. Now, to be fair, they’ve said that they were visited by a lot of spirits and entities, but not all of them were bad. A lot of them were benign. Actually, they said there was one particular spirit that acted like a guardian angel. Like he was just around watching them. Like he felt like he was a good energy. The youngest one, April, I think, she basically made friends with a little kid spirit. And so they weren’t all bad, but there was one particular one that just really hated the mother, just really disliked the mother. And of course, this being a scary movie, we focused on that one. So we tried to be as true to what they experienced, even down to the scary set pieces. I listened to the stories they told me, and I listened to the scary stories Lorraine would tell me as well. And I would take that all in, and I would kind of process that through myself and filter it through me and put it on the screen and try to find the best way to show it, try to find the most entertaining way to show it.
Given the fact that with Warren’s faith, the fact that this is possession rather than just a haunted house kind of thing, how did you go about the research with the priest, is the exorcist, the research on the Vatican connection, that kind of thing?
James Wan: Well, that was really incredible thing was that the Warrens, they worked pretty closely with the church, and it’s really interesting. Okay, so one side of them, they’re very spiritual, right? They’re very faith based. And I wanted to bring that into this movie, but I didn’t want it to be preachy, so to speak, right? It’s just who they are. It makes them who they are, and I think it gives the character more dimension, you know. I didn’t want to try and take that away. It’s just such a big part of how they live their life. So there’s that part of them, their life where they rely strongly on their faith. And then there’s the other part like Ed who used to be a sailor. And so he’s so matter of fact with how he approached this. So for him, coming into to check on a haunting or trying to perform an exorcism, it was like fixing a kitchen sink. He was very practical and very matter of fact about it. And I thought that that’s what would make it so interesting from a film making standpoint, and I really wanted to capture that. He was just so – he was very blue collar in his approach. He was a plumber, an exorcist plumber.
Did you go to their house, the Warren’s house? Do they still have the room there, the museum?
James Wan: I did not want to go to their house. I was invited many, many times, and I said, “Nope. No, thank you.” I was also invited to the Perron’s house as well. That’s the really scary one, and that’s still around. And I actually think that when we started shooting the film, that house was on the market for sale. So you guys should look it up if you want a nice house out on Rhode Island on some place, beautiful farmhouse, pretty cheap.
Is the story of the Warren daughter pretty accurate?
James Wan: Judy? Yeah, growing up, Judy, she hated the Annabell doll. She wasn’t a big fan of the doll, so we tried to bring that sense into the movie as well. She did not like that. She had issues with the Annabell doll, and I guess just that room in general. Listen, I don’t know what to say. I know what you guys are going to ask me which is, why would you have a room like that in your house, right? I don’t know. They do. That house, Lorraine still has that. Will you guys be speaking to Lorraine? She’s coming. Then you guys can ask her about that. I’ll let her explain it more.
It seemed like you used a lot of treble in the movie for scares. It was a lot of trembling. At one point, I thought it was actually an earthquake?
James Wan: Treble, bass.
Yeah, instead of visual scares, it was more auditory.
James Wan: I think with my filmmaking, there should be a whole all encompassing cinematic experience. It’s not just the visual. I think the sound track is so important. I want you to be sucked into the story. I want you to be engaged with the characters, and so the sound is such a big part of what makes these movies work. When you do this, I still want you to be experiencing it through your ears, right? So when you do this, you may have to see the screen. But yeah, when you close your eyes and ears, the room would still shake, with how deep the bass is. So I think that’s important. For me, the sound design and the musical score is so important because it really helps to convey the story, and I’m very pedantic about the kind of sound I use, even down to the creaking of a door. I would tell my sound designer, that doesn’t sound right. That doesn’t sound scary enough. It’s not shrilly enough. It’s too deep, or it sounds too much like the creaking floor board that in two scenes back that the character stepped on. So I’m really in there with the sound design and with the music as well. That string is not right. There needs to be more cello. There needs to be more this, and so my composers usually have a headache dealing with me, but I think it’s important. I think the soundtrack is as important as the camera work and the editing.
Did you storyboard every set up?
James Wan: No. I’m not a fan of storyboarding. I storyboarded certain scenes in this film more for the sake of production, but when I go into a movie like this, I know every single shot. I know how I want to film it. I talk with my DP, and together, we find the best way to kind of achieve that. Now, having said that, the next movie I’m doing, it’s all storyboarded. It’s all Previz and storyboards. I can’t get away from that.
Can you talk a little bit more about that? Fast and Furious 7?
James Wan: I’m at pre-production on that movie right now, and yes, I’m storyboarding. And I’m doing a lot of Previz, on some of the craziest action set pieces I’ve ever cooked up.
Does that make a challenge for you being such a big franchise?
James Wan: Oh, yeah. It’s definitely, I’m well aware of how big the shoes I’m trying to fill here I’m stepping into. I say, if it’s not me, it’s someone else that’s doing it. I’d rather it be me. I’m a big fan of franchise, and I love action films. I came out to Hollywood wanting to make these kind of movies. It just so happens that I’ve been so successful in the low budget world that it’s taken me so long to break out of it, but I relish this challenge.
How are you going to bring in the horror elements? Are there elements that you want to bring in?
James Wan: Well, they won’t be horror, so to speak, but what I would love to bring to it, and I think it’s a big part of what I do is I want to bring tension and suspense to my dramatic scenes and my action sequences.
The Warren House museum, did you bring props from their museum onto set?
James Wan: God no, no, no. Even from a legal standpoint, we were not allowed to do that. You guys will find out. I’m sure you’ve seen pictures. The Annabelle doll is actually a Raggedy Anne doll. I could not go to the company that makes Raggedy Anne and say, “Hey, can we portray your doll. The product that you make as this thing that is a conduit to demonic spirits.” So I had to find a new way. I had to create my own. And so all the things in the haunted museum were basically created based on what they have in the house. Now, I will say that Ed is a painter, right? He’s an artist, and he’s a painter, right. We did use his painting in the haunted museum. He has a lot of his paintings everywhere, and we just thought his painting fit perfectly into our movie version of their haunted museum, and that’s what we have in there.
“The Conjuring” hits July 19, 2013.