Director/writer/producer James Wan on the set of The Conjuring 2 (Matt Kennedy/Warner Bros. Entertainment)
In The Conjuring 2, Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga reprise their roles as the real-life paranormal investigation team, Ed and Lorraine Warren. The Warrens travel to England to assist the Hodgson family, who are experiencing poltergeist activity at their Enfield neighborhood home in 1977. Back in the directing chair is James Wan.
Though Wan heard that cast members claim that bizarre events happened on the set of the first movie, he’s not aware of any strange happenings on the set of the second.
“When I’m directing a movie, I’m always so busy trying to make the movie that I’m not privy to some of the bizarre stuff that might happen around me. I’d probably ask a ghost to get me a coffee or something,” he laughs. “On Conjuring 2, it was actually smooth sailing. It was [producer] Peter’s [Safran] idea to bring in a priest early on.”
Back in 2013, The Conjuring made $318 million worldwide on a $20 million budget. When a film becomes an unqualified box office hit, a sequel seems inevitable. Add in the fact that the Warrens worked dozens of cases, and there was plenty of fodder for the sequel. Wan, however, wasn’t convinced that a sequel was a good idea.
“I was pretty apprehensive about coming back to direct The Conjuring 2 because the first was really beloved. I was like, ‘I don’t know how I’ll be able to top the first movie.’ All of us collectively – myself, the writers, the actors, the producers, the studio – knew we had to live up to the first movie. We had to work hard to live up to the expectations of the first movie. There was such a love for the first film that it would be really sad if we didn’t even try to come close to the first movie.”
Wan has directed sequels before, including his follow-up to his wildly successful 2010 hit, Insidious. He also jumped into the directing chair for Furious 7 and, after directing 2004’s Saw, was an executive producer for its successive installments. With his experience, he’s well aware of the difficulties of making a sequel.
“It’s hard enough to make a sequel to a commercially successful movie. It’s triply difficult when it’s a horror movie. Can you think of a horror sequel that people like better than the first one? So I thought, ‘what can we do to make it a bit different?’ I realized that, although people loved the scares of the first movie, what people loved even more was the characters. Without knowing it, the audience fell in love with Ed and Lorraine Warren, because Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga are so lovable. We wanted to make a movie first and foremost about their characters,” Wan says. “For me, crafting the scare scenes is the easy part. I want to get the character arcs right first and then go back and see what scares I can come up with. Even though I’m playing within the stringent tropes of the haunted house subgenre, I want to make it different from something you’ve seen before.”
In every horror movie, we remember the visual scares. In Halloween, we can all remember Michael Myers’ face, but we also remember the iconic music from the film as well. According to Wan, music might be the most important aspect to make a successful horror film.
“Visuals are very important, but if I had to pick, I’d say the soundscape is way more important. That’s not to belittle the amazing visuals we have in this film, though. It’s been proven time and time again with low-budget movies where you barely see anything onscreen because they don’t have the budget, so a lot of it is implied. So much of that is given to you by the soundscape. The soundscape gives you a sense of what is happening. The soundscape kind of dictates how you’re feeling during a scene.”
He’s so passionate about the soundscape in his films, that he’s very hands on during the mixing process.
“Sound mixing is also every important which a lot of people don’t realize – like what to make louder and what to make quieter. You reach a moment, the music quiets down and the rocking chair gets louder or quieter so you can hear the wind whistling through the windows. There’s a lot of craftsmanship in dealing with the technicalities of putting the sound mix together. I really believe in that, and that’s why I stay with the movie until the very end of post-production. I don’t believe your job as director ends when you yell cut at the end of a shoot. You’ve got to see it through because so much of what make scary movies work for me is the craftsmanship you put into the editorial process.”
Though CGI is part of the Hollywood movie-making machine nowadays, Wan prefers to use that technology sparingly.
“I’m a huge fan of practical filmmaking. I like to capture as much of the weird stuff on camera as you can because it feels more real. The actors can actually react when they see something move in front of them. That’s very important for me. I want the CGI stuff to be naked to the eye. The computer effects that are so important to a movie like this are used by me to more tell the story,” he explains. “It’s hard to shoot a period exterior movie. Everywhere you look is filled with modern technology – cars, cell towers. Nothing looked like what it used to look like. What is great fun with digital filmmaking is that it allows you to go in and paint out that cell tower or the high-tech hotel that wasn’t there in the ‘70s.”
As for his next gig, you may have heard of a little movie called Aquaman. No, I’m not talking about the Aquaman film that was a pivotal plot point in HBO’s “Entourage.” Wan is set to direct the real big screen version of the DC Comic favorite. In late April, the Internet blew up with rumors that Wan had quit, but Wan insists those rumors were baseless.
“I don’t know where that came from. Like everyone, I found out on Twitter and Facebook as well. I go on social media, and I’m like, ‘Oh, that is happening,’ and it’s about my career which is even funnier. I was in the middle of finishing up The Conjuring 2, working on the sound mix, and that stuff broke out. I was like, ‘I don’t really know what’s going on here.’ I will say this: I think it’s more exciting and more tantalizing to some people when they hear of drama on a set. I’m not fully submerged in that world, but it’s not as dramatic as everyone is making it out to be.”
The Conjuring 2 is now in theaters.