With based-on-a-true-story haunted house horror The Conjuring arriving in cinemas on Friday 2 August, director James Wan ( Saw, Dead Silence , Insidious ) spills the beans on scaring up the ’70s.
Do you think the 1970s period angle makes The Conjuring more effective than your previous horror outings?
Not necessarily, because films like Saw and Insidious and Dead Silence were contemporary. But if you look back at the movies I've made, I've always had a love for nostalgic throwbacks. Dead Silence was my love for Hammer Horror that came out of England. I loved that very stylised, almost campy feeling. I lovingly embraced it. And even Death Sentence , which not many people saw, was a revenge thriller made in the mould of The French Connection , which is the kind of film I love too. Having said that, The Conjuring is set back in 1971 and I do think the period setting gives it a really interesting ambience. I think it brings a sense of authenticity to the true-life story of it.
With plenty of practical effects as well, it feels like the analogue version of horror…
I love that. I kind of miss that. Now it's all gone digital and there's something fun from a nostalgic standpoint. That aside, I wanted to find something that was a bit different. I didn't want to do the same thing again, so the stories of the Warrens [real-life paranormal investigators, played in the movie by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga] take place in that world, but I wanted to give it a very different flavour. Setting it in a different time period helps a lot for me to be able to play with the production design and camera work from that period. That made it more fun.
What did you find most challenging about making the movie?
Just trying to stay as true to the stories that the Perrons [the family whose house is haunted in The Conjuring ] and the Warrens would tell me. And trying to make a movie that is scary! To make a scary movie that is effective, despite the fact that I'm basically recycling a lot of classic horror movie tropes, haunted house tropes. The creaking, slamming door, hearing sounds, all that stuff that we're so familiar with, but because I wanted to stay true to the stories, I couldn't just branch out of it and create something so stylised, so that was a big challenge too.
There’s a lot of children in the cast of The Conjuring. How do you make sure they don’t get screwed up working on such a scary movie?
It was difficult on Insidious because my talented child actor in that one was very sensitive to what was happening. But on The Conjuring , these girls were so fearless. And they were so professional, they got that it was filmmaking. They could be crying in tears, freaking out, screaming, but the moment I called cut, they turned to the camera and smiled. They were so cool! I couldn't believe how experienced they were. Even the youngest girl, playing April, she's never really made a movie before but she was a little star. I'd give her directions sometimes and she'd look at me as if to say, “I'm going to do it my own way...” It's cute. They were really great to work with.
Did you visit the original house that was the site of the Perron’s haunting?
God, no! I didn't want to. I was invited to visit both the Perron house and the Warren house and I was, like, “No f***ing way!” I was too terrified. But Patrick and Vera went to visit Lorraine at her place, just to pick up a vibe, see who she was. Vera did not want to go down into the haunted museum, but Patrick did. I don't know what I was doing, but I was just hanging with friends and I get this text message from Patrick and it's a picture of him with Annabelle [a possessed doll that was investigated by the Warrens, and plays an important role in the movie]. I started cracking up and telling him the doll's going to latch on and go home with him... I don't know if Patrick believes in it as much as the others. He's definitely a lot stronger.
Are you superstitious? Were you worried something might follow you back from the production?
Yes, I am somewhat superstitious. I try not to walk under a ladder if I can help it. Believe it or not, I'm really scared of things in general, so I don't want to tempt fate. I did the movie because I love the story of the Warrens. And the chance to scare the crap out of people, I love that too!
Does working on scary movies make you less likely to be scared by them?
I'm not scared of my own film. You just can't be. The only time I can really experience how effective it is, or not, is when I watch it with an audience. I do get scared when I watch other people's films. I can hang my filmmaker's hat outside the door and just watch them for what it is. I am extremely squeamish, I know you have a hard time believing that since I'm the grandfather of torture porn, but I'm bad with gore and blood and guts, so when I watch a movie I didn't make, I have to look away.
Do you enjoy watching audiences and how they react to movies?
Definitely. I think that's my favourite thing about making these movies, watching people watch them. When my films come out, I like to cinema hop and know what moments are coming up, I pop my head in and watch people squirm or slide down in their seats. I like that sadism!
Saw helped launch the whole “gorno” movement. How do you feel about the movie a decade on?
I can definitely appreciate it more now, because I really hated being labelled the torture porn guy. I felt like that marginalised me as a filmmaker. I despised it, and that was a reason why I didn't want to make another Saw film, and why I'm doing an action film. [Wan is directing Fast & Furious 7 ]. But it's been 10 years and I can look at it now and see it for what it is, and appreciate it. People talk about the Saw movies from a nostalgic standpoint now. It shows how fast we progress. The last Saw came out three or four years ago and it feels like so long ago now.
The Conjuring is released by Warner Bros on Friday 2 August.