Patrick Wilson returns as real-life paranormal investigator Ed Warren in The Conjuring 2, which follows Ed and his wife Lorraine (played again by Vera Farmiga) as they journey to London to take on a case that came to be known around the world as that of “the Enfield poltergeist.” Between 1977 and 1979, a council house occupied by the Hodgson family was reportedly the focus of heavy poltergeist activity, centered around daughters Janet (age 11) and Margaret (age 13). The case made headlines in England although its veracity was widely disputed, but the basic circumstances and details form the basis for a film that is perhaps even scarier than the 2013 original.
Director James Wan returns as well and utilizes his very deep bag of tricks to create and maintain an atmosphere of dread and terror, but at the heart of the film is the deeply felt relationship between Ed and Lorraine, who take a more prominent role in this second outing. The Warrens are torn between their fear of the forces they are battling and their genuine desire to help others, making The Conjuring 2 that unusual and rare specimen: a character-driven mainstream horror movie. Wilson and Farmiga are both terrific in it, and Wilson shared his own passion for the movie and the Warrens’ story when we spoke with him recently in Los Angeles.
Den of Geek: This is a very scary film. I think I actually liked it better than the first one.
Patrick Wilson: Really?
I think you were just able to delve into some different areas…
I agree. It’s so hard for me to separate the two. It’s nice to hear. Not that you try to outdo yourself, but you do try to dig deeper. Cool.
It’s kind of unusual for the good guys to recur in horror films. They usually tend to be about the monster. Does that set these films apart, you think?
I think so. I can’t think of another — I guess you have to use the word “franchise” — but another one that’s like that. I think the way that we have set it up, they’re such strong characters and they have such a strong relationship, and more importantly, we have directors, writers, and producers that want to investigate that. We can have an entire plot of the Warrens, but always have these other cases to where we can, you know, change up the story, and move it, and move it forward, and investigate different cases. So it does make for a very unusual franchise, which is what I guess we have to now call it.
You get to attach yourself to the Warrens, which is something this genre doesn’t do often.
I think the great ones do. And it’s not even necessarily to do with budget. It’s funny. For me, I think of The Shining, and Poltergeist, and other movies that, if you really look at them, there’s just so much character. The Exorcist. I mean very, very character-heavy films — relationships, family, love, almost like an adult drama, and that’s exactly how James views this.
I remember very specifically a moment on the first one…it was a scene with me and Ron Livingston. I call it “Carburetor Scene.” This scene should never work in a horror movie. You never get two people talking about something else. Character moments — two dads trying to navigate their way through being a father and a parent, and being AWOL, and not being around, and ownership of who is going to fix this. “You are fixing my car.” Just a really great scene that happens to be in a horror movie.
And James is just not only not afraid of it, but he loves it and he wants it because he knows that’s how you actually get invested into character. Even if you look at, like, Blair Witch that’s small, or Paranormal Activity, you are invested in those kids. You are invested in those people and what’s going to happen to them. I think that’s the trap that not so great horror movies make. That’s the mistake: “We’re going to get some great effects, and crazy scares, a lot of quick cuts and the crazy soundtrack, and we’re going to scare you.”
But you are sort of like, “Yeah, OK.” And then it’s gone. And maybe you get a weekend out of it. I think the movies that last, I do think they are like that. And I say this defending even the really low-budget, micro-budget movies. Even that first Purge, you know, you are invested in that family. That’s the trick, is getting people you care about and then you put them in peril. That’s what makes the audience go, “No! I don’t want it to happen to them!”
You have the Elvis scene in this film (where Ed plays acoustic guitar and sings “Can’t Help Falling in Love” for the Hodgsons). Were you surprised to see a musical number come up in the middle of this?
I’m not surprised by anything anymore with James. [laughs] I just expect, like, “You tell me, man. What are we going to do?” I will say that’s the first scene that he wrote when he came back on board. I get a text randomly one day: “Hey, do you play guitar?” I was like, “Yeaaah….Why?” I was like, “I’m a hack. I’m a rhythm guitarist.” He’s like, “Perfect. It shouldn’t be great. I want you to sing Elvis.” I went, “Can we get the rights?” And he’s like, “Yeah, yeah. Don’t worry about that.”
And that just shows you James. I think he’s always going to push himself with the scares, but it’s those moments. That’s when I can sort of take his idea and help bring it to fruition and say, “OK. If we’re going to do that, then let’s record on the day. Let’s not click track it. I’ll play it. I can play it decent enough. It’s fine. It shouldn’t be great anyway.” You shouldn’t look like this amazing Elvis impersonator. It shouldn’t look like an amazing guitarist or singer. Let’s just keep it simple and real. I’m so glad it’s stuck in there.
With your background in musical theater, do you jump at the chance to sing these days in a film?
I love it. I mean I wouldn’t call this my tour de force of singing by any stretch. But it’s enough. It’s fun. I like to sing whenever I get the shot, so whether it’s in a band or whatever. I’m happy to do it.
Where are you on the scale of belief about what the Warrens and these families have experienced?
I have a few rules of thumb that I throw into every character, good or bad, which is don’t judge them. Don’t judge what you’re doing, because it’s a very slippery slope. The more you read, you do find yourself going, “Really? That really happened? Did it really happen like that?” I just have to go under the assumption that this is what Ed believed, so it’s what I believed. And you know the payoff for me? The payoff for me is when Janet and Margaret Hodgson 30 years later see Lorraine Warren and they hug each other and you see Janet say, “You helped us so much. You tried to help us. It was so helpful.”
Then, to me, everything else can go away, because it becomes very simple. It becomes about a real human emotion. Whatever your belief in the paranormal is, it doesn’t even matter. To see a woman that has gone through such turmoil in her life during this time and…not to trivialize it or talk behind her back in a certain way, but you spend five minutes with her now and you see that’s it’s still really affected her.
You see a woman that went through a lot, still suffers from it. And I see an older woman in Lorraine that genuinely tried to help her and did help her. How much? I don’t know. I didn’t sit there and ask. But that, to me, justifies everything, because I believe that whatever your belief is, they went in there to help. And I do believe that, because they don’t gain anything. The comments about skeptics I think is important. Skepticism is super important in this film. We had to have it. We put it in that scene…with me on the talk show, that’s taken off of Sally Jesse Raphael, a real episode. That happened in the ‘80s. But we need that stuff. You need the other side of it, just like you would if you were doing a religious film. I think that’s equally as important.
We get more comments about, “Oh, they’re charlatans” or this or that. Well, in my view, I have much more of a problem when I see a priest or a church that has millions of dollars and they are rolling around in these huge mansions and Bentley’s. I’ve been in the Warrens’ house. It’s a very modest life they always lived. So I don’t know what else they are in for it if they are not in for that. That’s my feeling. “They did it for money!” Really? Because…I don’t know. I hate to be that guy, but there’s not a lot of money in this world.
Which film are you most surprised about when people come up to you and say, “Hey, I really loved you in that…” And you’re like…
“Really?” [laughs] That’s funny. That I’m most surprised at? I got a guy in England that said, “I love Purple Violets,” which is this movie that I did with Eddie Burns that I absolutely loved doing, and it was actually the first movie to be distributed on iTunes, the first movie. There’s that. Or The Switch. They’ll be some random ones in there that are like, “Really? That’s awesome. Thank you!” I mean I always get a kick when people either say Barry Munday or Stretch, because I had such a great time shooting Stretch that anybody who is like, “Oh, I love that movie!” I’m like, “Thank you! So did I!”
The Conjuring 2 is out in theaters this Friday (June 10).