The Conjuring 2: James Wan Takes Us to His Horror School

Director James Wan talks to us about returning to the spooky case files of Ed and Looraine Warren for The Conjuring 2.

If a university decided to teach a college course in how to scare the shit out of people, then the charter professor of that course would probably have to be director James Wan, whose previous work in the horror genre with Saw and Insidious has led to two hugely successful franchises.

Wan’s latest film, The Conjuring 2, is hoping to make it a trifecta.

Once again, it (somewhat) follows one of the true cases of Ed and Lorraine Warren, as played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, the paranormal investigators who were brought to England in the mid-1970s to help the Hodgson family out with a poltergeist problem they were having. Their youngest daughter Janet (Madison) seems to be having encounters with the ghost of a former occupant of their home, and the situation is becoming dire just as the Warrens are dealing with their own issues.

As far as scary movies go, it’s obvious Wan has mastered his craft so well that this sequel may be even more disturbing and scary than the first movie, as it plays around with a lot of the usual formulas inherent with haunted house movies. Of course, being based on a real-life supernatural case doesn’t hurt either. (Check out David Crow’s 4-star review.)

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Den of Geek got on the phone with Wan earlier this week to talk about what might be his last foray into horror for some time.

Den of Geek: I remember when we spoke for the first Conjuring, you were kind of at the point where you were done with horror. But I realize how hard it must have been to resist working with Patrick and Vera again.

James Wan: Really, the bottom line was there were a few factors going as to why I decided to come back for The Conjuring 2, and believe me, it was a decision I made and I didn’t take it too lightly. I really thought about it for a long time, whether or not I should come back to it, because I was terrified about coming back for Conjuring 2 when the first movie is so beloved. I was afraid that I was going to come back and mess it up. I think in the process of making Fast & Furious 7—that movie was such a big movie and such an incredible experience, to be able to paint on such a big palette.

Ultimately, it rejuvenated my love for the slower, more controlled style of filmmaking, and it got me thinking about Conjuring 2 again, and then I read the latest draft of the script at that point and I really liked it. Then ultimately the combination of that and coming back and working with Patrick and Vera again sort of clinched it for me.

There’s a Brian De Palma retrospective going on at a theater near me, and it’s interesting to see how his thrillers have progressed from the early days until his later hits. It feels like your horror films have evolved similarly where it’s almost like a science.

Yeah, I guess, in some ways, but for me, the key is understanding what that science is and then breaking it. When people ask me, “Do you have a formula?” I say, “My formula is that there’s absolutely no formula.” You kind of have to look beyond that and say that if there is a mathematical equation to it, then you have to start to break that equation and mix it up, because I do think it’s very important in these kinds of horror movies that the audience never quite gets ahead of you.

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I think you can let them feel like they know what’s going on, but it is up to you as a filmmaker to pull the rug from underneath them and show them something very different. That makes a big difference I think.

One of the big differences with this movie and even the Insidious movies is that you have great characters like the Warrens. Patrick and Vera made them very lovable to the point where you care about them, and you even care about the family, which in horror movies is not very common to have that kind of character work. I’m interested in how you balance that character work without reducing on the scares.

Listen, man, characterization and character work is something I truly believe in. It goes all the way back to my first movie with Saw. Two guys stuck in a bathroom? You’ve got to have good characters if that’s all you have, so characters are extremely important for me, because I think, especially in the horror genre, if you don’t create characters you care about, then it doesn’t matter how great the scares you come up with are, you just don’t care about it. They just purely work on a very shallow or surface level.

But if you like the people you’re following, and you’re invested in who they are and what they do, then the tiniest little things that happens around them makes you that much more afraid for these people. Those were things that I worked on very early on. I did not want Conjuring 2 to just be another quote-unquote “horror movie.” I had no reason to come back and make another horror movie for the sake of making another horror movie, because I think I’ve more than proven myself with the genre, and I think it would need to be a lot of things for me to come back and do something like this. It has to be special. I had to come back and make a movie that feels very different from the first movie and one that I really care about.

You obviously have the Warrens’ cases to work from that makes the Conjuring movies different from other horror films, and you’ve spent a lot of time with Lorraine and studied their cases. The Hodgsons’ case was pretty well documented, so how accurate did you want this to be to what happened?

As I said, I think that is what makes the Conjuring films different from Insidious and other horror movies is the real-life aspect of these characters. The reported true events of these stories really gives the film that extra edge that just makes it feel that little bit more authentic. Even if you don’t necessarily believe in those characters and what they went through, I think grounding the movie in the real world just gives it an extra layer of believability, and it makes the scares just resonate so much more I think.

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The fact that the Warrens are real people and they’re really intriguing, just means that I can really push it, and tell a story that basically feels like a biopic in some ways. Even though as a filmmaker it’s still my job to make a movie that is entertaining, that is scary, but at the very least, my foundation begins with some kind of true-life aspect.

I was interested in this dark demon that haunts Lorraine in the movie. Having spent time with her, did she mention that she had experienced something like that before? I noticed that Lin Shaye’s character in the Insidious movies also faced something similar.

Here’s what I learned from the first Conjuring is that people come in for a scary movie but they stay around for the characters, so I knew that going into Conjuring 2 that I really wanted to focus on the characters and I wanted the characters to have a story arc. So going into The Conjuring 2, I knew that the movie could not just be about the Hodgsons; it had to be about the Warrens as well. I needed Lorraine to have a story that ultimately is personal for her, and it’s personal for Ed as well, so it’s these two worlds eventually coming together. The concept is that the Hodgsons are haunted by this poltergeist of Old Bill Wilkins, but I also wanted Lorraine to be haunted by something else, something that terrifies her.

This particular entity attacks the two things she cares about more than anything—it attacks her space, and it threatens to take away her loved one, which is her husband. When I designed the script, this entity really came from a character standpoint. It wasn’t just something that I made up just arbitrarily, a scary character just for the sake of a character that is scary.

It seems like a lot of ghosts and spirits are attracted to kids. I know this is based on a few things that really happened, but it seems like a common thread through horror movies as well as these cases. Do you have any insight into that aspect of real-life cases and how it’s been brought into horror movies?

The reason I believe why horror movies work so well around kids, and that is from a storytelling perspective, is it’s a very innocent point-of-view. A young child is so unjaded and innocent, and naïve to the realities of the world. So to show something through their point-of-view, it’s so unfiltered and so clean, it makes it terrifying when they can see scary things that us as adults cannot see. This just gives an extra layer of chill to it, and I think that’s why it works so well. There’s a reason why horror movies fall back to this particular storytelling method, and in this case, with the Hodgsons and the Enfield haunting, that was just one that I couldn’t get away from because the poltergeist really did take a liking to the Janet Hodgson character and the entire story is built around this little kid, basically.

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During the end credits, we get to see some of the pictures and hear some tapes, but were you able to see some of the video footage of Janet’s possession from that case? Is there stuff out there to see?

I think one of the biggest inspirations for the film was the actual BBC documentary, the one that went and talked to her, interviewed her, because there is actually a lot of material out there, so I did try to draw a bit of inspiration from that. Again, because there is existing footage out there, it helps me to ground the movie in a space that feels like it really did happen in the real world. Other than what I saw, I’m not sure what else was out there, but I think there was a fair bit of stuff out there. They’re just really hard to come across at this point, really hard to find them.

I was really studying the film and how it worked due to its soundtrack and not just its music, but the sound FX and silence. Can you talk about how you work with the composer and the sound guys to create that effect?

Definitely. Especially for the horror genre, the soundscape is an important tool. It’s equally if not more important than the visuals you put up on screen, because there’s the score, the music, the sound design, it creates such an emotion. It kind of dictates to some degree how you should be feeling, so it has emotional resonance is extremely important to capture for a horror film. You can really create a tone of dread throughout the whole movie just with the design or the music, and it is something that I don’t take for granted. It’s something that I work very closely on with my composer Joe Bishara and my sound designer Joe Zuban.

So between the two of them, we really spend a lot of time crafting it, because the power of music and the power of sound is very important. A lot of the tension sequences and the way you build things up, but also for the absence of sound and the absence of music is just as powerful as well. So it’s kind of knowing when to use it and when not to use sound—those are very important for me.

There is one thing I found that’s very crucial for me. I felt that I wasn’t around that much on Insidious 2, because I had to go off and do Fast & Furious 7. But this film I made sure I was there for the sound mix, because the sound mix really creates this… you have to describe what is loud enough or what is small enough and all the nuances of the creak, and all the nuances of the floor boards that come through and the breathing. All this little stuff says a lot because it sets the tonality and the texture in the soundtrack and sound FX really does add a lot to what scares you when you’re watching a movie like this.

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There were times where I was listening very closely and I could hear very soft music where most people would think there was nothing.

Everything tells a story, so every sound effect is in there for a reason.

The Conjuring 2 opens nationwide on Friday, June 10 with previews on Thursday night. You can also read what James Wan had to say about the tone and influences for his Aquaman film right here.